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January 20, 2010


Controversial Packaging

Every once and a while a designer will be faced with a project that goes against their moral beliefs or it is considered offensive to someone. Sometimes that designer has to make a life changing decision. Yes, life changing. If they refuse, they could lose their job. If they take it, they could seriously harm their reputation. But who has the right to judge and criticize another human being for designing a package just because THEY think it’s wrong?

There are a lot of issues and products that I am personally against. But I’m not going to tell someone that they were wrong for re-designing the packaging for a cigarette brand. When critiquing someone’s work, you have to look past the subject content and focus on the design. You do, however, have to take into consideration the target audience and whether it was executed well.

There are an endless number of things that can be seen as immoral or offensive to someone, somewhere: Fur, Pornography, Tobacco, Alcohol, Prescription Drugs, etc. Someone in the mid-west may think that legal drugs and doctors are evil – that Holistic Healing is the only way to go. But just because the minority thinks it’s wrong doesn’t mean that I should feel ashamed for showing a Tylenol package in my portfolio.Package, Packaging, Graphic Design, Printing

And yes, I do mean the minority. If a very large majority felt that it was that bad, then it would be illegal – like Crack. “Well, what about cigarettes? They kill people, and they are legal.” Yes, well cigarettes ARE bad for you. So is alcohol, soda, salt, red meats, and pretty much anything else in this world that is used in excess. Try doing Crack like you would cigarettes, 20 – 40 times a day, and see if you outlive a smoker.

I decided to write about this topic because of a conversation that I overheard a while ago. Two people were discussing previous candidates for a design position. Here is a small clip from what I heard.

“…Oh, and this one guy. He showed me this whole campaign he did for a Pro-Life group. Can you believe this guy!?! The last thing I need is some Super Conservative Jesus Freak walking around the office judging everyone. I couldn’t imagine having to be all Christian like around him everyday….”

There are tons of laws in place that protect people from discrimination – Race, Age, Gender, Sex, Religion, Political Affiliation, etc. But there is nothing really in place that protects designers. I mean yeah, technically you could make a case of it, but come on. How can you prove that? If you show 12 items in your portfolio and 1 is “offensive,” how can you prove that it was the deal breaker? All they have to say is that “you weren’t qualified.” And in design, that is justifiable, because you can’t discuss taste. But you can argue good design.

The point of this is to make YOU think about what you can do to help prevent these types of things. Maybe not to go out and PROTEST THE MAN!, but maybe write your own blog or post. Give your two cents. I would be naïve to think that this little post is going to change the design community. But I would like to see YOU absorb this and let it sit in the back of your mind. So the next time that this situation arises you can stop and think.

I’m not saying that you should go out and show a layout you did for Hustler Magazine when you are applying to Christian Monthly – be smart. But we shouldn’t be afraid to show a cigarette pack if we are applying for a packaging job position in consumer goods – regardless of the company.

Good Design is Good Design.

I work in an office where EVERYONE is on the COMPLETE opposite side of the political spectrum as myself. But I get along great with everyone there. I love the people I work with and I couldn’t image being anywhere else right now in my career. But where would I be now if I had shown something “offensive” in my portfolio review? I may have never had the pleasure to work with any of them.

The next time you walk into an interview and show your work, don’t be afraid to show “offensive” content. And on the flip-side, the next time you are interviewing a disabled pregnant minority, with red hair and glasses, you better ALSO look past the subject matter in their portfolio – please evaluate on design quality. Don’t be a Dick.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jan 20 2010

    I’d actually take this one step further and would like to encourage people to be a little more fearless.

    To use your example if you’re interviewing for a package design gig and your portfolio contains a cigarette package design that is well executed, then you should absolutely include it in your portfolio because it’s relevant to the task at hand.

    Any potential employer who would not hire you because they don’t like the product or service in your portfolio (rather than based on an evaluation of how well you executed the design) THEN YOU DON’T WANT TO WORK THERE and you’ve saved yourself months or years of misery!

    • SPS
      May 29 2010

      You are so very right. But sadly that’s not the world we live in today. If you show a poster you did for a Pro-Choice group, you may seriously offend someone. That person may be an amazing boss who is very kind and talented — but is 100% Pro-Life. If you are as equally qualified as the person you are up against for the job, who do you think they are gonna pick? Your subconscious comes into play more then you know. So it’s better to be aware of these things and not let emotion get in the way. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Jan 23 2010

    Controversial packaging is most often a good thing in that it got attention. With such a short window of opportunity to grab someones attention in a retail enviroment, goal achieved. Good Design is good Design, whether you agree with the topic, product at hand, oh well.

  3. aj
    May 18 2010

    Hmm. I can see both sides of this actually.

    On one hand maybe you don’t necessarily agree with the product or service you designed for, but you were able to come up with a portfolio-worthy piece from it. If you sense that it’s a controversial piece, why not bring it up in the in-person interview, then you can explain your choice.

    On the other hand, I can see where the people in the conversation were coming from. I too am politically polar opposite from a number of people I work with and well… there are just some conversations we can’t have. it can be uncomfortable!


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