To Whom is Design Accountable?

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Question of the week #16

This week’s question comes from Ganesha Balunsat. She asks, “Is it ethical for design to elevate a product?”

I could answer succinctly by saying, “Yes.” It is often design’s job to present content in as positive a light as possible. But what if—as I think this question implies—the product being presented is not worthy of elevation? What if it’s a crappy product? What if the design elevates it in a way that is…disingenuous? For those of you who are too young to remember the high-profile debate on this issue between opposing design superstars Tibor Kalman and Joe Duffy, I recommend reading Print Magazine’s redux of their confrontation. It’s a long read but, like the First Things First manifesto, it is essential design reading. At the heart of the debate is the question, to whom is design accountable? The client? The profession? The past? The ‘truth’? Both Duffy and Kalman make impassioned, mostly reasonable points over the course of the 12,000-word transcript. Kalman plays the role of uncompromising idealist to Duffy’s rational pragmatist. In one exchange, the two men battle it out over Duffy’s design for the Classico brand of pasta sauce: Kalman argues that all packaging is a lie and that Classico’s packaging is particularly duplicitous in its use of ‘fake nostalgia.’ In Kalman’s eyes, the vernacular illustration and typography represent a ‘lie’ about the origin of the product—elevating it to a place in a customer’s imagination in which it doesn’t honestly belong. What Kalman calls a ‘lie’ Duffy calls ‘communication.’ He defends his use of the vernacular as appropriately telling the product’s story; it is, after all, pasta sauce created in a variety of regional Italian styles.

classico packaging by duffy design

So, does the packaging design in this example ‘elevate’ the product unduly? In absolute terms, perhaps. It’s definitely not the small-batch, artisan-crafted homestyle pasta sauce that the traditionally-illustrated label and roughed-up type suggests (Classico is owned by Heinz). Considered this way, Classico’s primary competitor, Ragu, is a more ‘honest’ brand. It sports the kind of soulless corporate packaging that one would expect from its parent company, Unilever—maker of Axe deodorant, Q-tips and Vaseline. But does this honesty make it better design?

Ragu Packaging Design

 Though it claims “Old World Style,” Ragu makes no visual claim to an historic vernacular and, despite the gondolier illustration, the overall style is distinctly (embarrassingly) American. Ragu also boasts a greater market share than Classico, from which me may infer that it is the more effectively branded. It’s honest, but it’s also unforgivably ugly. Classico, though not my taste, is well-executed and imparts a clear story—two tenets which designers prize. It’s attractive and experiential—from its uncoated label to its Mason jar container. Duffy even claims an ethical edge because the Mason jar container is reusable (in actuality, however, it is a ‘one-trip‘ jar and not a true preserving jar). It’s pretty, but it’s also a bit of a fairy tale. So which is more ethically designed?

Häagen Dazs

 Now let’s look at a different example: Häagen Dazs. Everyone knows it’s a made up word that is absolute gibberish. The name was invented to sound Danish (and an umlaut added to make it look more Danish, even though umlauts don’t exist in Danish). Just pronouncing ‘Häagen Dazs’ invokes the rich tradition of European confectionery. When it was first started by a Polish immigrant in Bronx it was little more than a marketing ploy. Today, after being bought by Pillsbury and later General Mills, Häagen Dazs is licensed by Nestlé, a Swiss company—perhaps post-ligitimizing it’s pseudo-western-European moniker. On the other hand, long-time Häagen Dazs rival, Ben & Jerry’s has a much more homespun attitude toward their brand. Playful flavor names, nap rooms and its famous 5-1 ratio of executive-to-employee pay helped establish the brand as an independent upstart run by a couple of hippies whose names are on every carton.

Ben and Jerry's

 With its goofy type, green hills, fluffy clouds and that cute little cow, Ben & Jerry’s take an opposite, much more humble approach than their faux-Danish counterpart. In the early 80’s, when Häagen Dazs tried to prevent Ben Jerry’s from distributing in Boston, the Vermont startup fought back with it’s now famous “What’s the Doughboy Afraid Of?” campaign, a reference to Pillsbury, then the parent company of Häagen Dazs.  “We decided up front to cast ourselves in a fight against Pillsbury, not Häagen-Dazs,” wrote former Ben & Jerry’s CEO Fred Lager in his book, “Häagen-Dazs versus Ben & Jerry’s was one ice cream company against another. Pillsbury versus Ben & Jerry’s was the Fortune 500 against two hippies.” Brilliant. So here we have two brands, one with a made up name and fancy packaging designed to elevate it into a premium category. The other a folksy, hard-working, all-American brand. Except the all-American brand is owned by Anglo-Dutch conglomerate, Unilever. The same people who make Ragu. So, which is more ethically-designed?

grey poupon

And what of Grey Poupon? Though it comes from a French tradition, the brown mustard is anything but. It is made in Vermont from Canadian mustard seed. By keeping the traditional name, packaging it in smaller, tastefully-designed glass jars (as opposed to French’s plastic squeeze bottles), and marketing it in upscale food magazines, Grey Poupon famously revolutionized the condiment section of your local grocery and significantly expanded the American palate. In its latest marketing campaign, Grey Poupon—and its parent company, Kraft—have successfully positioned themselves as official purveyors of good taste. As communication design, Classico, Häagen Dazs, Ben & Jerry’s and Grey Poupon succeed on many levels. They use thoughtful choices in materials, form, scale, color and typography to form positive associations in consumers’ minds. They are appropriate to their respective markets, and successfully differentiate themselves from other, competing options. Judged by my favorite definition of design, these are all examples of ‘good design.’ But they aren’t completely honest. So, can dishonest design also be ‘good’? Can it be said to be ethical? In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m not going to give you the answer. You’re going to give it to me:

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