White Out Conditions

Ever been caught driving in a blinding snowstorm? Remember the complete loss of any sense of direction, or your location, or the feeling for what’s up and what’s down. Not a pleasant feeling.

As you walk down the aisles of many retailers these days, you are increasingly struck by that same sense of disorientation, that sense of white out conditions as defined by,

“an atmospheric condition consisting of loss of visibility and sense of distance and direction due to a uniform whiteness of a heavy cloud cover and snow-covered ground, which reflects almost all the light it receives”.

White is complicated. It is the color a bride wears on her wedding day, the color of a blank sheet of paper, ghosts, lilies, snow, and in sports it is the color normally worn by the home team. But is it really a color at all, does it have equity, and most importantly in a brand context, can it be owned? In my experience the answer is almost never.

I have a simple test for brand uniqueness. Can you cover the brand name on the front panel of a package and still recognize the brand? If you can, the package passes the test. Certainly when you see Absolut’s bottle shape, Duracell’s coppertop, Coke’s red can, or Tide’s orange bulls eye, they are instantly recognizable without the brand name.

Now please don’t start screaming about the simplicity, or perhaps even naiveté of this test. It is not meant to measure design success, just design uniqueness. A lot of really ugly solutions might pass this test. But my fear is that increasingly a lot really wonderful brands are falling victim to what I’ll call “white out conditions”, and in the process trading off uniqueness for simplicity.

In the work we have done for clients, the only brand that made a case for genuinely owning white was Johnson & Johnson First Aid products . . . bandages, tapes, and pads. The little white box, with its sterile contents, just seemed right in white. And the equity, having been carefully built by the brand since the early 20th century, made a strong case for ownership of white in the category.

What’s fascinating about this sudden blizzard of white is how fast it came upon us. It was barely 2 years ago that I was writing posts about the overwhelming complexity of retail brand design. And in just those few short months the blended colors, complex geometries, and tortured drop shadowed typography have given way to a storm of blandness that seems to have reached its peak.

As this article in Store Brand Decisions mentions, even Walmart, not necessarily known for being on the cutting edge of design aesthetics, is in the process of making changes to two of its private brands, Equate and Great Value. Both of these changes add back more color and ownable uniqueness to each brand.

I may not go as far as Christopher Durham, who at last week’s My Private Brand conference announced the death of white, but I do think designers are becoming aware of its limitations in developing unique brand value.

And because brand value is what most of our clients hire us to build, and because brand value starts with recognizable symbols of uniqueness, designers are becoming more sensitive to the reports of the consumer disorientation that these white out conditions have created.


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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