Sometimes It’s Meat and Potatoes

All packaging becomes functional at the store shelf. Before that stage, however, it’s merely a product of a designer’s vision on putting what’s inside that package on a solid footing toward a sale.

Packaging is one particular area of design I’ve always loved: as a designer, you can encompass all the necessary things you need and put them on display in one neat enclosure. A photo of the product, type design, copy to give the product a thorough description, whatever necessary legal and boilerplate copy, and all that on top of a background you want to achieve impact and tie it all together.

Some packaging is more fun than others. Food packaging, because the entire family is consuming the food, is more descriptive in several ways. It’s more colorful in all directions, has bombastic and sometimes wacky type designs, can and does employ digitally enhanced photography and/or illustration, and often uses cartoon characters when aimed at children or adults who never grew up.

But that’s what makes designing food packaging so much fun. It has boundless possibilities.

Other packaging is just plain functional. Take auto parts packaging, whose examples are shown above. With usually just one person in a household buying auto parts, the focus for a designer is toward the utilitarian. Most auto parts—once purchased and installed on the vehicle—are no longer seen. They’re not exactly something to behold.

Plus it helps if you have a little technical knowledge of the auto part. What its use is, how to describe that use, and how best to depict it on the box: what angle(s) to photograph it to show the best detail. Other than some retouching to pretty it up, not a whole lot else.

Not difficult to put all this together, having all the aforementioned pieces. In looking at the above examples, notice a few things, though.

The predominant colors chosen for backgrounds are red, blue, black, and yellow. Pretty much a primary color selection. There’s no pink, mauve, taupe, lavender, or lilac. Those colors do not reflect a mostly masculine sense of being, of one who might own a Ford F-150 or a tricked-out Honda Prelude.

That bunch of consumers are more meat and potatoes, similar to buyers of tools at Home Depot.

Also notice that the typography on these packages is also plain and simple. No fancy script fonts here. Lesson—know your consumer.


OK. Here we go. I told myself I wasn’t going to go after any more dry logos. But here it is. I have to say something.

About twenty years ago, I caught a small freelance assignment to do a logo for a chiropractor. He didn’t know exactly what he wanted, but he also knew what he did not want: anything depicting a spine or even anything anatomical in appearance.

I remember part of his practice had to do with holistic approaches to his clients’ health—treating the whole person. Therefore, after a couple of meetings, it was decided I was to do a generic logo, a depiction of an awakening, a sort of “celebration of life”, a person “realizing his potential”. No faces, no profiles, no real “silhouettes”. Just a “feeling”.

Wow. How the…

This kind of thinking, this all-inclusive, worldly, enlightened conscience bearing is practically a non-goal for one to design a symbol.

I eventually came up with a design he liked: a rather calligraphic representation of a figure leaping through a cloud-like atmosphere with arms raised in joy. The Neulasta logo above is vaguely similar in feel.

What do these logos have? What do they do? How effective are they? None of those is considered a factor here. This collection you see above, there is no practicality to them. Unlike a couple of the law logos from my last column (the scales of justice or stable architecture form), there is no mortar and pestle. Nothing that banal. Thank you for that.

No, this is the most introverted bunch of logos going. They’re so introverted, they’re afraid to say anything. They’re all alike in their anonymity. Nothing in their designs that’s close to concrete. No personality. No flavor. Nothing to remotely offend.

I could say things like, “That contrived letterform made into a key in Keytruda is a bad design.” Or that the extended crossbar in the letter “A” in Tresiba does nothing to distinguish the word as a design. Or that the triangular configuration of symbols in the Cosentyx logo looks like it’s trying to be something, but misses. Or that the sun-like green symbol in the Trulicity design has no anchor—why is it located right there?—and why is it green?

I’ll venture a guess at each of the above: the designers were handcuffed in their assignments to come up with these solutions, similar to my experience.

I will say one final thing. The consumer names for these prescription drugs are a blessing, because nobody can pronounce the real names.

Logos—Law Firms

Generally, I love logos. Wait a second—let me correct that: I love looking at logos. It’s one of my favorite pastimes.

Lately, because lawyers and medical firms and hospitals are promoting themselves so often on TV, it’s easy to see their logos in 1080p resolution.

And for the most part, their logos are not very good. There’s a big difference among what I’d refer to as corporate logos, brand names, and personal “monograms”. Sometime in the near future, I’ll do a column on the history of logos and what a “logo” is. But for today, we’ll just deal with law firm logos. I’ve collected a handful for examination and comparison.

The thing about this collection—any bunch of law firm logos—is that they’re dry. They’re unimaginative. They all have a very clean look, but they’re all sterile, too. And maybe that’s the thing about law firms: the practice is such a straight-laced, dignified, 1-2-3 profession. I’ll bet it’s twice as sterile as what Hollywood portrays it to be.

And being that, designers are probably handcuffed trying to make the firms look like just the happening place to take your lawsuit. Because these are lawyers, they’re very careful about their appearance. Buttoned up, as they say. But as designers, we’re always looking for ways to make our clients look their best while possibly making another design good enough for our portfolio.

The top row in this collection shows two examples of trite law firm design. I put them here to show what not to do. Forget you saw them, going forward. Classic architecture and scales of justice. Really?

Row 2 has two very different approaches of using the initials of the partners on the door.  They’re design examples of a ligature—a joining of letterforms—practically a “brand”. The “GR” is not bad—at least it’s a little different. The Hopgood-Ganim is OK (I can almost see the “hg” burned into a calf’s hide), but it’s a decent try at a logo, especially because it uses a font below that ligature that’s very similar in its design feel.

The 3rd row has two examples of poor design. The “ALF” is a weak attempt at a “monogram”. It isn’t a logo at all—it’s just three letterforms floating in a rectangle. It does nothing. To the right of that, also not so hot. The “G” in a box with a bar above the name—boring.

Then the bottom row. Here’s two examples using typographical brackets to “help” the designs. Not sure why either needs them. The Brown logo has this lacy filigree behind to make it look more dignified, I guess. Notice the off-center ampersand placement in the Morgan & Morgan design, a definite mistake.

Sometimes designing for a straight-laced client is just that. Low key and routine. But as designers, we try to be inventive, different, and somewhat showy. All we can do in an arena such as this is to try to have the client see themselves in a different light than the rest.

Type Design: Dancing With The Stars



I guess this will serve as another of my type nits, but so be it. Type design is one of my pet subjects. Back in design school when I learned about typography and how, in a good type design, letterforms interact with one another, that fascination never left.

So, like in a recent column when I compared TV news programs’ mastheads, here I am again chewing up another.

I don’t know why a high profile television show can’t hire a decent type designer. They can hire a good host (Tom Bergeron) and co-host (Erin Andrews), and the top dancers in the world. But the producers of the show must be largely ignorant of type design. Either that or they had rushed this through at the last minute and just left it the way it was.

Let’s look at the main image, top left, followed by the graphic version. The designer used Helvetica LT Standard Black, a well-used font, but not really a premier font for any kind of distinguished design. It’s too mundane for a show like this. Maybe someone at the show stipulated a very readable font for this (I can think of twenty fonts just as readable and twice as elegant), but we’ll deal with it the way it is and still improve it.

In looking at the graphic, notice how much the designer tightened up the letterspacing. That’s OK in a super bold font such as this, but also notice the inconsistencies: the differences in “an” and “in” in the word “dancing”, and also the “ar” in “stars”. These should all have the same letterspacing, yet not so.

Then look at the two main words and how they work together. I’m looking for a coupling, a relationship starting point. But there is none. And with line spacing this tight—literally overlapping—this makes letterform relationships more obvious, or not. Notice also that “stars” is slightly larger in point-size than “dancing”, although I’m not certain just why that is. It does not help the design.

I have solutions in row 2, and a more embellished solution at the end.

Image Intensity and Anxiety


Design is all about organization. Priority in that organization is paramount, because the designer needs to set about where the attention lies in an orderly fashion. Almost like the way a movie unfolds before your eyes, that order is necessary to reveal which comes first in the story.

But in the case of some areas in our daily lives, we come across cacophony. Noise. And that noise can be seen quite readily at what they used to call the newsstand, or today, at the cash register of any retail food store. The magazines on sale here are like a carnival, where the barkers are all yelling for your attention to get into the ring toss and win your partner a stuffed animal.

The Us Magazine at left is typical of fan magazines’ throwing everything at you right on the front cover. Hurry, buy it now to get the lowdown on your favorite stars’ latest anguish. Or wedding. Or life lesson. But you have to buy it now. That’s what the publishers will hope you do.

For me, this poses a slight uptick in my blood pressure. From a design standpoint, this frantic assemblage of information can barely squeeze onto the 8″ x 10.5″ confines. It’s all yelling at you in yellow and pink headlines to convey the things you just have to have in your mental library, immediately. The casual observer will glance at it and not know what to make of all the fuss.

Back in 1974, People Magazine came out, a new kind of fan magazine. With Mia Farrow on its first issue, it was designed with one simple image relating to the featured article inside. All the other articles in the issue were listed on the cover, but without photos. The designers felt that simplicity was enough to carry the attention of the buyer. And they were right. Those designers could still see the art involved in making news.

People Magazine no longer looks as elegant as this. It looks more like Us Magazine.

And then we have the example at right. It’s not a fan magazine, but you get my drift. This is a relatively recent issue of Golf Digest, which of course feels like a comparative breath of fresh air.

With the explosion of the Internet, Facebook and Instagram, you wonder how these fan magazines can keep up with the constant barrage of attention-seeking news blasts on the ‘Net and television. Well, this is how they at least try.

The difference is that—with TV—you can turn it off. At the checkout line, it’s in your face.

How Does a Thought Become an Idea?

How does a thought become an idea? No, they’re not the same thing, not in design. A thought is just a few passing synapses in the brain, whereas an idea, a real process in which we apply a thought to a solution, now that’s something else.

Each of us has a mind and we all have thoughts running through our brains every day, all day long. And those thoughts are an amalgam, a mixture, of our experiences tinged with an imagination. The imagination here is what begins to separate one person with design capability from the rest of us, in various degrees. A designer can harness that imagination and channel it to see into the realm of design solutions. So the real difference between a designer and everyone else is that a designer can control that product of experience and imagination and make a thought come alive graphically.

All of us have heard the expression, “I can’t draw a straight line.” Most designers can’t either, but what they can do is convey a graphic idea, a plan to map out a graphic solution. I’ve known many art directors who can’t draw, but what makes them valuable is that they see the possibilities in their mind and can speak to those who can draw, or otherwise make the solutions come to life.

And there are as many ideas out there as are designers, packed with the experiences of life—their environments, their passages in growing up, their friends and acquaintances, things they’ve done, places they’ve visited, personal interests, their education. Like painters, they each have a way of seeing the world through the lens of their experiences. There are countless paintings out there in the world done by countless painters, and each canvas is literally a depiction of what that painter sees. Sure, each exhibits a style, a technique in application of the paint, but it’s all flavored with that painter’s way of seeing.

And designers are no different. Here the differences among designers may be more subtle, but the differences are there nonetheless. The thing is, each designer is constrained only by the limits of his/her imagination. The more experience a designer can bring to the fore, the more imagination he/she can use to bring about successful designs.

The above examples show differences in design solutions. Each shows a container with a built-in handle to make the container easier to use. But other than the additional fact that both have a cap that doubles as a measuring device, the similarities really begin to fall away. The colors, bottle shape and contour, the label—all are different. Both are successful solutions: they convey the idea of cleaning and freshness, otherwise abstract concepts.

Note that in neither example does the label read that it’s laundry detergent, however. Maybe the designs themselves are good enough visually to say it.



Observations on Type Design


I love a good type design. What I don’t understand is why they don’t appear more frequently.

So this subject may be a recurring one.

Above are several type designs from national TV news programs. Most are run-of-the-mill designs, practically ignored by everyone in any walk of life. But to a designer, only one of them hits the mark of being an example of typographical thinking on the part of the one who designed it.

In doing type designs, one has to consider a few things about the type itself: 1) the font chosen for the design; 2) the shape of the letterforms; and 3), of course, the impact you want to impart with the overall design. Notice that I said “letterforms”.

In studying typography, any good school will teach just what is important in type design. We can go back and study the history of fonts, who designed them and for what purpose, the processes used to print them, etc. But what’s important more than anything is appreciating the shapes of those pieces of type: a lowercase “g” in Garamond Bold is not the same as a corresponding “g” in Universe Bold. They are the same letter, yes, but not the same letterform. The letters here are different shapes, something a good type designer cannot—or shouldn’t ever—ignore.

Another thing a good type designer should not ignore is that words themselves—groupings of those letterforms—are shapes themselves. And in design, the interplay of shapes is important. Their size, their placement and proximity to one another—all important considerations.

Let’s look at each of the above. “This Week with George Stephanopoulos”  is just an OK design. That black ABC circle is like a big punctuation mark preceding the rest of the design. The designer tried to make “this week” come together by fitting “this” between the left edge of the “w” and the stem of the “k” in “week”. The font chosen for “this week” is not refined enough for a high profile show such as this. It’s a stark design overall, and I suppose the red, white, and blue are somewhat rally points to say that this is an American political news show, which it is. It tries real hard. I’ll give it a C+.

Next is “The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer”. Pretty plain, when you look at the placement of the words. The words “Situation Room” are larger than the rest—which is good—but the design has nothing going for it, so the designer relies on embellishments to the design by adding a slight chrome look to the letterforms along with a little 3D depth, then adding stars, and setting it against a background of a flattened image of the earth. Of course, the actual situation room is in the White House, but this show likens itself to that, so the image shown here aligns to that global importance and perspective. That’s just branding. But the type design portion here falls short. The design does have a tightness of assembly, which is good. So this gets a B.

Then we have “Anderson Cooper 360°”. I saw this and winced. I’m thinking right away that the “360°” in the name should’ve afforded the designer a lot of design possibilities, but I looked at several iterations of this design among the ones shown on my Google search, and they all have nothing inventive going with that angle. There’s just three “words” here, and look what the designer did with them: “Cooper” aligns to the right on “Anderson”, but then “360°” is centered on “Cooper”. Really? That’s the extent of it, and it’s not well put together. This gets a C+.

Next up is “Face the Nation”, and this one, despite having only three words again, has a certain alignment among its three parts that works only slightly better than the previous one. The font is OK—it’s plain and very readable—and the type spacing is OK, but it’s that the word “the” is stacked that drives me nuts. Words are meant to be read from left to right (in the vast majority of the world, and certainly in English-speaking countries), and not from top to bottom. You see it every now and then, but at least here it’s only three letters, so it’s not a mortal sin. But the designer didn’t lock it up very well by making those stacked letters fall short of the height of the letter “E” right next to it. This gets a B.

“Meet the Press” is nice in that it does lock up well among its parts. The shapes come together well, marrying the NBC peacock into that otherwise negative space upper-right. The rest is just OK. A-.

The last one takes the top prize among these type designs, and it does it without any frills. It has a tiny embellishment that it doesn’t really need, but that curvilinear contour that shows up in the “11th” is picked up from the background. The main image has everything a good, solid type design should have. And it locks up together well: the shapes of those words fit together like building blocks. And the emphasis is where it needs to be: “11th” is the largest assembled part, with one extra variable—its red color. It doesn’t even need that, but it does make it more noticeable on TV. A+.

You can always tell a good type design right away, because it works all by itself without any outside help from flashy backgrounds, shiny stars, or even motion.

Where Has the Art Gone?


Look at the images above. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?

These images are all fruit crate labels, all made during the golden age of illustration, between 100 and 140 years ago. So this will serve as a history lesson of sorts.

During the last twenty years of the 19th century, America was beginning to perfect the marketing of fruits and vegetables, especially to areas of the country where they were hard to get. Small canneries and growers in California and Florida began to merge into associations and getting agreements with the transcontinental railways to ship their goods across the country.

All the crates holding the veggies and fruits had labels like these. And they were printed using color lithography, still in its relatively primitive stages. Color labels were expensive and because of that, they were used over and over again. A crate in good condition with a label was nothing to be discarded.

By the end of the Great War, printing technology became much more advanced and mechanized, allowing the printers to gang the images and save the associations a lot of money per label cost.

As the systems of getting the crates to the markets evolved, so did the businesses grow. Associations became corporations. For example, the California Fruit Canners Association eventually became Del Monte.

Then during the Great Depression, consumers began to want more information about what they were buying and had more health concerns about the food. With the government stepping in with regulations and listing nutritional values, the art suffered, producing a somewhat less artistic image.

Adding to that, offset printing came of age in the 40s and label manufacturers were now using photography, replacing the illustrator.

The rest is history (I hate saying that) because all that stuff you just read also applied to every other area of printed advertising and package artwork.

Art will always be art. But will it ever have the use like what we see here? No. Not on this planet.

Can you imagine what it must’ve been like back then? A century ago, those illustrators did the entire images you see here, lettering included. He was also the art director.

Let’s Talk Visual Sensitivities

What makes a design—of anything—more enticing than others among a given group? Ever think of that?

The reasons behind a decision to buy something over another, at least at first, is subliminal on the part of the individual. That buyer reacts to something about the appearance—the design—because it reflects certain associative memories in that person’s brain. If that image evokes a bad memory, he/she will be turned off at the sight of the design. If it evokes a good memory, he/she will like it.

We all have that associative circumstance, ever becoming a pre-condition with life and experience going forward, as we encounter the sight of new things, new designs. And the more we experience the influential stimuli around us, the more we judge objects by their appearance. It’s very personal. That’s why we have so many different designs in any one arena. And it explains how non-objective we all become over time.

In fact, with the media blasts of TV and movies—especially action movies—we actually become biased without thinking about it.

The designers themselves all have the same influences as they go about drawing up new products. And automobiles are certainly at the forefront of exhibiting that influence. I continually pick automotive design for examples in this column because cars and SUVs are so omnipresent. Everybody sees them whether they want to or not. I also think that automobiles reflect futuristic design thinking because auto manufacturers want their designs to consistently be on the cutting edge of design.

So futuristic design thinking has to come from science fiction. And that’s been going on probably since before Dick Tracy was using his two-way wrist radio. Star Trek picked that thinking up in the phasers, and the iPhone picked that up in several steps further.

So it follows that automotive designers use what they see in that science fiction (action movies being the driving force here) to redraw their designs. It’s art imitating art: comic book artwork defining what we actually use here and now in our daily lives. Look at the above examples to see what I mean.

The advent of transformers, predators, and alien imagery culled from the likes of apocalyptic movies like the Road Warrior series and alien creature features make for an interesting, if not encouraging, design future in this area.

Automobiles never looked like this decades ago, because we never had these futuristic action movies decades go.

Tenets of Good Design, Part 4


Design is harmony. In this article, my final lesson in the design tenets series, I’m using food packaging for the examples.

Food packaging is ideal for his exercise because food packaging, across the board, offers up the best parameters for the use of design elements in almost every category: a photograph of the product (as the consumer will use it), the brand name of who made it (or is distributing it), and the shape of the package itself.

In the print industry, what you see is pretty much what you get. All the elements on the page or, in this case, package, is static. There are no moving parts to navigate to like on the web. Easy to design to and with.

It should be easy, this assemblage of parts. All the designer has to do is tie it all up into a neat design, something easy to read (good type design), easy to see what the product is (image large enough for appetite appeal), and easy on the eyes (having harmony among the elements). But it’s important, in the grocery aisle, to have the product readability—the type explaining what it is—apparent enough that the consumer knows what he/she is buying.

Nothing to it, right? I mean, you have a designer with good design skills, so why is it that there’s so much bad design out there?

Let’s take a look at some examples. We really don’t have to look far among the six I’ve chosen to find the ones with the harmony we’re looking for. But let’s go ahead and have fun picking ’em apart anyway.

The Birds Eye Steamfresh package isn’t the worst in this bunch, but it’s close. This is a bad design because the consumer cannot see what he/she is buying. Oh sure, there’s a big plate of food there, but everything telling us what actually is there on the plate is scrunched into that small green block on the right. Here, the marketing people feel their product line, Steamfresh, is way more important than what’s in the package. Grade: D.

Next is the Push Pops. Still not the worst, but it’s still terrible. What’s in the box? The Push Pops brand name is too large and imposing, literally pushing all the other elements to the sides of the package front. The product is large enough to see, okay (and why do we have a goat at right?), but look at the flavor panel, a tiny orange thing at center bottom: with the type being white, you can hardly read it. Grade: D–.

Now we have two really bad examples. I’ve never been a fan of Healthy Choice’s design. The older designs have this exclamation point as a design element, badly chosen because the size of the parts inhibits the usage and readability of anything you put inside. Another example of the marketing people being so in love with the product line that the readability of what’s inside the box suffers. The newer designs aren’t much better (“Orange Zest Chicken”). This design is so crowded, reading the box is a chore. Grade on both: F.

Now we come to the winners. The McCain package is a classic example of simplicity and harmony: logo on top and not too large; “Sweet Potato Wedges” large and easy to read (although not certain just why “Wedges” is slightly smaller); and finally, a good clean photo of the food. Grade: A.

In the Stahlbush package, the blue ribbon (it doesn’t have a photo of the food and doesn’t really need it). A refreshing design here: logo at top left (and not too large), followed by a unitary element that encompasses an image of the food inside with an explanation of what it is and all its attributes. A photo isn’t needed because everyone knows what blueberries look like. But even if the marketers decided to use a photo instead, the design would still be as good. This design has a lot going for it. It has readability in all its parts and it has good harmony. Nothing overpowers anything else. It’s easy on the eyes and still informative for the consumer. Grade: exceptional.

Design fundamentals say that there should be a dominant portion in any good design, followed by the subordinate partners in that design, to have a good working flow of attention and overall design feel. But in the real world of practical design—where readability and product recognition are paramount, you can’t have the consumer search the package for what he/she is actually buying. You can’t stuff that information into a small panel with thin or non-contrasting type explaining what it is.

It’s a matter of balance. Show everything you need to show, just don’t have any parts shout their importance while crowding out everything else. Try to look at it with consumer’s eyes. After all, you are one.