Down-home looks for top of line

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.If it were not the celebrated locus of J.D. Salinger's long, self-imposed exile from the pressures of literary fame, or...

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.

If it were not the celebrated locus of J.D. Salinger’s long, self-imposed exile from the pressures of literary fame, or a preferred destination for alpine skiers and summer hikers, Vermont might have little else to recommend it.

Easy to be jaded

It is easy for jaded city folk to be cynical about places such as Winooski, Passumpsic, or Ascutney, which seem to have been culled from a catalogue raisonne of Norman Rockwell paintings.

But it is that very set of down-home values that has made the Green Mountain State a beta site for current trends in ethical marketing.

Two lines

In the spotlight these days are two product lines that originate in the home of the Hermit Thrush.

One is Ben and Jerry’s Homemade ice cream.

Built from humble beginnings by a pair of plaid-clad entrepreneurs, (the same Ben and Jerry whose wholesome mugs adorn the top of every carton) the estimated US$80-million company now occupies the uppermost reaches of its category.

With funky flavors such as Wavy Gravy, Cherry Garcia, and Cookie Dough, these products have successfully staked out a premium niche once reserved only for the likes of Haagen-Daaz.

The success of this product presents an interesting case for package designers.

Premium category

Most of us tend to associate the premium category with fine, sensitive design, and we all yearn for the opportunity to lavish our creative energy on a Clearly Canadian or a Nature Store.

But Ben and Jerry’s package is anything but fine and sensitive.

The line of light flavors is an unapologetic essay in anti-design (or, shall we say, Auntie Design?).

On the face panel, chunky, crackerbarrel type surrounds a naive rendering of either Ben or Jerry cranking a hand-driven ice cream-maker.


The bubblegum pink background jostles with a heavy black-and-white checkerboard pattern up top.

One asks oneself, is this truly the product of genuine naivete, or a conscious decision to look like genuine naivete?

Similar questions attend the label design of Uncle Dave’s Kitchen pasta sauces and ketchup products.

Here, the proprietor’s portrait is an even more critical element of the branding scheme.

Depicted as a gleeful caricature of himself, Uncle Dave sports a different hat for every flavor, but never takes off his red ‘n’ black plaid shirt.

Naive touch

An especially naive touch is that not a single word on the whole label (including the nutritional information) is typeset. It is all handwritten, as befits such back-slappin’ copy as ‘Good grub, eh bub?’

The design may be down-home, but the price is most definitely downtown: a tiny eight-ounce jar of this stuff retails for $4.29.

Cute jars

One is reminded of that scene in the movie Baby Boomers when the Manhattan yuppies are charmed into paying a king’s ransom for Diane Keaton’s homemade babyfood because the jars look so goshdarn cute.

Herein lies the marketing genius of these products.

The honest-to-goodness message delivered by their unpretentious designs strikes just the right chord with boomer consumers who yearn to escape the hegemony of more corporate brands.

But just how honest-to-goodness are these packaged goods?

The answer to this question is the best news yet.

Both companies are deeply committed to social and environmental issues, plowing a significant percentage of their profits into these causes.

Uncle Dave’s states this right on the label.

Ben and Jerry’s goes several steps further, incorporating social awareness into the very infrastructure of production: it not only depends upon Vermont family farms for its natural ingredients, but also buys much of its contents from native people, community-sponsored partners and like-minded companies in the northeastern u.s. and Quebec.

So, the naive designs are not just a marketing ploy, but a potent value statement directed towards a market that wants to believe it is sensitive to humanitarian and environmental causes.

Fine design be damned: here is a chance to contribute to a better future.

Will Novosedlik and Bob Russell are principals of Russell Design in Toronto.