Sunday 29 May 2011


What do designers think about when preparing product packaging and labelling? The cynics say that the only thing that is of interest to a manufacturer - and therefore, perhaps, the designer - is the right image of the package that will sell more and more of the particular goods being promoted. Issues like how the container looks on the shelf as a collection of ‘products’ standing in the context of the oppositions’ merchandise become important, as well as the more intimate details: the shape of the container; the feel; the colour; the graphics on it; and more. The aim, it seems, is to stand out – to catch attention - and then to reinforce agreeable feelings for the product in the customer perusing the choices available. The messages can be subliminal; some are more obvious.

What caught my eye on the bathroom shelf was an ‘ENE’ product label on the set of shampoo and conditioner packages. The supermarket choice had been made by another, so only at the detail of this brand was being perused. The containers matched, defining this pair as twins. They had a pale cream attractiveness - like vanilla ice cream - with a translucent collar that dipped to expose the edge of a black lid that could be conveniently flipped up by a thumb to reveal the opening from which the shampoo/conditioner could be extruded. It all looked so conveniently possible, even with soapy hands. The translucence of the neck was interesting. Was it to reveal the state, colour and location of the fluids inside? Did it helpfully confirm that something was there and that it was soon to be out? No. This was truly a hollow gesture. The translucence revealed merely its own void as the icing on the cake: the froth on a cappuccino – a visual attraction alone. Yes, the containers looked good and felt good. They were comfortable in the hand with their swelling shaping that fitted the contours of the palm and fingers well. The eye-catching graphics were pleasant too. These continued the swirl theme of the containers’ shape - almost like a swirl of ice cream - in brown hues that complemented the cream and suggested a drip form - soft serve? - wrapping around text that clearly proclaimed the ‘ENE’ brand, its ‘more moisture’ qualities and other properties of these products with diminishing legibility.

The containers appeared identical in form, profile and graphics apart from a couple slight differences. Each was separately labelled in a similar short stripe with rounded ends framing the words ‘SHAMPOO’ or ‘CONDITIONER’ (as appropriate) in letters about four millimetres high. These labels were not a dominant presence in the whole array of images; ‘ene’ declared its pride of place. The background of one stripe was shaded in the complementary brown making the fine pale cream, silhouetted letters difficult to perceive. The other container had the text printed in the same brown on the cream background, making it almost as difficult to read. The only other difference was the labelling of the contents. This took the form of black letters about two millimetres high that formed a fine line below the main graphic. The readability of these tiny shapes was not critical as they formed the names of unknown chemicals that looked difficult, if not impossible to pronounce. The reverse side of both containers had black masses of tinier text – where’s the magnifying glass? - that apparently gave all of the required legal labelling and some explanatory and promotional material using an anonymous graphic style - the compact, almost unreadable layout of  blurb. These are the details that manufacturers never want customers to read. It could be called the ‘reluctant’ text that is usually shaped to look nice as a set of dark blocks.
The differences between these two containers were so subtle that a quick glimpse would not differentiate between the two. It was now that one realised how the designers had been so thoughtfully clever. While the shampoo container stood vertically on a base with the dark lid at the top, the container for the conditioner stood upside down, on its black lid. One thought this was a self-conscious strategy by the way that both graphics were printed to read correctly - and to align perfectly - in this reversed orientation, but this could have been a chancy misprint. The attempt to right the conditioner container, to make it stand upright in the same manner as the shampoo plastic bottle, showed that the designers had intentionally detailed the conditioner bottle to stand on its head. The conditioner container had no base shaped to support it in the upright shampoo fashion. It just fell over with all attempts to match the shampoo’s stature.

It was now that a closer look at the form of this container revealed a very slender remodelling of the shampoo shape. This conditioner container was ever so slightly broader towards the base (now top), and marginally thinner so as to mould the curves of the body into this different rounded bottom-top. So it appeared that the designers have been thinking about the user. To differentiate between the shampoo and the conditioner containers that appeared almost identical, the designers had cleverly inverted the container holding the least viscous fluid, thus indicating the difference between the two and making the conditioner always available for the user – on demand. The frustration with thick fluids, like that experienced with some sauces, is that the container needs to be shaken and thumped repeatedly in order to extract any of the substance, and when it arrives, it usually does so in uncontrolled excess. It is a classic comic scene frequently used in slapstick sketches. It looked as though our designers were doing more than merely promoting a product for sale. They seemed to be thinking of the users.

Well, this was until the product was being used in the shower. Both containers were standing on the floor in their mirror-reversed stances when they were accidentally knocked. With soap and water in the eyes, the challenge became not only to retrieve these containers, but also to identify which was which. Trying to read the text was useless; and this was no time to reflect on the relationship of image to the container. Trying to stand each up to discover the identity was tricky. How could one be sure that the shampoo was not on its head, or that it had fallen yet again just as the conditioner was designed to do, because of any inner-liquid disturbance of its balance, if only temporarily? It became obvious that the designers had not overcome the problem that most of these sets of products have, even with their clever idea of inverting the conditioner. One needed a clear and explicit naming of these packages. Private codes used to solve a problem were simply inadequate.

The graphics, while attractive, proved to be of little use when one looked at them for information through the dripping water and the suds. The clever making of a near-matching set now seemed to benefit only the manufacturer, with customers possibly preferring the prettiness of the twin identity rather than any mismatch in ad hoc brands, therefore purchasing one of each. The thinking that went into the translucent collar seemed to pervade the whole outcome. One was left floundering, cursing the illegible texts and the near-identical twins of these products. Why could these containers not have been simply marked clearly, e.g., with a large  ‘S’ and a large ‘C’? It all looked like an ill-considered design that no one had ever tested or thought through beyond the shelf appearance.

One might note and appreciate that here the designers at least seemed to have tried to make the difference clear; but with the failure of their strategy, the containers were left in the limbo that most of these paired products suffer. Some manufacturers have tried to use different coloured tops, but remembering which is which in the minute of need can lead to the same frustration as that experienced with the inversion. What is required on all of these packages is a bold text or letter that clearly, quickly and unambiguously communicates the message of identity, rather than using a random code that has no particular rigour or role other than highlighting cleverness. Using subtle and smart ideas to indicate the different fluids in very similar containers is not going to be enough. The designers will just have to agree to allow a little more difference in their aesthetic assessments - to show more consideration for the consumer. It is not a difficult thing to resolve. It only means that the preference for the symmetry of identical twins has to go so that the frustration of the experience of using these products in the shower or elsewhere can become a thing of the past. Even if one forgets about the inverted twins falling over, just imagine trying to choose a particular container from the depths of a bathroom bag where stance has no standing.

Design, no matter of what or of what scale or type, must give thought to outcomes - and to unintended outcomes too - if it is not to become a sham. The preconception of prettiness needs to be thrown away in favour of a clear message that is not just ‘buy me.’ Designs can all look good and are able to hold very different, and sometimes contrasting ambitions in these appearances. Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder – it is confirmed in the hands of the user too, for beauty is tainted by any confusion in or problem with the outcome where function is involved. This is the challenge of all design, and of architecture in particular. It is in the most simple of circumstances that the significance of issues can be highlighted - I carry water; I wash my hair:

‘. . . while in architecture you are continually called upon to do what may be unnecessary for the sake of beauty, you are never called upon to do what is inconvenient for the sake of beauty.’
John Ruskin, Lectures on Architecture and Painting, Routledge, London, 1854, p.23: (italics in original).

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