Simple is hard, fussy is easy

SimpleNotWhether its mansions or tortilla chips, things have gotten a bit out of control. Refreshingly, package design is seeing some signs of change.

You can’t help but notice the overwhelming level of simplicity that is driving some package design efforts lately. And in my view its mostly a good thing. Sites like The Dieline and Lovely Package are filled with examples in all categories.

Some are great with their understated elegance (Stop & Shop’s Simply Enjoy), some are awful for their generic blandness (Tropicana).

Although the influences of this work are beginning to occasionally show up, the food and drug stores remain filled with over-rendered, complex packages.

The contrast between the elegant simplicity of some and complex decorativeness of many is stark. This same contrast was evident 60 years ago in architecture. The same level of contrast existed between Phillip Johnson’s glass house and much of the residential architecture of the 50s.

Time has given us the luxury of objectivity with mid-century architecture. We now know that simplicity alone does not create an effortless or livable space. And that straightforward materials and a sparseness of detail does not guarantee a successful structure. Johnson, Noyes, Breuer, Neutra and others often got it right. Many others using the same tools did not.

As I said simplicity is a good thing, but we should be attentive to the signs of package design simplicity run amok. Certainly the Tropicana fiasco is a warning sign for all. Simplicity for its own sake is no excuse for laziness.

Lastly, although there are certainly pieces of architecture that are brand identities, from the Eiffel Tower to Paris Las Vegas, the package has one very significant difference with architecture. It remains a retail product that must combine the functional, marketing and brand identity needs in a unique, memorable and compelling way.

The simpler a package gets the harder a designer needs to work at communicating the uniqueness and heritage of the brand. But don’t forget to have fun trying.

As Phillip Johnson once said, “I hate vacations. If you can build buildings, why sit on the beach.”


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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