Small parcels of desire

Janice Kirkpatrick confesses to being a parcel fetishist but wonders if the packages on our supermarket shelves are trying too hard to impress.

I like getting presents. I enjoy ripping and unwrapping the layers of paper which someone has carefully constructed solely for my amusement. I love the adrenaline created as tension mounts and the last wrapper is finally breached and the delicious mystery finally resolved.

Presents are often selfless expressions of “care”. They are remote dispensers of compassion where the wrapping method carefully signals the manner in which the present should be received and the esteem in which the contents should be held.

By extension, many everyday packs have the potential to make us feel good, or careful, or downright disappointed. That’s powerful magic for packaging designers and great news for those of us who enjoy carving our way through a finely crafted parcel.

As well as protecting and preserving the products from destruction and promoting brand messages, packs also act as totems and talismans. Packs simultaneously protect and preserve our cultural heritage and our sense of social and personal well-being, look at HP Sauce, Oxo, Guinness and Kirriemuir Gingerbread. They do these things through the rituals of wrapping and unpacking. Gift-wrapped packages do it through the act of giving and receiving. On the supermarket shelf packs act as condensed purveyors of brand aspirations, dumb salesmen astutely seeking like-minded ladies or stalking clueless prey.

If you’re a parcel fetishist Britain is the place to be. Luckily we live in a country which is festooned with packages of all shapes, sizes, materials and constructions. We are the retail capital of the universe and the world’s high street. Napoleon hit the nail on the head when he scorned us, calling us, “a nation of shopkeepers”. So we should be good at wrapping things up. But are we?

While some packs are so thoroughly researched, so carefully honed and regularly re-designed that they become like heat-seeking missiles homing in on likely targets, others become semantically confused. We all know packages which are so constipated with information that they fail to tell us what they are or who they’re for.

If consumers decide what to buy in nanoseconds, why are packs which are designed to be purchased on impulse not more simply designed? Why is so much of the stuff on supermarket shelves flagellated by flashes, bashed by barcoding and defaced by a zillion conflicting typefaces and impossibly perfect photography? Why is the process of unwrapping not more diverse and rewarding? Are we so lacking in civilisation that we no longer appreciate the sensorial pleasures of a yielding package? Or, do the manufacturers of comestibles not care that we know they don’t care about us?

As we develop different generic styles for each supermarket aisle I can’t help but wonder if designers are missing the point. That we’re making the consumer work too hard to learn complicated visual and verbal languages promising the earth but delivering soap-powder. Simple communication can’t be replaced with holographic foils and free children’s toys. There is no substitute for well-designed, communicative design. It’s a relief to see the shelves at Cearns and Brown, or Lewis Moberly’s laundry range for Boots, which are distinctive in their simple sanity within a supermarket mad-house.

The next layer of design around the package is point-of-sale, which is a kind of mini retail environment all of its own, fitting snugly in the big pack, the shop itself. You can tell from the shop’s facade what kind of retail experience to expect inside. Brown profiled aluminium cladding is the architectural equivalent of the cardboard box. Beautifully detailed stone and glass mean money, both inside and out. As a rule-of-thumb, plastic outside usually means plastic inside. It’s a shame that we have yet to get to grips with big plastic buildings when we’re so good at smaller plastic products, like Persil Concentrated Washing-Up Liquid and Halfords Oil.

Supermarkets really are the greatest art galleries. Try it sometime. Amble the aisles with no money or plastic in your pockets. Admire the limited edition prints, the ironic multiples, structures, installations, performance, music, drama. Entry is free and if you see something you really want then the chances are that you can afford it.

Personally, there’s really nothing to beat the simple pleasure of getting between the sheets of a brown paper wrapper – it gets the juices flowing. String, silently brooding and pregnant with knotted potential. Pass-the-parcel is always my favourite game.

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