What makes good product or packaging design?

The Coca-Cola bottle has been re-designed endlessly but the more it changes, the more it stays the same as its design works. So what makes good product or packaging design, asks Jonathan de Burca Butler
What makes good product or packaging design?

It seems to have been around for ever, and yet the Coca-Cola bottle never fails to look modern and fresh. The original was designed by The Root Glass Company of Indiana who received the simple brief to create a “bottle so distinct that you would recognize it if by feel in the dark or lying broken on the ground”. One hundred years after its creation in 1916, it remains unmistakable.

“The Coca Cola bottle was designed mainly to be distinctive,” says Dr. Ann Wilson, a lecturer in Visual Culture and Design History in the Media at the Cork Institute of Technology.

“Specifically they wanted it made in such a way that it would be recognisable even if the label had come off, and it would be harder for other companies to imitate.”

According to the Coca-Cola company itself the design was inspired by the shape of a cocoa bean – elongated and ribbed. The resemblance to a curvaceous female shape was only recognised later, according to Professor Wilson, but it has become part of the associations that people now make with the bottle, and by extension with the brand. The bottle has been changed many times over the years but has somehow managed to remain immediately recognisable.

“The Coke bottle has actually been redesigned so many times and really you’re looking at reiterations of the same bottle,” says design historian and Kingston University lecturer, Sorcha O’Brien. “But the changes don’t happen purely because of looks, it might be down to how they’re made or the changes of the material. At the same time, even though it’s changing you have this distinctive shape that’s associated with the brand; these iterations of the same thing. So it continues in the public consciousness, it becomes recognisable and it becomes an icon.”

The use of the term icon or iconic image is not lost on Sorcha. Back when religion dominated Western societies, saints and angels were recognised by the illiterate masses through the images associated with them. Mary Magdalene was recognisable by her jar of balm, John the Baptist would be depicted as a scruffy, bearded man who was perpetually pointing; as in ‘I’m not the saviour, it’s him’. In modern times, the silhouettes of golden arches, curvy bottles and bitten apples act in exactly the same way. When we see them we recognise them straight away.

“We are hugely influenced by colour and shape in design,” says Dr. Wilson, “How we respond to particular packaging or an advertisement depends on our personal history and experience. Good designers try to tap into social and cultural norms, so that their designs appeal to most of the targeted market, but at the same time don’t look like everything else out there.”

Kevin Keenan, Glendalough Whiskey and the bottle that depicts St Kevin with blackbird.
Kevin Keenan, Glendalough Whiskey and the bottle that depicts St Kevin with blackbird.

Kevin Keenan, Creative Director at Glendalough Distillery in Wicklow, agrees. Tapping into your customers’ conscience is key.

“When you’re designing a product or the packaging for it, the audience comes first,” he says, “The design must be rooted in a great idea that will resonate with the intended audience and the market it’s going into. At the same time, you always have to ask what will make it stand out from the other products already out there.” Creating a logo that people “get, find and remember in an instant” is another key factor in design says Kevin and not one that comes about easily.

“The idea, and the level of simplicity with which you can get it across, is what a good logo is about,” he says. “So take Glendalough for example, obviously it’s a very historical site and we could have used the iconic round tower or the unique gateway to get the feel of the product across. But when designing a spirits brand, it’s good to instill and reflect values of that brand in a way that will connect on a meaningful level with the intended audience; to share a human story with your audience is a powerful thing. To do that well, it’s better to embody and personify those values. So if you think of Johnny Walker, Jack Daniels, Captain Morgan, John Jameson, I could go on. We decided that St Kevin and his own personal challenge with the Blackbird’s eggs would symbolise what we were trying to do with Glendalough Distillery. Although there is depth in the idea and story, we wanted the logo to look as striking as possible. So it’s a simple black logo in an iconic and impactful cruciform shape, that ensures it really stands apart on crowded shelves.”

Kevin and his team took the logo one step further, creating a short movie explaining the story of St Kevin and the Glen of the Two Lakes.

“It was short and sweet,” says Kevin, “But it was well produced and it gave the logo and the product a story; a kind of provenance really. Again, it goes back to the human story.”

Another important factor in design is of course colour. An element that can have a huge effect on mood and how we respond to products. While clear bright colours often convey vibrancy and get-up-and-go, murkier colours may convey a certain calmness or earthiness.

“White has been used for detergent advertising for years,” says Dr. Wilson, “because of its cultural connotations of cleanliness and purity. Black for dark chocolate because of the chocolate’s colour, and the associations that can then be made with mystery and night-time and so on.” “Then again,” she continues, “these associations are not written in stone, and the conventions can be effectively manipulated and even turned upside down by creative designers.” And while something may look pretty enough for you to buy it the first time it has to work and feel right for you to go back.

“When you’re looking at how a designer works you’re looking at the aesthetic and how the object functions,” says Sorcha O’Brien. “You can’t really base the design purely on one or the other. You’re looking at getting a balance of the two things. Again if we take the Coca-Cola bottle, there is functionality to consider, how you hold the bottle, the ergonomics, where you grip it and even how you take the top off. Those bottles originally had the swing caps with the cork in them but they were then replaced with the frilled cap because it was easier to open them. That’s all about the functionality of the design.” At the heart of good product design is a promise. That snappy fizz that comes from removing the cap off a Coke bottle has always been associated with the promise of something refreshing, youthful and universal. Not only does Coca-Cola want you to buy its products but it also wants to ‘teach the world to sing in perfect harmony’.

When the iPod’s famous advert came out, it promised to go with the dancing silhouette wherever that silouhette wanted to go and because its design was so simple, light and portable you believed what it was telling you.

“So a lot of factors combine to determine whether any individual will respond positively or negatively to a particular design,” says Dr. Wilson. “A product or a design might remind us of a childhood experience, of a painting or film we saw or of ideas we have developed about what is sophisticated or appropriate.”

Sorcha O’Brien’s top five favourite designs

Eileen Gray Non-conformist chair, 1926: This is a fantastic asymmetric chair designed by Ireland’s best known furniture designer and architect, which is designed to allow you to sit in a relaxed manner, rather than stiffly upright. It also fits in really well with current thinking on sitting posture, which is you should be able to change your position regularly.

Traditional Irish wooden dresser, early 20th century: I have one of these dressers which I inherited from my uncle, bought by my grandparents when they got married in the 1910s. It’s currently painted cream to match my kitchen, but has several layers of paint in other colours underneath, reflecting the redecoration of my grandparents’ kitchen over time.

Hoover Constellation vacuum cleaner, 1954-75: I am working on a project about the impact of rural electrification on the Irish home and this is my favourite product from the time. It’s a spherical vacuum cleaner that looks like Sputnik, and hovers along on a set of small air jets - great for hardwood floors!

J Hill Standard ‘Naming Rain’ vases from Makers & Brothers Souvenir Project, 2015: I saw these vases at an Irish Design 2015 exhibition. They are made in Waterford using traditional crystal cutting techniques, which Scott Burnett has used to echo the different types of Irish rain.

Sugru: This isn’t strictly a product, but a material - it’s coloured self-setting rubber that you buy in little packets, designed by Irish designer Jane ni Dhulchaointigh. It’s the most useful thing ever. So far I’ve used it fix frayed laptop cables and a water butt.

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