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Seduced by the Packaging

As consumers we tend to gravitate to our favorites in the grocery aisles! Whether it’s our cereal, bread, snacks, or baking products, we usually reach for the familiar. However, I’m an exception! It’s probably because of my background as a Graphic Designer/Photographer & Horse Trainer but I confess that I just might buy products based solely on the shape, colors or materials of what the product is encased in.

And here’s a great example! A couple of nights ago —just stopping by the grocery store to pick up few things—I remembered that we were out of Olive Oil. And my little graphic design trained eye was snagged by this amazing bottle sporting a bright yellow label featuring an Etruscan style horse image in black. There might have been the human version of a reining horse stop in the aisle when I saw it. Between my appreciation of great graphics and 40 years of equestrian life­— It was packaging nirvana!

Horse motif on Terra Delyssa Olive Oil bottle by photographer Michael Troxle

My appreciation for design—and package design specifically—is tied to my days at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. One of my degree requirements was two semesters of Package Design. For the final project of the second semester we were given cart blanch to redesign ANY package that we felt needed a big boost in “consumer command presence on the shelf”. There were NO restrictions on color, size, production budget, or type of package. In other words “make it jump off the shelf”.

I decided that the dairy case would be my target, specifically the humble half gallon milk carton. Keep in mind this was 1981 and most half gallon milk cartons were one color on a white waxed paper background. In my mind what the dairy case and milk packaging needed was COLOR! Full CMYK Color! I had about one week to present my concept to the instructor and the class. That’s how SVA rolled at that time—your work was put out there for not only the instructor to critique, but for the entire class to scrutinize and comment on as well. My first year at SVA these sessions were terrifying but the idea was to prepare us for what it would really be like to present to corporate clients in the real world. Gulp!

SVA Student Project by graphic designer /photographer Michael Troxle

I had an amazing idea but for this concept, but I knew I was going to have to push my Illustrating abilities to the edge of my comfort zone! A full color illustration of cow in a pasture situated so that the cow looked out from the corner of the carton. It meant that I would have to airbrush paint the entire package flat to create the effect that I wanted! Keep in mind I was NOT an Illustration Major—I was a Graphic Design Major. This project would required several sketches and mock-ups before I could even start the tedious task of cutting out frisket (yes you youngsters out there, back in the “dark ages”, a design project like this required knife skills). You can Google “frisket” but in short, it involves cutting masking material that will cover up the area that you don’t want to airbrush. I spent four nights working into the wee hours of the morning cutting frisket, mixing colors and listening to the sound of my trusty little airbrush compressor chugging along all in the quest to create the ULTIMATE dairy case masterpiece!

I was proud of myself for overcoming my anxiety of taking on such a complicated airbrush project.

On Presentation Day, I caught the subway just a short hop from my apartment in Queens and negotiated my way to class on 23rd Street in Manhattan. My goal, this fine day was to finally present a project that this instructor couldn’t negatively critique. So far, every package design that I presented in his class he would review pretty positively, but he would ALWAYS have one little negative comment on the project. Not to brag, but I was carrying an A- in his class so as I went up the stairs to the classroom I was fairly confident it would get a good grade. But with this final design would I finally impress him enough that there would be a 100% positive review?

Upon arrival we were each asked to display our “piece de resistance” on a large table in the center of the room. I had also designed a special little carry box for my Colorful Cow Carton so nobody actually saw it until I went up and slid my final project onto the table. At that moment, all the anxiety and hours were worth it as chorus of oohs and ahs reverberated thru the classroom. Yes! My classmates were amazed by my little “Colorful Cow Milk Carton”. As I recall, the instructor gravitated immediately to my project for review. I don’t actually remember what his exact comments were, but in a nutshell he was totally blown away by my redesign of the humble half gallon milk carton. And best of all, not one negative comment! Mission accomplished.

So now whenever I look at a package, whether it’s a bottle or a carton I think of the designer that had to pitch the idea to the client and possibly—if it’s a new and different design—convince the client to try something new and daring. And all these years later you know how much that final project—and all that went into it—meant to me, because I still have that Colorful Cow Milk Carton…even if it’s usually a horse motif that catches my eye now!


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