Design Matters

Craft over art in packagingThe following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.In a recent talk given to the Metal Arts Guild in Toronto by Tony Mann, longtime...

Craft over art in packaging

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

In a recent talk given to the Metal Arts Guild in Toronto by Tony Mann, longtime professor at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, he asked the question: why do we continue to celebrate the unusual at the expense of the appropriate?

Mann was referring to the deeply held belief that designers and craftspeople possess regarding their inalienable right to make things new and different.

It is a belief that is woven into the fabric of our creative mythology, a small fragment of which every designer wears close to his or her heart for as long as it beats.

It is a belief that we have inherited from our distant cousins in the world of fine art.

But our cousins inhabit a world in which experimentation is de rigueur, and communication has become idiosyncratic, elitist, even inaccessible without a course in the history of modern art.

We, on the other hand, are constrained by the necessity to communicate to a broad audience, and our efforts are bound by the limits of their understanding.

Perhaps nowhere in graphic design are these limitations more apparent than in consumer goods packaging.

Shelf communication must happen in milliseconds to be effective. Under these circumstances, ‘making new’ is not as important as ‘making well.’ In fact, making new can be downright counterproductive.

This is not to say innovation is to be discouraged. But innovation for its own sake is difficult to justify.

If we could draw an analogy with aeronautical engineering, for instance, we might say there is room for constant improvement as long as our designs adhere to the laws of aerodynamics.

Putting the tail atop the cockpit may be a formal breakthrough, but if the plane does not fly, it is just a piece of sculpture.

There is certainly room for constant improvement in the realm of package design, and the laws of shelf dynamics permit much more attention to detail than many packagers would like to admit. This is where making well comes into play.

Rigorous attention to typographic detail, sensitive propping and lighting of product photography, logical structuring of brand and sub-brand identities, and a rational use of color are all areas that demand careful attention.

What we are talking about here is not so much the art of packaging design, but the craft of it. A designer’s daily battles are fought and won detail by detail, and the best weapons in this kind of warfare are patience, a belief in communication and an unshakeable dedication to quality.

By way of example, observe the accompanying photo of Millet Rice cereal by Nature’s Path.

Here is a package in which every detail has been carefully considered. In its balance, clarity and use of typography, it is a homage to classicism.

Special mention should be made of the side panels, in which care has been taken with the setting of nutritional and ingredients information, an area that is often treated as an afterthought.

Likewise, the rear panel takes advantage of the consumer’s breakfast habit of reading the cereal box while eating.

But rather than blast the reader with contest rules and promotional jive, the panel tells a little story about organic farming, complete with scratchboard illustrations. The overall effect is one of comfort and reassurance.

In case you think we are waxing poetic over design details that have no relevance to successful marketing, think again.

This is not just another pretty face panel; Nature’s Path is the category leader in the health food market in North America.

In the supermarket, where it is listed at retailers such as Loblaws, Dominion, Loeb, a&p and Safeway, it cannot hope to match the big players in terms of volume, but it does provide retailers with a larger gross margin than any other product in the category.

As well, because of its healthy positioning, and because the design so effectively supports that position, it adds a valuable consumer service to the category just by being there.

So making well can also mean making a profit.

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