Michael Bierut | Essays

Authenticity: A User's Guide

Packaging for Classico Pasta Sauce, Duffy Design Group, 1986

I've always considered radio the most verite of news sources, but a recent piece on the weekly National Public Radio show On the Media, "Pulling Back the Curtain", exposed how much work goes into making NPR's reporting sound so, well, real. "The public is far less aware of editing on radio than on television or in print," said reporter John Solomon. "For example, to eliminate words, a TV producer has to use more visible means, such as a cutaway shot or jump cut. Newspaper reporters by form must put a break between non-consecutive quotations, among other constraints." Solomon then demonstrated how a radio producer, in contrast, could digitally alter a recording to tighten awkward pauses, eliminate words, restructure sentences, all to create a new, improved, seamless and utterly convincing version of reality.

The show's host, Brooke Gladstone, suggested in her introduction to the piece that some listeners might be shocked by these revelations. And perhaps some were. But I found it absolutely familiar. Faking it? It's what we designers do all the time.

No one loves authenticity like a graphic designer. And no one is quite as good at simulating it. Recently on Speak Up, Marian Bantjes described the professional pride she took in forging a parking permit for a friend. "And I have to say," she admitted, "that it is one of the most satisfying design tasks I have ever undertaken." This provoked an outpouring of confessions from other designers who gleefully described concocting driver's licenses, report cards, concert tickets and even currency.

Every piece of graphic design is, in part or in whole, a forgery. I remember the first time I assembled a prototype for presentation to a client: a two-color business card, 10-point PMS Warm Red Univers on ivory Mohawk Superfine. The half-day process involved would be incomprehensible to a young designer working in a modern studio today; with its cutting, pasting, spraying, stirring and rubbing, it was more like making a pineapple upside-down cake from scratch. But what satisfaction I took in the final result. It was like magic: it looked real. No wonder my favorite character in The Great Escape wasn't the incredibly cool Steve McQueen, but the bewhiskered and bespeckled Donald Pleasence, who couldn't ride a stolen motorcycle behind enemy lines, but could make an imitation German passport capable of fooling the sharpest eyes in the Gestapo.

And the illusion works on yet another level. Consider: that business card was for a start-up business that until that moment had no existence outside of a three-page business plan and the rich fantasy life of its would-be founder. My prototype business card brought those fantasies to life. And reproduced en masse and handed with confidence to potential investors, it ultimately helped make the fantasy a reality. Graphic design is the fiction that anticipates the fact.

At Disney World, where as one might expect the artifice is raised to Wagnerian levels, the designer in me has always preferred the ingenuity of a motion simulation ride like Star Tours (where you seem to be flying through space but you're actually sitting in a tilting chair) to Space Mountain (where you seem to be going up and down steep hills and, um, you actually are going up and down steep hills.) On another level of design experience, I remember arriving with a colleague for a stay at Disney's Wilderness Lodge, a staggeringly detailed evocation of the classic hotels built in the National Parks one hundred years ago by the Great Northern Railway, complete with pine trees, massive rock outcroppings, and piped-in wood smoke, all courtesy of modern-day Denver architect Peter Dominick. "To build something like this in the Rocky Mountains is nothing," said my friend. "But in the middle of a swamp in the center of Florida? That takes genius."

Designers have a love-hate relationship with our addiction to simulation. In the case of the late Tibor Kalman, it was mostly the latter. "What's going on here? Theft? Cheap shots?" he asked in a footnote to his legendary 1990 jeremiad "Good History/Bad History." "Parody? Appropriation? Why do designers do this? Is it because the designers don't have new ideas? Is it glorification of the good old days of design? Is it a way to create a sense of old-time quality in a new-fangled product? Are the designers being lazy, just ripping off an idea to save time and make for an easier client sell?"

Maybe all of the above. Maybe we just can't resist. And maybe familiar cues are simply the means by which people navigate through a confusing world. Tibor was obsessed with, among other things, spaghetti sauce packaging. In the eighties, Joe Duffy's elegant work for Classico particularly irritated him. I found the packages not only beautiful but useful (in their original incarnation, the sturdy jars were great to reuse) but Tibor was bugged by their seductive beauty, the way they conjured a siren song of ersatz Venetian landscapes and rustic Tuscan hills. But what would the alternative be? What would a jar of pasta sauce look like if it were entirely original? Would you know what it was if you saw it on the grocery store shelf? Would you trust it enough to put its contents on your spaghetti? Is that level of originality even possible?

One might consider the advice of another extremely quotable designer, Charles Eames: "Innovate as a last resort." Simulation, evocation, contextualism: call it what you will, but this thing that we designers are so good at seems to serve a basic human need. Although we hunger for authenticity, it's a hard thing to invent overnight. But that doesn't stop us from trying.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design, Theory + Criticism

Comments [29]

The topic of authenticity as it relates to design has so many facets that you could write a book on the subject, Michael. (Dang, now there's an idea.)

I live in an older neighborhood, with many different architectural styles. A few years ago, an Osco Drug wanted to build a cement box on the site of a former school (right next to an old cemetery, I might add), and there was a community uproar. They were finally given the go ahead after agreeing to build their box (er, building) with nice gabled windows on the top...fake gabled windows, if I'm not mistaken. While the purist in me sees this as completely ludicrous, the pragmatist acknowledges that this cement box looks much better with this false facade. It's not just that the style evokes the architecture of the nearby homes, but the physical presence of the building is formally softened by breaking up the hard lines of the cement box.

I realize that, in the hand of an architect skilled in both design and public negotiation skills, along with a client willing to make the extra investment of effort, a design could have been created that would have satisfied both the community and the authentic function of the building. Since that combination wasn't apparently present, we have a new, pleasantly unobstructive -- though humorously fake -- gabled building in the neighborhood.

So, in a neighborhood of relatively authentic, period homes, which destroys the sense of authenticity more? A cement box? or a cement box with an imitation architectural style? :-)
Daniel Green

Good point Michael.

I stumbled upon the most wonderful brand of salad dressing the other day. Wish I had found it sooner. On the label of this particular brand was half of a ripe avocado. Avocado dressing? Blah. Not for me.

After passing this bottle hundreds of times in the market, my eyes happened to catch the fine print on the label -- "dijon honey mustard dressing". Why an avocado on a honey mustard dressing bottle? Since the bottle was on the top shelf, I couldn't see the other fine print until I took it off the shelf -- "delicious on ripe avocados". Ah. Now I get it. Pretty darn original.

Steven K.

Great piece. I love the challenge of exploring and considering authenticity. I think context is a crucial component to how we assess (or deliver) the genuine. I recently took a young Italian designer on a walk through Stanford campus. It was eye-opening to see these old, storied, historical buildings suddenly from the perspective of someone with a completely different point of view of what old and storied architecture might look like, and how North American architecture recreated an interpretation of European architecture, and whatever the West Coast tried relative to the earlier-settled parts of North America, etc. I hadn't ever seen it that way before.

Warning: egregious self-link: I took an early stab at some thoughts in a FreshMeat" I wrote a couple of years ago, here.
Steve Portigal

I do think it's a large part of the designers job to fake things. It's necessary because one can't be from or a part of all of the groups or cultures one will design for. There is necessarily some distance. But one can have too much distance or get carried away with the flights of fancy one's distance encourages.

What I find hard to reconcile in the case of the Classico label and Disney, in general, is the sanitization of whatever period of history they are representing. One senses immediately when looking at a piece like the Classico label that all of the struggles about race and class and new immigrants versus old immigrants and labor and management and men's work versus women's work have been neatly removed and we are left with, which is the point, a few symbols representing a dreamy time that never was. And this also removes it from present struggles - just about any group, probably, will feel OK about the Classico label because it doesn't provide too many clues about who is getting what or not getting what in this world, who is dominating who. This is very clever. But it also means that no one will identify with it completely.
Trent Williams

Tibor definately lost that debate vs Duffy in PRINT magazine (transcript from an AIGA "style vs content" debate circa 1992 or 3). Purity is for the birds, as Rand would say, yet not adhere to. Classico was a decent sauce, not great, but hey- you have to admit the packaging was fantastic.

In hinesight, you may need a little of both ingredients to make tasty yet sensible cake

felix sockwell

Trent - check out the American Girl Colllection for an interesting balance between sanitzation and age-appropriateness. It's a series of dolls that are each branded is a consistent set of products (i.e., books about their adventures and period-appropriate costumes).

For example, Addy is a courageous girl of the Civil War, from 1864 (Addy - 1864 - A proud, courageous girl - stories of freedom and family). Josephina is an Hispanic girl of heart and hope, from 1824. Kit is a bright spark in the dark
depression, from 1934. There are 8 dolls in all, ranging from 1764 to 1944.
The balancing act here is how they depict parts of US history that were difficult (or oppressive, or racist) through the eyes of their Girl, without being revisionist about the past. I don't know if they succeed in that balance. I have a gut reaction when I see a smiling doll who had to deal with slavery, or economic challenges. "Wait a minute - that was a terrible experience - why are
they celebrating it?" - but I do eventually realize that there are many stories to any experience. People will smile, care for a child, fall in love, or whatever, regardless of the larger circumstances. Wasn't this one of the many lessons from The Diary of Anne Frank?
Steve Portigal

But what would the alternative be? What would a jar of pasta sauce look like if it were entirely original? Would you know what it was if you saw it on the grocery store shelf? Would you trust it enough to put its contents on your spaghetti? Is that level of originality even possible?

Of course it was this kind of uncomfortable uncertainty that Tibor was addicted to--the painful, exciting feeling that comes from having no idea what to do and nowhere to turn for the answers.

Meanwhile, at M&Co we would spend weeks painstakingly perfecting typography so that it looked like it had been made by someone who had no idea what s/he was doing. So there are all kinds of authenticity, I suppose....
Scott Stowell

It always struck me as odd that an expensive boutique-clothing store in New York City is relatively the same as a thrift store in Denver. Often, it becomes fashionable to imitate something that has been relatively forgotten by time. Look at Urban Outfitters, for example, which sells nothing but faux-authenticity. Maybe the act of intentionally creating something demands some kind of imitation along the way.

Real authenticity seems to come in two forms: people who don't know what they are doing (naive artists), and people who are geniuses enough to react in a new way (Picasso, Tibor Kalman, etc.). The rest of us, unfortunately, are stuck somewhere in the middle.
Ryan Nee

Of course there are levels of inauthenticity, from reference and emulation to willful trickery, parody and outright forgery. On my thread we were all trumped by DC who regaled us with elaborate pranks pulled off in the name of Spy magazine. There was not one of us (I think) who wasn't extremely envious of the meticulous set-up with the aim of first fooling, then revealing the foolery. What could possibly be more fun than that?

I have always wanted to start a Tabloid ... one of the Weekly World News genre. Finally a chance to use those Photoshop skills like a mad scientist, continually concocting one bizarre creature after another. Bat boy? That'd be nuthin'!

As for real authenticity, there is either never such a thing or always such a thing. Never, because everything is borrowed or stolen; Always because every piece has an individual touch. Even my perfect forgery will not be the same as your perfect forgery.
marian bantjes

We're all saddled with evoking a response and Joe certainly did that with the Classico packaging. I always thought the comps looked better than the originals, but even at that, the labeling kept a marginal sauce afloat for years.

I think Peter Dominick's design of Wilderness Lodge shows a fabulous sense of emulation. I think the Classico labels show a fabulous sense of invention. Duffy stole from every source BUT Italian packaging to evoke the bucolic Tuscan "authenticity".

Last spring I had a chance to spend a few weeks in Tuscany and tops on my list was to collect as much ephemera as I could pack back for reference. Maybe even a really great tin of olive oil, or a beautifully designed bottle of lemoncella. Bad News! Those products exist in our minds or at Dean and Deluca's but not on the shelves of the mercato. The best selection you find are the products packaged especially for foreigners to buy at the duty free store on their way out.

My point is this, the consumers that believed Classico's packaging was authentic also believe Taco Bell is quintessential Mexican. Unfortunately that's a pretty wide swath of the population. A copyist relies on imitation to ply his craft, but a great designer can evoke a much more powerful response through invention.
Bill Gardner

Authenticity only seems to be an issue recently in creative history and has more (all?) to do with commerce than transcendence. I think of book makers from Aldus Manutius to Baskerville recycling the same classic texts. Or art museums filled with paintings of a standard repetoire of religious subjects (how many crucifixions do we need?). And as far as Picasso being a "genius reacting in a new way", check with George Bracque about that. At marketing his art, you're right on.
Kenneth FitzGerald

Well said Bill.

geniuses ... (Picasso, Tibor Kalman, etc.). The rest of us... stuck somewhere in the middle.

I believe it was David Ogilvy who said the best of us (geniuses?) only have one or two ideas in a lifetime that are actually any good. The Arrow man with the patch over his eye. The Morton's Salt girl with umbrella. Bernbach's Volkswagon Think Small ad (obviously Rand-inspired).

Picasso alongside Kalman? Thats a stretch.
Kalman's biggest contribution? His ex-staffers.


As designers, we give a lot of credit to the end user; the target audience. They are a smart bunch. And some brands are equally smart to recognize this, because it's part of who they are.

Harley-Davidson uses real riders (cast from local dealerships) in their MotorClothes catalogs. Even though the distressed leather jacket being modeled is cut like a 1940's bomber jacket, and sports a patch with WWII aircraft graphics, it's still true to the brand. Right? Honest, authentic... repurposed for today's consumer. Right?
chad ridgeway

I am too bothered by the ever so elusive truth in design. As the word indicates, design is the act of creating something. And today it seems like everything and anything is design(ed). Extrapolated to radio, politics, your own resume, or the response to aunt Edith when she asks about the nice picture she sent last Christmas, I think we'd be hard pressed to think that we don't all design our interactions, whether they be informal, or commercial. As theorists have observed, simulation is our world.

An interesting question is whether simulation and lie is the same thing. Or phrased differently, is simulation always a lie and vice versa? Or is simulation only a lie when it is actually perceived as authentic? Is a lie contingent on deception? That is a discussion longer than I can engage in here.

On a practical level, trying to make sense of the messages inundating us daily, I think the average consumer come to the supermarket expecting to be deceived. The Joe Duffy design for Classico evokes a faux Italian heartiness, that's right. It's connotations is that the product originates in the bucolic hills of Tuscany, or thereabouts. On the other hand, consumers have long since become wise to the tricks of visual designers, and adjust their expectations accordingly. Though there may be some residual, unconscious belief that the product must be "authentic" if the label says so, there's always the little text on the back that states that the product was made in scenic Newark, NJ, or wherever else it's made.

Consumers understand packaging. They don't really believe that the nephew in the Bush's beans commercial actually cooks and packs his product individually, though the annoying add hammers this point across relentlessly.

What is more frightening is that though consumers have become cynical of visual culture, this street smarts does not translate into areas of designed communications. And there's not any FDA or similar to watch out for crude practices in these arenas. Whereas a label, for example, must include a section for "truthful information," more important practices of society follows no laws but their own. By law, peddlers of pasta sauce and pickles must list ingredients, nutritional values, as well as where the product originates. There's no such thing for other public claims. Perhaps it's time to insist that this transparency should be extended public information and policy. Wouldn't it be great if there would be labels indicating the amount of truth, the level of inflated claims, amount of pork or subjective reporting on a label?
Bjorn Akselsen

Innovate as a last resort.

The funny thing is that good majority of clients I've had wants something that approximates the good qualities of something they've already seen before.
Regnard Kreisler Raquedan

I think the average person would be amazed at the amount of fake testimonials and fabricated authenticity they are exposed to in one day. It's not that they are stupid, but we naturally believe what we see and hear, especially when we don't see any reason to be lied to.

Even though I do some of my own "fabrication" as a designer I am still shocked when I find out that a company like Häagen-Dasz isn't actually a product with foreign origins. The Häagen-Dasz brand seems more like a fabrication than the Classico packaging. Part of this might be that I didn't encounter Classico in a store but in design books. The Classico design seems to conjure up images rather than try to convince you that it is foreign and authentic. Maybe this has more to do with the name than the design. If I remember correctly Häagen-Dasz doesn't actually mean anything either. Apparently, to really fool people, the best thing to do is use a name that sounds foreign and add on an extraneous umlaut.

In reference to öola Paula Scher says this in Make it Bigger. "I decided to make up a word. I had heard that 'Häagen-Dasz' was an invention. It also dawned on me that the umlaut was distinctly European. Sometimes they seemed Swedish, sometimes, Danish, sometimes Dutch or German, but definitely Northern European, perhaps Scandinavian. I began to make up words that sounded like a woman's name. . . "

What strikes me about Paula's design for the now defunct öola and her inspiration (Häagen-Dasz) is that öola is actually Swedish, while Häagen-Dasz was started in the Bronx. Could it be that Paula's work was actually more authentic than her inspiration?
Bennett Holzworth

Could it be that Paula's work was actually more authentic than her inspiration?
Only the Swatch poster.
Kenneth FitzGerald

The funny thing is that good majority of clients I've had wants something that approximates the good qualities of something they've already seen before.

This made me laugh - almost every freelance client I have worked with has said, "We want to look like Apple!" Nobody ever asks for authenticity.
Ryan Nee

The problem ist that authenticity cannot be designed. Once you design something, it cannot be authentic anymore, because you are deliberate to make it look/smell/feel authentic. So, this is a philosophical quagmire one cannot get out of.

Sure, you could buy some hand-made pasta sugo in a jar in a little italian village from a 100 year old woman, and use all your photoshop wizardry to recreate the label from that jar to slap it onto a industrial-made mass product, but that will only fool the humblest of people. Same goes for pre-vintagized clothing like from A&F.

That's one of the niceties left in our society. Authenticity cannot be "created". Once something is considered as authentic, the hype is over, because that means it has transgressed from "just being" to being "authentic". That's like losing virginity.

It's a good thing money can't buy everything.
Tutto Matto

It's all been done before by Nature or those who came afore.
J. Coates

Thought that Tom Wujec's vizblog on TED2004 might frame some of the thoughts in the "Authentic" observations... go to http://www.vizblog.net/ and click on Joseph Pine to get some of Tom's sketch captures of thoughts on Authenticity.
I remeber seeing a commentary shortly after the IMac launch that said "The IMac is authentic in its use of translucent material, anybody who follows is creating a fake in comparison with the original.
The jar of Italian sauce reminds me of a visit some 15 years ago to a restaurant in Piacenza, in Italy. We went to a local restarant, passing through a non-descript shop into a tiny room. There we had a great meal. One of my American colleagues conviced the owner to put some of the sauce in a jar so he could share the experience with his wife on returning home... that seems authentic too.
Jim Rait

Mr. Kalman always seemed to have a problem distinguishing nostalgia from continuity.
Allen Crawford/Plankton Art Co.

The comments about Häagen-Dasz reminded me of how inauthentic Yogen Fruz was when it appeared - maybe that's just "derivate" more than inauthentic.
http://nettizen.com/member.asp?id=204 if you haven't seen it before.
Steve Portigal

As a designer I feel I am supposed to be hyper vigilant of marketing ploys but that didn't stop me from buying a jar of pasta sauce with Mario Batali's picture on the label. The label is mediocre but the lid has a really nice silhouette of a chef's clog on a red background. Clean and simple!
As far as the Classico brand goes, I noticed the sauce tasted better when I looked at the label while eating it. ;)

Are we going overboard on this? Isn't the basic function of design to communicate and to facilitate ease of communication? Doesn't that mean we're -supposed- to pick up on end-user predispositions and use those to make the communication easy and efficient?

If you're using a jump cut in a TV segment (that's not on local cable access), you're an amatuer. You don't use just a cut-away, you use B-roll. Could be stills, footage, artwork, etc. Or you can do an effect, and make the speaker's mouth morph or something, and voila! no one notices that you've eliminated half a sentence.

didn't chuck anderson do those packages for duffy?
art chantry

I'm sorry to deter from the Classico segment of this conversation, but I feel that I must respond to another portion of the original post. To say that "every piece of graphic design is, in part or in whole, a forgery" is dismissive of and degrading to the power that we as graphic designers have. It is true that a lot graphic design does tend to follow under a variety of conventions, from format to visual connotations, but that does not mean it has to in order to be successful. And even if a particular design does use a commonly understood visual connotation, yet executes it in an entirely new light, is it still considered a forgery?

In terms of language, there is a base level of understanding that we all are required to operate from. Yet, it does mean that originality is difficult. Poetry, for example, uses words that we all understand, yet rearranges them and manipulates them to generate observations that are both truthful and poignant.

Regarding graphic design as a profession of forgery is automatically limiting. If we really want to be innovative, we first have to believe that we can be.

NPR runs stories such as the one on "On the Media" on a periodic basis (a fact alluded to in the piece). In fact, in the piece, an executive producer invokes recursion by suggesting that the best way to inform listeners of the editing and massaging that goes on is through periodic stories highlighting the practice (as opposed to, say, a warning before every interview, at the top of the houe, etc.).

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