What Makes for an Upscale Food Label?

Food labeling is an area I’ve been around for a long period of time, design-wise. But that experience, even though it has given me a lot of insight into the business of selecting imagery, directing photography, and working with marketing teams, seldom melds with the abstract clarity of academic design.

And that clarity is usually what is sacrificed in most companies’ obsession with cramming information onto the primary display panel (PDP) of the label, that which faces shoppers at the store shelf.

We’ll use the above images of pasta sauce for this rant today. Simplicity is something that design students (should) learn early on to achieve beauty and clarity in their design assignments. And once they learn that, and then go out into the real world, they also learn quickly how fast that simplicity disappears.

Getting right down to the essence of this is the marketing department falling in love with the graphics on that PDP instead of letting the colorful beauty of their food, showing through the glass jar, speak for itself.

What isn’t necessary is the over-colorful descriptive information beyond that. Yes, tell us what it is; no, the added photography is not a requirement (unless the packaging is opaque, such as a box); and further, the colorful panels behind the type (including the background) can easily be way too intrusive. In a word: cluttered.

The label at left has that cluttered feel, and it’s heavy. The colors tend to choke together because they’re close to the same density, value-wise, except for the light blue. But the black behind that panel, although it unifies the panel elements, ties it all way down. Even the cap, echoing the black color, adds to the weight of the colors.

Then there’s the choice of typography, which is too “everyday”. The semi-primitive font is OK, and it might work much better against a lighter background, but here, because of the heavy colored panels, becomes a tad clumsy. The label has an ’80s feel overall, and that period had a lot of bad labels.

The label at right has a much cleaner feel. The white of the label tells you right away how uncluttered it is, how simple it is, how honest it makes what’s inside the jar look. The label has fewer colors and needs no photo. Its straight up-and-down orthographic alignment’s only real embellishments are the decorative panels left and right, not too light or dark, but echoing the color of “parmesan pomodoro”, and the small but centered script G in a circle, letting you know the quality of the food from Giada de Laurentiis, marketed by Williams Sonoma, like a small but important fingerprint.

All that makes for an understated, yet well-thought-out assembly of design. The gold cap adds a feel of quality, and the security tape is a further premium touch.

The problem most all marketing departments have is not letting go of their dear promotional ideals, that selling to the customer at the store shelf. If they’d allow their focus groups the latitude of comparing what their product actually looks like against premium competition, they might learn something.

And looking like premium doesn’t cost anything.

 

Stylization and Primitive Artwork: What’s the Difference?

Above are two examples of illustration we see these days. One is an example of stylized artwork, the other an example of primitive artwork.

First, let’s turn the clock back to, say, 1985. The artwork on the left would be regarded as stylized. It would’ve worked back then as a serio-comic solution to a depiction of “Eve”, and would’ve been accepted as having been done by a professional artist. The artwork on the right wouldn’t have been accepted for print at all.

Now let’s vault ahead to present day. The artwork at left is still viable as a professionally done piece of artwork, but the one on the right is also acceptable as having been done by a professional. Why is that? What changed?

You tell me.

Stylization has been recognized in illustration for many decades as a way to add whimsy to otherwise realistic drawing. The proportions in stylized artwork are exaggerated to a point where everything—such as features on a face, or hands and feet on a figure— still has recognizability and familiarity of the basic forms of, in this particular case, anatomy. Stylization has uniformity of style: the curves and lines of all the forms look and feel natural to the characterization of the total figure.

On the other hand, primitive art has no such cohesive properties. All of the above descriptive issues are missing in primitive art. The artwork at right looks and feels as if it were done by a 5-year-old. And yet, readers, it was used in a recent issue of a well-known publication, The New York Times Magazine.

Stylization in illustration requires an understanding of basic forms in nature, man-made objects, and yes—anatomy. Anatomy of all creatures, animals, birds, and humans. That basic structure is what makes stylization possible, what makes the departure from that basic anatomy work.

Jazz musicians, even rock musicians, understand that improvisation—stylization in their discipline—has to have the basic form, the basic structure of melody in any tune or song, in order for it to exist. That basic melody is underlying everything they do, maintaining a cohesive unifying theme.

So it is with stylization in artwork, in illustration. And yet, here we are, watching primitive artwork, as done by what are now referred to as “professionals”, get published in reputable publications.

I don’t know when the departure from realism or stylization to primitive artwork began to take place in print. Using childlike depictions of people in serious thought-provoking articles is baffling to me, to people with any intellect. Children don’t read these articles, nor would they comprehend their meanings.

We celebrate—as a society—accomplishment in any discipline, be it playing a musical instrument well, cultivating a beautiful garden, making a delicious meal. We don’t reward clumsy or awkward endeavors. But here we have a well-known national publication using—and paying for—crude artwork.

That example at right does not reflect—to any degree—a professional’s hand in its creation. And yet by using it in a magazine like The New York Times, the publishers were actually celebrating its primitive appearance—its crudeness—as being a style.

And that, readers, is the real difference. Because, whether it was done by a “professional” or a 5-year-old, it doesn’t matter. It looks like it was done by a 5-year-old, and a 5-year-old doesn’t know what style is.

Does The New York Times Magazine know?

————

(I recently wrote to the president of a well-known art and design school, to ask if anatomy and realistic figure drawing were being taught at that school. It’s been several days since I sent that email and I have a strong feeling I won’t get a response.)

This Is Ridiculous

My wife and I were watching television several weeks ago when we saw the above ad for Schick’s Hydro Silk TrimStyle razor for women, which is made for those women who wear bikini swimwear.

We couldn’t believe our eyes. “Are you kidding?” we said almost simultaneously.

Television has come a long way in its permissiveness. I can remember watching shows back in the late ’50s and early ’60s where Ozzie and Harriet and all the other married TV couples slept in twin beds, because studios weren’t allowed to show them sharing the same bed.

That was part of an era in Hollywood governed by The Motion Picture Production Code, a period of time between 1930 and 1968. Often called the “Hays Code”, it deemed what was morally acceptable for public audiences to see in movie theaters. Will H. Hays was the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, and under his leadership, the MPAA began its strict enforcement of that code starting in 1934.

Hollywood, in its early days of making silent pictures, had its share of scandal with the murder of a famous director (William Desmond Taylor) and the alleged rape of a starlet by the famous actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Religious and political organizations were appalled at the apparent “wild west” atmosphere of the fledging motion picture industry, and with the Black Sox scandal in Major League Baseball (having of course nothing to do with Hollywood), and the rise of bootlegging and gangsters in the 1920s, the Hays group felt it necessary to impose its moral rules and keep Hollywood “clean”.

After World War 2, television came into its golden period. (Television was actually invented in 1925 by Philo Farnsworth; Philco, Westinghouse and RCA developed their machines in the ’30s, but the formative television business didn’t get off the ground until after the war ended.) Hollywood wanted to get into television for two reasons: one, as a hedge from the upstart TV business—couples were staying home and raising families and not spending the time going out to movies; and two, since they already had the production facilities, why not make TV shows and cash in by having advertisers run commercials just like the radio industry?

Of course, with the Hays Code already in place, the same rules applied. Anything morally suspect was not allowed. A long list of items was spelled out, such as illegal trafficking and use of drugs, inference of sexual perversion (subject to interpretation by a committee), vulgar language, miscegenation (sex between black and white races), any depiction of venereal disease, and a man and a woman in the same bed. The list was way longer than that and included showing white slavery, rape, branding of people or animals, surgical operations, and gratuitous brutality of children or animals.

It took many years for Hollywood—whose star system faded in the 1960s—to loosen its grip on the code. Morals were changing, and the public (and younger directors) wanted realism on the screen. European movies had long reflected an open and less restrictive genre, so the American studios began to relent. By the 1970s, TV shows came of age.

There was, however, one last vestige of the Hollywood code: the Family Viewing Hour, the first hour of prime time TV each night, that enforced similar rules. Established by the FCC in 1975, it felt it had to enforce “family-friendly” programming from 8 to 9 PM EST. But it didn’t last long. The Writers Guild sued, citing violations of the First Amendment, and won.

But what about censorship in TV commercials? I mean, the commercial above is not crude pictorially, but it is suggestive and more than repugnant to some viewers. Look what we have today in TV ads: erectile dysfunction, condoms, birth control devices, bladder control, IUD issues, catheters, etc. The medical industry loves all this. I hate seeing it, but there they are.

I know the Schick ad is about beauty and/or hygiene, but the way it’s depicted is a little out-of-bounds.

Apparently there are no rules. Advertisers are censoring themselves, keeping what they individually feel are within—or just barely within—moral guidelines.

I wonder what the commercials along this line will be like in another twenty years.

The New Illustration

I subscribe to The Atlantic, one of the oldest publications in the history of this country. It has thought-provoking articles written by really good journalists. And it has what might be labelled fair art accompanying those articles.

Other publications have good artwork as well, like The New York Times Magazine.

Tim Tomkinson created the image on the left for The Atlantic. It’s a more traditional style of illustration, requiring some actual draftsmanship. The artwork on the right, created by Ryan Snook for The New York Times Magazine, has a much different style.

What’s the difference? And why are they so different? And how do they affect the viewer?

Sure, Tomkinson’s piece accompanies an article about an actual person, Abigail Allwood, a scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, while Snook’s accompanies an article called “Crying at Movies”. But the art director at The Atlantic must’ve felt strongly about using an illustrator whose style was toward realism, whereas the person calling the shots at The New York Times Magazine probably said something like “anything goes”.

Weeks ago, I wrote about the decline of teaching actual drawing and illustration in art schools, which, when you think about it, doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. I mean, things like anatomy and perspective were taught alongside figure drawing when I was in art school. Those things weren’t absolutely necessary for painting disciplines, but they were for commercial illustration.

So I’m open to discussion about why drawing is no longer considered a necessary attribute when it comes to creating qualitative commercial illustration, although I have my own theory why that is.

You see it all the time these days, the newer styles: much more like expressionism than realism. Expressionism plays to emotional reaction. As history will tell us, expressionism in painting came about after the impressionist period in the last portion of the nineteenth century. Impressionists taught the world (or those who visited art galleries and went to art openings) a new way of seeing. And that way of seeing was with your inner eye—meaning your brain—and not so much with your logical, or outer, eye.

Expressionistic art was also done in a time of upheaval in the world: the breakdown of the gilded age of kings and queens, the revolutions in Europe, the world wars. If you’re at all a student of art history, you know of art imitating life. Broad brush strokes (often with a lot of contrast in color), faces with garish angularity, and almost primitive proportions were characteristic of the form.

Snook’s illustration is very cartoony. But you don’t have to look far to see some work done that is not quite so funny in depicting emotion, and much more emoting tension—even anger.

My theory of why this is all prominent now in publicized artwork is that we live in a very changing world. A global economy (with several nations having proprietary resources), tensions around the world (knowing that now many nations have nuclear capability), strong climate changes, immediate news on TV and the Internet. Twitter and Facebook promote reactive activity. Maybe I’m wrong. But something has spurred things along to where commercial illustration is now, to where it reflects all that noise.

There are other factors possible: younger generations have different ideas of seeing the world in art; and for everyone, using computer apps and plug-ins can easily take a photo and transform it into an illustration or even a painting, with textures and warping the perspective. Why would you need to actually draw it first? Is that why we no longer need to teach it?

Because when you think about it, how would you teach a student to think in expressionistic terms? Maybe to them, realism is just too superficial.

 

This Pink Thing

I write about design and how it encompasses our lives, everything around us. I try to inform those of us who are non-designers how to see it and how to recognize just how it impacts our thinking and sways us in different areas of the marketplace.

This past Sunday was Mother’s Day, a day of a different kind of recognition. A day of celebration and thanks to our mothers for raising us and showing us the way in our young and formative years.

A long time ago, a woman named Ann Reeves Jarvis started Mother’s Day Work Clubs in West Virginia as a way to teach women the proper way to raise children, make them aware of sanitary conditions around their homes, and how to help them with treating colds and influenza. That was before the Civil War. Eventually other noted women took up the cause for championing mothers, among them Julia Ward Howe, a suffragette.

A few years before the Great War, Ann’s daughter Anna Jarvis petitioned for making a holiday to recognize all mothers for their unique contributions to families everywhere. After much campaigning and speaking and getting ears in Congress to listen, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation making Mother’s Day a national celebration on the second Sunday in May starting in 1914. Anna later protested the eventual commercialization of the occasion, including the greeting cards that followed.

In 1982, the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation was formed by Nancy Goodman Brinker, the sister of Susan G. Komen. Susan had died two years previously from breast cancer at the age of 36, and Nancy was moved to do something in Susan’s honor to make women and everyone around aware of and to contribute to fighting breast cancer. That movement launched meetings, rallies, and events such as marathons, eventually getting a symbol in the form of a folded pink ribbon.

Just how those two things—Mother’s Day and the fight against breast cancer—came together is something that I’m not totally certain will not become blurred in the public eye of history. In 2006, Major League Baseball issued pink bats to be used in the games being played on Mother’s Day. Since that 2006 introduction of pink bats, the color has been extended to uniforms and equipment, including baseballs with pink stitching.

Then other sports got involved. The PGA Tour showed the color this past Sunday with the golfers wearing various shades of pink. Major League Baseball was in full bloom as well.

Which brings me to marketing. I’m not sure just which organization started using pink first, but as far as marketing and promoting with that color, it’s now a contest. And that contest has raised a few barbs in the past ten or so years.

The Komen Foundation has litigated to use the color exclusively, if not also the ribbon. Even the wording “for the Cure” is a sticking point. The organization Uniting Against Lung Cancer was warned by Komen to not use the above wording and not to use the color pink. Over 100 charities have received similar warnings.

The PGA Tour has no affiliation with the Komen Foundation. It gives its charitable donations to the Donna Foundation, which “raises funds for ground-breaking breast cancer research at Mayo Clinic and women living with breast cancer”. The Donna Foundation is also the “charity of the day” at the Players Championship near Jacksonville, Florida.

This apparent confluence of charities and a long-time national celebration is relatively new. The idea of stealing promotional material is not.

And just how did Mother’s Day get paired with these charities? I don’t know. Wearing pink at these events promotes getting money, yes. But it also promotes a certain inclusive clubbiness, like it or not. Because of social media these days, if you’re not wearing the color, you’re a pariah.

It Must Be the Art Form

I could’ve entitled this entry “More Less Is More”, but I decided to draw a parallel from last week’s article to this one. Less is more will bob to the surface anyway.

Theater in design is not one of the things promoted as a subject in design school. Some people might think of “performance art” in this vein, and I suppose that would lend a theme to the thought process in runway display in fashion design, but what about other areas of the theater aspect in life? Sure, there are concerts, Cirque du Soleil sorts of things, and plays.

But in thinking about last week’s theme, I saw a television show the other day that immediately brought to mind another aspect of theater. The show was about cooking, but more about presenting a meal in a fine restaurant. And there it was.

In selling and merchandising cosmetics, I mentioned the mystique that industry has—all they have—and what propels it along. There’s a Giorgio Armani ad that shows a muscular male model diving into water, then tanning himself and standing in a tree. It’s all a fantasy sequence done in sepia tones, that other-worldly dream-like presentation. The theater of owning, of experiencing, this product.

There isn’t anything in the ad so banal as putting the cologne on in getting ready for an evening out on the town. That’s too ordinary a presentation. Too common stock. This isn’t showering with body wash or even using a premium shaving gel. Those are not transcendent.

And so, in watching the show and viewing the presentation of the food on fine china, I saw the same thing. Sure the food is cooked to perfection. But you can’t see that. Expecting you to love the taste of the food isn’t what the dining experience is all about. That’s a given: if the food didn’t taste good, you wouldn’t be here in the first place.

Five-star restaurants aim for a higher experience, an augmented atmosphere to enhance, to go beyond mere eating. And so the theater aspect comes into play. The ambience: the owners will stage the restaurant with the best appointments in interior design, fine linens on the table, candlelit spaciousness. The staff: well trained, dressed in slacks and vests, quietly taking orders from the customers without writing anything down.

And then there’s the presentation, brought on with a parade of servers. A piece of art on a wide, white plate: food stacked in the center, the entreé built according to the chef’s designs, maybe adorned with a smear or drizzle of sauces to spark the palate.

And in receiving this dish, this enticement, this gift, you’re getting the theater of it all. Could the food just be placed on a plate the way your mom did? No. Could the plate be smaller? No. Does this presentation add to the taste of the food? No. But now you’re thinking differently.

Now that you have it before you, sitting in this resplendent setting, you feel differently, too. It isn’t about just eating the food. It’s about the experience.

And the theater of it is different than that of selling cosmetics. It’s actually more fleeting. Once you’ve consumed the meal and left the restaurant, it’s over. You’ll remember it and may very well return on another evening, but that theater has ended for a while.

In fashion and cosmetics, the allure will remain with you. Because the dress or suit is still in your closet, the cologne is still on your dresser.

Maybe to wear to that restaurant next time.

Talking Boxes

I sometimes wonder at the ad world where we have animated objects speaking to us either directly or indirectly, as though a talking dummy or marionette has our complete attention. The idea has me thinking of Chuck and Bob from the 1970’s TV comedy, Soap. In that show, Jay Johnson plays Chuck, a ventriloquist, whose dummy, Bob, has the other characters befuddled with his sharp wit. The main actors find themselves (especially Billy Crystal) talking directly to the dummy.

And I think we are no more intelligent than those actors in that show listening to Bob. At least, some of the time.

There are a few more examples of talking boxes than the ones shown above, but these are the most prominent. I’m sure you’ve seen the Cologuard commercials. Here we have what appears to be the actual product kit—or at least a facsimile of one—speaking directly to us about the rather private process of submitting a sample for the screening of colon cancer. The box is personified by an unknown actor whose voice has a muted, understated quality suited well to the product.

The ad series was developed by Precisioneffect, whose nickname for the kit is “little CG”. A company called Exact Sciences produces the screening product, and according to their marketing director, the aim is to bring attention to a personal choice for addressing an important issue in a less confrontational way.

I’ve seen perhaps three different Cologuard spots. Each has a soft demeanor, and is instructional. So we listen.

On the other hand, the Progressive Insurance talking box is another story. Here we have what so far appears to be a series of around a dozen spots featuring this smarmy, conceited box which in a series of circumstances speaks about his ennui, his heartfelt travels around the world, his travails getting through airport security, and even his trouble finding speaking engagements while addressing elementary grade students at “career day”.

I have to say that this box is well-designed, and the facial expressions are dead-on, especially that wide angular mouth that spouts off anything the brain behind it wants you to hear.

The ads for Progressive are done by Arnold, the big ad agency known for many other TV commercials, including Jack Daniels and Ocean Spray. Here the box is personified by Chris Parnell, the comedian from SNL and 30 Rock, whose voice is highly suited for over-reaching personalities. He’s one of the best in television.

Nothing against Parnell, but only a few of the ads are funny and after several viewings they get boring and tiresome. Which is a shame because the production is well done mixing animation with real-life actors. Plus, we have no idea what the box is supposed to represent. One source I came across tells us the box is supposed to be the Progressive Insurance policy. (We’d seen scores of them on shelves behind Flo’s desk in previous commercials, and even then wondered if those were representing case studies as in a law library, but knowing how wacky Flo can be, throw that thought away.)

Which brings up another thought: Progressive seems to want to outdo itself buy promoting with Flo and her “working” cohorts and also with this goofy talking box. Do you feel the two series are competing with each other? Or do you feel that it can work, such as in the Geico series (caveman versus the gecko)?

A Little Clarity, Part 2

I am designing an ad in InDesign with a color photograph. The ad specs given by the client specify a line screen of 150. I’m not sure what they mean by “a line screen of 150.” I usually place photographs at 300 dpi in my print ads. Does this mean that the photograph should be prepared (in Photoshop) at 150 dpi instead? Do I need to do anything special in InDesign for the rest of the ad (the text)?

All that passage is from a blog I read a few years ago, and the entry was from a person whose job it is to prepare art for print, yet he/she doesn’t know digital resolution from print line screens. And he/she mentions “300 dpi”.

In the first place, “dpi” is a printing term, meaning dots per inch, which sometimes is substituted with “lpi”, meaning lines per inch. They mean the same thing. You may be wondering why those two terms are interchangeable. DPI usage came about because we see dots in the line screen used (above images, middle). Those dots are arranged in rows, or lines.

In order to understand the printing of images, one has to understand screen tones. Reproducing photographs in commercial printing is done by using line art conversions of each color (it can be done using a “digital” method, but that’s inferior). Because printers use four-color process inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) each of those colors must be separated out from the original continuous tone photo (examples, left) to make the separate four screen tones.

You may have come across the term halftone sometime in your career. “Halftone” refers to the fact that the dots, such as in the one-color screened image, cover only half of all the tonalities in the image. Those dots create a semblance of the tonalities and come close to replicating them when fine line screens are used for print.

Sections of the left-hand images above have been enlarged to show the conversion in line screen dots (middle) and pixels (right).

In looking at the screen tones above, you can easily see that smaller dots reproduce lighter tones while the larger dots reproduce darker tones. Newspapers and magazines still use images like this, but with much finer screens. Depending on the quality of the paper used, those publications will use a line screen of anywhere from 85 LPI to 150 LPI. I could go on about what dot gain is, but I’ll save that for a later discussion.

In the digital world, pixels (picture elements) are single-colored (or toned) squares which reproduce photographs on computer and digital television screens. On Windows computers, the native resolution is 96 ppi, while on Macs the native resolution is 72 ppi. When viewing a 400 pixel-wide image on a Windows screen, the picture is 4.166 inches wide. On a Mac, that same image is 5.555 inches wide.

When viewing photos in newspapers and magazines, you’re looking at dots. When you view photos on a computer or TV, you’re looking at pixels. When you scan a photo or transparency for display on your computer screen, you set the resolution at the scanning stage, thereby digitizing the image, which is the digital conversion process. The image you save has been converted to pixels.

Please do not confuse the two. The term “dpi” is not a computer term. When we’re talking about pixels, the term is “ppi”—meaning pixels per inch.

And by the way, the rule of thumb in preparing a photo for print is 1.5 to 2 times the line screen used. Therefore if the screen will be 150 dpi, then the photo should have a digital resolution of between 225 and 300 ppi.

 

A Little Clarity, Part 1

I come from the advertising/print industry originally, though I’ve been in the advertising/digital industry for the past twenty-three years. And I’ve seen some terminology transposed from one to the other. Sometimes that terminology works in the translation while other times it does not.

And so, being the nit-picker that I am, I’m starting a new category on those terms that bug me the most.

The one that bugs me the most is “dpi” in this digital world. But I’m going to save that one until later. Right now I want to talk about this “#” symbol.

It’s been called a “number symbol”, a “pound symbol”, and lately a “hash symbol”. I have news: it’s all of those. But first, let’s not confuse this symbol with a few others that are very similar in appearance, such as the sharp symbol in music, that being ♯, or a Chinese character, that being .

A little history: the Romans had a symbol denoting pound weight, that being “℔”. Over time, this symbol was simplified to look like the featured symbol pictured above. Usage of the symbol for pound weight goes back to at least 1850 in this country. By the second half of the 19th century, there were typewriters in the United States equipped with the # key, and the user’s manual reflected the use of that key being specifically for expressing both number and pound weight, depending on placement of the symbol—just before a number to denote the ordinal number itself, and just after a number to denote pound weight.

Printers and paper salesmen (salespersons in the PC world) have long used the “#” symbol after a number to denote the pound weight of paper in text and cover stock, such as “24# text”. Manufacturers of pencils refer to the ratio of graphite/clay used in the writing instruments by a number designation, such as “#2 pencil”, an example of an ordinal distinction.

This traditional usage prevailed until the advent of digital telephone keypads, where the symbol became known as the pound sign. Today we still refer to that as the pound sign on phone keypads. The font used on your specific phone for that symbol may vary, but the designation is the same.

In the United Kingdom, the symbol has been referred to as a “hash”, a derivative of the word “hatch”, meaning cross-hatch (artists will recognize that reference, those of us who’ve done pen & ink sketches with a cross-hatch technique to add tonality to the basic black and white medium). That likeness is probably the best reference we have as to how the term hashtag came about, and was introduced by Chris Messina, a noted advocate for open Internet standards, in 2007 to denote a metadata tag for group use on social networks such as Twitter (but even he referred to the symbol as “pound” when first trying to establish the tag). You know the symbol is a hash when it precedes a word or phrase.

So it depends on circumstance as to the name of the pictured symbol.

Next week, I’ll dive into that “dpi” thing.