JP Williams

“It’s about design where one least expects it.“

08. June 2017, MAXFIVE

There’s no packaging that can get past JP Williams. And the New York designer is a passionate collector. He knows what packaging achieves on the shelves, what makes a packaging successful and talks about his personal favourites.


jp williams

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a display for a trade fair in Orlando. The company has only pretty pictures without content because they want to reveal as little about themselves as possible, so I tried to do something completely different – and was not very successful with it. They didn’t feel comfortable with it, so I had to start from scratch. We’ll see how it progresses. I’m sticking with it.

Today I read an article about you that said, “When JP travels with his wife, they only give the hotel their laundry so that they can photograph the packaging it’s wrapped in when it comes back.”

Yes, we actually do that.

What else do you do to be able to look at particular packaging?

You ask the most unusual things when you see a packaging you like. You buy things only because you like the packaging, not the product. You go into a bakery that has beautiful paper bags and just want to ask if you can have a clean example, without food in it. I think, it’s about design where you least expect it. Even lottery tickets can be fabulously designed. Many people forget, for instance, that everything a guest looks at in a hotel is very important. Incidentally, I don’t like the term customer, it sounds so impersonal. I believe that all things are designed to create a more personal level. Even McDonald’s doesn’t say ‘customer’. That has changed in any case. You wait for your hamburger and then hear: “Next guest please!” They try to raise the level of communication.

What has changed in the past years? You’ve been doing this for so long.

Yes, I hardly want to say it. I’ve been a designer for about 25 years. What has changed? How much being a customer has become part of our daily life. An example: in New York there is a great museum of natural history. Children love it, I was there with my daughter in the planetarium, and you look at the sky and the kids learn about comets and asteroids; it’s really quite an experience. But when you leave, you cannot decide where to go, you have to take a certain route and you end up in the museum shop. It didn’t use to be that way.

There, there are bags with stones that look like asteroids or whatever, and my daughter wanted to buy a 15-dollar bag. I think that what has changed is that the customer is really caught. Everywhere in our cultures. I even wrote the museum director a letter because I didn’t want to buy a bag of stones for 15 dollars. I thought it was wrong to have to pay for the memory of such an experience. My daughter, of course, cried for the next 15 minutes, and I wrote the director that I was really sad because it was a wonderful experience for my daughter that was turned into nothing because I didn’t want to buy her any stones. I was really disappointed.

In a nice
restaurant in Brussels, i took a card with me
that had the whole fish described in nine languages.
I didn’t know if it was okay.

I think that it has changed, that everything is about consumption. Less so in Europe than in America. It is just everywhere. I like TV commercials, I like to shop, I like to look at packaging, I’m a collector, I look at everything possible. But it’s a little disappointing when the shopping experience is always present everywhere. When you go to Disneyland, or wherever: at the end, you end up in a shop. Always. It’s discouraging because then children simply want to buy something. And then they get it, but it is like Christmas, they get a toy, play a few days with it and then don’t touch it ever again. That is human, but in the meantime it is a part of our society. I mean, I am old enough to spend my time outdoors, and instead I voluntarily go to a shopping mall. That is pretty awkward.

Incidentally, i don’t like the term customer, it sounds so impersonal.

Have you ever stolen anything? Just to have the packaging?

I’m sure I have. Probably something like sugar packs. In a nice restaurant in Brussels, I took a card with me that had the whole fish described in nine languages. I don’t know if that was okay. But it was a nice idea. Things like that raise the level of a restaurant.

How long does it take to develop a packaging?

Packaging is a lot more difficult than normal advertising, brochures, posters, etc. To get it above the usual broadband level is more difficult. And the production of the packaging, the way things are produced. We created a packaging set for a jeweller, with two boxes, and there are two small shopping bags in the small boxes – we worked on it for a year because it was so work-intensive. Most packaging projects take four to seven months.

Does one need a large budget for successful packaging?

Not necessarily. It depends on the merchandise price. Cookies, for example, can work with inexpensive packaging. A lipstick costs, say, only a dollar to produce, but is sold for between 16 and 25 dollars depending on the brand. That is a big profit, and it can ultimately be invested in the packaging for a bottle of perfume. People pay more for a bottle of perfume when it looks beautiful and they can use it as decoration. Designing a new bottle costs about 200,000 dollars. It just depends on the project. Which place it’ll have on the shelf and what the merchandise price is.
What can the packaging achieve for a brand? Both the positive and the negative?

It’s positive that it can attract people to come and take it. Millions are spent on testing the effect that things have on the shelf. It is really fascinating to understand how packaging can create value, not monetary, but in the sense of an emotional connection. It is really odd to be emotionally tied to a piece of packaging or an object. Our society is so materialistic.

I’m not trying to judge it, but we stuff our homes full of all kinds of stuff. Why do we choose this or that toaster, and why do we decide to buy this or that paper towel? There’s all kinds of reasons. How one grew up, interestingly, is also relevant. Many people use the same toothpaste that they used as kids. The whole family often uses certain brands. That is fascinating.

It’s negative when customers, for example, think a bottle is not suitable and as a result they don’t buy your orange juice. If they think it is beneath their level and somehow unacceptable, they don’t buy it. For example, I was in a bagel store at the train station and wanted to buy some freshly pressed orange juice, but they only had such ugly plastic cups that I preferred to buy Tropicana, even though it was much more expensive, but they have such a cute little packaging and the juice also tastes better.

Which materials do you like? Which materials do you not like?

Plastic. But there are also attractive plastic things. At muji, for example. They have the most beautiful toilet bowl brushes, even though they’re out of plastic. Otherwise, everybody probably likes luxurious materials, dark wood and such. I like Apple computers. They are unbelievably well designed, even the plastic ones are cool. I don’t think that the material plays such a big role. When you’re designing, you sometimes need to suppress what you’d personally like, you need to think about what is suitable.

When you think about supermarket chains, would you suggest they do something differently? They all have the same grocery bags.

They could use the bags to convey interesting messages from Greenpeace or even better, from non-political foundations. One should look for partners. It would be nice if there were really cool messages on all paper bags. It wouldn’t cost that much, and people would appreciate it. I also think that the bags shouldn’t always look completely the same. For instance, when I buy something at Tiffany’s, I’ve spent so much money. Why do I always get the same bag? How about a little change? The same in supermarkets. I think there should be more small shops with specialities and high-price departments. The bags could function with a special slogan there. And one should try to create a real ‘alliance’. Customers should slowly become friends that the sales people know and are somehow part of the family and that love the thing you give them. And then you have to put out quite a bit of effort if you want to get rid of them. Everyone knows that siblings forgive each other a lot. And, basically, that goes for every shop. When they like the product and the packaging, they come back and buy. People are creatures of habit. Especially men.

Customers should slowly become friends
that the sales people know and are somehow part of the family and
that love the thing you give them. And then you have to put out
quite a bit of effort if you want to get rid of them.

Is there a way to find out whether a packaging is successful or not?

When people call and want a sample. We made a shopping bag for a store that you could only get if you bought enough because they cost one or two dollars. Then you notice whether the demand is big. Or I had a wonderful business card that had cost about two dollars and people have kept it. There is a lot of market research on the topic, what sells and what doesn’t. I am certain that the packaging that we make increases the value of the product.

Is there something that you would like to design?

I have a long list of things. A lot of simple things. A pencil, for example. And books! The books from the Dutch designer Irma Boom are some of the most beautiful. One was the book-of-the-year in 2009, and I wished I would have designed it.

Do you have a favourite piece in your collection?

Well, right now perhaps I have a small cross that I bought at the flea market in Vienna, it only cost a couple of euros. I’m not religious or anything, I just thought it was pretty. I think that’s my approach to everything I collect. That’s what my blog is about too. When I buy things, they mean a lot to me, they have a high value for me.

Do you throw things away once in a while or do you save everything?

Oh yes, I try to throw things away. When we moved recently, I separated myself from many things.

Was it easy or hard for you?

Both. I ask myself, why I still keep this or that. My daughter is ten and what is she supposed to do with all the stuff when I die. Like my large yarn collection with balls of every possible shape. They are all unique and beautiful and I have some from the 19th century. I was just on a television show because of it. A lot of people think I’m crazy because I collect this, buy my daughter said, “I want to keep your yarn.” That was so sweet of her.

You have said that you love books. Do you like to read or do you just like the way they look, the typeface, how they feel and smell?

I prefer to read nonfiction books, but I like design books, the way they are layed out, how they are bound, the typography, there’s a certain level in book design that is completely ignored. I have a lot of beautifully designed books. In the 40’s and 50’s there were great American book designers, I collect their books because they are so beautiful. When I teach design, I use lots of examples to show how design functions. Herbert Matter designed a beautiful book about Albert Giacometti, without text, with lots of photos, it’s amazing. I use it to show students how to compose pictures, how to put them into a relationship, what the size ratios are and so on. You can learn so much when you see how people design things.

What else do you think about?

I am often unsure about where I stand inn life and that’s why I read so many nonfiction books, because I want to just be a little smarter. But I think that it has to do with doing what you love.

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