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Rooibos tea and graphic design’s value

2013 January 22

A few years ago I started drinking rooibos tea, i.e. red tea. After trying out a box of “green” red tea—which was good if expensive—I settled on Twinings as my brand of choice. Mainly because it’s available locally without much hunting around, plus I’m familiar with Twinings (when I drink black tea, their Irish Breakfast Tea is a favorite), and their rooibos offering has proven entirely satisfactory.

But, even if it wasn’t a primary factor in my choice, I believe their packaging has added considerably to the experience of the afternoon or evening brew:

Old Twinings rooibos packaging (with new tea bag at lower right)

Old Twinings rooibos packaging (with new tea bag at lower right)

I love this packaging. What a joy for the senses—and I do mean the plural because I believe imagery this rich really does transport one and at least tease the senses beyond just sight. I have never been to Africa, but when I look at this box, that endless veldt stretching out in the sunset glow is real to me. In this packaging, Twinings’ red tea is not just a hot beverage, it’s a brief little time out to voyage far from my ordinary and tired surroundings.

And yes, I realize that I sound like a commercial laying it on way too thick, but I really do feel like this package adds value to my life… and I feel like this is an aspect of graphic design that receives too little respect.

I feel like there’s this desire, at least among the organizations that define and communicate what graphic design is, to be “important.” As I noted the other day, despite the fact that graphic design is not really a “critical” job in most cases, AIGA et al. seems to love latching on to any exception, however tangential, and waving it around for all it’s worth. They aren’t alone, either. A look at the online presence of the graphic design program at dear auld ISU (or the College’s newsletter, on those rare occasions it mentions graphic design), typically gives the impression that graphic design is not really an art but some kind of sociological science, primarily concerned with “solving problems,” usually in some kind of community service role. You know the projects I mean: a wayfinding system for a children’s hospital, an easier-to-read prescription label… If there’s any essentially decorative work at all, it’s invariably for a do-gooding nonprofit organization.

And all of this is fine and good. But it’s just a little over done. It’s like there’s this belief that we must “legitimize” graphic design by only showing off those projects that produce “real” value. Real value, moreover, as measured from a charitable action perspective; I believe that the awkwardness about graphic design’s role in advertising or packaging is probably tied up with an awkwardness about for-profit capitalism. And frankly I’m sympathetic to that, too, but I think the temptation of a “pure” graphic design in exclusive service to “higher” purposes tends to blind people to the fact that design produces real value even when it isn’t “solving a problem.”

For is there not value in beauty?

I often recall back when I was a college student in the late-90s, and the painfully earnest 1960s “First Things First Manifesto” enjoyed a brief revival amid go-go capitalist triumphalism of the post-Cold War pre-dotcom-crash boom years. (A classmate printed a copy, signed it, and turned it in with one or another project that I suppose he deemed too corporatist.) What I recall as the most intelligent commentary on this campaign, though, is a critique by Parma-born Michael Beirut, published in one of the design magazines. I also seem to recall that Beirut kind of orphaned his many good points by subsequently signing the Pledge, (oops, wrong decade, I mean the Manifesto) after becoming AIGA President. But he had good points all the same.

One above all others has stuck with me for what must be about 15 years, now: in response to the lamentation of “dog biscuit tin” as epitomizing the kind of needless, crass consumer junk on which The Best Minds of Our Generation of designers are wasted, Beirut asked, basically, “why shouldn’t the dog biscuit tin be well designed?”

I think the answer is, typically, that “there are more important things,” and I think this answer is based on multiple fallacies. First of all, while there are certainly more important things than pleasing packaging, in many and probably most cases graphic design has a marginal contribution to make toward those more important things, at best. And I think that this is difficult for many of those, frequently idealistic, within design and other creative fields to swallow. If you really want to solve hunger or poverty or child abuse, you probably ought to go into biogenetics or politics or social work. Meanwhile, yes, there are activities within a broadly-designed graphic design that can make contributions to solving “real,” “important” problems, but in truth there are at any given time relatively few of them and relatively lots, lots and lots of graphic designers.

And ultimately, if some of those graphic designers end up doing little besides “making things look pretty,” I have to say that I feel like this can be a valid and worthwhile activity, too, even if those things are advertising or packaging for for-profit goods or services. I mean, again: beauty is a worthwhile achievement, right? Why is not worthwhile in consumer goods packaging?

I can’t help thinking of the Mucha exhibit I visited last month, and how much of this great artist’s work consisted of advertising posters or (I discovered) in some cases consumer good packaging… and how this was artful, beautiful work, standing up there alongside his pure fine arts projects… and what’s more, how the commercial work probably did a lot more to circulate this artist’s beautiful, inspiring visions out in the everyday world of the general public than his paintings or pure fine art prints.

As remarkable as Mucha was, moreover, I don’t believe he’s exactly a special case here. Even if it isn’t by Mucha, a well-designed package for an everyday product can genuinely bring a little art, beauty and emotional lift into everyday life. Just as with the tea packaging with which I began this post; indeed, the reason I decided to celebrate this package is because it has been redesigned*, recently, but so pleasant is the older package’s presence in my life that I’m keeping a few of them on hand and refilling them with tea from the new boxes, so that I can keep this lovely, magical design around me for years to come.

That seems like real value in graphic design, to me.

* This redesign is a curious story, by itself. At first I assumed that it was an attempt to “re-position” the product in hopes of a bigger market, and that may well have played a role, but more recently I realized that the older package was a kind of branding anomaly among Twinings teas: the graphics followed the pattern of their “Origins” teas (e.g. Darjeeling and Lapsang Souchong) except the text on the box marked it as “origins” in some places and in others as herbal tea, for which Twingings which has a whole different look; the new package matches the established herbal tea graphic system. For what it’s worth, unless someone has managed to cultivate rooibos outside of the small South African region that afaik is its only source, both “origins” and “herbal tea” are potentially valid classifications for it. I can’t help suspecting that this could be a regarded as a design-world illustration of the adage that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” but ah, well. Despite the odd flavor of the first new-design box I opened, which seems indeed to have been a one-off anomaly, the tea itself remains the same; I have the flavor I like in the box I prefer, so I’m content.

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