The Good, the Bad and the Accidental


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Color is my favorite concept to consider in design. I’ve always been fascinated by the physics of light and light energy as well as the biological and chemical significance of color. In nature, color is never random. Trinidadian Guppies demonstrate evolving colors and patterns on their scales with every generation. Unwittingly, these little fish are the product of the most successfully designed fish of the previous generation. There are two major consequences of color: attraction of a mate and attraction of a predator. Too bright and the fish will be a quick snack for the Killifish far before it is able to reproduce. Too dull, and the fish will live a long but lonely life. Thus, many generations of guppies show greatest fitness among the fish who are an intermediate display of attractive spots and duller, camouflaging colors.
This delicate balance of color and pattern is the unconscious task of organisms all over our diverse planet, but it is also the goal in advertisement. The right color scheme can give a lot of power to advertisers, but strike the wrong notes and you will turn people off of your product. It’s a battle between subtlety and attention-grabbing. Your design must flaunt itself without being too garish and obnoxious, it is a delicate balance between attraction and detraction. I wonder where on earth we could have possible been inspired….
Though I could have captured the concept of color in a much more appealing or artistic capacity, I decided that I wanted to discuss this concept with a photo I captured at a grocery store. Living on the other side of the country for the summer has made being a consumer a little more exciting for a few reasons. The first one being that my pulse is a little faster simply due to the stress of how much more expensive everything is, and also because of all the regional products that are brand new to me (and yes that pun was absolutely intended). Some products, though new to me, are iconic such as In-N’-Out Burger. But others are foreign to me, their packaging catches my eye easily among the other far more familiar options.

I noticed the packaging of the pictured Yerba Mate from several aisles over and was instantly drawn to the cans. The design is very compelling, not because it is beautiful but because it is so brightly colored and to be quite frank, a little ugly. Vignelli mentions that color is representative, it holds meaning and symbolism but it is also very much entwined with appropriateness. Which made me wonder: was the color scheme of this can designed for this exact purpose of drawing me in from a far, even though I was no further enticed by what I discovered? If so, then these colors are very appropriate for the goal of the design, and the creators are relying on other elements such as the name of the drink, descriptions, typography and so on, to attract consumers.
However, as a consumer, I was utterly distracted by this design. I was examining the can and looking at the small details of the green elements. They clash with the bright yellow background of the can, but not too harshly. There are tints of green in the yellow which relieve some of the harshness. The green, while metallic and bright is a cool green and the yellow seems to be a somewhat intermediate temperature being neither too warm nor too cool. The color of the text is a cool red that comes as an afterthought because of how striking the other colors are. I even sat there wondering if this was a can of soda or beer because I was so preoccupied with examining the other colors of the can that I didn’t even look for the fine print to identify the beverage (which turned out to be a type of tea). Karen Kavett’s video about color theory was most useful in dissecting what it is about this color scheme that is so unsettling for me. Based on her short video, I think the green and yellow of these cans are analogous colors, they appear next to each other on the color wheel. They have similar hues which make them a little intense to look at, although there is some relief because the yellow is not quite as saturated as the red text is.
Nevertheless, the eyes are not drawn towards the red text at all because of the glaring yellow which then contrasts strongly enough with the green that my eyes are always drawn towards the places where green and yellow meet. This seems like a bit of a failure in the use of color in advertisement, I think the intense design is successful in catching the attention of a consumer, but fails to complete the more important task of enticing the customer to pull it off the shelf.

I chose the photo above to consider the element of typography. I think of typography as analogous to diction in literature. It is a subtle but powerful tool that can completely alter the message we are sending to our audience. In the case of this packet of Oreos, the lettering is curved and off-center, written to appear only on the cream-filled center of the cookie on the packaging. There is only enough space on the Oreo to write “Double Stuf” with one “f” rather than two. When I saw this in the store, my friend Nils pointed to the packaging and said, “Look, these Oreos are so full of cream they only had room for one “f.” Nils was kind of joking but I began to wonder if maybe he was right. The orientation of the lettering makes the cookie seem overfilled, the spacing between letters is tight and resembles that slightly flufflier appearance characteristic of Double Stuf oreos. This really is a clever use of lettering if it is the case. As the words appear on the cookie, they letters themself appear more delectable as if they could be eaten right off the package. In my minds eye, I can imagine walking around the rotund cookie and finding that extra “f” that I known ought to be there
However, with a little research, I found that this was not the motivation behind dubbing these cookies “Double Stuf.” In an article found on, it is revealed that the typographic choice on the packaging was in order to avoid certain liabilities. These oreos, apparently, are not technically double-stuffed. There is nowhere near twice as much creme in these cookies as compared to the originals. At first, I found this rather disappointing. I figured that I had read too far into the packaging and that I had let my recent readings on typography make me overzealous, imagining design where no credit is really due. But then I thought back to Vignelli, who spoke of the importance of pragmatic design. Whether intentional or not, this typographic choice by Nabisco creates an elevated visual experience. I can bite into these sweet letters and feel thick folds of cream slicing into strands between my teeth. I can imagine the too-fat cookie overflowing in my hand, just like the elephantine letters sit plumply on the packaging.


The design above was chosen to represent minimalism. This tapestry is very plain from its characters, to its color scheme, to its overall threading design. The most extravagant component of the rug is the fringes on either end and even those appear sparse and under-done. This is not a particularly appealing decor, but it is some kind of Swedish symbol. Though I was unable to determine exactly what that symbol is, I believe that the rug is in accordance with the “Less is More” principle mentioned in this Smashing Magazine Article. The design does not jump out at you or demand your attention, rather it waits for you to notice it on your own.
With so few components, the design does not tell you much, every conclusion about its meaning would have to be speculative. However, there’s not a lot of room to speculate so the simple rug can always tell a simple story.

This final photo is emblematic of balance and symmetry. The objects on the mantel seem to cause the shelf to tilt slightly to the left. The larger horse and the tin on the left side pull weight in their direction. However, the two vases on either end are identical and re-establish a sense of symmetry along the mantel. On the right side, the smaller horse, while identical in size the the two horses in the middle, appears dwarfed in its contrast with the biggest horse. The absence of a tin container on the right side of the mantel makes the entire display appear incomplete and lopsided. However, the right side does appear to be weighed down by the small iron pot that hangs from the underside of the shelf. The presence of the large circular emblem on the stones gives a sense of density that is shared by both the right and left mantel.
Although the sides of the mantel are not equal, they do display some sense of abstract symmetry in the ways that they contrast. There is a sense of equality despite their differences. Neither one has more or less of anything, they are simply different. I don’t find this design particularly appealing, not that it is a bad design, just that it is a little unsettling. It shifts the implied balance of the entire room so that the left side of the building seems to tilt with the same subtlety of a see-saw. Perhaps I’ll rearrange things when my hosts aren’t looking….

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