Unpacking the Pastoral Food Package: Myth-Making in Graphic Design
Wheat sheaf by wheat sheaf, sunrise by sunrise, the packages on grocery store shelves have been designed to look more like nature than they really are.
The expanding market of health- and environmentally-conscious consumers has intensified processed food companies’ focus on visuals and verbiage that equate their products to fresh, healthy, unprocessed foods. Designers working with food clients are expected to maintain myths about food production and the healthy attributes of processed foods. Packaging design attempts to add a level of emotional resonance to products, ideally connecting consumers to a natural environment and tradition through agrarian imagery far removed from the reality of a boxed, processed package taken from the supermarket shelf. An enormous range of packaging designs overwhelms and confuses the consumer. Together they create a landscape of fictitious imagery that is disconnected from the realities of food production today and perpetuates a lack of understanding about food.
I entered the ultimate consumer paradise—the modern American supermarket—through a veritable garden of tempting, fresh apples, pomegranates, and limes piled up like rolling hills sparkling with artificial dew. These mountainous shapes found an echo in the imagery adorning the packages of the Kraft cheese, Organic Valley milk, and Yoplait yogurts that sat in the neighboring fridges. Logistically, it would make more sense for consumers to pick up the vegetables last, but consumer enticement has dictated this layout in almost every supermarket. The cornucopia of fresh food gives shoppers a feeling of perceived healthiness as they add these first items to their baskets. A fridge nearby offered juice drinks stacked up in neat, vertical towers. Their cardboard cartons were decorated with copious amounts of fruit, fluorescent two-dimensional representations of their neighbors.
I strolled down the cereal aisle surrounded by the verdant fields of the Cascadian Farm logos, the decadent bowls of fruit on the Kellogg’s Special K boxes and the wheat sheaf motifs on Corn Flakes, Cheerios and Corn Kix packages. The farmhouses and picket fences illustrated on their cardboard coverings evoked a bucolic existence. I began to notice that the supermarket lights added a shine to everything, like the sun that featured so prominently on almost all the cereal packages.
As I moved further into the supermarket, the boxed items become increasingly disconnected from the hills of fruit and vegetables at the entrance—but the images of nature and the landscape grew more insistent. In the freezer section, the shopping experience can become emotional; if one is conflicted by health concerns and the desire for the speed and comfort that frozen ready meals provide. Food packaging helps alleviate some of these tensions, equating the product with fresh produce through images of nature on the front of the microwavable box.
An unsettling sensation came over me when I was reminded me of a conversation with food brand strategist Tess Wicksteed who believes “the job of food packaging is to make the food look real and fresh.”1 But the essential dilemma is that a food product even having a package is at odds with the idea of freshness. There were more images of farms and ranches in the supermarket than I ever recall seeing at a farmer’s market. I began to suspect that I was surrounded by murky cardboard illusions that were spinning a pastoral fantasy.
Even a simple egg carton raises a lot of questions: do I want natural or farm fresh? What does farm fresh even mean? Cage free or free-range? Is “cage free” not the same as “free-range”? (Not quite, as it turns out: “cage-free” does not necessarily indicate that the egg-laying hens have been given outdoor access.) Meanwhile, the images of hens running around in the open air suggested that the eggs were free-range, but they were not. Designer Andrew Strauss told me that “years ago, food companies could just say natural but now consumers are looking for organic, even though they don’t know what it means, but they know it must be healthier.” 2 Such haziness plays straight into the hands of unscrupulous food companies, who rely on the ignorance of consumers coupled with confusing verbiage to make their products seem organic or healthy, even when they are neither.
Wheat sheaf by wheat sheaf, sunrise by sunrise, the packages on grocery store shelves have been designed to look more like nature than they really are. For years, I had equated the design quality of a package with the quality of the food inside. I had bought into this pastoral fantasy for the sake of a more pleasant shopping and eating experience. Once I began to notice these recurring, exaggerated images, I became concerned about the role that graphic design plays in perpetuating this comforting, but ultimately precarious, pastoral myth.