I volunteered a some years back to help out at my daughter Emma’s third grade picnic. It’s a one-hour lunch followed by outdoor fun at the park next door. Because of the 100°+ heat-indexed weather that day in south east Virginia, the picnic was held in the cafeteria. My task was to oversee the beverages: keep them stocked and on ice. Even I can handle that. What I couldn’t manage was a melee that spontaneously broke out toward the end of the meal—over a novel drink package.
I was in charge of three coolers: two filled with Little Hug® juice drinks (they’re little plastic barrels with peel off lids) on either side of one holding juice pouches: Kool-Aid Jammers® and Kraft Capri Suns®. For about 45 minutes, everything was great. Kids first filed past in their respective classes, grabbed either a pouch or a jug, and moved on. When seconds were announced, children came and went sporadically. I roved away from my post to sit with Emma (“Daaaa-aad!”).
Things were winding down when I returned to the coolers, now being overseen by the school’s security officer, Mr. Stewart. He was joking with the two or three kids who would come by—who kidded him right back—and knew most of them by name. He urged them to dig deep in the icy water, to get the cold ones.
I was next to one of the Hug-filled coolers when a small girl reached in and pulled out a different juice container, one I hadn’t previously noted. It was about the same size as the Hugs but with a reclosable pop-up top and no label. The girl showed the container (holding a purple juice) to another who asked, “What’s that?” On being told she found it in the cooler, the second girl plunged in and emerged with another, filled with a yellow-greenish liquid.
Word of the novel bottles spread instantaneously among the kids milling about. In seconds, there were six or more children squeezed next to each other, bent over the cooler, scouring the ice and water. A crowd of a dozen or more kids pressed in behind them, craning necks, eager for a look at one of the prizes, trying to force their way to the front. The girl who found the first bottle was pinned against the wall in front of me, a look of trapped panic on her face. I tried to clear a path for her while pulling a boy off the floor, knocked down in the rush and in danger of being trampled.
It took four adults to halt the fracas: me, Mr. Stewart, another parent, and a cafeteria worker. Kids were then organized into a ragged line to progress to the coolers. Mr. Stewart closed the lid of the desired cooler, sat on it, and announced all the new bottles were gone. Children buzzed around for a while, regretfully making other choices, while casting longing looks at the guarded cooler.
For the last ten minutes of the picnic, Mr. Stewart and I exchanged disbelieving comments on what had just occurred. None of the kids had a chance to taste what was in the bottles, and none had a label to say what kind it was. (The girl who got the yellow-greenish one asked later to exchange it because “It’s yellow!”) The kids had gone crazy over a container—because it was different from the others available for an hour.
What does this have to do with design? Design—or more accurately, its absence—seems to reside at the heart of the ruckus. The frenzy arose not over something’s identity but that it lacked one. Perhaps there is a moral here about the limits of packaging. Maybe it’s just about kids being kids. I want to mark it as an example of children throwing off the hegemony of branding but it may be wishful thinking. All I know is next time I participate; you’ll find me serving condiments.