Wednesday, June 17, 2009

An Icon, Despite Itself

What is the unbreakable rule of “good design”? It is not looking great, or being dazzlingly innovative. Nor is it reflecting changes in the way we see the world, or even scoring lots of environmental and ethical points.

Great though all of those things are, design can still be “good” without them. The one thing design must do is fulfill its function efficiently. If not, it risks looking ridiculous, regardless of whatever else it has to offer.

Yet there is one example of something that is generally considered to be “good design,” which does break the golden rule. It is part of our daily lives, and has been designed to similar specifications for more than a century — the glass Heinz Tomato Ketchup bottle. If you asked the millions of people who use that glass bottle whether it is well designed, they would probably say “yes.” If not they would be fools, because they could achieve exactly the same outcome — seasoning their food with fresh ketchup — by buying one of Heinz’s plastic bottles, which are not only cheaper, but do the job more efficiently.

The job in question does not sound particularly challenging. It is to protect and preserve the ketchup, and to enable it to be extracted quickly and easily. The glass bottle executes the first part perfectly well, but not the second. Heinz Ketchup is what is called a “pseudoplastic” substance, which thickens when static, and thins again when moved. This means that it clogs up in the bottle, becoming too thick to pour. You can thin it again by shaking the bottle, but risk making the ketchup so runny, that it gushes out in a splodge.

There are various ways around this. If you tap the neck of the bottle, it should release the ketchup. (Heinz has helpfully identified the best place to tap, with the number 57 on the American bottle and the royal crest on the British one.) You can also try plunging a knife into the ketchup, though that could get messy. An alternative is to use either the squeezable plastic bottle or upside down one that Heinz has devised to solve this problem. Some 75 percent of Heinz Tomato Ketchup is now sold in plastic bottles. So why do millions of people still choose to pay more for a glass bottle, which will not work as well?

The obvious answer is because they like it. (I should come clean here by admitting that I like the glass bottle too, though not the taste of tomato ketchup — Heinz’s or anyone else’s.) What makes that glass bottle seem so special that we are willing to overlook its shortcomings?

One reason is that it looks familiar. Heinz patented the original in 1882, and has refined its design over the years, although the basic shape of the gracefully curved neck and sturdy base has stayed the same, as has the geometric silhouette of the label.

But familiarity is not necessarily attractive. It is just as likely to seem dull, as seductive. Heinz has succeeded in triggering fond childhood memories of its glass ketchup bottles and respect for its corporate heritage, without seeming to be stuck in the past. The subtle changes in the bottle’s design have helped, but so does its styling. There is nothing fussy or flamboyant about the glass or labels; instead they seem gentle, uncomplicated and reassuring. Critically, they look uncontrived, which is much more appealing than the truth: that every element of their design has been carefully planned and executed to create the illusion that the bottle has evolved organically.

Take the glass. The shape is dictated by the bottle’s function, which gives it a pleasingly no-nonsense air. The smooth neck eases the flow of ketchup (once you’ve unclogged it) and the octagonal base ensures that the bottle nestles comfortably in your hand. The weight is just right — heavy enough to feel substantial, but not too much so — and there is no need for eco-neurosis, because the glass can be recycled. The only hint of decoration is the row of tiny 57s carved on to the neck as a reminder of Heinz’s “57 Varieties” slogan, which was coined by the founder Henry John Heinz to impress the public with the breadth of his product range. (The company made more than 60 products at the time, but he chose 57, because 5 was his lucky number and 7 his wife’s.)

The labels are styled in the same spirit. The colors are restrained: just black, red, green and gold (a muted gold, not a blingy one) against a white background. The letters are printed in the bold strokes of hand-drawn typography with tiny traditional serifs at the ends to hint at Heinz’s heritage. The only decorative motif is an illustration of a tomato growing on a vine rendered in the style of early botanical drawings. It strikes another nostalgic note, but balances it with a contemporary one by soothing our eco-concerns with the gentle reminder that Heinz ketchup contains lots of natural ingredients.

Last but not least, the glass bottle is a great example of democratic design. Like the Apple iPod, a Rawlings baseball and 3M’s Post-it Notes, Heinz Ketchup is a rare example of a best-selling brand that is also generally considered to be best in class. It would seem silly to splash out on a more expensive alternative, especially as the glass bottle affirms its stellar status.

That is why Heinz Tomato Ketchup is one of the very few branded products you see in its original packaging in expensive restaurants. “Sometimes we have to accept that we can’t better something that already exists,” said Jeremy King, who co-owns The Wolseley in London and is now re-opening The Monkey Bar in New York. “When a customer asks for ketchup they generally want Heinz. The iconic glass bottle reassures them that they are getting it.” Quite a coup for something that does not really do its job properly.


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