As a commercial semiotician and qualitative market researcher, I conduct a considerable amount of qualitative market research on proposed packaging design. Over the last several years, my colleagues and I have realized that many packaging designers aspire to a specific prototype — one that is perhaps best typified by packaging for the Apple iPhone. This has become the platinum standard for sophisticated packaging design.
We kept seeing this approach in packaging research. From milk to light beer, from toothpaste to confectionary snack food – nothing was immune from the gravitational pull of ‘the sophistication of white white-space’. The problem is, non-designer consumers don’t see white that way – what they see is something much closer to the meat tin image to the left. This packaging design, all agree, is generic, plain, un-designed: the opposite of sophistication. The immediate, glaring difference is category mismatch: one is technology, the other is low-quality food. But why should that make such a difference? How can something so simple as white packaging be so complex? More specifically, how does technology that uses white simplicity connote complexity?
The answer? In technology, white is a construction: it’s a semiotic decision. The budgets that technology commands place a stronger emphasis on these semiotic decisions: although a decision was also made with generic Spam, the small budgets involved suggest that perhaps it wasn’t much of a decision after all (since we presume that black and white is cheaper to produce than colour). It’s the self-consciousness of white that denotes complexity – the self-referentiality of it – and that’s why designers love it – they love the irony of it. The underlying narrative is straight-forward:
- Technology gets increasingly complicated.
- The more complicated technology becomes, the more the user-interface (‘UI’) has to be seamless and simple.
- The ultimate goal of UI is ‘transparency’, i.e. you don’t even notice it’s there.
- Because in packaging, true transparency means invisibility, the practical colour of that idea is white.
On one level we know this idea is, of course, nonsense – we know damn well our mobile phones and SUVs are complex beyond our understanding . . . but it’s a lovely conceit, that this complexity is successful because it’s irrelevant to our experience: as long as the tech works, we don’t care.
In addition, it seems that in the artificial, modern, mediated world, white is the colour of untouched and therefore still limitless potential. Although paper seems to be in perpetual danger of becoming archaic, we still believe that people see white as the tabula rasa: it’s the colour of beginnings, of emptiness waiting for your personality to come and make an impression: it’s the colour of limitless potential, because it’s still awaiting the very first mark that starts to cut off infinite directions and possibilities.
We are challenged, however, by what these plastic washers represent: white-coloured technology that does not connote sophistication or limitless potential. These are plain white prototypes, precision-machined, and yet they hold no mystery, no implied technology, no aura of complexity. What was missing? We realized:
- It’s actually not about white.
- It’s actually about covering black with white
- Which means it’s really about:
- the dichotomy of black and white
- the binary opposition of black vs. white
- the [Western cultural] symbolism of black and white
- the spatial implications of inside vs. outside
If we return to the iPhone and its packaging, we realize that it is less about the white we see, and more about the interplay and implications of the dynamic between the white and the black, and the spatial relationship between the two: flawless, guileless, no-brainer white on top, but in knowing, self-aware cahoots with the indescribably complicated black within.
As with all best-in-class commercial semiotic analyses, ‘proof’ is best offered through example. The challenge: to demonstrate that, in contemporary Western culture, the specific semiotic code that allows ‘white’ to communicate technological sophistication is a very specific, layered relationship between black interiors (and all the complexity that implies) and white exteriors.
This is not difficult. Technology design has been driven, and inspired, by science and speculative fiction since, arguably, the 19th century. Contemporary proof of this chromatology code starts in 1968, with the EVA Pod from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. This technology has a white shell, and a black interior. It’s run by HAL 9000, the psychotic computer that tries to kill all the astronauts in its care: the Pod is clean and pristine on the outside, but inside is a black heart.
Next, is Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope (Episode IV, 1977). We speculate that Star Wars designers John Mollo, Andrew Ainsworth, and Nick Pemberton have had an incalculable impact on contemporary CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) packaging design with their original stormtrooper costume. You could argue that the massive box office success of Star Wars in 1977 helped to properly codify this narrative: white armour on top, but black underneath. In 1977, if felt shocking for the bad guys to be dressed in white. Any degree of soul-searching on this counter-intuitive decision leads to the very adult conclusion that the true nature of people lies on the inside, not the outside – and sure enough, when you look at stormtroopers, you can see that moral complexity and ambiguity – peeking through the gaps in the armour.
After the commercial and cultural successes of Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey many cultural texts paid homage. A clear example of ‘the stormtrooper effect’ is the 1997 music video above directed by Chris Cunningham for Björk’s song All Is Full Of Love. It was arguably influential, as far as music videos go. There may be no demonstrable signification of evil in the black under the white, but the levels of implicit complexity are almost unfathomable.
In his 2008 film Wall-E, director Andrew Stanton speaks directly to this code. In a 2008 interview with Fortune magazine he states, “I wanted Eve to be high-end technology – no expense spared – and I wanted it to be seamless and for the technology to be sort of hidden and subcutaneous.”
This plays out in a similar way in technology, hardware, and costume design in District 9 (2009), Tron: Legacy (2010), Prometheus (2012), and of course again in the Star Wars sequel, A Force Awakens (2015).
Outside of telecommunications technology, the code can also be found in automotive. Here is the 2011 Land Rover Evoque production model. These were launched with a widespread print campaign using this image: for the first 6 months of advertising, Evoques were all portrayed only in white:
As with Kubrick’s EVA Pod, all of the black is within, where you are to sit. You have become the black, encouraged by the semiotic code to position yourself emotionally as the complex moral ambiguity hiding inside, as the heart of darkness. Cool!
A collage of these images is effective at demonstrating that the dominant chromatology code for ‘high-tech, premium, leading-edge’ is clearly white:
The challenge that faces tomorrow’s designers – and the legions of consumers who will be obliged to navigate their designs – is how to apply this learning effectively across a wider range of CPG industries. It’s an easy path for consumer technology, but we believe the future of packaging could be very exciting for non-tech categories like toothpaste, light beer, potato chips, or tinned luncheon meat. That path is clear: in fact, it’s black and white.
Charles Leech is a partner at ABM Research, based in Toronto. Since his PhD in Applied Semiotics from QUT (in 1999), he’s been an active commercial semiotician and qualitative researcher, working on North American and global projects for clients from AB-InBev to Nestlé to Unilever. Charles has helped ABM deliver profound, penetrating analyses on everything from tampons in São Paulo to light beer in Xiamen. He’s also worked tirelessly on commercial semiotics evangelism to clients, marketing and research organizations, and pretty much anyone else who’ll listen.