Package Design, a leading or trailing indicator, 1950-1960

Sutnar PackagesPackage design in the decade of the 1950s, more strongly than in any previous decade, was influenced by dramatic changes in consumer lifestyles.

The post-war suburbanization, growth in families and income, the birth of national TV advertising, consolidation of consumer product companies, and the explosion of national retailers, all led to a single new development, the creation of brands to support these changes in consumer lifestyle.

During the 1950’s consumer brands and package design consolidated an important third stage in their historic evolution.

Stage One – The Retailer
During the first stage, until roughly the end of the 19th century, a package was merely the vehicle for the product in a direct hand-to-hand exchange at the store. During a time when the storeowner and the consumer often had life-long ties, the package merely acted as the physical reinforcement of the personal bond and pledge of quality between the retailer and the consumer.

Swanson TV DinnerStage Two – The Manufacturer
During the second stage, through the first half of the 20th century, the package began to take on the role of surrogate for the producer. It often depicted imagery of the manufacturer, their picture, a picture of their factory, a list of awards or honors won by the product, or testimonials by consumers. With the growth of national brands and retailers in the early 20th century, this kind of brand imagery was used as a replacement for the personal bond between a consumer and the storeowner.

Stage Three – The Brand
By the end of the 1940s, a third stage in the design of consumer packaging had become dominant. This stage was, for the first time, much more consistently focused on the communication of brand personality, not enhancing the personal reputation of the retailer as in stage one, or supporting the manufacturer as in stage two. This stage was all about the development of the brand, and was characterized by the emergence of package design with two distinct functions.

Group2The first emerging function was the communication of visual brand equity, again not the retailer’s equity or manufacturer’s equity. This went hand in hand with the rise of consumerism in the 1950s. The package became an independent communicator of its own brand personality. In this new retail environment a package was expected to build a unique personality and a value of its own.

Group1The second function was simply to attract attention. In the post-war decade large grocery retailers increased their share of market from 35% to 62% and the average number of items in the store virtually doubled from 3,000 to almost 6,000. As a result, package designers began to use a much bolder more graphic style, and approach able to quickly communicate in national TV advertising and the larger retail stores.

Group3The decade began with the formation, by my former boss Walter Margulies, of The Package Design Council in 1952. A group of about 11 prominent designers including, Egmont Arens, Alan Berni, Karl Fink, Frank Gianninoto, and Gerald Stahl were the original members. James Nash was elected its first President.

As a personal aside I was the organization’s last President in 1995 before the membership voted to merge with the AIGA.

In this post I have featured many products that were introduced in the 1950’s. While not a scientific sampling, it is clear that this work contains a certain simplicity of style. I own a copy of a marvelous book published in 1953, by Ladislav Sutnar titled Package Design: A Force For Visual Selling. Michael Bierut talks about this book in his own book Looking Closer. In reaction to this simplicity he says, “It is tempting to call designs of this era naïve. But I don’t think so. Not these designs. It would be, I think, incorrect to call Paul Rand’s Bab-o cleanser container naïve. It had a kind of knowing beatnik look. .  . The main differences between those old packages and the one we have today is style.  .  .  Technology is style.”

He is pointing out that these packages of the 1950s, at least in part, look the way they do because of the art production technology of the time. Essentially everything, except the small type, was hand-rendered, the logotypes, patterned backgrounds, illustrations, everything. The designers of the time of course used, rapidographs and ruling pens, with circle templates and triangles, not a mouse to compose their work. And of course it was all pasted up by hand. We were still 40 years away from the first Photoshop filters.

By the end of the decade even the Museum of Modern Art in New York had recognized the growing importance of package design. It mounted an exhibition called simply, The Package, in 1959. This exhibition was one in a series, curated by Mildred Constantine and Arthur Drexler, on what they called “well designed and useful objects”.

In the catalogue for the show they discussed a number of packaging issues that would continue to inspire and frustrate the consumer for the next 50 years. In fact their show was grouped into two major categories: The Disposable Package, and The Re-Usable Package. They talked about functional performance vs. esthetics, natural vs. man-made materials, and the fact that “an alarming number of packages are more elaborate and more costly than the things they contain.”

But in the final paragraph of the catalogue even the MOMA curators recognized that the package had become a vehicle for creating a brand identity with a retail role far beyond a simple vessel when they wrote “The aesthetic quality of the package, as of other artifacts, is the result of a conscious effort to organize materials and functions into clear shapes and relationships, with a due concern for their effect on the eye.”

The 1950s was a time of dramatic cultural shifts. It was the first decade where package designers began to feel all of the influences of a new consumerism, the modern media, national retailers, and a thriving economy, that would go on to shape much of the remaining 20th century.

Here is a fascinating list of just a few events that shaped the package design, and consumer product world of the 1950s.

• Alvin Lustig designs the signs and graphics for America’s first shopping malls, The Northland Center, designed by Victor Gruen
• Charles Schulz first Peanuts strip runs
• Minute Rice and Sugar Pops are introduced
• Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook among the top-selling non-fiction book
• Phototypesetting, with the Lumitype/Photon machine, is begun by Deberny & Peignot in France
• Charles Peignot hires designers to adapt existing fonts to the new technology

• Speedy Alka Seltzer is introduced
• Polaroid Land camera is introduced by Edwin Land
• The CBS eye is designed for William Golden by my friend Kurt Weihs

• The Package Design Council is started by 11 prominent designers including Walter Margulies
• First diet soda, No-Cal Ginger Ale, is introduced by Kirsch Beverages in Brooklyn
• First powdered creamer, Pream, is launched by M&R Dietetic Labs
• First tranquilizer, Reserprine, is developed
• Mrs Paul’s Frozen Fish Sticks in introduced
• Optima typeface is designed by Hermann Zapf

• Swanson Frozen Turkey Dinner introduced
• Eggo Frozen Waffles are launched
• DNA structure is discovered

Butterball Turkey
J.R.R. Tolkien publishes The Lord of The Rings, On The Waterfront premieres
The first McDonald’s store opened by Ray Kroc
Ladislav Sutnar publishes Package Design: The Force of Visual Selling

Marlboro cigarette package redesigned by Frank Gianninoto

• The Letraset Company id founded in London
• Imperial Margarine is introduced

• Ettore Sottsass Jr. begins collaboration with Olivetti
• Helvetica, originally called Neue Haas Grotesk, is designed by Eduard Hoffman and Max Miedinger for HAAS Type Foundry in Switzerland
• Univers is designed by Andrian Frutiger for Deberny & Peignot
• Mr. Clean is launched

• The Optima typeface is designed by Hermann Zapf

• Barbie is introduced
• Paul Rand design colorforms logo
• MOMA shows its first package design exhibit


The Museum of Modern Art, Vol 27, NO. 1 Fall 1959. The Package. New York. MOMA Bulletin.

Ladislav, Sutnar. 1953. Package Design: The Force of Visual Selling. New York: Arts, Inc.

Pulos, Arthur. 1988. The American Design Adventure. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Steven Heller and Elinor Pettit. 2000. Graphic Design Timeline. New York: Allworth Press.

Jankowski, Jerry. 1998. Shelf Space, Modern Package Design 1945-1965. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Barabara E. Kahn and Leigh McAlistar. 1997. Grocery Revolution, The New Focus on the Consumer. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley Longman


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.
This entry was posted in Beauty & Personal Care, Beverages, Design Criticism, Design Practice, Food, Package Design, a leading or trailing indicator, Packages Yesterday and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Package Design, a leading or trailing indicator, 1950-1960

  1. Zezi says:

    A great piece of writing and well informed.

  2. Pingback: Retailing, Manufacturing and Branding | A Trend to Brand

  3. Taha Shahid says:

    Loved your piece Sir! It’s always pleasing to know the design history from those who were the part of it! 🙂 Thanks alot.

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