Popular Science, June, 1956.
In 1933, just three months after the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 13 folding-carton manufacturers met in Washington DC to organize objectives and clarify for their constituents a proposed Code of Fair Competition, providing for 40-hour work weeks, a minimum wage of 40-cents per hour for men in the North (35-cents in the South) and 5-cents per hour for women.
The Folding Paper Box Association of America would go on to influence more than just packaging regulations: a half-century before the Poynter Institute would claim authorship for its allegedly revolutionary Eye-Trac research, the FPBAA was already tracking viewers' visual responses to packaging.
Applied Science Laboratories Eye-Trac 6 System, 2006.
To be fair, the Poynter studies were significant because they targeted news rather than product consumption. Yet both studies, requiring cumbersome headgear and coordinated technologies, operated on a really simple premise: detecting where the eyes go, and what happens next. Pretty basic, when you get right down to it: the eyes as a barometer of consumption patterns.
Designers, of course, have always known this.
Years ago, before he experienced a sort of pedagogical epiphany (and looked to more principles-based approaches in his teaching), Paul Rand assigned projects based on the commercial culture within which he was deeply and professionally engaged: it was not uncommon, in those early days at Yale, for Rand to ask his students to redesign chewing-gum packaging, cigar boxes and boxes of soap flakes.
Christopher Pullman, packages of DUZ Soap Flakes,1965.
By the early 1970s, Rand had abandoned these commercial exercises in the studio at Yale, but the act of evaluating packaging in situ has long remained a viable method for designers seeking more comprehensive and indeed, critical insights with regard to visual product placement.
Do scientific investigations impact upon such methods? At one extreme, this is precisely the goal of focus group testing and market research. (Two things, by the way, that Rand absolutely deplored.) At the other extreme, the notion of trying to quantify response mechanisms, while worthy of the occasional fantasy, is in the manner of, say, Rube Goldberg simply preposterous. Sure: what designer, or marketing executive, or capitalist client wouldn't salivate at the thought of knowing exactly what to produce, to spoon-feed a target audience into blissful, brainwashed complacency? Or is this the artificially sanitized world of the mad scientist a world where the visual reaction, like the mind itself, is unduly monitored?
In the "be careful what you wish for" department, the whole idea of audience measurement has always fascinated me, because it is about as close to science fiction as the design disciplines are likely to get. Not that I am a science-fiction fan far from it, in fact. But every time I see tools of surveillance masquerading as advances in engineering, I shudder. With webcams and their progeny infiltrating every aspect of contemporary culture, it shouldn't be so hard to figure out the traceable habits of modern consumers, but every couple of years, someone comes along with an ersatz helmet filled with wires and tells us it can be done.
Inventing the Lobotomy, date unknown.
As for The Folding Paper Box Association of America. they later merged with the Institute of Better Packaging, founded in 1929: by the late 1960s, both were folded into an umbrella group known as the Paperboard Packaging Council, which to this day remains an active industry advocate for all things packaging-related just as the Poynter Institute remains a key institution for all that is connected to journalism. Clearly, the world needs better, more environmentally-sound containers just as it needs better, more visually extraordinary packaging, or better, more accurate news coverage. Meanwhile, there is no question that there are more profound discoveries to be made at the nexus of design and science, within which the study of eye movements (and by conjecture, of consumer habits) may well play a part. As to why this lust for more accurate barometers of vision remains such a core fascination, one wonders: has the design community failed to communicate to the larger population that attracting viewers' eyes is simply what we are trained to do?