From the skull stickers smoothed onto UW-Milwaukee students’ laptops to the skull designs underneath the sleeves of paper cups, Colectivo decorates its coffee and the city of Milwaukee with its colorful design. And though the sugar skull design is instantly recognizable by any Milwaukeean, the face behind these calaveras is not as well-known. Kevin Callahan is the artist behind all of the Colectivo Coffee graphic designs.
The sugar skull may be the most famous, but he has also designed the Colectivo script logo, the bus painted with flames, the T-shirts, the menus, the Troubador Bakery logo, and the characters labeling the bags of each type of coffee. Almost anything that has been printed in the cafes was designed by him.
“I do everything that’s two dimensional,” Callahan said.
However, the Colectivo bus isn’t his only vehicle logo that you would recognize. You can also see his work on a red Sendik’s bag, on which he designed their classic grocery delivery truck logo.
Callahan is as Milwaukeean as Colectivo is. He grew up in Shorewood and is now raising his 9 and 13-year-old children with his wife in a Shorewood house one block away from his childhood home. He graduated from UWM’s Peck School of the Arts in 1985, majoring in drawing and painting.
“I had this romantic idea of being a painter,” Callahan said.
Instead, from 1989 until New Year’s Eve of 1998, he ran his own business, Pride of Milwaukee, a kiosk at Grand Avenue Mall where he designed and sold Milwaukee memorabilia. Though 1999 marked the end of that business, it marked the beginning of his time with Alterra, his childhood friend Paul Miller’s up-and-coming coffee company. He started out as a delivery driver but was quickly promoted to designing. Now, the delivery vans are wrapped with his work.
Though his dream of a painting career wasn’t completed, his career is still a creative one.
“I just love to come and do artwork for a living,” Callahan said.
Since 1999, software has become essential in the design world and to Callahan’s process, but he says he still works mostly with his hands. He explained that most of his designs evolve in his sketchbook, not on a computer screen. The story of the Colectivo logo reveals this.
“I wrote the word Colectivo over and over on paper like my signature,” he said.
He says that when he immerses himself in creating a design, it takes days of tweaking it constantly, but also walking away sporadically to return to it with fresh eyes. He calls his work and his process “freeing.”
“My favorite step occurs after I collect all the elements that I want to have in my design,” Callahan said. “It is the moment when I put them all together and see if they indeed work the way I hope they do.”
His story of the alley cat character on the Delta Mud Guatemalan coffee blend captures this.
Mulling over the ideas of an alligator or a voodoo doll, he finally decided on the concept of a cat. He drafted several cats on pages of translucent sketchbook paper. The next day, when he opened his sketchpad, Callahan found the “evocative” image he was searching for. It was the previous day’s drawings layered on top of each other. He traced this top image to be printed on the coffee bag.
Most of the designs are connected to the Latin cultures from which the coffees originate. When Callahan came up with the design for the Mexican Co-optiva coffee, he was looking at a Day of the Dead book and thought of the sugar skull, “That’s Mexico.”
The cafe’s name itself and its designs – like the bus with flames and cup that shows profiles of commuters – are inspired by colectivos, which are buses used for public transportation across Latin America. This collective everyday experience is also representative of the coffee shop. Callahan calls Colectivo a “hive” for the community.
With his designs for these coffees from around the world, he says he is always trying to show “the lifeblood of a country.”
Though he has always lived in Milwaukee, he is also well traveled and pronounces the names of the coffees that are in Spanish with a natural accent.
Callahan takes pride in his finished products but remains humble though his designs are famous across the city.
“When I see a design of mine out of context it makes me smile, and I always think back to when it was created – What I was doing and such,” he said.
He also offers advice for student artists.
“If you’re in a rut, get out and go see things. Visit another city,” Callahan said. “Be curious. Ask questions and seek answers.”
Madeline Rittgers, a UWM Peck School sophomore applying to the graphic design program, agreed.
“I think that’s true. I find that when I’m stressed I go walk around outside,” Rittgers said. “That’s probably where I get a lot of my inspiration to create tree forms in my designs.”
Callahan also prescribed advice on the unpredictability of life in his experience as a painter turned graphic designer.
“Be patient,” he said. “And be open to change and opportunity.”