Australian politics, society & culture

The Best of Australian Design 2012

Plain tobacco packaging, Australian Government, 2012. Image supplied.
Plain tobacco packaging, Australian Government, 2012. Image supplied.

Nadia Wagner

Short read400 words
 
Cover: October 2012
October 2012
Sex surrogacy cleans up at Sundance
Tony Wilson
Oh Mercy’s 'Deep Heat'
Robert Forster
Defending the indefensible
Helen Garner
Jeffrey Smart
Doug Hall
Lawrence Krauss and arse-kicking physics
Amanda Lohrey
Murray Bail's 'The Voyage'
John Banville
Visiting Orhan Pamuk’s 'Museum of Innocence'
Alexandra Coghlan
Andrew Dominik's 'Killing Them Softly'
Luke Davies
Meeting the Martu artists of the East Pilbara
Gail Bell

Disillusioned with a life of seeking the applause of advertising executives, the designer Ken Garland wrote the First Things First manifesto in 1963. Undersigned by two dozen of his peers, it called for designers to invest their energies in tasks that promote the betterment of society, rather than using their talents to sell cat food, detergent, hair restorer and cigarettes. It’s taken half a century, but now a politician has achieved the design breakthrough Garland demanded.

The draft legislation was ushered into existence in 2011 by health minister Nicola Roxon, who received a special recognition certificate from the World Health Organization that same year. The plain packaging legislation will come into force before the end of this year, making Australia the first country in the world to successfully bring in the law. We’re praising design on two levels: it’s the next episode in Australia’s relatively glowing record in harm minimisation (one engineered well enough to survive an assault in the High Court) as well as a new, brilliant instance of packaging design.

Take the conventional cigarette box. It’s one of the most highly designed objects a smoker is likely to handle in the course of a day: the colours, the embossed lettering, the way it feels to the hands, the angle of the flip-top lid. Unlike many consumer goods, the packaging that accompanies cigarettes is not designed to be thrown out on opening, but continues to accompany the user for the lifespan of the product – to be touched, displayed and fondled. Moreover, the appearance of the package signals the smoker’s identification with a particular demographic. Cigarettes are ‘badge products’, selling a lifestyle as much as they promise nicotine and shortness of breath.

The new plain packaging, however, is not so much an ‘undesign’ as a radical redesign. With its drab olive-coloured box, its subtly mis-sized sans serif typography and garish health warnings, it almost forces furtive consumption. It’s very hard to make a drug ‘bad’ without making it ‘sexy’. The carefully ungainly design of the new box achieves this perfectly.

Nadia Wagner

Nadia Wagner is a lecturer in the School of Design at University of Technology Sydney.
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