Package design goes dirty

Steven Heller has a new piece on the AIGA site where he begins to discuss aesthetic trends in the design work of this first decade of the 21st century. He calls it “The Decade of Dirty Design”. This movement is creating some intriguing work, as shown at left, that is very different from the bland brands I wrote about last week.

His general point, made in a much more eloquent fashion than I am capable, is that as the decade progressed the momentum increased to reject the computer as the sole source for generating our design work. Influences like hand rendered typography, crudely sketched illustration, and the use of letterpress printing all seemed to take on added visibility. Much like the slow but steady increase in the use of the vinyl record recently. This seems to reflect the interest in a return to a pre-digital, messier, and arguably more authentic, or at least a more analog, approach to craftsmanship.

His point seems to have real validity, especially for designers who came of age during this decade. Look through the student work on sites like and I think you’ll see a significant amount of “dirty” work. An interesting cultural shift for designers who, as a group, have never known a time when the computer was not the indispensable assembly, if not generative, tool of their profession.

In the research I have done for this blog on the package design history of the last century, it is evident that most aesthetic trends influencing the look of consumer package design seem to lag other forms of design media by a significant period of time. This is most certainly true for larger brands. There would seem to be many reasons for this, most importantly the appropriate use of a longer term view on the use of design elements incorporated into retail brand identity and package design.

Stated simply, when the stakes are extremely high and when the time horizons are very long term, as they tend to be with many global brands, design innovation and the use of the latest design aesthetic, for its own sake, is less likely to occur.

The notable exception to this is smaller brands in some specific categories. And here Steven Heller’s observations about the “dirty” trend in design certainly applies. It would be interesting to review where this creativity/innovation dividing line occurs, and what motivates it.

My sense is that the use of contemporary design aesthetics, as a major influence in retail brand design and packaging, may depend on a number of things including,

• The brand’s product category
• The age or other demographic characteristic of the consumer
• The size of the brand
• Whether this is a core product or promotional package
• Whether this is a new or existing product
• The design characteristics of category competition
• The design aesthetic of the retailer

In the few wonderful examples shown above, it is evident that some brand marketers are more willing than others to look at design approaches that reflect a current visual aesthetic.

And I would agree with Steven Heller, for some lately this means going dirty.


The images are from the site


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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