Archaeology from the Future

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Now I am certain. This 12th century earthenware IS package design. Likewise, this bottle of rum, circa early 2000 AD, is an archaeological find. At least that is the way I would like to see it. And for that matter, all other package design I see. The only real difference between the artifacts on the shelves and those dug from deep beneath the ground is…time. Through visual signifiers, they both will tell stories of the way people had lived their lives, the things they valued and the things they needed.

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Its crazy to think about humanity, at some point far off into the future…when we are long gone and all that is left of us is the objects we held dear. What will be there to indicate how we lived our lives and who will be there to reflect on it? Will the data be there, easy as a touch screen to access on carbon-dated ipads? Or will he, like the archaeologists before, dig into the ground looking for signs of material culture representing our time? Will the samples be excavated from the dirt or from landfills of trash? One can only wonder. It may seem like a morbid fascination. But for me, its actually quite inspiring to know that package designers might just end up being some of the most significant representatives to tell the stories of our era. And while 12th century pottery is marvelous and rare, we are left to wonder how truly relevant and pervasive is the meaning told in story on the face panel. At least in our time, we can be sure that the legacy we leave, in most cases will have been thoroughly tested in focus groups from across the land. In effect, designers are the crystallizers of meaning.

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Before I go on, let me assure that, despite the incredible similarities between these to “packages”, this is not an indictment of the later designer. We see packaging all the time that is the revival of almost forgotten ideals. How many other liquor brands have you seen with wax seals or faux taxation labels sealing the cap? I’ve always assumed that such recreations were intentional—strategic brand expression choices targeted to the precise target audience. But is it possible that there is also something else going on here?

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The octopus on the pottery most likely represents folklore about the sea. Perhaps it’s a cautionary tale meant for the next seafarer foretelling of the dangers of setting sail. Or are we actually looking at a vessel, also used to hold spirits, foretelling of the dangers of drunkenness? Is the image of an octopus a representation of a mysterious and frightening creature from the abyss or is it simply a metaphor about the darkest depth of the unconscious reveal its ugly head under conditions of total intoxication and loss of self-control? Whether the octopus is a cautionary tale about the sloshing of the ocean or the sloshing of our bellies, we can be sure that there is a mythology that has withstood thousands of years of being adrift and drowning in excess.

All of this…gathered from a label on a bottle of rum? The immense similarity between these two artifacts is remarkable considering their distance in time. It tells me that symbols and their meaning might not be so temporal and fragile. It reminds me that through design, ideas are preserved and transferred through each living being that walks upon the earth, from birth to death, from brain to brain, throughout the generations.

With that, I return to my next project as a prophet and visionary inspired. Is it possible that the next face panel of frozen dinners I work on will say something crucial to my children’s, children’s children? One has to hope.

By Michael Colton

Design Strategy Director, Brandimage