When I last wrote about food and design in October for GourmetLive ("The Architecture of Food" is online here) I questioned whether design's role in the food chain had become too educational. We can redesign the food pyramid until the end of time, but if there aren't apples at the deli to be eaten, so what?
Following up in a Glass House Conversation on government's role in food design R&D hosted by Edible Geography and GOOD's Nicola Twilley, I added:
I think most kids and adults, whatever their income level, already know apples are a healthier choice. If obesity is an epidemic, don’t we want to find the way to get more people eating more apples and less French fries, rather than focusing on creating a cultural shift (trickier, definitely non-governmental) that would make apples more appealing to the majority than French fries?I cited Lisa Miller's Newsweek essay "Divided We Eat." The tagline for Miller's article was, "What Food Says About Class in America." I started to think about what food packaging says about class in America. Where you shop, and what the bag, bottle or box looks like, is as good an indicator of your class and what you think food is as any survey. Food packagers direct our buying decisions every day, and maybe that tricky cultural shift could be accomplished in the supermarket aisles.
And no, I don’t think “many people, informed of the benefits of buying locally, make the choice to search out local produce (even at a sometimes higher price)?” I don’t think it is an option for many people, particularly those most vulnerable, for reasons of time and money.
When Twilley asked me to participate in her relaunch of GOOD's Food Hub, a weeklong blogfest she branded Food for Thinkers, it was to the question of food and class, and the idea of "classiness" I see embedded in Brooklyn Fare's signboard (how often do those croissant prices change, that they have to be hand-written?) that my mind returned.
Consider the bizarre yet compelling idea of repackacing baby carrots as junk food (profiled in Rob Walker’s New York Times Magazine Consumed column).
From left to right we have overtones of sports drink, Doritos and Utz. It is not a surprising idea, more a supermarket refashioning of fast food chains' forays into healthful eating. The apple slices with caramel sauce at McDonald's. The partnership with Newman's Own dressing at same. The former parallels the baby carrot concept, making healthy food look like a mainstream, cheap, eat-me product, turning apples into French fries. The latter attempted a trickier bridge, classing up the chain by aligning with a highbrow, pseudo-vintage, good-works brand.
Newman's Own was really ahead of the curve in choosing its New England, hand-drawn theme. For a number of years upscale food has looked faux-vintage, with "handwritten" labels, 19th century revivial typefaces, and badly printed colors on purpose. Louise Fili defined the style with the design of Late July Crackers, a big brand that looks small. Like Annie's Cheddar Bunnies, bought by parents afraid of Goldfish, Late July offers organic versions of Cheez-Its, Saltines and Ritz: all the salt, none of the pesticides.
But that form of nostalgic fancy food packaging couldn't stand alone for highbrow foods once appropriated, with brown paper and free clip art, by Trader Joe's. Applied as wallpaper, as it is as TJ's, we start to see though the Victorian buggies and 1920s flappers pushing us toward the pita chips. What has replaced the charade of revival branding is what I think of as Brooklyn locavore packaging: a little bit minimal, a little bit rough. Brown paper and hand-drawn lettering still make an appearance, but type rather than illustration dominates. As do off colors. Graphite. Celadon. Cranberry.
Rick's Picks packaing is one example, the upscale supermarket Brooklyn Fare another. The latter, branded by Mucca Design, has its own typeface and a bewildering variety of cutesy slogans for a market with only one location. To shop at Brooklyn Fare is to automatically limit your class of food, and the packaging to which you will be exposed.
So we have two extremes: aggression and shine, minimalism and chalk. If we want to cross class lines, and get everyone to eat better, wouldn't it make sense to come up with packaging that was neither tacky nor classy? We need a new identity for plain, simple, grandmother-would-recognize food? Not patronizing, not upscaling. Middlebrow chips? Neutral beverages? We need supermarket aisles stocked with food, not messages about our income level.
Generic brands, as I encountered them in the 1980s, were designed to be just this. The most famous generics were Milton Glaser's for Grand Union. I don't remember encountering this striped iteration, which would be a definite improvement on all the current baby wipes. What I remember instead was clean white grid on a navy background, applied like wallpaper to an aisle of paper goods. I wonder if grids would seem as classless now?
The present-day version of Glaser's generics is only sold in Canada: No Name packaging for Loblaw, the nation's largest food distributor.
Launched in 2009, the Helvetica-on-yellow looks no more or less dated to me than Grand Union. It does look cheap, which is the part of the point of the baby carrots repackaging. If we make healthy look upscale, then the assumption is that it costs more. Like redesigning the lunch line, you have to draw people close to the healthy choices as a first step.
I'm not a designer, so I can't triangulate between these three poles, but I know there are people out there who can. What if we made hormone-free milk look as cheap as this cola? Decorated the organic beef with stripes rather than an oxcart woodcut? Wrapped real carrots (since baby ones are a dubious repackaging in themselves) in bands of energetic type? Could we make food for everyone?