The Trouble with Clever

15 Feb

Clever is good. Clever makes you stand out. Clever leads to innovation and originality.

Clever can also confuse people. This is a story about that.

Pokémon Battle Poppers game

One of my primary clients over the last two years is a creative agency here in Seattle that designs games — board games, card games, party games, and so on. Being that I’m a nut for games of all kinds, this client is able to put projects in front of me that are right in my wheelhouse. They also have access to projects with well known licenses and retail destinations, like Pokémon and Toys-R-Us.

Last summer I was tasked with creating the art assets for a new game called Pokémon Battle Poppers. It’s a skill-based strategy game with some elements of customization. Basically, advanced tiddly-winks with unique abilities and tricks for each piece. My job was to design the packaging, rules, and game pieces around an existing style guide provided by Pokémon USA.

The entire game was designed to be self-contained, closing up into its own carrying case. The top of the case lifted off to reveal a wide, low black bowl with all of the game components inside. When the game was played, the goal was to launch your pieces — or “Battle Poppers” — into the bowl. Because the Pokémon “Pokéball” icon is so well known, it seemed like an obvious move to make the product resemble one.

The “Cradle Box” rendered without artwork.

This meant that the game had such a striking visual presence by itself that any enclosed packaging would just hide one of our primary selling points — that here was a game that looked like a Pokéball. We wanted to show it off. My first task was to create a packaging dieline that would show off as much as the product as possible, while keeping it standing stable on a shelf.

We tried a number of package models. Some consisted of a box that completely enclosed the product, with a window to show it off. Some were built to be shrink-wrapped. The concept we liked the most was one made from a single piece of E-flute corrugate printed on one side. It cradled the game, leaving about three-quarters of the Pokéball design completely exposed, and avoided strange stretching and puckering issues we had with shrink-wrapped models.

Back-of-Package artwork for Pokémon Battle Poppers game

The back panel covered about half of the product surface. This gave us a reasonable amount of space to show off the game in action, while keeping the carrying case handle functional. Everyone involved was excited about the packaging shape. As I put the artwork for it together, I was even able to create a few dramatic “pop-ups”, to capitalize on both the official Pokémon artwork and some “flying” shots of Battle Poppers in action. The design of the box was impressive; we used a single sheet of cardboard, and we got great mileage out of it.

Unfortunately, the product never made a big splash. But why?

It tested really well with kids across the boards. It was built around a high-profile, high-demand IP. It made it onto shelves at Toys-R-Us without any trouble. The problem was that despite all the cleverness in its presentation, Moms shopping for toys and games didn’t get it.

We made a game that presented like a toy. If Mom went to the store looking for a game for the kids, she walked right past it because it wasn’t immediately recognizable as a game. If Mom went in looking for a toy, she’d pick it up thinking it looked like a carrying case for action figures, but would then discover that it wasn’t that at all.

All of which is really sad when you consider that the game inside is a ton of fun, whether you’re 8 or 38. All of our best efforts to show the coolness of the game in action — which we believe we did really well — were overpowered by the fact that it didn’t immediately register in peoples’ eyes as a game on the shelf. Between the game case and the packaging style, we created an unclear message as to what the product actually was. All a result of having something really clever, and wanting to show it that way.

Clever is good. It can’t replace clarity though; the two need to work together. When they do, the result is brilliant design. When they don’t, it’s just confusion.

Lesson learned, and not to be forgotten any time soon.


Outside the Box

14 Feb

Ah, the fluid nature of being a contractor. I take on projects, I finish projects, I look for the next project. For the last 18 months, I’ve been blessed that things have just sort of lined up ahead of me, and I’ve stayed busy without having to do much self-promoting. My current contract is up at the end of February, so it’s time to make things line up once more.

This is the “postcard” that I’ve been sending out to help drum up new business for myself over the last few weeks. As the picture says, I typically design retail packaging that helps to sell the product inside, but selling my services as a designer can’t be done quite the same way. It’s a little strange for me to be working with such an open canvas, particularly one that doesn’t have to fit on a store shelf.

The client’s a friend though, so I did it for free.

Super because I said so

26 Aug

The popular children’s TV show hits retail software shelves. Box art ©TOPICS Entertainment.

When we created the retail packaging for PBS Kids PLAY!, it opened the doors for us to work with other licenses in the PBS Kids family. Out Of The Blue Enterprises came to us with SuperWHY: The Power to Read! in the spring of 2010. I was thrilled to once again be creating packaging with such a high-profile and well-loved educational IP.

The reverse of SuperWHY: The Power to Read! Box art © TOPICS Entertainment.

Working with Out Of The Blue to create the box was a true exercise in collaboration; they knew exactly what kind of cover illustration they wanted in keeping with the branding of their DVD products, and we knew the kind of information hierarchy that made for high-impact packaging on a retail software shelf. With just a few back-and-forth passes between our art department and their brand managers, we were able to create a box that featured strong and immediate brand recognition as well as the clean “title / image / features” triple-focus that we knew makes for a successful package presentation.

The interior plays up the “interactive storybook”-style gameplay by presenting each of the four featured characters in their own brightly colored book layout. The bright, structured formatting is easy to follow and visually appealing to children just learning the basic process of reading a page.

The interior spread for SuperWHY: The Power to Read! Box art ©TOPICS Entertainment.

Over the waterfall, on a pallet

19 Aug

Yesterday I showed off the warehouse shopping club pallet display for my language learning software boxes. Today I’m bringing out the DVD display.

A pallet display for DVD gift packs. Images and box art ©TOPICS Entertainment.

Not all pallet displays are created equal. While yesterday’s example was ideal for placing in the center of an open space on its own, this is designed primarily for use as an end cap. The difference is in the arrangement of the product display trays. This particular configuration is referred to as a “waterfall”. It’s optimally viewed from the front, is functional from the sides, but has almost no value from behind. It’s a more dramatic look than yesterday’s sample, but the language display is equally accessible from all four sides.

Detail of the holiday DVD pallet skirt. Artwork ©TOPICS Entertainment.

The skirt, this time, was intended to promote the DVD gift sets as an ideal holiday item – but we needed to be non-specific as to exactly which holiday we were referring to. My solution was to use flat, tone-on-tone imagery and typography that related back to the classic American WPA posters of the 1930’s and 40’s, complete with slight color mis-registration (entirely intentional). The DVDs above may not feature Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, but shifting the consumer’s thoughts to that sort of holiday atmosphere helps connect them to this product on an emotional level.

You may recognize one of the DVD boxed sets on the display from one of my previous posts. Not every product you see there is necessarily “real”; we’d often dummy in artificial product when creating a marketing piece for retailers. Some of the titles are real products though, and will probably even find their way into posts on this site, in time.

Four products from the holiday DVD pallet display. Box art ©TOPICS Entertainment.

A box full of boxes

18 Aug

I’ve shown you the special box I created for Instant Immersion language learning software. So how was the box merchandised when it reached the big-box club stores? In an even bigger box.

A pallet skirt display created for Instant Immersion software. Box art and image ©TOPICS Entertainment.

Several of the large warehouse clubs (Sam’s, Costco, and B.J.’s  for example) employ what are called “pallet programs”. Basically, the products are shipped to the stores on large wooden shipping pallets… and are then just dropped right in the middle of the floor, pallet and all. It saves the retailer a bunch of time that would otherwise be spent unloading products and stocking shelves. While the concept alone would seem to lack style, there are tricks to making it all seem to be more than it is.

We created what are known as “pallet skirts”. Simply put, they’re giant cardboard sleeves that slide down over a stack of pre-loaded cardboard display trays. The whole thing ships as one big unit, protected by an outer shipping box. When it arrives, the store removes the outer box, opens the sleeve and throws it over the trays, and they’re done. When the product on top sells out, they can lift up the pallet skirt, put the full trays from below on top, using the empty trays as a base, and replace the pallet skirt.

As such, we as the product’s publisher and distributer get four huge, billboard-like surfaces to use to market the products within the pallet. In this case, we reproduced the front-of-box motif at larger than life proportions. What works as an eye-catching box from eight feet away now becomes an eye-catching display from half a football field away!

A closer look: SWORDS

27 Jul

SWORDS: Life on the Line - Season 1 DVD collection. Box art ©TOPICS Entertainment.

Here’s another dip into both the contents of my current physical portfolio and one of my earliest posts, Boxes with brand names.

The back panel from SWORDS. Box art ©TOPICS Entertainment.

The cover image Fremantle Media™ had provided us with was epic. My challenge was to make the rest of the box feel every bit as exciting and action-packed as that image of the swordfish being reeled in in a storm. With only a few promotional and screen shots from the show, and none quite as dramatic as the cover, I turned to stock photography. By manipulating the contrast, color balance and lighting tones, I was able to recreate the feel of the storm over an infinite, unforgiving ocean, and used these new images to fill the backgrounds on the interior and reverse. Then, to carry the dynamic rolling sea from the front cover through the rest of the box, I turned all of my content just a bit on its ear. The end result, I’m proud to say, is one of the most dramatic retail packages I’ve created.

The interior spread from SWORDS. Box art ©TOPICS Entertainment.

Iconography for falling stars

19 Jul

Six icons for a board game I’m creating. Images ©Sean Fletcher.

Here’s a quick glimpse at some early-working-stage elements for a board game I’m creating and designing in my spare time. In my game, players manipulate constellations in a sky filed with six different kinds of stars. These six icons represent the forces associated with the stars in the game’s sky.

In time, I’ll show off more of the game as it comes together. In the meantime, this seems like a fitting point to shamelessly hype my other blog: