Jessica Helfand | Essays

Separated at Birth: Method? Or Madness?

Left: Packaging by Karim Rashid. Right: Unknown.

method© was begun in 1999 by a chemical engineer and a graphic designer, with an aim to create totally biodegradable, environmentally sound cleaning products. With packaging designed by Karim Rashid since 2002, the complete line now includes laundry, specialty surface, dish, hand and body wash as well as all-purpose cleaners. Here in the US, method© products are available at Target, as well as Gracious Home, Gourmet Garage and most recently, Wal-Mart. The surface cleaner shown here retails for about $4 for a 28 ounce bottle.

The bottle on the right also has a circular logo, consisting of the first letter of the brand name (in this case, S) and uses lowercase, sans serif type, an abstract, duotoned photograph, a horizontal label with rounded edges and a narrrow white border, and a fresh, mint scent. The bottle shape is similar too, albeit slightly larger, holding 30 ounces of liquid. Both products are biodegradable. This product sells for one dollar and is available at select discount stores and pharmacies.

Posted in: Graphic Design, Product Design

Comments [42]

i think this comparison might be able to go a few ways:

1) the object identified as "designed" has gone so far down a path of simplification and clarity that it's identical to a near-generic brand.

2) the discount brand is aping method, and possibly taking a bite out of its brand identity. but that might not really matter if both are equally as biodegradable, because it would mean that:

3) method did its job so well that it redefined its market segment.

4) method is aping the discount brand (i only throw that into the mix because there's no date info given on the discount brand).

i never knew method was an actual product line. i always assumed it was target's house line, and that it was more expensive simply because it's packaged better. they play that game sometimes, so the assumption wasn't a far ways to jump.

why aren't you naming the discount brand? seems pertinent to the discussion.

I've noticed that drug store chain CVS does much the same thing with its house-branded cold medicines, employing the same color scheme and similar design as the dominant commercial brand in each category of medicine. For example, compare the package design for Loratadine: Claritin | CVS.

If you really want to be amazed, go to pick n save. They have a shelf of "$1" cleaners that mimic the colors, shape, font, EVERYTHING of leading product cleaners so blatently I'm frankly amazed htey haven't gotten sued yet.

What Alyson says about CVS can also be said about RiteAid.

I would take agree with the opinion that its gone so far down the path of simplification and clarity that its identical to a near-generic brand.

I'm not passing judgement on the design of either brand but at the end of the day if given the brief of designing the branding for an environmentally sound cleaning product the first thing which comes to mind is something clean and simple. That would then lead me to using light blue or possibly green combined with lowercase lettering and images of either water or clouds...

Tony, Raymond Loewy would have agreed with you: he once said, "The main goal is not to complicate the already difficult life of the consumer." Yet somehow I'm not convinced: and I don't think Karim Rashid would be, either.
jessica helfand

I've seen results like this come from two places. It's either designer bad, or client bad. And both are bad for both.

In the designer-bad situation it can be simply over-generalized. The designer either intentionally or subconsciously ripped off the competition. Both of these are sad because as a designer I should be either responsible enough not to rip off someone else, or I should be aware enough of my own visual vocabulary that I know where the source of my inspiration came from.

In the client-bad situation it's a phenomenon that I've seen far too many times. It starts with a client saying something like this:

"This is my main competition, and I want to be different than them."

Then they continue to push the designers' work until the final result looks almost identical to the competition. I once had a client tell us that they really wanted to differentiate from their head-to-head, who used blue and gold as their colors. The final result that they steam-rolled us into was gold and blue.

I wish I understood why this happened. Is it a client problem of tunnel vision? Is it a designer problem of bending over backwards to the hand that feeds them?

I think both results can be boiled down to fear. A client fears the success of their competitor so they wind up trying to take a piece of it.

So what's the designer afraid of?

Be brave.


Let's take this from the consumers prospective for a second (or at least me as consumer). As people have pointed out, drug store chains do this all the time, and there is good reason for that, I think. When I run into my drug store, I often either (a) feel like crap or (b) am in a hurry. Or both. The amount of cold remedies for instance is bewildering. And the generics are both cheaper and work the same as the name-brand stuff. (And on a side note have great generic names like, "Daytime." I can take all of the day in a single pill!)

So, when I'm trying to figure out what I need. I look for a certain package type. For Day-Quil I look for that familiar orange but with the CVS logo instead. That's what makes the shopping experience simple.

There was a time, of course, when the laws were such that commercials only talked about a "brand x". And the generic aisle at the supermarket was a sea of Helvetica bold on yellow. When Seiyu was establishing the Japanese brand without a brand, Muji (No brand. Good stuff.), it was that aisle of plain goods that inspired their look.

So when does the brand become a product category?

I first came across the "method" product line
soon after it initially came out. Its packaging
style was unique at the time compared to all the
other products on the shelf. It is my opinion
then, that the "solutions" brand is copying the
Mr. Frankie L

I think a subtext to this discussion is the loony brand name and trademark game.

There's a stampede to register every day words. These products are examples. In the process of designing a trade-show publication recently, I documented more than 360 trademarks and registered trademarks to ensure they would be used properly. Many were common words. On another project, I encountered a company that had combined its name with a piece of clip art from a word-processing program - and successfully registered it as a trademark.

One of these packages looks too much like the other, but it's hard to draw the lines protecting intellectual property when the attributes are a word from every day speech, a nature photograph, a type style and a color. It runs parallel to Justice Potter Stewart's comment that he could not define pornography, but, "I know it when I see it."

When I checked the method® bottle on my kitchen counter, I discovered two other interesting things: 1) method has also trademarked a tagline: people against dirty™; 2) it describes ingredients in generic terms; the brand is trademarked, but the formula is just a mix of stuff.
thomas osborne

As someone who works in brand identity and packaging on a daily basis, seeing the Method copycat package is a not a big surprise.

Often, packaging graphics are the only signifier of difference between national (or name-brand) products and the private-label products that retailers offer. Both products are frequently filled by the same manufacturer. What that means is this: what is contained in both packages is usually of the same quality, or very close to it. Sometimes it is even the identical product. It therefore makes perfect retail sense to copy the packaging as well--most consumers don't read the label and quickly identify a package by its color and iconography. Sadly, nowadays, reading takes too much time. So if you see the "familiar orange" you expect that you are getting some type of "Dayquil," albeit at a cheaper price and a sly variation of the brand name.

What is a surprise to me is that retailers are still using copycat packaging! There has been a major transition in private-label branding in the last decade. The packaging has evolved from cheaper versions of name-brand items to products with a premium or even cached look. For example: 365 is really a private-label brand at Whole Foods, Martha Stewart's line is really a K-Mart private-label, Isaac Mizrahi's line is a private-label for Target and Ol' Roy dog food (the number one dog food brand in the country) is a Wal-Mart private-label. For consumers, this has created quite a dramatic shift in perception, and the term "private-label" is no longer seen as a negative. Whereas consumers once applied the term "value" to store brands, they're now beginning to associate quality with the brands as well.

Unless of course you see a copycat product--as indicated in Jessica's post. My guess is that the Method copycat was found in a Walgreen's or CVS type store--the few remaining retail stalwarts in the copycat packaging wars.
debbie millman

I have had enough of this over simplified style that has been the default for so many designers when faced with the problem of designing an environmentally friendly product. It has become the organic aesthetic, and sometimes what it implies is hypocritical. It is over used and hardly ever reflects the functionality of the product. I don't think its a creative solution, and of course you will get two products that look alike.

I'll add to Debbie M's comments:
- Most dog food, including Ol Roy and most super market brands or specialty brands, is made in a single factory (I think in Oklahoma or one of those big slaughter house states). The recipes are unique but the factory line is the same.
- The most interesting branding situation is Trader Joe's.
When Trader Joe's first started selling on the East coast, they labeled beer with the Trader Joe's name. But at the time, customers did not buy it. So TJs removed the name and started naming beers funky names. If you have been in a Trader Joe's with beer, you know what I mean.
Those beers look like special unique boutique beers. But they are all Trader Joe's. Packaging designed by one of the in house graphic designers.
Most all the other products that they make are branded Trader Joe's and the other brands we see in the store are almost always actual other brands.
BTW: if you see any new product at TJs, buy lots of it as you may never see it again. TJs dumps most of the new products they introduce within a year. Only the top top sellers survive.

It is obvious that "solutions" has copied the design language used by "method" in this instance.

However, from a consumer's point of view... Regardless of the graphic design - the fact is "solutions" retails for 25% the cost of "method" and for a vast amount of consumers that will ultimately win over "cool design"

If these two products retailed at the same inflated price - then they be worthy of a good discussion of brand piracy.

The design was stolen, but the arguments on that have already been made. But I would say, design is not only in the graphics, right? Is the cleaner inside justify what the design says and the price. If so, there is more to the brand than the packaging design.
Nathan Philpot

This is a case where a design patent would have protected the product. A design patent can be infringed upon when the "average consumer" thinks they are purchasing the origional product. This argument has worked in courts in the USA.
Michael Anderson

My wife brought home several of the original products (method) from Target. Having used all of them, I can only say they've failed in their "design" effort as they don't clean well at all. Design has to work with the form and the function to succeed. One would think they could come up with their own original packaging, but our copycat culture strikes again.

Next time you're at the supermarket, look at the cereal packaging - name brand, store brand and others all look similar within a certain type of cereal (esp. the cereal's that are common - the "flakes, shredded wheats and rices").

what pk said.

The core of my concern in this instance is the potential for consumers to consider (what I assume to be) a significant difference in each brands toxicity and the underlying philosophies of each company.

A potential solution, sustainability labeling, has been proposed by designer Nathan Shedroff: a labeling system much like the one developed for the processed food industry. Sustaniabilty labeling would idealy provide consumers with objective data regarding the life cycle of a product and empower consumers to delve beneath our exquistly constructed veneers, removing much of my concern.

Perhaps I'm too cynical, but I've resigned myself to the idea that companies seeking to capitalize on the success of another brand's trade dress will continue to do so.

It seems there are two likely courses of action for the original brand:
1) Take the legal route and seek damages against copycats; and/or
2) Rebrand!

In the later case, the more opportunistic amoung us may find this phenomenon to be more of a boon than the object of concern it is here.
Terence McKeown

A few quick things:

One of the issues here is ownership. Can a company own a stock bottle and label? Can a company own sans serif type and an image of a cloud? Many large companies can use lawyers to protect themselves, but a company like method probably cannot.

The other issue brought up is the sustainability. If you understand the two predominant camps in environmentalism, you can understand why no copmany wants to outright list their ingredients (and if you understand holding onto intellectual properties, including formulations, you understand this even more).

Many studies show people will buy a product if they believe it is environmentally friendly, only a select few want specific details. And those few are relatively informed, but not necessarily in the comprehensive environmental scheme. Some say all natural at any cost, others choose the cocktail approach with the smallest possible footprint at this exact moment. Its a huge gray area that is still lost on many people within the industry, and not to mention consumers. In that case, its almost a liability to mention the ingredients in your product.
Derrick Schultz

i think the important thing in this question of ownership is that the visual design and the concept of biodegradeability are both similar.

i'm really wondering if there's much of a trade dress case to be made without considering the concept of environmental responsibility—putting window wash in a clear bottle and adding a blue visual cues indicating a clear blue sky isn't special.

also: i actually think the initial article should probably be amended. jessica states that the company was begun by a chemical engineer and graphic designer, which points clearly to a visual trade dress issue.

but an employee of the company said earlier in this thread that the visual person was actually more of a visual strategist (i think that was the title). that seems to widen the implications of the discussion.

knowing that the notion of clarity in performance, result and corporate communication—not just a visual design—is what's being mimicked changes things somewhat.

As a consumer, designer, and professional that has been involved IP issues lately, the design looks to be "legal". Whoever designed the solution bottle should be ashamed for blatently ripping off someone elses design, however as I understand it they are within the law. Trade dress takes a very long time to establish (think Coca Cola time), design patents do not apply to graphics, graphics are better protected by trademarks, which are too specific to be usefull in this case.

When I see this particular aesthetic I wonder about the lifestyle being sold. I'm hardly against it, and in fact use method© body wash (this month) because I like the smell, yet there's a smugness to the biodegradability that I can't ignore...

Some may remember the "Crystal Gravy" spoof on SNL several years ago - now there was a transparent, active, responsible and exciting lifestyle I could really sink my teeth into! method© or substance© - either way, I will be the first in line, at Target I suppose, to buy insecticide or motor oil when branded in the same manner.
Gary R Boodhoo

While it is interesting to note the influence of one bottle of household cleaner on the next, I think it further interesting to observe that the circular 'm' logo for method is very reminiscent to the mark used for muzak. And that muzak logo is very similar to an old German trade mark (ca. 1916) for Manoli Cigarettes.
Robert Finkel

To be posted in tomorrow's Observed column, this item is also relevant to this discussion: The Knockoff Project: "album cover spoofs, goofs, tributes, sendups, near misses and coincidences." And I promise you will be surprised.
William Drenttel

01 if they are in fact the same product on the inside, why do we care that they are on the outside?

02 this topic makes me want to ask...what are we doing as designers? and what are we branding? what about branding as a way of documenting what is actually there {inside and out}, instead of just creating an essence? doesnt that still unleash the responsibility of the company? as long as they SEEM to be instead of BEING? both companies are implying simplicity but what does that mean?

03 i also agree with debbie millman, people don't seem to read as much, which always makes me want to ask..isnt that a responsibility designers could be taking on? can't we force that issue?

susie nielsen

We've been using method stuff for a few years now (we stock up at Target whenever we make it down to the States). I can testify to the fact that some of their stuff just doesn't work very well (as someone else mentioned earlier).

The only method product that I feel has succeeded (and which is, I believe, the only piece Karim Rashid actually designed) was the original dish soap dispenser. No more gooey soap mess around the spout, perfect control over how much soap you need, and a lovely shape to have sitting on the counter all the time. And we can refill it easily.

We still use the handsoap too, cause it smells nice, but the dispensing solution used on that bottle is not nearly as well-resolved as the dish soap bottle. Spills, gooey soap accumulation, the usual issues with those kinds of dispensers.

So, based on my experience with the brand, they won me over with a good industrial design solution first, and a cleaning product second. If they would have kept up that pursuit with their new products, I would likely use all their stuff. They could have been the OXO of home cleaning products. Instead, they're getting knocked off in the discount shops, who see "biodegradable" as the main selling point.

It appears that Solution has come up with a sustainable solution for a cheaper price. Shame on them for ripping off another's design language but if Method has not created brand loyalty or a defendable demonstrable design difference then they have failed too. We can't keep people from buying a cheaper product unless we can convince them that the initial brand is the best. Only one brand can be the lowest cost the rest have to be design and marketing innovators.

Purely presumption here, but some of that reduced cost may have coming from Solutions not having to pay a designer to research the topic, work through the design process, and come up with a conclusion. Sure, it may only be 5 cents per bottle, but its still an issue.

Also, biodegradability (sustainability is an inappropriate term since the product is not sustainable, it dissolves, hopefull with the least impact) is a braod category. Is the plastic the bottle is made from biodegradable in the Solutions version? Most companies use #5, which most commercial recyclers cant use. method is #2 if I recall. Its more than whats just in the bottle.

The corners had to be cut somewhere to have a 3 dollar difference, I'd question where that difference comes out for the consumer.
Derrick Schultz

My appologies for the misuse of word sustainability.
If Method is more environmentally responsible then Method has failed to communicate thier method to the consumer.
I read thier mission on methodhome.com:
--to create naturally-derived, biodegradable formulas--
If that is their message and the reasoning behind thier 3 dollar difference then that true innovation/design difference is what should be communicated, not just the graphics on the label since it can clearly be bastardized beyond legal protection.

My assumption, in the first post, was that the product in the bottle was the same.
This post is assuming that method uses a more regulated green methodology than solution making it more expensive.

(please dont try to email the address I have linked it won't allow me to post using my real account)

My anecdotal experience with cheaper products is that the packaging is cheaper. No surprise there. It manifests cheapness in the quality of spray from a nozzle, the airtightness of the internal tube, the feedback on the spring system. All things that cause minute dissatisfaction during use. With most things the dollar difference is not worth more than the aggravation, but for everyday items, I like to know it will work and work well. The Method hand soap bottle was worth it to me because it works well (dispenses a small amount, doesn't easily get knocked over, nice shape), and has for 2 years (same bottle with refills).

But, honestly, I originally bought it because it was pretty and smelled good. Subsequant product purchases have let me down with their efficacy, but the packaging is high quality.
Jesse Wilbur

I use vinegar and water to clean windows and simple spills up around the house. It works great. I use a spray bottle (without logo) that I got at the hardware store for a buck.

Joe Moran
Kansas City, Mo.
Joe Moran

Isn't sustainability also inherently tied to economic issues? Kudos for Karim Rashid being able to bully or cajole a client into good design, but his likely outsized fees were not a sustainable investment, since any of dozens of talented and capable designers could have developed the same or better. Typically it is the force of reputation that insulates the design from emblandishment, and name designers are complicit in the cycle that chokes the supply of plum opportunities. Given that Karim makes lots of plastic and resin objects, I hardly think he would be the standard bearer for the undercurrent of aesthetic classicism in this post (namely that only educated, white, Volvo-driving liberals who shop at New Seasons, or Whole Foods, or Wild Oats, ad naseum, are effectively combating environmental degredation).

But if item for item the two products are materially the same, then shame on method for skewing the oppotunity cost for being environmentally responsible. Charging four times as much can be just as damaging, considering all the other economic inputs at play, especially when you consider that it isn't even a particularly crucial object. A good rub with a washable rag after a rain, or, better, a squeegee would do the trick pretty well. Anyone who obsesses more than that about the cleanliness of glass really has very little respect for the environment.
miss representation

A few things that need to be cleared up here:

1. This particular bottle was not designed by Karim Rashid. The labels (actually, almost all of method's graphics up until a year ago) were designed by Michael Rutchik of Mudhaus design. The spray bottles are almost off-the-shelf stock . Karim has not, and probably never will, designed any graphics for method. He is solely the industrial designer of record.

2. the coughnewcough bottles will be designed by Karim. So this will probably be a moot topic in a few months.

3. method approached Karim in the beginning. It was method, not any designer "cajoling or bullying" them, that decided good design was a powerful brand position. Please be more respectful of our clients, even with presumptions; it might get us somewhere as a profession. Some clients do know what they are doing.

4. I wont get into the entire brand positioning of method (which is readily available from their site), but I will say that premium product (including a slightly higher price tag), good design, and eco-friendliness all work into their entire strategy.
Derrick Schultz

so now that's two major points to the argument in the original post which should be amended.

Oh, so method(tm) didn't need a prissy diva to convince them that premium pricing is an effective marketing strategy that produces higher margins, and that "environmental sensitivity" is only a positioning technique, not a moral decision. My bad.

miss representation

Obviously we can all think of plenty of similar examples of this because it happens all the time. Both bottles are terrible, anyways, so I don't see what the fuss is all about.
Ben Wexlar

I'm not familiar with either product, but am curious about the possible objectives of the knockoff design.
what does it say?
might it be expressing in visual language an idea we're more used to seeing in words — "compare to" ?

we might agree that graphic design involves visual language.
so here's that visual language at work.
we're all familiar with the language on packaging of generic products that says "compare to ..."
doesn't the Solutions label design perform this function?

can that be ok?
john mcvey

It is the predictable destiny of any design with no function but to serve as a superficial coating of designy design-design to be copied when commercially successful. Method embodies everything that you hate in design, a tired joke, badly told by a smartass, and the fact that it is successful and being copied does not make it a better one.
Udo Herzefeld

I was just flipping through my AIGA 365 annual and noticed something questionably similar with one of their packaging design winners.

Be Design entered a packaging design for a fruit flavord sparkling beverage named Essn (which they apparently named as well).

Essn hit shelves in 2005 (maybe late 2004). The packaging (and everything else about the product) looks suspiciously similar to a competitors packaging: Izze.

Izze is based here in Boulder (CO) and has been selling their product for the last 5 or more years. They are primarily sold in bottles but also introduced a canned version of the product a few years ago (at least a year before the essn packaging). Their packaging (designed by a TDA advertising) has appeared in various annuals over the last few years (CA's design annual comes to mind).

Izze can
Essn can

I can certainly see why Be Design would have been "inspired" by the packing design for Izze. Why they would have submitted a design (and brand image) for something so suspiciously similar to a direct competitor of the client seems questionable however.

Anyone else find this ethically questionable?

haha probably one of them worked with an eastern europeean design firm .. so many american companies do this - seen it while i worked at some a couple of times. They just want the exact same design as their competitors but with a twist. They always employ designers from around here - cheap'n'ezy

Here's something that perhaps further differentiates these products: turns out Method's got a site where you can come clean — that is, confess something — or better yet, let your hands remain dirty while you read the confessions of others.
jessica helfand

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