January 15, 2013
The arms race is vicious and cut-throat. Competitors urgently strive to strike big-ticket deals with media companies. At the same time, their lawyers are running out and filing patents to protect multi-million dollar designs. And that is just the first step. Drafting the pieces seems simple but in actuality borders on the impossible. All lines must intersect, and each one has a minimum viable thickness to which it must adhere. The hard pieces must be able to retain their shapes even when placed in boiling water for as long as ten minutes, all while transforming into a soft, malleable form.
And then, these pieces of macaroni need to hold — and taste good with — liquefied orange goop charitably called “cheese.” Welcome to the mac and cheese wars.
Every day, Kraft Foods sells one million boxes of its trademark mac and cheese in their iconic blue box. Maintaining that customer base isn’t to be taken for granted, however, as after a while, children who grew up on mac and cheese age, and, in turn, stop eating it. So Kraft has to attract new mac and cheese fans — and to do so, it relies on an ever-expanding army of creatively-shaped pieces of pasta.
Enter people like Guillermo Haro. As elucidated by this Wall Street Journal profile, Haro and his team of “pasta architects” are core to the brand’s ongoing success. And it’s not child’s play. Haro and others are charged with developing new pasta shapes which will capture the fancy of young eaters, yes, but drawing up silly shapes hardly describes the process fairly. In over two decades of pasta-shaping, Haro has come up with 2,000 designs, of which a mere 280 have made it to consumers. At fewer than 100 designs a year with an 85% rejection rate, that’s a lot of pasta experimentation — and a lot of failure.
The difficulties are a mix of intellectual property pitfalls and then, design ones. On one hand, there’s a team of business development professionals who look to partner with brands the children already know and love — the Journal cites “Spongebob Squarepants” and “Phineas and Ferb” – and enter into agreements to make pasta shaped like these characters. On the other hand, sometimes Haro and team come up with their own fun shapes, such as the U.S.-shaped pasta drawn above. If they succeed, the next step is to get the design patented, which happens more than one would expect. A search of Google’s patent index shows over 2,000 or so patents involving shaped pasta. Haro and his team are responsible for 29 of them.
In either case, Haro’s mission is to make sure that the pasta does all the things mac and cheese pasta should do. It has to retain its shape after being boiled — what kid wants to eat a disintegrated Spongebob or Phineas’ friend, Blob? Further, the pasta has to hold onto just the right amount of whatever the cheese-like substance that orange powder is, and, of course, taste good.
If they could only do this for vegetables.
Bonus fact: The song “Yankee Doodle” speaks of a man who “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni.” Why would a young gentleman from the American Revolution want to pretend he had pasta in his hat? He wouldn’t. “Macaroni,” in that context and in mid-18th century England, referred to a man with an extremely unique sense of fashion, as seen here. Macaronis were typically high class fellows and the lyric from “Yankee Doodle” is sarcastic, poking fun at the cultural ignorance of those in the New World. (Americans would, nonetheless, reclaim the song as their own, singing it with honor.) Where’d the fashion term “macaroni” come from? Back to the noodle we go. The macaroni pasta was a favorite of young, upper-class British men who traveled to Italy, and the term came (temporarily) to mean “trendy” or “fashionable.”
December 6, 2012
In preparation for the holiday season, we’ve put together a selection of gift ideas related to some of our favorite Design Decoded posts. The following items are all some combination of useful, beautiful, clever and iconic. We’ll let you decide which is which. Have a very designy holiday!
Home 3D Printer: After writing about 3D-printed footwear, you might be inspired to try fabricating your own products at home. Currently, domestic-scale 3D printers are not cheap, but the number of models available is increasing, and the price may drop as this becomes a more common practice.
Music for Airports: Brian Eno coined the term “ambient” to describe this seminal soundscape. The ebbs and flows of the minimalist composition are slow and deliberate; at once haunting and comforting. “I had in my mind this ideal airport where it’s late at night; you’re sitting there and there are not many people around you,” Eno says of the album’s origin. “You’re just seeing planes take off through the smoked windows.” What could be better for the frequent traveler in your life?
Winter Citrus Boxes: Growing up in Colorado, it was tradition that each winter, a big box of grapefruits and oranges would arrive on our snowbound porch, sent by grandmother from Florida. Perhaps that is the origin of my interest in fruit. This year’s design-related explorations into mandarins (or clementines) focused on California, but I’ve always had fond thoughts for Florida citrus-by-mail (reinforced through John McPhee’s wonderful writing on the Indian River in his book, Oranges). For die-hard locavores, you can skip the long-distance produce and just buy McPhee’s book.
Sherlock Series 1 & 2: Since its debut in 2010, Steven Moffat’s brilliant re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes has introduced the detective to an entirely new generation. Each episode is an incredibly clever spin on a classic tale from Arthur Conan Doyle, with enough unique twists to keep even the most ardent Sherlockian guessing.
Building Stories: Chris Ware’s masterful tale of life and architecture is so much more than a comic. Unwrapping this box of refined comics will be like opening 14 smaller, incredibly well-crafted gifts. Be warned, if you’re inclined to holiday depression, this collection of true-to-life tales, while beautiful, does not exactly inspire hope.
Dracula Medallion: The Medal that Made Dracula Famous. The limited edition replica is identical to that worn by Bela Lugosi in the 1931 Universal feature Dracula. Despite only appearing in two scenes, the medallion is Lugosi’s signature piece and has become an integral part of the visual identity of Dracula.
Travel Tiffin: Airlines may be designing more efficient meal trays, but few are on the upswing when it comes to the quality and tastiness of their in-flight offerings. A carry-on snack is a good way to steer clear of terrible food or worse hunger, and these melamine tiffins are a nice way to pack it. Stainless steel versions are available (and more traditional), but the non-metal option seems like a more security-friendly way to go.
November 20, 2012
“Go get me a blue ribbon.” I must’ve heard my grandpa utter those words hundreds of times as we sat together fishing off our small dock. Even before I could read I knew which beer to grab for him – the one with the first prize ribbon on the can. I didn’t realize it as a child of course, but that ease of recognition was a testament to the power of branding.
Pabst Blue Ribbon beer –PBR to its friends– may today be best known as the preferred beer of old Midwestern fisherman and mustachioed hipsters, but that instantly recognizable ribbon is more than just a symbol or marketing ploy. Pabst did, in fact, win a first place award at one of the most celebrated events in American history. The year was 1893 (a time when everyone looked like a mustachioed hipster) and in Chicago, Illinois, America’s greatest architects and planners had created a fairground unlike any the world had ever seen, a utopian White City.
The World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, was convened to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in America. It was a key moment for design and invention in America. Products such as Juicy Fruit, Crackerjack and Shredded Wheat were introduced to the public for the first time. The Ferris Wheel made its grand debut, outshining the Eiffel Tower and proving that there was no limit to American engineering and imagination. Westinghouse electrified the fairgrounds with alternating current electricity, setting the standard for a nation. Nikola Tesla stunned visitors by shooting lighting from his hands, Thomas Edison thrilled them with the Kinetoscope’s moving pictures, and former steamship captain Frederick Pabst got them drunk on the best damn beer they’d ever tasted.
Pabst’s Best Select –PBS to its friends, presumably– won the top beer award at the 1893 Exposition. Previously, the beer had won many other awards at many other fairs – so many, in fact, that Captain Pabst had already started tying silk ribbons around every bottle. It was a time when beer bottles were more likely to be embossed than labeled and the ribbons were likely added at great cost to Pabst. But Pabst’s display of pride was also a display of marketing savvy, as Patrons started asking their bartenders for the blue ribbon beer. The Exposition honor, however, carried extra import. The blue ribbon of 1893 was the Blue Ribbon.
Soon after the fair, the shorthand was formalized and Pabst’s Best Select was officially changed to “Pabst Blue Ribbon.” As production increased, so too did the need for blue silk ribbon. By the turn of the century, Pabst was going through more than one million feet of ribbon per year, pausing only when World War I caused a silk shortage. The iconic blue ribbon wouldn’t become a permanent part of the label until the end of prohibition in the 1930s, when it appeared on Pabst’s new high-tech distribution method, the “can” – but only after extensive testing proved that the beer can would catch on. While Pabst was willing to take a chance selling their “Export Beer” in cans, they didn’t want to risk selling their flagship brew, with its precious blue ribbon on the label, until it was a proven winner. Of course, the cans and printed graphic ribbons were an enormous success, and by the 1950s, blue ribbon labels fully replaced the silk ribbons. Yet Pabst’s blue ribbon remained critical to their brand, and would go on to become the focus of their advertising campaign and a defining element of an easy-to-identify label, ensuring generations of children everywhere would know which beer to grab for their grandfathers.
October 24, 2012
After many years of apartment living, I finally live in a house where, on October 31, real, live trick-or-treaters will come knocking on my door. Preparing for this thrilling event has so far involved gluing paper grins onto paper skulls, debating whether a kabocha squash can be a jack-o-lantern, and searching Amazon UK for candy options more unique than the kinds that line the aisles of Walgreens. I was aiming for Cadbury or Ritter Sport, but realized toddlers dressed as action figures will probably not appreciate the extra effort (and expense), so a giant bag of Hershey’s miniatures is now en route to my house.
In the process of all this internet searching for particular species of candy, I discovered something of interest to design thinkers: The plain, boring, classic Hershey bar that I’d gone to great lengths to avoid buying is perhaps not as generic as it seems—at least not in legal terms. Earlier this year, Hershey Chocolate and Confectionary Corporation won a battle with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to legally protect the physical design of their bar. This, I learned, is not an easy thing to do.
Anyone who has bought a stack of Hershey bars for a fireside s’mores binge knows that the 12-rectangle grid is great for snapping off just the right size chunk to match up with the perforated platform of a graham cracker. In other words, its scored surface is highly functional. But functionality is explicitly not a qualifying feature when registering a product design for a trademark. The USPTO originally refused the Hershey’s application, citing the little lines that make the bar snappable as being characteristic of many brands of chocolate. In order to appeal, Hershey’s had to go back and prove that its ridges and troughs went beyond utility, and that chocolate consumers had come to associate the design itself as an intrinsic feature of a Hershey bar, even in the absence of the brand name. And they succeeded.
According to a report by the law firm Baker Donelson:
The candy maker sought protection for “twelve…equally-sized recessed rectangular panels arranged in a four panel by three panel format with each panel having its own raised border within a large rectangle,” and while the individual design elements alone were insufficient to garner trademark protection on the grounds that each element is merely a functional configuration of the candy bar, the TTAB [Trademark Trial and Appeal Board] ruled that the “overall combination” of the design features entitled the candy maker to registered trademark protection.
Perhaps their best piece of evidence came inadvertently through cookware retailer Williams-Sonoma, who had started marketing a brownie pan in the shape of a Hershey bar, featuring the word “chocolate” in each rectangular segment where normally “Hershey” would appear. They did Hershey a solid, demonstrating their faith that consumers would think of the stalwart brand simply by seeing that 12-cell grid.
The next logical question might be: Who cares? Well, for product designers and producers of any consumer good, Hershey’s attainment of a trademark for their candy bar’s physical structure sets an interesting precedent. It has long been difficult for companies to trademark product designs when the notable features are essential to the object’s function. Hershey’s relied on very subtle nuances in their design, as well as more than a century of established brand recognition, to sidestep the argument that segmenting their bars was a utilitarian move. For designers creating a new product “inspired by” a classic, the case is also a cautionary tale.
So this Halloween, as you pop pieces of candy between costumed visitors, or steal the good stuff from your kid’s plastic pumpkin, think about the design of the confections you gravitate towards, and whether the architecture of your chocolate bar influences how much you enjoy it.
September 5, 2012
We’ve been talking during the past week about various ways that cities reshape their identities and project them to the world. Chattanooga designed a typeface; Amsterdam developed a campaign slogan and installed colorful sculptures. For cities whose public image has suffered or whose anchor industries have closed down, this kind of intervention can breathe new life into the economy and kickstart cultural activity.
At the non-profit Project for Public Spaces, creative acts of urban planning and civic engagement are mission central. Project for Public Spaces (PPS) was founded in New York City in 1975, and has spent its decades cataloging, promoting, and helping to create public spaces that people naturally gravitate towards. The term of art is placemaking, and its successful implementation can be seen almost anywhere that an existing public space—a park, a plaza, a neighborhood, even a transit system—has become a prized community asset. In many instances, those places have also grown into critical features of a city’s brand—think Prospect Park in Brooklyn, or Jackson Square in New Orleans.
One of the focal categories on PPS’s list is the public market. Markets have long been an important organizing principle for infrastructure, traffic patterns, and human activity in a city, but in many places, the grand buildings that once housed central markets have gone neglected, and the businesses inside are long shuttered. Where public markets are still in operation or have been revived, however, it’s hard to find a stronger example of the power of placemaking.
PPS calls these places Market Cities, where public food sources “act as hubs for the region and function as great multi-use destinations, with many activities clustering nearby…Market Cities are, in essence, places where food is one of the fundamental building blocks of urban life–not just fuel that you use to get through the day.”
The greatest public markets are the ones that simultaneously serve city residents’ daily food needs, while functioning as a tourist attraction for visitors who want to witness local culture in action. While brand strategists obsess over how to communicate “authenticity,” public markets are inherently one of the most authentic expressions of a place, and therefore an ideal symbol for a city to use when representing itself to the world—as long as they are thriving, of course.
There are a number of good examples of market cities in the U.S., but one of the best is Cleveland, where the century-old West Side Market has become a key engine in the city’s revitalization. The market building itself is one of Cleveland’s finest architectural gems—a vast, red-brick terminal with stunningly high vaulted ceilings, book-ended with massive, arched windows. On the ground, as the vendors will attest, is an open opportunity for small-scale sellers to establish themselves in the market economy and build a livelihood. And, following PPS’s definition as a hub from which other market activities spin out and cluster, the West Side Market is now just one [albeit sizeable] node in a buzzing network of food-related endeavors—restaurants, farmers’ markets, urban farms—which are assembling into a whole new identity for the “Rust Belt” city.
This month in Cleveland, PPS will host their annual Public Markets Conference, an event design to help more cities leverage their markets as engines for urban growth. I’ll be attending the event to learn more about the role of markets in the city of the future, from Santa Monica to Hong Kong; and I’ll be touring Cleveland’s urban and rural food hubs to get a better sense of how it all links together in one American city. I’ll be writing more about my experiences right here in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned.