But how does it work?

Last Thursday an internet shopper, searching for Wright’s Copper Cream, stumbled, obviously by accident, upon our Design Talk post Which polish would you buy? and afterward fired off the following exasperated letter . . .

“Really? You’re blazing past the obvious question, which is, which polish works better? That’s all I want to know — I don’t care about the packaging. I just used some of the Wright’s silver polish — in a brown squeeze bottle — very inconvenient — but the product worked. So I’m shopping for their copper cream in a retail store, because their website isn’t working, which led me to this bizarre site discussing packaging — as opposed to whether the product actually works. If I like a product, I’ll switch it into another container, if the original container is inefficient or clumsy. But I suppose there are many weak-minded individuals out there who make purchases based on colors, shapes, supposed subliminal triggers; as P.T. Barnum said, there’s a sucker born every minute . . .”


He probably wouldn’t have been more disoriented if he’d just fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole! So I replied as follows . . .

“Well, that must have been frustrating, landing here when all you’re looking for is a place to buy some polish and maybe read a decent review or two.

“I can explain.

“Before & After is a graphic design site, and we’re discussing packaging because, well, we design packaging (and other things). It’s about a $100 billion industry that affects almost literally everything you touch.

“As for weak-minded individuals and suckers, well yes, there are some. But try this: next time you’re at the supermarket shopping for a product with which you are unfamiliar — a salsa, let’s say — pay attention to how you interact with the packaging; which label or name or shape or color you reach for first, and why — and why you choose to buy this one instead of that one. Sometimes it’s pure price, but not often. If you have no experience with the product, you’ll be looking for clues in the packaging, in the name, something that gives one jar an edge over the others.

“Or try it in the beer aisle. Which of those 30 boutique beers do you reach for, given no outside information? The package design is going to be a factor.

Corvette-tingray“You may buy a new car for its mileage or financing terms, but how it looks (and feels) is huge. Chevy introduced a brand-new Corvette a few months ago — a ground-up redesign — and never mind that this may be the most technically advanced car Detroit’s ever put on the road, most of of the comments were about — guess what? — how it looks.

“Anyway, all this to say that design — how the package looks — plays a big role in our lives, whether we’re conscious of it or not. We’re all attracted to beauty and repelled by ugliness, and, given a choice, we’ll choose the beautiful thing.”

Dear readers, you know that good design goes beyond surface aesthetics into the look, feel, and function of a thing. When it’s right, it feels obvious, intuitive, whole, as though there could be no other solution. When it’s not quite right, there’s a vague dissatisfaction that we will often live with (and ignore) but work around. This applies to your pages, logos, and other graphics, as well as physical products.

iOS7SmApple, famous for getting design right, Monday revealed its new iOS 7 operating system. Notable is the new (to Apple) “flat” user interface. Be sure to watch the video for some insights from designer Jonathan Ive. One quote:

“There is a profound and enduring beauty in simplicity, in clarity, in efficiency. True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter and ornamentation — it’s about bringing order to complexity.”

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29 Responses to But how does it work?

  1. Todd Young says:

    What I find really interesting is how much effort that person went through . . .

    Most people, I’d think, while hunting for something on the internet and stumbling across a link that obviously isn’t what they’re looking for just move on.

    This person stumbled, then got up and took the time to not only read enough of the discussion to become emotional about it, he took even more time out of his hunt to find his way down and enter in all of his information in order to leave a reply.

    See, now, to me that’s moving beyond the field of design and into Fine Art . . . lol . . .

    Provoking a response from passersby . . . well done!

  2. Pixelologist says:

    You did a wonderful job, as always, of explaining the impact of design and why we’re passionate about it. But this fellow’s point is also worth keeping in mind: many consumers don’t (consciously, at least) care. I’m guessing this gentleman wasn’t satisfied with your patient explanation, am I right?

  3. Linda says:

    I’ve been a graphic designer for thirty years. I think you were far overboard in explaining your point about package design to a frustrated consumer. You didn’t have to be so verbose, and you didn’t have to mention Apple! Are you on their payroll? Jeez! I was tired of reading your reply in the first paragraph.

  4. Steve Kelley says:

    If the author of the grumpy rant really believes substance trumps packaging, I suggest he take a close look at our elected officials.

  5. Paul says:

    That was entertaining. Did the fellow respond to your reply?

  6. That comment was entertaining. This part made me laugh — “Really? You’re blazing past the obvious question, which is, which polish works better? That’s all I want to know — I don’t care about the packaging.” After which, he mentioned something about weak-minded people. John, your response was spectacular! I see where you proceeded to educate and then discipline quietly with the statement — “We’re all attracted to beauty and repelled by ugliness, and, given a choice, we’ll choose the beautiful thing.”

  7. Basil says:

    Loved your response. Very well handled.

  8. Fred says:

    I am a graphic designer, and I agree with the person who made the comments. Sorry folks, but a more highly educated and savvy public reads labels and makes better choices in their buying these days, much more so than by just being influenced by shelf dressing. A public who is, in our economic times, more concerned about saving money doesn’t give a hoot about package design. We need to pay attention to people who are better consumers, not brush them aside with trite designer retorts.

  9. Dora says:

    John, your answer to this person was absolute perfection! You were very persuasive, yet kind, courteous, respectful and friendly — without the least hint of condescension. This letter could be a template for how to communicate with a, shall we say, “hostile” recipient. Thank you for posting this. We can all learn from it. I’d be very curious to know if and how the person responded.

  10. Bill says:

    Frankly, I think his post was awesome. Designers should not be insulted by his remarks at all, nor do I think we should try to “educate” him. He wrote a brutally honest assessment of how he feels about packaging. That’s all. Good for him.

    There is a great lesson here. Packaging (design) is not skin deep in the eye of the beholder; it is the whole product. It is not just how it looks, but how serves their needs. Plain and simple.

    Good design requires a deep understanding of the end user. This guy did us a favor; learn from it or not.

  11. Shelley says:

    You are an amazing artist and passionate person about your work, very willing to share and educate others. I finally found you last week, after searching for years at a local community college where I learned most of the Adobe products. Your eye for beauty is “SO FINE,” and most of us just don’t have it. I’m looking forward to learning from you.

  12. Bjarne Dahlin says:

    Well, a good mix of each side, I like that.

    I do take Fred’s side in that functionality trumps looks!

    Yes, design makes us look at a certain product first, but letting only design rule what product I’m taking out from the store is not true, and nothing to strive for. Some are blinded by peer pressure and buy whatever fashion tells us “is in,” but enough smart people buy “what works,” and that takes evolution forward. Imagine awesome cars that don’t work great but they “do look great!” How safe would that be on the highway?

    Design and functionality have to be present for a product to be great, but don’t get big-headed over design only. It’s just part of “the whole.”

  13. Russell says:

    Very interesting stuff. I liked John’s response and Bill’s comment. Further, although I have no data to support the argument, I tend to agree with Fred’s comment that people are beginning to read labels and inform themselves more today.

    However, the most interesting part of the post for me is its title: But how does it work? It misled me completely.

    I was expecting to read something about, perhaps, how design might help explain how to use something, or the method a product employs to achieve a desired outcome for a consumer. But our friend the Internet shopper was not discussing how the polish works; he was discussing how effective it is.

    This is certainly not a criticism of the article, nor of John as its author. I just think it raises and interesting issue about communicating messages, which for me is the essential role of design.

  14. Leilani says:

    I learned from John McWade (via B&A magazine) about 15 years ago that the whole point of good design is to just be there, not to necessarily be noticed. That no matter how good a product is, you can’t sell it if the person won’t even pick it up to look further. That’s what I’ve always taken to heart.

    With a vast array of different brands of the same product in, for example, the grocery store, if it’s not something I’m already familiar with I’ll start picking up packages to read the specifics before I buy. But in such a case, the FIRST one I pick up will be the one that I find most appealing. Maybe that’s not the one I buy, but at least the packaging got me to check it out.

    I found it interesting that the letter writer took time to gripe about a discussion among designers that he stumbled upon, when he was sort of complaining that John, et al., had wasted his time by talking about something he’s not interested in. I think John’s response was well-considered and polite. More than the letter writer wanted, most likely, but not without merit.

  15. Dora says:

    Very well put, Leilani. I’d just add that how well a product works can be determined only after the purchase has been made! But what influences that initial impulse to reach for one product over another? Before they’ve had a chance to read the back label, before they’ve had a chance to evaluate the product’s performance, something about that product must grab and engage the shopper. And that something has to be the package design, because at that point, there’s not much else to go on.

  16. Mats says:

    Good points on each side!

    I’d like to add that the product’s promises should match its actual capabilities. If the real use of a product can’t match my expectations (which have been created by its design, packaging, back label info, adverts etc. before the purchase), I’m gonna be disappointed and won’t be buying it again. Both belong together.

    Only then you will have a long-term successful brand.

  17. Patrick Saad says:

    Thumbs up

  18. Paul says:

    If the guy doesn’t care about the outward appearance, why would he bother to polish his copper? Surely he must see the irony in his assertion that the appearance of a product used to improve the appearance of another product doesn’t matter.

    • Kerry says:

      Ha ha. So true. Why even dress appropriately for a job interview when it’s “what’s inside that matters?”

      Although what’s inside does matter, it only matters after the first few seconds of introduction. The same for any product or service.

  19. Will says:

    Maybe if we package everything in a brown paper bag and label it “THIS ONE WORKS THE BEST” it will make it easier to choose a product … Maybe NOT

  20. Arbi A. says:

    Packaging design is a huge industry and plays a very different role when it comes to an online presence.

    For example, when you’re shopping on Amazon, you don’t see the package the product comes in (exceptions are software/movies), but the actual product. But, packaging still plays a role when the person receives it in the mail. It can either give confidence to the consumer or take it away as they are opening their package. If the packaging sucks and looks very ‘no name’, it could lower expectations (in some people) of its longevity and/or functionality. But it’s also true that a nice package doesn’t make a nice product. In which case, the manufacturer better have good customer support.

  21. There’s definitely more than one side to this story and there are some great comments here. I guess I agree with both the commenter and with John’s reply.

    I agree that customers are getting more savvy about looking past packaging to the quality and design of the product inside. I’ve seen plenty of well-designed products imprisoned in poorly-designed packaging. And I’ve seen great packaging conceal less worthy products.

    As designers, our job should be to help customers understand the product inside and present it in a way that will resonate with them. This goes for all commercial design. Sometimes “beautiful” will do it. But usually you need more. My own experience as a purchaser tells me it’s more the “right amount” of package attractiveness combined with the right amount of product information. I have often put a beautiful package back on the shelf because it didn’t say anything to me about what was inside. That can be the client’s fault or it can be a lack of understanding on the part of the designer.

    In today’s stores where you’re often confronted with a sea of choices for just about any product, the attractive package may grab that initial attention. But, that may not be enough to make the sale, and the package that understands what the customer needs to know may do a better job of helping the customer make their decision.

  22. Gurmesh says:

    Hi John,

    I re-read your polish article again, and a lot of the comments were about tub vs tube, ie, the physical design of the packaging instead of the graphic design.

    As an industrial designer I understand that both go hand in hand, but it would still be interesting to see if both designs were mocked up as tubs which ‘brand’ would be more successful.

    I suspect Wrights might still be the most popular.

  23. Kerry says:

    Quick: Who would you interview to watch your kids? The well-dressed and well spoken person, or the weirdly-dressed person who looks like a pervert?

    Every so often I get a flyer stuffed in my door for someone who wants to clean my gutters, do household cleaning, or something. When I am in need of that specific service, I might take the time to read the literature, even if it is poorly designed. I may even hire the company if they seem good.

    But if I don’t know if they are good or not, the design says a lot about the business. It says that they don’t care enough about their service to introduce it to me appropriately. When another similar business offering a similar quality but has a well-designed flyer, I would chose that service over the other because they are communicating their value to me, their care, and their trust-worthiness.

  24. Richard says:

    Great post and great reply, John! You handled it very well.

    I thought it was very interesting that the internet shopper commented, “But I suppose there are many weak-minded individuals out there who make purchases based on colors, shapes, supposed subliminal triggers.” But the same internet shopper said, “I’ll switch it into another container, if the original container is inefficient or clumsy.”

    At some point I would surmise that this same shopper made a choice on which container to buy based on its DESIG” and was most likely attracted to that container by the DESIGN of its packaging.

    I hope the internet shopper does not feel like a weak-minded individual when he reads this post but an individual who is now informed.

  25. I had to be slightly amused by your response, John. True enough, in most cases (and advertisers spend megabucks on test-marketing to find the most effective packaging, because it does influence purchase so much), but me? If it’s something I’m not familiar with in the supermarket, I check the ingredients list with two rules of thumb in mind: 1) shorter is better; and 2) anything with chemical names I can’t pronounce, far less know the meaning of, is not likely to be a Good Thing. Then I compare prices. Provided the packaging isn’t actively repellent I don’t pay other than professional (typography, use of color, composition) attention to it.

    There are plenty of highly successful exceptions to “given a choice, we’ll choose the beautiful thing,” as anyone who shops Trader Joe’s in preference to [insert slick supermarket chain name here] knows.

    • John McWade says:

      Of course, at Trader Joe’s we’re not given a choice! We buy what they have. Perhaps beautiful was the wrong word. Sometimes brown-bag organic is the perfect look. But ugly? Not if we — or at least I — can avoid it.

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