debbie millman

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Droste Effect

The Droste Effect

As I have revealed on this website before, my favorite cookie of all time was a brand made by Keebler named Fudgetown. In addition to the mystical taste these cookies provided, I also fell under the spell of the package containing these blissful morsels. Of course it featured the Keebler Elves, but in as much as I found these brand icons amusing and entertaining, it was not the Elves that captured my interest. What had me utterly mesmerized was what the Elves were doing. What had me positively transfixed was the illustration on the front face panel of the cookie package that featured the Keebler Elves holding a package of Fudgetown cookies. Which meant that the Keebler Elves holding a package of Fudgetown cookies were holding a package featuring the Keebler Elves holding a package of Fudgetown cookies. And so on and so on and so on. The Keebler Elves holding the package of Keebler Elves holding the package was infinite! This killed me! I would stare at the package for hours on end, trying to pinpoint the moment I could see the singularity: where the Keebler Elf and the cookie package both originated. It all ended up in a single point that was indiscernible and I was both entranced and perplexed as to the notion of this infinite lineage. This became my entrée to the concept of infinity, and I found the philosophic conundrum it represented and the unresolved mystery both wondrous and stupefying.

So it was with utter delight that I discovered that the act of a pack featured on a pack has an ACTUAL NAME: The Droste Effect. THIS THRILLS ME. I discovered the term while stumbling upon my new favorite website: Randy Ludacer's Box Vox. From the site:

At my grocery store I could only find three examples: Land O’Lakes Butter, Morton Salt and Cracker Jacks. These packages each include a picture of the package itself and are often cited by writers discussing such pop-math-arcana as recursion, strange loops, self-similarity, and fractals.

This particular phenomenon, known as the “Droste effect,” is named after a 1904 package of Droste brand cocoa. The mathematical interest in these packaging illustrations is their implied infinity. If the resolution of the printing process—(and the determination and eyesight of the illustrator)—were not limiting factors, it would go on forever. A package within a package within a package... Like Russian dolls.

Since so many products are nearly indistinguishable from their packaging—(a tube of ChapStick, a can of Coke)—I figured that there would be lots of examples. My brief supermarket survey showed me otherwise. It’s quite rare. You can easily find packaging that includes packaging pictures, but it’s almost always a picture of the inner packaging—(the outside of the box shows the packets contained within)—or else it’s a cross-marketing campaign where pictures of other packages in the product line are shown—usually on the back.

The Droste effect seems to be most applicable to packaging with illustrations. For those products that include an illustrated mascot, it would seem a natural thing to have the mascot holding the product package. Tony-the-Tiger holding up a box of Frosted Flakes. The Planter Peanut fellow offering us peanuts from a jar or a can. What aren’t the mascots doing this? The reasons are perhaps understandable. Better to emphasize the consumer’s end use of the product or to convey the purity of the ingredients. (Rather than to make their packaging into recursive ads-within-ads.) Hence: a bowl of frosted cornflakes ready to eat; mixed nuts offered to guests, not from the can, but from an elegant serving dish.


The writer and readers then go on to list other packages featuring The Droste effect.

Today is a happy day.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Steve Portigal said...

Debbie - I blogged about this too earlier this week and I shared how this sort of packaging blew my mind (as you relate so descriptively) when I was a kid.

In fact, I had Lego or some such toys in an old candy tin with a picture of a candy tin pouring out, etc. I wanted to just dive into the deepest levels of the image and see where it went.

But when I got into Computer Science in school and learned about recursion (a notoriously difficult concept to teach, look at the Wikipedia page to see how damn complex they are about it http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recursion) it all came back. Defining something in terms of itself - or in terms of a "child" version of itself. What an exciting notion. Indeed, some really tough programming problems can be solved in just a couple of lines if recursion is used.

So, yeah!

4/19/2008 02:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Mig Reyes said...

I didn't know there was a name for this, either! Something I really enjoyed doing as a kid, and still do, is walking into mirrored hallways.

I loved seeing how far back I could see, it was definitely a trip.

Awesome!

4/19/2008 03:30:00 PM  
Blogger Tania Rochelle said...

Wow! As a writer, I was smitten with the lyrics from Ray LaMontagne's Jolene, "a picture of you holding a picture of me in the pocket of my blue jeans."

Love that line!

4/20/2008 09:37:00 AM  
Blogger robbie-fauver said...

Yeah there's also a way to fold up the Land of Lakes box so it looks like you can take her shirt off and she shows her breasts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1kxPHi8Wev0 I know it's off subject but everytime I see that box that's what I think off.

4/22/2008 10:21:00 AM  

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Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at FastCompany.com and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on DesignObserver.com. In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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