Good to the last drop; Design that Keeps Working
by N. Rain Noe
In design school you become convinced you're going to design the next
Ferrari, or a really cool Bang & Olufsen psychically-operated stereo.
It's the same thing all over: inexperienced actors think they're going
to land a starring role in Scorsese's latest, and aspiring musicians
believe they're "right around the corner" from signing their
multi-million dollar deal.
Then, eventually, an ugly bastard named Reality becomes your fourth
roommate. So, the actor does a commercial for fire-retardant car wax;
the musician finds himself recording commercial jingles and playing
variety gigs at Injun Joe's Comedy Wigwam; and you, the industrial
designer, become involved with projects that are decidedly more mundane
than those initiated by Italian carmakers and Danish stereo gurus. A
project like, say, designing a plastic bottle to hold Prestone
anti-freeze, which is what John Frazer found himself doing in 1972.
But herein lies the beauty of Industrial Design and mass-produced
products. The no-name actor plugging the bottle of Asbestos Turtle is
never gonna move as much product as George Clooney would; the
dime-a-dozen singer crooning "By...Mennen" is never going to spread his
angst as far as Eddie Vedder can; but the designer doing concept
sketches for a commonplace object is going to have an impact that
extends far, far beyond the reaches of his studio.
In 1972, Union Carbide was looking for a designer for the Prestone
bottle. Frazer, a former Union Carbide employee, had his own design
firm; he submitted a bid and won the contract.
The award-winning Prestone bottle was designed with multiple
considerations, among them ergonomics and ease-of-use. The horizontal
handle-a common sight today, but "unheard of" in 1972 - was the first of
its kind to be blow-molded. It was considered revolutionary (within the
field of pouring liquid, anyway) and makes the bottle significantly
easier to use. On top of that, the horizontal handle lends the bottle a
distinctive, unforgettable shape, one of those things that lives in the
back of our brains alongside lyrics to songs we knew in high school and
the name of the person you lost your virginity with. Hell, if I was
playing some automotive version of 'Pictionary' and the word I got was
"coolant," I'd probably draw Frazer's bottle.
Frazer, whose friendly but rapid-fire style of diction and infectious
enthusiasm makes you think he could have had a successful second career
as a salesman, currently runs his own design practice in Barnegat
Heights, New Jersey. He does primarily package design and boasts clients
such as Kraft, Valvoline, and Shering Plow. Frazer's a regular guy; he
drives a bronze Honda, he used to have a golden retriever (now dearly
departed), he enjoys fishing. But despite his Joe Everyman qualities,
Frazer bears the telltale stamp of a designer: acute knowledge of
production esoterica. "Extrusion blow-molding is still an art form!" he
insists. He speaks fondly of the early days of his career, when
blow-molding was a technology to be reckoned with. "Back in those days,
we thought we could blow-mold anything-bumpers, garbage cans, garbage
cans with wheels, golf carts, you name it!"
In the years between 1972 and now, Frazer's original Prestone Coolant
Anti-Freeze bottle design has been modified only slightly (due to
technology advancement in molding techniques, etc.); a nearsighted man
without his glasses would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between
the bottle in stores today and the one that came out of Frazer's office
when bell bottoms were in style for the first time.
Frazer estimates that Prestone sells 100 million of the bottles in a
year. The handle that Frazer conceived of and drew on a piece of vellum
with a pencil has been touched by millions. His bottle has sat in
millions upon millions of supermarket aisles, auto parts stores, car
trunks, garages, and toolsheds across this great land of ours.
Frazer has won awards for the design of not only the Prestone bottle,
but a host of other containers as well, such as a Valvoline motor oil
bottle and the container for Country-Time Lemonade. He holds over 40
patents for bottle and cap design innovations, and he's no stranger to
the types of numbers you normally hear coming out of Carl Sagan's mouth.
"I've designed a water bottle for a European company which will remain
nameless," says Frazer, careful to honor his client confidentiality
contract. "They sell 3 million of these bottles a day."
Despite the staggering amount of bottles in the world Frazer has been
responsible for, I'm guessing that most of you have never heard of him.
Which tells you something about the unsung profession of industrial
design. In America, most people don't care whose idea was whose. As
James Garner said in Barbarians at the Gate, "What, am I supposed to
mail Thomas Edison a dime every time I turn a light bulb on?"
Yeah, we designers will never be famous, but here's a big secret: most
of us don't care. A designer can live all of his life in relative
obscurity, but still profoundly affect the daily experiences of a
sizable chunk of the population. If you're a designer and Reality is
sitting in your living room with his feet propped up on the coffee
table, folding your bills into pointy paper airplanes and throwing them
at your head, it doesn't bother you as much. You're a working designer,
and you're content. Unlike the actor and the musician and a host of
other creatives, you and your marked lack of fame have no problem living
with Reality. And since you're content, Reality's best friend and
partner-in-crime, Bitterness, is going to have to crash someplace else.