Stephen Bayley: Public health's gain will be graphic design's depressing loss

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The world is about to become just a little bit less interesting. First to go was the pub ashtray, a sad loss to folk art and the global brocante trade. Now cigarette graphics are to be legislated into history by grim officials who found pictures of tumours and mortifying health threats

insufficiently depressing. Now they are insisting that packs be stripped of what identity and character remained after unsuccessful jostling for position with photographs of cancerous tissue.

The cigarette pack is, or was, a perfect miniature of graphic design. Strictly defined dimensions encouraged an extraordinary range of creative expression: in a few square inches, notions of status, exoticism, aspiration and affiliations had to be unambiguously communicated.

And consumers read and responded to the message. A marvellous game was played: a sort of semiotic range-finding when you placed your cigarette pack on the table before you. As you plonked (say) your French-blue pack of Gauloises in a puddle of beer, you identified a belief system of your choosing – with Gauloises, a system employing George Orwell, Albert Camus, Jean Baudrillard and John Lennon. With a First XI of that seductive quality, you can see why health and safety needs to play dirty.

Some pack designs own a legitimate place in the history of design: Max Ponty's Gitanes effortlessly convey an impression of stylish Art Deco bohemianism. Marlboro, supported by Leo Burnett's magnificently sexist cowboy campaigns, became global shorthand for a benign America. But best of all, there was Lucky Strike.

In 1942, George Washington Hill of American Tobacco bet Raymond Loewy $50,000 that he could not improve sales by refreshed graphics. Loewy was the pioneer New York consultant designer who made his reputation by flashy transformations of dull products into streamlined and chromium-plated ones. Loewy threw out Luckies' old military green, replaced it with a more feminine white and emphasised the graphic drama of the target motif. It was a spectacular success. Loewy won his bet, banked the dollars and splashed on a bit more eau-de-cologne. And for the rest of us, he made a delightful miniature of pop art. Buy one now while you still can.

Smokers will be smokers, and not a lot will be gained by eradicating cigarette graphics. Except one thing: there will now be more space for the mythic sketch on the back of a fag packet.