Scarlett Johansson in matte finish

One of the most important themes in package design circles these days is the notion of simplicity. Nothing new about this really, and I have written about it several times previously. Including in one of my most popular early posts on the throwback Trix cereal package.

Just doing enough and nothing more. For package designers, who typically have only a few seconds to control consumer response at the shelf, this is one of the most important, and mysterious, elements in creating successful retail brands.

But it would appear that all forms of expression struggle with the notion of simplicity, be they drama, design, or technology. I have found 3 examples that might help clarify my thoughts.

Scarlett Johansson in matte finish
The first is spoken of in a beautifully rendered piece of copy from the Ben Brantley review, in The New York Times today, of a new production of an Arthur Miller classic,

“What’s extraordinary about Gregory Mosher’s beautifully observed production of “A View From the Bridge” is how ordinary most of it feels. Very little in this revival of Arthur Miller’s kitchen-sink drama with knives.  .  calls loudly for our consideration. Voices are often kept to a just audible murmur, and the Hollywood sheen of the show’s big-name stars, Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson, has been dimmed to a matte finish.”

His point of course is that even with this cast, so capable of overpowering any scene, the Director has chosen to communicate through simplicity instead of volume, and grace instead of false intricacy. The other point worth noting is the ability of these superstars in this production to give homage to the play. Become a vehicle for its success rather than having it become a vehicle for their egos. Though some of the most incompetent designers seem to get all the headlines, this is something that a few of the most proficient and modest “superstar firms” are really, really capable of these days. As Brantley says later in his review,

“In recent years Broadway’s stages have been littered with dim performances from bright screen stars, including Julia Roberts and Katie Holmes. Film actresses as famous as Ms. Johansson tend to create their own discomfort zones onstage, defined by the mixed expectations of fans and skeptics. I was definitely aware of that zone when I saw Keira Knightley in “The Misanthrope” in London recently.

By comparison, Ms. Johansson melts into her character so thoroughly that her nimbus of celebrity disappears.”

Bob Noorda’s New York subway signs
Early in Steven Heller’s obituary on the recent passing of Bob Noorda he talks about the approach that symbolized much of his life’s work,

“Don’t bore the public with mysterious designs,” Mr. Noorda once said, and he put that dictum into practice. He was a master of spare, elegant and logical designs that caught the eye, from minimalist corporate logos for the Italian publishing house Feltrinelli and the ENI Group of Milan to impressionistic posters for Pirelli, the Italian tire maker.”

But it was Noorda’s 1966 signage design system for the New York’s subway, created with Massimo Vignelli, that best represents the notion of simplicity. He, and the now classic graphics of that system, brought order to the rush and clatter of the underground visual chaos of tunnels, hallways, platforms, and stairwells that make up the subway system.

And although this was clearly not the intent of a system meant to help guide you though this maze, the use of straightforward Helvetica typography, a limited color palette, and simple geometric shapes, all created a marvelous counterpoint to the early 20th century decorative motifs of tile and mosaic archways and tunnels of the subway platforms. And made wayfinding all that much easier.

The World Economic Forum and the digital water tap
Alice Rawsthorn has a great piece in the Times today in which she bemoans the ever increasing level of complexity in the everyday objects, from water taps, and TVs, to very overly complex Bugatti espresso machines. And she mentions that apparently this has even begun to be noticed by some pretty senior folks at this weeks World Economic Forum in Davos. As she says,

“The problem is that we’re at a particular stage of the design cycle when so many “innovations” are spurious, that the risk of them over-complicating our lives is scarily high. There’s no excuse for this, not least because qualities like “clarity” and “simplicity” loom large in almost every design doctrine.

“Clarity” tops the list of the key principles of design thinking identified by the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council. One of the sessions at the Forum’s annual meeting this week in Davos, Switzerland, will explore how those principles can help to tackle urgent social, economic and environmental problems.”

So simplicity seems to be relevant whether it involves overplaying a role on Broadway, finding simple solutions to subway signs, or an insanely over designed espresso machine.

Perhaps one approach to all of this is best reflected by the way Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson apparently approach Arthur Miller and their audience. Letting everything in their experience and intuition help them be the intermediary, in their own unique way, to communicating the brilliance of the playwright to a willing and receptive audience.

Isn’t that really what the best package designers do? Design, in their own unique way, the vehicle that communicates and contains our client’s best ideas for willing and receptive consumers. Nothing more, nothing less!

Acknowlegments,

The subway sign image above are from the Noorda Design Studio

The image from “A View From The Bridge” is by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times

The image of the Espresso machine is from Casa Bugatti

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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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