Alexandra Lange | Essays

What Should Food Look Like?

Brooklyn Fare packaging: Mucca Design (via Eat Me Daily)

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? 

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.

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.

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).

Baby Carrots packaging: Crispin Porter + Bogusky (via Consumed)

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.

Late July packaging, with hand-lettered type: Louise Fili Ltd.

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 packaging.

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?

Grand Union packaging: Milton Glaser Inc. (via Container List)

The present-day version of Glaser's generics is only sold in Canada: No Name packaging for Loblaw, the nation's largest food distributor.

No Name packaging: Don Watt for Loblaw Companies Ltd. (via GOOD)

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?

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business

Comments [17]

A tricky subject to navigate, for sure. These are great questions to ask, especially of the Design Observer/GOOD community. Thanks for the provocation.

Re packaging food to look affordable makes foods less profitable, so there would have to be some legal intervention on design, or product distribution. Banning luxury items from certain markets designed for a specific income bracket, and regulating design by testing foods to see if they're living up to their graphic design counterparts might be a start.

Interesting questions. Sometimes I wonder if we give design too much credit for power it has over our lives. It may also be true that we're asking the wrong questions about solving the obesity problem and are just chasing symptoms instead of presenting opportunities for a better, healthy life in genuine community. Design has a role in all of this but I'm not sure what it is yet. Thanks for asking the questions.
Clayton Borah

Affordable does not always equal lower profits. All retailers know that lower prices (even on same-quality, or better-quality items) drive higher volume and result in more profit, not less. This is the strategy employed most successfully by stores such as Wal Mart and Target, but you see it across the retail spectrum from Mass to Class, High to Low.
Bill G

As Clayton Borah stated very well, this article is asking the right questions. I think Burger King puts their kid's meal apples in a french fries-like paper container, which makes them seem more cool to kids. McDonald's apples come in plastic baggie. Very uncool.
John Mindiola III

Back in the late 70s the Bumble Bee Tuna can was given pinstripes. That, to me, was the beginning of a transition from design for the "masses" to design for the "classes."

Pinstripes, however, did not catch-on with other more expensive, canned in olive oil products. The more upscale canned tunas look more like they just came off the boat from Italy - old fashioned and vernacular. (And it tastes better than Bumble Bee.)
Steve Heller

Incredibly thoughtful article with an awesomely unique point of view. You're definitely asking some great questions here. I participated in that glass house conversation, and have to admit that I've been thinking about the topic ever since and my point of view has evolved since that discussion.

I still think defining 'healthy' can be a tricky endeavor, and plays a big role in attempts to overcome the obesity epidemic and encourage people to have better eating habits.

I also wonder what neutralizing 'upscale' (organic, etc.) food branding would do to the typical American grocery store landscape. There are so many choices when it comes to grocery shopping, and packaging often plays a pivotal role in decision making. How would consumers deal with an aisle of snacks that look a lot alike? Would the 'average Joe' be upset to get home and realize he accidentally bought the organic saltines, or be delighted to find that they actually taste better?

Are you familiar with Wal-Mart's generic packaging? I'm not sure who designed it, but I actually think its brilliant and a good model for food packaging in general.

Thanks for continuing this conversation! It is certainly a valuable one.
Carly Hagins

These are good questions, but please consider the advantage of segmenting the consuming masses. Advertisers in a capitalist system aren't interested in your ideals, they're interested in selling goods. More products to market to a variety of consumers means more profits. This is the WHOLE POINT of packaging--to differentiate products from one another and to take advantage of the emotional reasons we make purchases, especially food purchases.

You claim that in Rick's Picks packaging, "type rather than illustration dominates." have another look. See the clear jars? FOOD rather than packaging dominates. Packaging has been minimized in this case. Why? For class reasons--these products are designed to appeal to patrons of farmer's markets, and those who place taste & naturally sourced foods over branding & packaging. Who are these people? Foodies. Are they elitist? Our current culture says yes. And the price point of these products demands that they are.

My point is that moving away from class is impossible with design alone. Apples aren't packaged. In fact, most healthy foods aren't. I would never trust "that tricky cultural shift" to marketers. The question I would ask is what role can designers play outside of packaging? Can we influence habits that surround eating before people even enter the supermarket?


Very interesting article, thank you! IMHO it demonstrates how extreme marketing of food (and not necessarily the market for food) has become. I would, however, say that the packaging in question is of 'edible industrial product' and not of food, there is a difference. Good food or good healthy food does not require designer packaging or tricks or any additional imagery to sell!
Mayank B

While I recognize the intent of the article, I find it difficult to comprehend the argument being made or even the fundamental question being asked. There are so many questions, and assumptions about class and nutrition and buying habits, that I'm not sure how I should respond.

Are there healthy items with organic local pedigrees that have classy packaging and low price points? Yes. Fairway sells these.

Overall, I think NYC food culture has a terribly skewed perspective, and a distorted perception, of what food is, does and represents. Brooklyn Fare is only a few neighborhoods away from a food dessert. The problems are on both sides of the class divide here.
Nate B

Thank you for this article! Perhaps the most intriguing of the various points you've made is how packaging truly impacts how we view food, especially when it is the same product, but shown differently: "all the salt, none of the pesticides" sums it up perfectly! This is an ethical issue that designers and food manufacturers should consider.

Wow, great article and discussion. It's always interesting that we, as designers, are presumed to have such great power over our culture and consumers in general. And, as Spiderman found out, with great power comes great responsibility. However, sometimes I feel that we give ourselves too much credit for our ability to control and direct consumers who despite of all the information we still reach for the pack of cigarettes, the bottle of Jack, the bag of chips or the high fructose corn syrup laden package of cookies - no matter what they look like.
David Kendall

Would love to see Alexandra Lange explore other questions like:
— Who should own land, agriculture, seeds, food and industrially processed edibles?
— Who should have the right to prepare food and sell edibles?
— What should food and edibles cost?

These are questions about power, agency and responsibility; these are ethical questions. These are important questions that impact how we not only view food, but how we access it, distribute it, relate to it, perceive it and consume it.

Interesting, and I think the kind of faux-rustic or minimal type-dominant packaging you dicuss to actually sends a strong message about (high) price. A jar of Rick's Picks from the shop up my street (in Brooklyn, of course) costs $12.
Beth Kleber

Thought provoking - thanks for that. Agree that packaging has a role as part of the equation around the populations eating habits. However it is not the role of individual producers to become part of that - each of those has to focus on packaging that accurately gives a visual reflection of their brand.

If a brand should choose to produce a product or range which, which containing hints of artisan, was positioned firmly in the mainstream then so be it - but that is an individual judgement and nothing to do with improving society. More around positioning and volume.

I have done a blog post mentioning this piece: http://biabeag.com/2011/01/22/the-role-of-design-in-artisan-food-packaging/

Keith Bohanna

The analysis seems fair and inciteful but there are already alternatives. Promoting access to these would avoid the positioning pain.

Wholesale, bulk goods and markets.

Generally, it is the food which prevails in the formats presented at these sources. Users usually know what they want; purchasing more closely parallels need. There is less packaging waste, normally less overall travel/freight waste (supplemented, too, by the effect of more home cooking,) less shelf and building energy waste and less clutter in ones life.

You may need to form a group and take a business name. You will need to be armed with appropriate containers. You could have to find something else to do with the money saved. You must allow following the brightest star to be transposed by decision making. However, with a whole lot less spin and regardless of any health benefits life is genuinely improved.

Interesting article, has me thinking. Generally I would say that design will in the end be led by the customer I.e if a product doesn't live up to expectations, then it won't be long before it stops selling. The job of the designer is to find out what the product has to offer and expose this in an interesting way that consumers remember. Saying that though, I love the thought of turning the junk food consumer mindset onto healthy products via brand, how nice to use the approach to sell junk food as a vehicle to bridge children into eating healthy food. Makes we wonder if there is a loverly little project somewhere there.

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