By (Non)Design: The Connections Between Generic Packaging and Creative Life

19 Feb 2006 from On Kawara’s “Today” painting series

ike many kids who attended state-run American elementary schools in the 1980s, I have barely any recollection of anything that I learned in the actual confines of a classroom, being mostly dependent on family support and autodidactic ability to acquire and retain knowledge. I do, however, have a comparatively vivid recall of all the “extra-curricular” rituals of violence and status-jockeying cruelty that were the rule, not the exception, in these institutions. In among the rapidly decaying memories of this time, I can still remember one popular insult that was hurled around on playgrounds and school buses with sadistic glee: “generic.” In terms of initiating either clumsy fistfights or defeated sobbing fits, it wasn’t as cruelly effective as other period barbs, i.e. “retard” or “L.D.” [an acronym for one placed in ‘learning disabled’ classes], but it often enough managed to strike a nerve and prompt intense, prolonged fits of self-doubt. While someone being mocked as a “retard” was simply being called inept, to be on the receiving end of a “generic” claim was to be simultaneously accused of low status and to be totally devoid of any distinguishing personality traits. The thing about such insults is that they often prompt their victims to come out on the other side of the aforementioned fits of self-doubt with a desire to throw the detested personality flaws back in their tormentors’ faces: in fact, an entire paradoxically vivid subculture eventually formed around the adoption of “generic” aesthetics and ideals.

To understand the relevance of that both then and now, it is necessary to look back at the retailing landscape as it existed in the late 1970s and 1980s. But first, some more clarification about the pejorative nature of “generic” is in order. While “generic” seems semantically identical to more contemporary insults like “basic,” each is a clear product of its own time: the latter refers to a lack of imagination in the face of an unprecedented opportunity for self-individuation; an inability to make a passably original expression in an Information Age supposedly defined by endless difference. It is an insult that maintains its edge by denying others a capability for producing a memorable self-image during a time in which anyone recording himself screaming at a video game live stream can ostensibly become a world-renowned “content creator”. By contrast, a “generic” person in the ’80s was, essentially, someone incapable of “correctly” consuming.

The hidden implication, I always felt, was that “generic” people were forced into their lot not by external circumstances, but by inadequate levels of ingenuity and poor decision-making skill. They were not only, as the story went, disgraces to themselves, but possible detriments to the national character as well, at a time when free-wheeling American vivacity and spontaneity were still being touted as the cultural forces that would turn Soviet citizens against their masters during the late stages of the Cold War. “Generic” people were incapable of rising to their task as cultural liberators; shuffling automatically and incuriously through life, showcasing such a total deficit of ambition that they practically necessitated the creation of a unique line of consumer goods that responded to their flat affects and self-reduced personal standards.

Enough said.

That product line, in a not-so-distant past, was unmistakeable when encountered in the pre-WalMart era of suburban American supermarkets. Entire “generic aisles” were comprised from solid walls of black text on opaque yellow packaging, with individual products from cookies to breakfast cereal to beer, blending together in a single uniform mass only interrupted by the exposed white strips of metal shelving. It was an artless spectacle that nevertheless could compete with the most sublime works of the Minimalist masters (Donald Judd, Carl Andre etc.) in terms of memorability and semantic clarity. A closer look at the product offerings revealed little more than what could be ascertained from a distance: the already stark two-color printing process was given more imposing weight by the total absence of any additional graphic elements aside from purely functional ones (e.g. UPC codes and ‘nutritional information’ charts), and the black block text announcing the packages’ contents contained no listing of the products’ benefits to the consumer, no elaborative pictograms, nor really any additional subtext to persuade or entice. Elements that might have contributed to both visual and haptic distinction, like the universally recognizable fluted surface and grooves of the Coke bottle, were also ignored.

Given what has already been said about the gravitational pull of full-color American exuberance as a cultural force, this anti-marketing strategy couldn’t have lasted forever (one notable modern holdout is the wholly “generic” Canadian supermarket No Frills), and such generic products eventually made way for somewhat less austere “house brands” featuring an actual modicum of graphic design work. In the absence of such packaging, iconoclastic graphic designers like Art Chantry are left to unironically lament how “everything is so ‘pretty’ now in the grocery aisle.”[i]

The memorable placement of these generic packages in Alex Cox’ 1984 film Repo Man (see above) begins to hint at the erstwhile omnipresence of these products, while re-purposing them as visual signifiers of cultural cynicism (though I occasionally meet Repo Man viewers who are under the impression that the no-brand “BEER” props were comical anomalies fashioned solely for the film). Numerous subcultural outliers in the U.S., and the Western world as a whole, would do generic packaging one better by apparently embracing it: the “generic” album from San Franciscan ‘art-damaged’ punks Flipper, which replicated the sterile black-on-yellow package design of generic foodstuffs to a “T,” was one watershed design that pointed towards a subcultural adoption of the generic anti-aesthetic as something superior to “proper,” element-rich graphic design. For one, appropriating generic design style for one’s own creative output communicated a certain resistance to being propagandized, and particularly in accepting the propaganda that consumer choices alone provided the molecular structure of a distinct identity (especially as it became steadily more obvious that the preemptively limited choices, in consumer goods as well as broadcast media and political candidates, did not represent everything really available or possible in the marketplace).

It is not that bold of an assertion to say that some kind of “genericism as resistance” has manifested in every multi-media, d.i.y. subculture to have existed from the late 1970s to present. This tenacity has existed in spite of repeated lessons from market researchers, such as Orth and Malkewitz, whose findings implied that “nondescript designs score low on sincerity, exictement and ruggedness, and average on competence and sophistication…these designs further generate impressions of ‘corporate’ and ‘little value for money’, and do not evoke happy memories.”[ii]

Then again, the above is not an exhaustive list of criteria for the appreciation of a given object, and generic packaging appropriated for artistic statements plays upon a different set of cultural impulses ranging from a distrust of arbitrariness to the many varieties of societal fatigue. For those inundated with other eye-popping pleas for attention defined by dancing typefaces and hyperreal graphic novelty, the attitude of “take it or leave it” challenge implied by mock-generic cultural products must have had (as it did for me) an attraction akin to the romantic curiosity one might feel for disengaged, aloof loners after being breathlessly propositioned by dozens of other prospective partners. Everyone from the “white label” underground of techno music to the more institutional (if just barely) culture of avant-garde classical have gambled on this psychological quirk with decent enough results: see, for example, the Swiss Hat Art label’s series of ‘modern classical’ masterworks on CD. Elsewhere, the packaging for my CD copy of the late Glenn Branca’s ecstatic Symphony №2 (The Peak of the Sacred) would be almost indistinguishable from a generic product bought at a Kroger supermarket in the early 1980s, save for the deviation of two contrasting text colors being featured on the cover.

Genericism re-envisioned as culture also telegraphs a commitment to essentiality, which is at the core of any ethical statement that this style hopes to make. Chantry, in his musing on the ‘house brand,’ notes that a key to their strategy was “to make the labeling look like they weren’t ‘wasting’ your precious grocery money on elaborate (i.e. expensive packaging…) it all got tossed out anyway, right?”[iii] In doing so, he touches upon a stance that was both ethic and aesthetic, and one which applies to many other non-musical creative artifacts of the late 20th century and beyond, executed in media that did not require packaging. While not consciously attempting to appropriate or comment on generic packaging, some major works of the avant-garde do capture something of this same contrarian attractiveness and ethical essentialism. One of conceptual artist On Kawara’s most noted works, his Today series of paintings consisting only of the painting’s date of completion rendered in white block lettering on a single-color background, effectively served as “packages” or framing devices for the artist’s own continual self-development: they were a kind of “embodied time” demonstrating aspects of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology (and, unfortunately, doing so in a way too complex to be fully laid out in this short article). Elsewhere, something like Aram Saroyan’s utra-minimalist poems, e.g. lighght (the entirety of which you have now just read), arguably took the “generic” quality of stark non-descriptiveness into the field of poetry. In the process, they reduced that field’s complex relationship with language to a purely declarative function, and in a way that was shocking enough to become the National Endowment of the Arts’ first bona fide funding controversy.

Rather than traveling further down this road, though, it would be wise to put on the brakes and state the perhaps obvious fact that a simple, nondescript, purely declarative design style has been the very lifeblood of corporate logos and luxury consumer goods for decades now. As to the latter, the marketing aims of the designer fragrance industry are much better encapsulated by something like the austere layout of the CK One bottle (arguably the first truly popular unisex fragrance in the U.S.) than by Katy Perry’s hilariously cloying, cat-shaped Meow container. It’s fascinating to consider how, simply by altering color schemes and diluting some of the blunt force of a bold / block typeface by going “lowercase”, changing the degree of kerning, etc., one can create “genericism” that exudes a much higher degree of “competence and sophistication” while also paying lip service to the essentialist “waste nothing” ethic. With the classical age of actually existing generic packaging behind us, a kind of carefully sculpted generic quality is a valuable weapon in the hands of marketing departments everywhere, and is a reliable alternative to adopt when humans’ limitless capacity for boredom and fatigue with established aesthetics comes into play once again. As in Dr. Seuss’ brilliant childrens’ fable The Sneetches, where a master salesman pits “star-bellied” and generically non-starred creatures against one another in a cyclical divide-and-conquer scheme, alternating acceptance and loathing of the nondescript seems to be an eternal recurrence.

Yet there is one relatively new feature of our current cultural and media landscape that is altering the rules of this game: the simple fact that the relevance of “packaging” itself is eroding. This is certainly true for the music business, as claimed by the Royal Designer for Industry Malcolm Garrett — himself the designer of the notorious “generic” carrying bag design for the Buzzcocks’ Another Music in A Different Kitchen LP:

Packaging is just one interface to the music. The application of creative energy, which once saw physical expression in record sleeves, posters, and club flyers, is now realized in ‘soft’ ways. The interface is now digital, but no less compelling. The point of access is the package, and consequently, identity is expressed in ways that complement rather than define the music.[iv]

Garrett’s invocation of the “interface” brings us right back to the present age of social media, and the “internet of everything,” and their attendant imperatives for all to sacrifice their privacy in order to become recognizable creators of “content.” Musing upon these things also, after a fashion, brings us to what was initially so rewarding about announcing one’s creative presence to the world with a strictly uninformative data set. For some, this may have come from nothing else than a contrarian urge, but this was also informed by anonymity as a strategy, i.e. the hope that an austere interface would force prospective fans, supporters or friends to engage in direct contact and communicate unhindered by symbolic distractions, while also repelling those who could not be bothered to do so.

The new equivalent of “genericist” counter-cultural revolt might be nothing other than a voluntary refusal of the dopamine rush of recognition provided by social media networks, and limitation of personal disclosure to the most purely declarative: something like the Geneva Convention injunction that captured combatants provide captors with no information other than “name, rank, and serial number.” To be sure, there will be a whole new repertoire of schoolyard insults ready to be launched when this strain of non-conformity finally becomes perceived as a genuine force, and when an individual’s level of usefulness to society becomes defined not by their skill in production or consumption, but in their degree of commitment to omnipresence (read: constant ability to be monitored and administered). As always, insults will be loudly bleated by schoolchildren, but only in imitation of those adults who have been successfully propagandized to see any degree of independent thought and action as existential threats.

[i] Chantry, A. (2015). Art Chantry Speaks. Port Townsend: Feral House.

[ii] Orth, U. & Malkewitz, Kevin (2008). “Holistic Package Design and Consumer Brand Impressions.” Journal of Marketing, 72(3).

[iii] Chantry (2015).

[iv] Garrett, M. (2015). “Bsolete?” Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, 161.

Sound artist, psychopathologist, author of “To Hear The World With New Eyes,” “MicroBionic, ”“Unofficial Release” and “Sonic Phantoms” (with Barbara Ellison).

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