Restraint in a Box: It's Taaaasteful!
Saturday, August 26, 2006
For a half-century, the cereal aisles of supermarkets have been stacked high with screaming, crayon-bright packages that defy not only sunglasses but also the best practices of contemporary graphic design.
Despite the success of design-driven brands such as Apple, Target and Starbucks, the amusement park of Mini-Swirlz and Cookie Crisps has remained immune to the clean, serene signage of modern life. Kellogg's continues to let its bilious yellow boxes of Corn Pops explode in a bizarre, '50s-style pow of crimson lettering, and packages of Reese's Puffs are so garish they could hold their own on the Las Vegas Strip.
Generations of Americans have been subjected to this cardboard jumble in the store, and at home, the cereal box has persisted as a breakfast-time billboard. But a good billboard is a terrible thing to waste.
So it's a great relief to see a major design upgrade on the shelves at Safeway. Its new house brand, O Organics, comes in a package so gorgeously restrained that it looks like a mistake. The box has no movie-land pirates to wow kids and no promises of weight loss for expanding boomers. There's a photo of flakes in a simple white bowl. The only pitch -- the word "organic" -- is writ large under a thin blue "O"; for backdrop, a delicious ribbon of color flows from tangerine to lime.
Brian Dowling, spokesman for O Organics, declined to explain the low-key approach for the brand, which debuted this past spring in products throughout the store. He would say, though, that preliminary feedback has been good.
"The boxes are beautiful," said Marion Nestle, nutrition expert and author of "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health" (2002) and "What to Eat" (2006), who spotted them in New York.
A longtime observer of the genre, Nestle described cereal packaging as "food marketing at its most aggressive and vanguardish." Nestle, who teaches at New York University, knew of no academic studies supporting a link between design and sugar content, but she has her own way of relating the two.
"I advise people to buy cereal in really dull packages on the top shelf," Nestle said. " If you want a healthy cereal, you pick one that is very subdued."
"It's a race to the bottom," complained Michael Bierut, a graphic designer with the international design firm Pentagram.
Bierut likens the cereal box zeitgeist to tabloid magazine covers. In both cases, "these people would claim to be competing for eyeballs," he said. "Their idea is that the only way to prevail is to make it bigger, to scream louder."
The potential for eyestrain is worse with cereal than with toothpaste -- another category in graphic distress -- because cereal boxes find their way right onto the breakfast table.