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Food for Thinkers: How Food Packaging Carries Cues About Culture and Class

Alexandra Lange takes a look at packaging design, and the differences that signal whether food is upscale, mainstream, affordable, and/or healthy.

Following on Jessica Helfand's cure for the common supermarket rut, her Design Observer colleague Alexandra Lange joins the Food for Thinkers festival with a look at packaging design, and the way it both communicates and complicates the relationship between food and class:

Where you shop, and what the bag, bottle or box looks like, is as good an indicator of your class and what you think food is as any survey. Food packagers direct our buying decisions every day, and maybe that tricky cultural shift could be accomplished in the supermarket aisles.


Lange deconstructs Late July Crackers' boxes, "junk food" baby carrot bags, artisanal pickles, and Loblaw's iconic Helvetica on yellow branding for its "No Name/San Nom" basics range, unpacking the fine differences that signal whether food is upscale, mainstream, affordable, and/or healthy. Her larger question—and this should perhaps be GOOD's next design challenge—seems important to me: "If we want to cross class lines, and get everyone to eat better, wouldn't it make sense to come up with packaging that was neither tacky nor classy?"

We need a new identity for plain, simple, grandmother-would-recognize food. Not patronizing, not upscaling. Middlebrow chips? Neutral beverages? We need supermarket aisles stocked with food, not messages about our income level. [...]

What if we made hormone-free milk look as cheap as this cola? Decorated the organic beef with stripes rather than an oxcart woodcut? Wrapped real carrots (since baby ones are a dubious repackaging in themselves) in bands of energetic type? Could we make food for everyone?


Perhaps, to return briefly to my ongoing obsession, this is what the future of food design should look like—the branding of healthy, quality food to make it seem both accessible and attractive. Visit Design Observer to read the rest of Lange's post, and then let us know what you think in the comments.

Food for Thinkers is a week-long, distributed, online conversation looking at food writing from as wide and unusual a variety of perspectives as possible. Between January 18 and January 23, 2011, more than 40 food and non-food writers will respond to a question posed by GOOD's newly-launched Food hub: What does—or could, or even should—it mean to write about food today?

Follow the conversation all week here at GOOD, join in the comments, and use the Twitter hashtag #foodforthinkers to keep up to date.

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