October 2012

Arts & Letters

The Best of Australian Design 2012

By Nadia Wagner
Plain tobacco packaging, Australian Government, 2012. Image supplied.

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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