Ten Years, Ten Lessons in Design

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Rick Barrack, Chief Creative Officer and Founder of CBX, has over ten years experience working in the creative industry. In this article, he describes the ten lessons he has learned over ten years in design. 

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I have two young daughters, and every year at their birthday parties, as they lean in to blow out the candles on their cakes, I find myself reflecting back on every single year of their lives. So you might imagine that I’m also feeling sentimental about the tenth anniversary of CBX, the brand agency I helped found with some colleagues back in 2003.

I’ve seen a lot of changes in the branding game over the course of a decade, and I’ve seen even more changes within our own company. My staff, my clients and my fellow partners have all taught me valuable lessons – at least one per year for the last ten years. And let me tell you: They’re not at all what you’d expect. Along the way, we’ve made Fem Care cool, drug stores chic and learned the hard way to “Keep it simple, stupid” (what I say to myself, not to my staff).

So here are some of the most significant things I’ve learned, in no particular order:

1. Black is the new black.

In 2009, CBX was asked to help position Kimberly-Clark’s U by Kotex* brand for Millennials, an audience who previously hadn’t given Kotex the time of day. After research proved that this audience wanted products that reflected who they really are (not just their mother’s daughters), we made a bold decision to use black packaging – the polar opposite of the whites and pastels used by other brands – in our packaging. The boxes popped off the shelf and had real attitude, and as a result, U by Kotex* shook up the category and created a new paradigm in feminine care.

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2. Design can feel good.

We all know that design can look good – but it can also feel good, which I learned when CBX create a strategy and retail presence for Fare & Square, a supermarket in Chester, PA, for non-profit organization Philabundance. Located in a Delaware Valley “food dessert,” Fare & Square helps the residents of Chester – which has been without a grocery store since 2001 – gain convenient access to “good food right around the corner,” including fresh produce, meats, dairy, seafood, and frozen foods. We helped establish a warm look and feel for this prototype store, and it felt damn good to be involved in such a kick-a&* project.

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3. You can improve upon a classic.

If you told me when I was 25 that I’d be working with M&M/Mars one day, I would’ve said, “Come on.” Helping iconic brands stand the test of time and continue to attract new audiences is my passion. Our packaging for M&Ms put a fresh spin on a beloved classic. By playing into the Pavlovian reaction that customers have when they hear the product being poured into a bowl, we’ve featured a bowl full of M&Ms right on pack. Our seasonal designs also personified the candies in a way that had applications across various holidays, including Christmas, Halloween and Valentine’s Day.

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4. Pets are people, too.

One of the categories that’s seen the most growth since CBX’s inception is the pet food category. Our packaging design for Milo’s Kitchen, a new brand in the “real meat treat” category for dogs, was built around the idea that dog owners treat their pets as members of their family, and as such, want to give them the kind of food they themselves eat. The final brand name and packaging graphics highlight the connection between human beings and their dogs, one that I totally relate to now that we’ve added a dog into our family mix.

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5. Beverage tastes come and go, and go, and go.

Our clients are always telling us that our people are what make CBX so special, and why they come back to us again and again. We’ve been lucky enough to work with Snapple continually since our inception, and have seen the brand go from beverage leader during the ice tea boom days to a brand moving into new territory such as bottled water. From redesigning a new Snapple iced tea to Snap2O, we’re happy to ride the kooky refreshment wave with Snapple, no matter what is going on in the industry.

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6. Drug stores can be chic.

Chic, you say? Yes, chic – and cool, too. We helped NYC’s biggest drug store chain stave off the competition and bring its new positioning, New York Living Made Easy, to life by rolling out new and innovative designs for more than 250 stores; creating five private label brands with a distinctly New York sensibility; and developing unique marketing collateral like The Duane Reader. Products ranging from coffee to nuts got a dose of New York iconography and branding on their package. We also created my personal favorite, Brew York City – a growler bar where customers can fill growlers with dozens of different beers.

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7. Private label design is the new luxury.

It takes a lot to surprise me – but perhaps the biggest surprise I’ve had in the last ten years is the way that the private label category has stepped up its branding and design, giving national brands a reason to shake in their boots. It’s been an honor and a privilege to create amazing work for Duane Reade, Walgreens, Giant Eagle, and KMart. By seizing the day and recognizing what it takes to stand out in the drug store aisle (smart strategy, kick ass design), these private label brands have reinvented the way we think about the category.

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8. Less is more.

There is a saying, “Keep it simple, stupid,” that gained popularity in the 1960’s, and I must think about that saying on a daily basis. Brands like Apple and Target have always recognized that it’s better to create a clear, concise message and design with a lot of white space than the bog down packaging with text and overwrought design. Fortunately, in the past ten years since CBX was created, a lot of brands have jumped on the KISS bandwagon, and I believe this is for the better. We’ve incorporated “KISS” into our work for so many of our clients, namely Walgreens Nice!, Milo’s Kitchen, Pillsbury Simply and Miracle-Gro Culinary Herb Garden, all of which utilize considerable white space, bold photography and clear messaging to make the product the star.

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9. Condom packaging can be hot (outside the bedroom).

I could make some lewd jokes about our work for LifeStyles condoms, but the truth is, it’s one of the projects that makes me feel incredibly proud. Like our work for U by Kotex*, Lifestyles presented an opportunity to speak to a new audience through a bold new look, naming convention and package design. By highlighting the “Y” in some of the sub-brand names – Kyng, Wyld, Thryll – (for Y chromosome), communicating the brand’s sensorial promise, and switching to all-vertical packaging that maximized shelf space, we were able to help alter the LifeStyles brand perception and its place in the market. And there’s nothing hotter than that.

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10. Politics are anything but boring.

Look, I’m not really a political guy. But I AM a design guy, which is why I sit up and take notice during election years – of the party logos, that is. In 2010, after the Democratic and Republican parties unveiled boring new logos, my team and I took a stab at redesigning them, as well as one for the Tea Party (which still had credibility at the time). Posted on the FastCoDesign blog, our designs generated a good amount of debate, proving my belief that controversy is not just a stage for politicians. Design can create debate too. 

So there you go – my top ten lessons from the past ten years. Thanks for taking a trip down memory lane with me in honor of CBX’s 10th anniversary. The truth is, there are dozens of invaluable lessons I’ve learned, and each one is more inspiring than the next. Now bring on the next ten!

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RickBarrack.jpg

About Rick Barrack

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Rick is the Chief Creative Officer and a founding partner of brand agency CBX. With twenty years of expertise in consumer and retail branding, Rick is responsible for inspiring, directing and motivating creative teams to develop powerful design solutions.

Rick was chosen as one of Graphic Design USA's ‚"People to Watch‚" in 2010, and FastCompany‚ "100 Most Creative People in Business 2012."