It’s all in the packaging

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The other night, I downloaded Love and a Molotov Cocktail by the Flys. It’s a raucous little ditty I hadn’t heard since the days I was in a ‘critically overlooked’ band, and we used it to warm up. So in a way, I was downloading a memory. And it struck me that MP3s are quite as nebulous as a memory or an idea. They are music distilled to its purest form, compressed files of data, lots of ones and zeros. The connection they make with you operates on one level and one level only – the sonic.

And yet even now I vividly remember the rather battered cover of that single. It sported a kaleidoscopic pattern in black and white, which made your eyes hurt if you stared at it, with the bright green band logo set at a jaunty angle in a corner. Being somewhat strapped for cash, we used to take it home in turns so we could learn our bits before the next rehearsal.

Because this unassuming piece of seven-inch vinyl was a tactile object, it somehow had a tangible worth. Tussling over an MP3 file is a physical impossibility, and it would be the work of a moment to duplicate another. It wasn’t only the music, it was also the material form and the presentation that made the Flys’ finest hour so special. The whole package, in other words.

All of which made me think that packaging is much maligned and misunderstood at the moment. It’s seen as wasteful and gratuitous, a decadent indulgence that’s destroying the planet. There seems to be a movement afoot to banish it all together – to outlaw bags, bottles and boxes, sleeves, slip-cases and Cellophane.But there’s a real difference between packaging and over-packaging. Where it’s a functional necessity, there’s no reason it can’t be designed intelligently to bring an extra dimension to a product. Without the guilt trip. Often, packaging is part of a product experience, rather than an extravagant add-on. You accept that you’re probably paying for it, but it’s an aesthetic treat, part of the overall deal.

If there was a way of cleanly dispensing perfume via the bathroom mirror or TV screen, would the idea take off? I have my doubts. Perhaps you could buy your clothes already permeated with your favourite scent. Or maybe not. It’s just too clinical, too anonymous. Part of the inherent allure of perfume is the bottle – from Coco Chanel’s iconic container based on the shape of the Place Vendôme, to Jean-Paul Gaultier’s corseted glass torsos. They tickle your visual sensibility, or make you smile while you’re enjoying the smell – a two-pronged sensory attack. They’re small, recyclable and last for months, so they’re hardly ecoffensive.

Packaging creates character and differentiation. Without it, everything is reduced to a generic. If supermarket shelves were stacked with row upon row of brown, compostable paper bags containing everything from soap powder to spaghetti, what a grey/ brown old world we’d live in.

It’s laudable that brands like Kiehl’s and The Body Shop use ordinary-looking recyclable, refillable plastic bottles, but this is actually an anti-design statement, a calculated part of their positioning strategy. But then an eco-friendly plastic specimen bottle wouldn’t be the appropriate vessel for a 12-year-old malt whisky from Islay.

Let’s face it, we religiously ‘package’ ourselves every day when we pick out what clothes to wear. If outward appearances are really so shallow, we’d all be walking around naked. Now that really is a scary thought.

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