What Are the Limits of Design Whimsy?

Posted: January 6, 2008 by
Bill Wynkoop

A stated goal for most new product development is to have the final package be able to carve out a distinctive place on the retail shelf. Better yet, the goal is to have the package resonate with the buyer so much that it leaves a permanent imprint on their purchasing heart.

To be sure, one of the best translations of this goal into a branded reality is the Dirty Girl glamour care line from BlueQ. Haley Johnson, the principal at Haley Johnson Design, is both the package designer and illustrator. She is also a gifted brand developer with a unique ability to combine humor, visual interplay, and lush packaging to achieve her stated goal —creating objects of desire.

Memorable first impressions

When you first see the Dirty Girl product line, it's almost as if you can't believe that something so fun could be a real product. I think I actually did a double take the first time I ran across the squeaky clean woman with the bouffant hair and the big trippy curls—and the eyelashes to die for.

As many of the readership already knows, I tend to get a little excited when I find packaging that is unique, totally cool, or otherwise interesting so it 's a given that I just stopped dead in my tracks to say "w-o-w"!

Dirty Girl packaging is, above all, fun and playful. Johnson looks at every surface of a package as an opportunity—not necessarily for branding per se, but for whimsy and surprise. So every surface, including the interiors, are printed and illustrated. Hot stamping is judiciously and tastefully applied.

Shapes are many times playful, such as the diagonal packs for the body mist. And glamour wisdom is found on each product, usually with a wink towards suggested use. Mitch Nash, who along with his brother Seth founded BlueQ, believes the writing should be alliterative—which gives it a poetic pitter patter—and that it should not always make 100% sense. "The competition makes sense so our tack was to let our consumers fill in the blanks. " The result is packaging that is wholly original and almost irresistible.

Gaining a reputation

However, to be successful, the promise of the package must be delivered by the product. And there is no disappointment here. In particular, the lily fresh scent soap and bubble bath is both subtle and memorable. In addition, it 's a big favorite of my wife's, who has been given just about every packaging variation over the past 10 years.

BlueQ initially launched Dirty Girl in 1998 as a glamour bath and beauty line. But now Dirty Girl has now grown to include gum, sleepwear, shower curtains, melamine ware, glassware, and a number of other non-traditional items that certainly are very far away from the product line 's core roots.

According to Rob Kestyn, BlueQ's sales manager, Dirty Girl has been able to successfully expand so broadly because: "The brand has become a lifestyle. Dirty Girl appeals to buyers from 14 to 55 because it relates to them. I don 't know exactly how it relates—it just does."

I know Kestyn is right about this because there are very few brands that can be found in small boutique shops, ultra-chic stores like Urban Outfitters, and upscale retailers such as Nordstrom. More exceptional, there are very few brands that appeal to young and old alike as well as to the general population—and those with more recognizable celebrity names (Courtney Love, Minnie Driver, and Chrissie Hynde have all been taken with Dirty Girl 's charms.)

The appeal is obviously there for me as well—perhaps primarily so due to Johnson's illustrative work. Being that I'm a child of sitcom reruns in the '70s, I've always found the Dirty Girl to be a mix of Elizabeth Montgomery's bewitched witch Sabrina and Barbara Eden's "Genie." If one believes that this kind of fun is in limited supply today, there's no reason the whimsy of Dirty Girl can't inspire more fun package designs in health and beauty products and, hopefully, even other categories in need of a lift.

Bill Wynkoop is the lead creative with Lazer Design Services, a premedia firm specializing in branding and identity as well as package and structural design. He is also an adjunct professor in the packaging department at RIT, and can be reached at