‘Why can’t they be happy leaving things alone?’

As the March 2010 issue hits the stands, strategy executive editor Mary Maddever reflects on lessons learned from an agent of change.

For everything from tissues to tea, our decisions are at least influenced by design. I’m drawn to Loblaw’s spare white PC packaging; the close-cropped beauty shots grab me in every aisle.
As shopper marketing and store-back gain import, the power of consumer-stopping design – be it packaging, retail or identity – continues to grow. Designers are also being tapped for a wider range of projects as design sophistication spreads among consumers and categories.
This issue we explore some of the current design trends, and take a look at the ideas informing recent logo and identity work through to agencies’ newfound predilection for designing their own product lines.
And sadly, we also pay posthumous tribute to Canadian design legend, Don Watt.
When we were brainstorming judges for strategy‘s B!G awards last year, I wasn’t sure that the man who helped design Canada’s flag and created groundbreaking identities for major brands here and around the world would have the time or the inclination to pitch in, but he did. That’s the thing about the truly great – they remain curious and make time to contribute to the industry.
Talking to people about Don, many were surprised to learn he’d designed the flag – and these are folks who know design. Seems he dove in and immersed himself in the work rather than the glory. He left behind a legacy of stand-out work and a body of knowledge on design as the killer USP – and mentored a new generation of Canadian designers along the way.
He also proved that designers can play a major role in overall business success, long before design thinking gained wider business cred. Strategy was lucky to get an advance look at his last manuscript, Fast Forward: The Changing Face of Retail, which shares the thinking behind many of his successes. See p. 22 for an excerpt on his Loblaw contribution, and the building of No Name, Canada’s best known ‘anti-brand.’
In addition to helping put Canada on the map as a private-label powerhouse, he also pioneered fully photo-based food packaging for brands like Salada, and initially for meat, as told in a chapter headed ‘Becoming an Agent of Change.’
‘Visiting stores, to see packages in their environment, I noticed rows and rows of dull items, sitting on shelves in dull stores…In the mid-sixties, almost 90% of a consumer’s purchase decisions were made in the home, using messages delivered by television, supported by newspapers and magazines. Television was the attitude-changing medium, with print being tactical, focusing on value-driven messages.
‘In that environment, change to the package was approached cautiously, for fear of breaking the awareness that had been established. Consumers didn’t look for detergent, they wanted ‘Tide.’ They didn’t want a cola, they wanted ‘Coke’ or ‘Pepsi.’ These and countless other simple products had acquired complex personalities, far beyond their ‘commodity’ names. Associating with a major brand made consumers feel better…
‘Packaging became the product, reminding consumers of their need to be a part of a better new world. However, a dull, commodity-like image on-shelf didn’t provide an adequate link to the advertised message. In 1964, I designed the first fully photographic package, for an advertising agency representing a Western Canadian meat packer. Every element was in the photo. The brand was placed on a ‘flavor’ tin, set among slices of product, with ingredients in the background. The new image was markedly different from anything on-shelf at the time. Gaining market share quickly, it proved that my unconventional approach could work.’
His hallmark was spotting the opportunities, and being unafraid to challenge the status quo. As per Watt: ‘Designers are a troublesome lot…They feel a need to change things when people seem to be comfortable with them as they are…Why can’t they be happy leaving things alone?’
The homage starts on p. 21, with a tribute from his peers on his talent for never leaving things as he found them, and how his solutions went far beyond the task at hand.

Cheers, mm
Mary Maddever, exec editor, strategy, Media in Canada and stimulant

Browse the March 2010 issue