Should you ever get the chance to sit down with Margherita Porra for a chat about packaging, you may find yourself free-diving into a spirited discussion on the history of design, fashion, and cultural trends.
In our hour-long conversation, the erudite founder of Arithmetic Creative shone a light on her process for redesigning the look and feel of Woodlot’s packaging, waded into the history behind the loaded term unbranded, and delved into the Maker movement and its effect on corporate branding.
Here are a few highlights from our animated discussion with one of Vancouver’s brightest design visionaries.
On Designing the Woodlot match strike
The image of the match strike is so simple and easy to understand, but it has multiple meanings—there’s a deeper, underlying dialogue there. You may not notice it the first time, but the more times you see it, the more it reveals.
When I was spending time away from the city, I kept thinking about how nature can be so lush and beautiful and abundant; how it can be destroyed, yet it can rebuild itself, and how that can be a metaphor for our own lives and problems.
A huge fire wiped out a massive forest on the way to the cabin I share with my husband, and the first time we went there, we felt devastated as we drove through the barren land that was once home to endless trees. But over the years we’ve witnessed the flowers and moss growing back, and now the trees that were just charcoal are growing leaves again. It got me thinking about the power of fire, and the idea of igniting something: whether it’s igniting creativity or giving life to change. This particular fire was started by a careless act—one simple strike can mean so much—but nature has rebuilt itself, just as we can rebuild ourselves.
I’m so fascinated with the cycle of life: the more time I spend in nature, the more I’m inspired by it. Even just watching tall birch trees in a storm: when you see the storm, it’s this intense wildness, but the trees just bend with it. They’re still standing afterwards because of their deep roots. I think we all aspire toward that kind of flexibility and resilience.
The other side of the match strike was the idea of tension. You can’t light a match without friction. You need a rough surface to create that flame. It’s that friction and tension that takes the work that we already thought was good, to be so much better. To me the match strike is a perfect metaphor for Woodlot because Sonia and Fouad are always innovating. They never want to be stagnant or rest on their laurels. Rebuilding is a huge part of innovation and their process with Woodlot.
On Telling Woodlot’s Story
Sonia and Fouad have such a great story, so the new packaging is influenced by their personal histories. That to me was the missing part from their branding and packaging—Sonia being Indian, and Fouad being from Lebanon—they both have such rich personal stories that so are ingrained in how they make their products. To not talk about it visually seemed like a disservice.
Since I didn’t want to overshadow or disrespect the space the brand had already been living in, I didn’t include any patterning on the outside. Instead, I focused on creating a hybrid design to mix the Indian and Lebanese influences, on the inside of the box—which is also a reflection of how Sonia and Fouad built their business. The inspiration for how they were raised is there on the inside, just as that inspiration appears visually within the box.
On the Power of Personal Artifacts
Everyone has objects that mean something to them. Objects hold meaning, they tell stories. There a reason we find bizarre objects left hidden in tombs and pyramids from centuries ago: it’s because they meant something to people. They’re relics. When you’re getting to know people in a short period of time, you need to get them to open up. If you just straight-up ask people to answer questions, you’ll get the answers they’re used to telling—you won’t necessarily get something that will unlock the layers. I find it’s great to ask people about a sentimental object, because even if the object doesn’t outright inspire a later design, the conversation that comes from them talking about the object can be very influential.
On Library Books
I remember spending hours in the library. I’d beg the librarian to let me photocopy the private selection of books because I couldn’t take them out—the knowledge in those books was my golden inspiration. But now all you need to do is go to Pinterest and take a few screengrabs. We’re in this volume-creation mode. We’re creating so exponentially right now and exhausting ourselves. It’s kind of nuts to me. (laughs)
Years ago, when I made my first distress print, I literally opened up a photocopy machine and let the light flood in. Then I took the sheet of black, crumpled it, pulled it out, and did it again and again—I had toner all over my face, and on my shirt—then I flattened it, scanned it, traced it in Photoshop, and turned it into a vector so I could have the most authentic distress possible. Now you can buy ready-made vector distress online—but the difference is in the authenticity. People can tell when something has been touched by hand, and that resonates.
On Package Design as Gift-Giving
Materiality was so important to us: the tactility of how these boxes feel. I’ve always looked at packaging as gifts. I love picking out gifts for people, but I don’t think we give enough gifts to ourselves. Since we are consumers, we naturally buy things—so what better way to utilize the skill set of packaging, than to help people gift something to themselves?
I look at a box as not just a vessel to protect—that is one function of it for sure, to keep the object safe—but how can we make the box look like a gift in a store, and then behave like a gift later on? Say you bought a candle for yourself because it looked interesting or pretty in the store. When you take it home and open it, you’re forced to have a moment with yourself: with the string tied around the washer, it’s a forced slowness. You can’t just rip it open and throw it away. Instead you start to feel the preciousness of the product, and your personal experience with it. As you open the white box there’s a build-up, and that surprise splash of colour inside offers a pleasant surge of delight.
Sometimes unbranded refers to the logo, sometimes the packaging, sometimes the experience of the brand. So it depends on how we’re looking at it. It’s a catch-all term that can mean different things to different people. Typically unbranded is defined as stripped-down, with a simple minimalistic logo, and not a lot of text or colour. I’ve been designing for close to 15 years now, so it’s great to see the cycles and trends repeating. Once you’ve been around awhile, you realize that these “of the moment” trends have deeper roots.
...for Big Brands
When you dig into the world of unbranded fashion, we see big brands stripping down their image, which serves a different purpose than it would for smaller brands and Makers. Selfridges has a sub-shop in their boutique called Quiet where they’ve taken big iconic brands and unbranded them. So you’ve got big brands like Nike without the swoosh and Levi’s without the arch—which amplifies the unbranded trend.
Simpler designs that are less focused on the name of the brand and logo can be quite beautiful and enticing, but it’s working most effectively for capsule collections of big brands because they have the cachet of a known brand. A customer can look at the indigo denim so synonymous with 501 jean and know that it’s Levi’s. You can see a certain running shoe, and know it’s Nike. Big brands can afford to dip into the unbranded trend; whereas with makers who just started their own business it’s a different situation, because no one knows who they are yet. If you look like everyone else [by following the unbranded trend], how can you create awareness and stand out in a crowded marketplace? It’s important to distinguish between a carefully minimalist product range with a clear brand focus, and that of something so completely stripped down that it lacks memorability.
There’s a lot of beauty, body care, and home brands that are stripped down and minimalist. Everyone is starting to look the same. [The unbranded design] is lacking memorability, and it’s very easy to replicate. So when there’s a lack of visual storytelling, who’s to say the next person can’t emulate it? It’s much harder to copy things that are deeper and personalized and an expression of the maker’s unique story.
[The market] is changing so quickly, and it’s only getting quicker and quicker. At first my heart pangs for all these makers, but then I think, no it’s okay. It forces the maker who’s doing their thing to move on to something new and different. One of my favourite things about makers is how ingenuity is ingrained in the way they think and behave. They’re constantly evolving, often because they don’t have an abundance of income or resources at their fingertips. One of my favourite sayings is: scarcity forces innovation. The lack of is what forces creativity: whether it’s a lack of money or materiality—that’s what forces the creativity.