looks matter: a century of iconic food packaging

Article by Tove Danovich | The Salt {NPR} | March 16, 2015

We take the packaging our food comes in for granted. Yet many of the boxes, bags and bottles that protect our edibles were once groundbreaking — both in their design and in how they changed our perception of what’s inside. Sometimes, packaging is so distinctive, it transforms food from mere consumer product to cultural icon. As Stephen Heller, author of more than 100 books on design and popular culture, says, “Coca-Cola is not a bottle of soda — it’s Coca-Cola.”

Here, we’ve curated a list of some of the best examples of food packaging design over the past century, with help from experts in the field.

tootsie roll
Ariel Zambelich/NPR

Tootsie Roll (1960s)

It’s hard to imagine any other sweet treat residing inside the Tootsie Roll wrapper. Though the candy itself is often overlooked these days, its wrapping is iconic — from its colors to its recognizable font, Cooper Black. “It’s a chewy, dark font that perfectly reflects the Tootsie Roll candy,” says Ellen Lupton, senior curator at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.

Coca-Cola Glass Bottle (1915)

The Coca-Cola Co. commissioned this contoured bottle to distinguish its drink from those of competitors angling for a piece of the cola business. Long before Coca-Cola was associated with the color red, the clear glass bottle was etched with the brand’s name in the scripted font the company has used for a full century. This year marks the 100th anniversary of that design, which remains instantly recognizable. When asked to define the principles of good design, Andrea Lipps, assistant curator at Cooper-Hewitt, listed memorability, legibility and noticeability. Those three qualities certainly describe this product — ubiquitous not just on grocery shelves but in pop culture, gracing everything from Andy Warhol’s art to Elvis Presley’s lips.

Pringles (1968)

“They changed the way chips were looked upon,” says Heller, co-chair of the master in fine arts design program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. The Pringles can (and the saddle-shaped chips inside) were invented as a way to solve the problem of broken chips that wind up in the bottom of every bag.

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