Jonathan Ford, Chief Creative Officer and Founder, Pearlfisher: “Packaging design should be viewed in the same context and with the same relevance and influence on society as fashion design, architecture and product design”

In April 2014, ahead of the Popsop training event in Moscow, we collected some rather controversial perspectives on the design business, popular in the Russian marketing circles. We kindly asked Jonathan Ford, one of the honoured speakers at our inaugural event, to comment on each of these stereotypes. Here we publish his interesting thoughts.

Фото: Джонатан Форд, со-основатель и креативный директор Pearlfisher
Photo: Jonathan Ford, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Pearlfisher

Stereotype No 1.

The design world strives to minimize the environmental impact of packaging. Sustainable packaging is a competitive advantage and pride for manufacturers. However, Russian brand design industry will never be as environmentally responsible, because there’re other priorities.

— In some way, whether by choice or through future official directives, we will all, Russians included, have to be more accountable for the planet and for each other as the world continues to open up and globalization continues. It’s happening at a different pace around the world but everyone will get to the same destination through choice, law or economics.

Consumers expect brands to address a moral, social, political and ethical agenda. Sustainability is absolutely no longer an add-on or just for the niche organic brands but an integral part of new product development and innovation. It’s great to now see the beauty titans revolutionizing whole categories with, for example, the recent launch of Unilever’s aerosols (Sure, Dove, Vaseline deodorants) in the new ‘half size’ compressed format.


Photo: Sure switching to a smaller "compressed" format of packaging
Photo: Sure switching to a smaller «compressed» format of packaging

Stereotype No 2.

You cannot develop consumers’ aesthetical taste with nice package design. A good taste comes from art galleries only.

— I disagree. Consumers’ taste for fine packaging design is evidenced by the phenomenal rise in premiumization that we have seen across each and every brand sector. Premiumization has created the bridge between the specialness of the luxury world and the sales appeal of mass market. And finding the convergence — through design — between these two is magic for brand owners and marketers. Besides that, I advocate the case for celebrating brand design in galleries. We know arts and commerce are linked, just look at the pop artists, for example.

We should be championing the power of great brand design as a progressive force for change that, as a fundamental part of our society, can and does enrich our wider consumer culture and it can be so much more than the pack. We are aiming for brand and packaging design to be viewed in the same context and with the same relevance and influence on society as fashion design, architecture and product design.

Great design turns brands into more than just products so that they become a celebration of the visual and revolutionize the look and feel of our personal and collective worlds. Brands such as Absolut, and recently Diet Coke, are masters at finding innovative ways to show that their brand design has transcended into the world of brand art, and this is firmly integrated into their packaging design strategies.

Stereotype No 3.

Innovations in package design are for geeks. Agencies must learn how to create just ‘good packaging’.

— It depends what you mean by innovation. I don’t think you can necessarily separate the two. Brand and packaging design needs to be holistic. And ‘good’ design is design that makes an impact and changes people’s lives for the better. Consumers today want brands to be interactive, open and honest and this can be dialed up through the design communication and messaging — through structure, materials and through the visual and verbal language used. Integrating innovative thinking and creation into the way you work with a continuous process and generation of ideas is where the new innovative brands, like Method have succeeded. Method is a great example of how structural design innovation can lead a change on both a brand and category level. Excess and ‘gimmicks are short term, wasteful and don’t add value.

Stereotype No 4.

The smaller the country, the harder it tries to stand out with the unique design style — and vice versa.

— I think you can see culture reflected in regional design. For example, with American brands you can see a lot of heart expressed through their design. In the UK, on the other hand, there’s a lot of thought expressed. This is not a hard and fast rule but if you look, you’ll see.

Stereotype No 5.

Merely any packaging designer who has worked in the industry for let’s say 30 years, knows better intuitively what consumers will love or not. He/she FEELS it better than a dedicated marketing expert who researches the same product over and over again, therefore cannot get a new perspective.

— A good designer — at every stage of their career — will always be looking, consciously or subconsciously, for inspiration and fresh thinking, whenever and wherever, but I believe that we also need to foster this creativity and stimulation both in a work and in a wider sense. Often the best designers have cultural antennae that pick up a multitude of signals wherever they rove and somehow make sense of the white noise to make something truly clear and original out of it.  This is what can add value — it’s why designers are important and the skill of design should be valued in a world that’s fast becoming homogenized.

Stereotype No 6.

In Europe, design agencies tend to work with clients for as long as possible. In Russia, a brand starts a new life every time a marketing director changes. In this case, it’s impossible to build a strong consistent brand.

— This isn’t just a Russian problem. I suppose it depends on whether each change of personnel instigates a change in the look and feel of the brand. But brands can’t sit still. They all need to evolve but it’s about how brands creatively evolve and develop in the right way. Consumers today accept a diversity of brand behavior, and personnel and leadership changes can also be seen as a diversification, but this creates a strong argument for identity centric brand design. Brands have an aesthetic and a philosophical and experiential legacy that any brand owner should respect and build on to positively evolve the brand.

A decent agency can safeguard the process of brand change and too much client change can actually weaken the longevity of a brand.

Stereotype No 7.

Consumers get the package design they deserve. If the consumers’ culture is poor, they get a bad package design. Are we, designers, able to foster the culture of consumption?

— Designers are absolutely able to foster the culture of consumption and packaging is one of the key touch points that drives brand communication, behavior and consumer engagement.

The best brands that are revolutionizing the way we interact with and consume products are what we call Challenger Brands — those that dare to be different and challenge existing cultural paradigms.  Given design is the living embodiment of change, it is design that has the power to influence future consumer behavior.

For example, think of the cultural impact and business success of challenger brands such as Innocent, Dyson and Jamie Oliver.

Stereotype No 8.

The main problem of the package design industry in Russia is not the designers who are unable to create a decent concept, but the brand owners who don’t do marketing segmentation. As a result, marketers cannot specify the target audience, so designers produce blunt and faceless packaging.

— That’s an interesting point of view! I’d suggest there’s an opportunity for some smart agencies to get proactive with some Russian consumer behavior insights. I would if I was there. Without the consumer there would be no brand in the first place and no one to buy it in the end. And so, understanding the consumer is at the core of what we do. But how we should approach this is by looking at a more emerging picture of consumer behavior rather than by rigid demographic segmentation.  It is important to understand consumer aspirations, the customer journey and the expectations that we have for a brand.

The challenge lies squarely with design and designers to constantly exceed expectations and create brands and brand experiences that not only harness, complement and streamline our changing behavior, but are effectively drawing on emerging, innovative perspectives to go beyond what we know and have already experienced. It is in this context that we have the opportunity to add real value to consumers’ lives, give new meaning and, ultimately, create an essential force of change.

Stereotype No 9.

Sometimes, a client may not understand the value of design and think that whatever design will do. This approach aligns with a stereotypical “whatever” Russian business ethos. Right after the first meeting with such type of client you understand that you can’t work together, because design can’t help this business.

— When looking to innovate, brands need to recognize that it is design that is the most impactful agent of change. There are many notable beacons in brand business where we can see the power of design value embraced throughout an organization. BMW, Apple and Bang & Olufsen to name just a few have consistently invested and reaped the rewards from good design. In addition, there are also mega successful retailers, like Target in the US and Waitrose in the UK, that have a tangible appreciation of the power of design running throughout touch-points, such as packaging and in-store environment, and proving that powerful design equals brand profit and growth.

Forward-thinking brand owners and brand marketers have already realized a long-term investment in design and understand the power of design to transform brands. They see design as a crucial component of success and understand that they are commissioning an essential skill (not service) as the foundation of growth. If your client doesn’t value what you do there’s always another who will.  Go and find them rather than beating your head against a brick wall.

Stereotype No 10.

If you’re not a big-name branding agency, a client (especially a start-up company) may not trust you and your professionalism. They might conduct endless testings in focus groups among their family and friends, but will never rely on the designer’s competence. And you cannot change that.

— Clients around the world have changed. They can be very creative and inspiring so their opinions are as important as designers’. Clients can actually shape creative direction but unless they’re a designer themselves they don’t know how to express their ideas. This why it’s useful to listen, be inspired by, and with them, and perhaps work in a creative way so that they can feel a part of the solution.

*The interview was prepared by and first published on the Russian package design website as of April 16, 2014.