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Commercial Printing: Hand-Drawn Packaging Art

I remember growing up on Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” hearing that if fifty people a day came into the recruiting office and sang a bar of “Alice’s Restaurant,” the collective effect would be a movement, the “Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement.”

Well, I see another movement coming, in commercial printing and packaging. In our living room my fiancee and I now have a square corrugated box of nuts, two Chipotle cups, and the printed box for a container of Cabernet Sauvignon “House Wine.” What they all have in common is that all of them look “hand drawn,” and all are monochromatic, flexo print jobs.

I’ve already written a blog post about the humor, playful drawings, and quaint sayings on the flexo-printed nut carton, so I will focus this time on the two cups and the box of wine. I see some interesting marketing benefits inherent in this casual approach to design. I think it’s an exceptionally effective approach that rests firmly on basic principles of psychology.

Overview (the Chipotle Cups)

First the Chipotle cups. I have long been a fan of Chipotle’s design and marketing work because it engages the viewer using surprisingly sparse imagery. Like other Chipotle marketing work, these two cups rely on single-color custom printing. When I look at the ink under a 12-power loupe, I see a dark brown, almost black ink with a hint of red coloration. The halos around the perimeter of the type letterforms, with ink that is somewhat uneven and bubbly under high magnification, indicate flexographic commercial printing. But even on the exceptionally small type, this does not diminish readability. To the naked eye, everything looks crisp.

Each of the two cups includes about 25 lines of printed type. Both are entitled “Cultivating Thought, Author Series,” although the type treatment of this title differs from cup to cup. On one cup, the title is surrounded with drawings of figures, power tools, and electronic gadgets (a TV remote, a cell phone). Everyone seems somewhat stressed out, based on their expressions. They seem to be busy, perhaps overwhelmed with multiple tasks.

The text copy on this cup (written by Colson Whitehead) provides a zany, stream of consciousness glimpse of a couple whose TV is possessed. It only plays reruns of Cheers (the episodes with Diane).

The second cup has only one image, a smallish surfer on a surfboard, with all manner of words (like “creative,” “motivation,” inspiration,” and “love”) jammed together in a “tag cloud” and flowing like a cresting wave behind her. The words nestle into one another and are presented in a hand-dawn font reminiscent of 1960s posters. Their combined image forms the surfer’s wave behind her.

In a stream of consciousness form, the narrator (Sue Monk Kidd) addresses the question of what to do with her life. It’s almost like reading a diary, very personal, very intimate. The text reveals the narrator’s coming to embrace not the answers of life but the questions themselves.

What Do the Cups Say About Life, Art, Psychology, and Marketing?

I think the way to understand these cups is in the context of hand-drawn marketing items in general. Here are some thoughts:

  1. We live in an increasingly impersonal world. No one seems to even notice us, let alone care. Within that context (which goes against human nature), an informal marketing item that directly addresses the reader with a brief, interesting story, can be very compelling. It is personal and concrete in an impersonal world.
  2. Humor makes the pain and absurdity of life less oppressive. (Think back to the zaniness of 1960s movies and TV shows.)
  3. Cool, edgy text copy invites the reader into a small, exclusive group: the smart, savvy people. Everyone wants to be a part of this exclusive club. Even the Chipotle restaurant interior design, signage, and marketing collateral, as well as the restaurant logos on the cups, reinforce this message of ultimate “coolness.” Affiliation is a basic human psychological need. This tribal and casual marketing approach directly addresses this need.
  4. From the point of view of the vendor, the reader is a captive audience. Anything printed on the food packaging (cups, bags, etc.) will be read at some point, particularly if the person is eating alone. (Think about how many times you have read the cereal box while eating breakfast, when you’re not on the phone or checking emails.)
  5. Single color type and art stand out in a marketing arena (i.e., the customer’s entire field of vision) in which almost everything else is presented in full color. Marketing messages compete for your attention. Any marketing item different from all the others will stand out. Ironically, as single-color, casual marketing items become the norm (i.e, the “movement” I mentioned above), they too will cease to be visible to people.

Overview: The Box of Wine

“House Wine” seems to be the name of the company as well as the description of the contents of the box. When I was growing up, liquids came in bottles. Now they come in bags (flexible packaging) and boxes (folding cartons with flexible packaging inside).

The title “House Wine” just works. People these days embrace “utilitarian-chic.” Simple, hand-drawn line art and type give a functional appeal to this box of wine, as does the notation that one box equals four bottles or 20 glasses. People today like lots of information, specifications, details. The box includes all of these.

Again, like the Chipotle cups, the box of wine is printed in one color: black. This is not really true, although the overall look is of a one-color, low-budget job, a functional product with a functional design. It actually has a little blue ink, positioned on the doors of the house (which is the logo, “House Wine”) and the word “original” on one side of the box. The box design looks sparse, just the perfect drink for those who either love to live simply or who have no other choice.

What Does the Box Say About Life, Art, Psychology, and Marketing?

Like EF Schumacher’s book on economics, Small Is Beautiful, this box exudes simplicity in its low-impact, environmentally-conscious commercial printing. Under my loupe I can see the halos around the text and the watery looking ink (with bubbles and other irregularities) that reflects flexographic custom printing. Since the packaging is a box with gloss litho paper covering the corrugated fluting, I’m not surprised that it was printed via flexography (although the litho paper could also have been offset printed and then glued to the corrugated material).

Here are some thoughts about the overall look:

  1. As with Chipotle’s two cups, this box has a simple, casual air. I’d say it would appeal to young people on a budget who want to savor the joys of life but who may lack sufficient cash flow.
  2. These customers may also have a taste for energetic living, the irreverent, and simplicity.
  3. The design is simple and bold, easy and cheap to produce, and environmentally conscious in its appearance. I think it’s aimed directly—and quite effectively—at young urban professionals.

Overall Views

Overall, I love the approach of this product packaging (which is really marketing collateral). My only hope is that the approach doesn’t morph from a quirky and edgy experiment into a movement, and then into a commonplace style seen everywhere. It’s like the bell bottom jeans of the hippies. At the beginning they were a protest. At the end, they were a uniform.

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