You may not know his name, but you definitely know his work.
Illustrator and designer extraordinaire Conor Merriman is one of the country's most prolific artists thanks to his work with food and drinks companies. Merriman's branding work has become hugely recognisable due to his signature colourful style and clean designs.
More than likely, you've seen Merriman's work around Ireland. When Damien Grey reopened Heron & Grey as Liath, it was Merriman he called upon to help forge the Michelin-starred restaurant's new style. Poachers Premium Irish Mixers enlisted Merriman to create their striking logo and branding, while Dublin-based PR company Buck & Hound has worked with him to collaborate on exciting brand activations, including Sprezzatura - which Merriman did the interior design for - and WineLab.
Basically, Conor Merriman's work is everywhere, and for good reason. Here, we find out what it takes to curate incredible branding for food and drinks companies.
How did you get into food and drinks branding?
"I always knew I wanted to do either painting or graphic design. I actually started working at 11 - I was one of the RTÉ kids with Don Conroy - then I did an apprenticeship at 16 in graphic design. By the time I started studying at the National College of Art and Design, I had around 10 years experience with PhotoShop and in design, so I knew then that I definitely wanted to do graphic design.
Then, in college, we learned about branding, print design, illustrations, so I started doing the odd branding job and just really loved it. I really love sinking my teeth into the process of visually communicating what's in your brain and capturing the experience of the brand.
I fell into the hospitality sector through Damien Grey of Liath, who is my uncle. I worked on the branding for Heron & Grey while I was still in college, and within a year they had a Michelin star which meant I had a really massive platform very quickly, so people started to reach out and I began to offer full-service branding.
At the time, I was also doing basically everything else, just working loads - you name the sector and I've worked in it. That's the best part about branding, you kind of get a feel for every sector, which is great. I love people and I love creating things for people, so it really suits me."
Did working on the Heron & Grey and Liath branding have a big impact on your career?
"Oh hugely. I was only 21 and I had designed the branding and helped form the identity of a Michelin-starred restaurant. Who gets to do that?
The great thing about Ireland is that word-of-mouth is the best marketing tool. People started asking about the Heron & Grey, and now Liath, branding and asked me to come on board for their projects. Having a platform like that for one of my first jobs was pretty amazing.
The interesting thing is that I did the branding for both of those restaurants at two very different stages in my career and there's proof [of that] in the jobs I created for them.
Obviously, branding, visual marketing and all those elements of a restaurant are only a fraction of what makes it a success, but they're important. Of course, I'm not saying that I had anything to do with them getting a Michelin star! But, it shows that the work we created together has had a response. They got the biggest award they could possibly get for food and having that design in my portfolio was a great way to show people that I can be trusted and that I can help with their vision."
Tell me more about the actual process of creating branding for a food and drink company.
"It really depends on the brand and the outline. When it comes to a rebrand or a refresh, I'm continuing the brand's voice and it's important to respect that. Many brands have an existing voice so there's history there already, but usually, it is very very collaborative - they know their business and what works and I'm there to help communicate the message.
Sometimes, I'm brought in with a new brand and they want me to steer the ship, but at the same time, the work I do is only as good as the effort we all put into it. My back pocket is filled with ideas, but they don't always work for the brand, so everything I do is a 'we' thing, it's a group collaborative effort. Once everyone works together on a brand's vision, it will be a success. Working on food brands is so incredible because people hold them so dear and then I'm entrusted with the keys to the car and I'm a complete stranger. They really have faith in the process.
The process is always the same, whether a brand is huge and global or small and local, and that's all about asking what success looks like for them and what the ethos of the brand is. Then I work with them to find the right tone and aesthetic direction based on the voice they want to portray. Sometimes these conversations happen at the very top level, like with the CEO, and sometimes it's a more localised approach with the owner or people who work within the brand. Regardless of who I talk to, it's always about the same thing: what the product or service is, who their challengers are and who they strive to be beside. It's always good to get an indication about a brand's peers and competitors so I can get a feel for where they are in the market. A lot of the people I work with are Irish, so it automatically helps that I'm Irish too as I often have a feel for the location or the people itself I guess you could say.
Sometimes I'll just do the initial design for the brands and sometimes I'll stay on with the brand in a long-standing role, like for WineLab, I'm the art director and I'm the graphic designer for Poachers, so it's great to be able to continuously work and expand on something.
For food and hospitality, my approach revolves around finding what the customer experience will be, what their journey is. We're creating a sensory experience that's intimate, transformative, and reflective of the space. That's really important for hospitality and any type of food offering."
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Which project was your favourite?
"Oh there's so many of them and I love them, they're all so different. Honestly, each is like a little piece of art just for me. I work on them, I help create the brand identity and then at the end, it's like sending a child off to school. It's like they've grown up in front of me.
But if I had to pick, creating the web presence for Liath is a real highlight for, like how could it not be? They are so incredibly strong in what they do, and they have such truth and conviction in what they're doing. It was sa completely collaborative project but there was also a lot of trust in me with the Liath team. When a brand asks me my opinion, it's one of those lovely things and I know then that I can do my best work with that approach.
Designing the Poachers Premium Irish Mixers range was another favourite, that was amazing. Also, collaborating with Buck & Hound on the Absolut Vodka 'Drop of Love' packaging was another absolutely brilliant one because it was global. We desgined the box that the bottles went into and the bottles were so beautiful - they had the word love in loads of different languages. Each explores different tonal effects, but I love them all.
All of my continued collaborative work is very important to me too because I'm brought into the fold to grow and expand, which is amazing.
Also, the work I've done with heritage brands, like Dunmore House or Quigley's Bakery, is really important to me too. Working with those families, you see that this is their passion and they know the brand inside and out. When you're brought in as an outsider to help communicate that message and you get to work with these people, it's very rewarding."