Michael Osborne, president and creative director of San Francisco's Michael Osborne Design, has been in business since 1981, and he'll drink to that, with pleasure - California wine label design is roughly 30 to 40 percent of his business. "I feel very fortunate to be busy in this economy," says Osborne, though he notes that the wine industry, at least, is holding its own at the moment. "But I haven't seen a group of twentysomething dot-comers spending $1,000 on dinner and wine in a long time," he laments. "Just three years ago it was a nightly occurrence!" One might think the art of the wine label is akin, say, to miniaturist easel painting, but Osborne likens it more to "stamp design, where you're trying to make a statement in a very small space, with the added criteria of having to stand out on the shelf in a sea of wine labels. We're basically trying to visually communicate the essence of a brand - the spirit or philosophy of a winery or of a winemaker. Most often, in a redesign or rejuvenation program, there are visual equities that we're required to work with; the challenge then becomes to not confuse consumers but improve the design in such a way that they may notice that something is new and looks better - though they may not be able to articulate exactly what it is."
But no designer can put all his business in one bottle. "Fortunately, and very intentionally, we also work a great deal in the retail product packaging and corporate brand identity arenas," notes Osborne, 52, a Cincinnati native, a Vietnam vet and a graduate of the Art Center College of Design. "We've always tried to segment the business and not get pigeonholed in one area. Consider the many design firms that completely switched their business model to the high-tech sector: they're mostly gone." And when Osborne says wine labels are similar to designing stamps, he knows whereof he speaks. Last year he did a "Love" stamp for the Post Office. "What a hoot. What an amazing, surreal experience for a graphic designer! At the first day of issue last summer, which is a very big deal for the USPS and philatelists alike, I totally felt like I was having my Warhol 15 minutes. Hell, I had a whole day."