Semiotics in Design: what The Pinter tells us about the new sustainability

The cognoscenti of the beer world are thirstily eyeing the recent launch of The Pinter from the Good Fresh Brewing Company. If you’re into beer then what’s exciting is a selection of ‘proper’ beers you brew yourself in the fridge using the proprietary kit and subscription ingredients (‘homebrew’ is a word that’s banned in the company).

If you’re a student of culture and semiotics, what’s interesting is the take on sustainability.

From a shorthand that was basically ‘colour it green’, brands moved into showing their sustainability credentials by harking back to a mythical golden age when climate change wasn’t an issue. Hart & Jones dubbed this the ‘brown paper and string’ approach: lots of unfinished papers and card, rough hewn typography and old fashioned engravings. Even huge brands moved to simple print techniques, flat colours and retro illustration styles.

But culture never stands still and many of these brands are starting to look out of time – they don’t quite ‘feel right’. While that overt nostalgia was once comforting, now its inconsistencies grate: unrecyclable foil lined bags of ground coffee for example, coated in unfinished brown paper for that ‘sustainable’ look. The semiotics in design have moved very negatively for such offers.

And why such looks don’t feel right is demonstrated by something that does. The Pinter hasn’t covered itself in engravings of gnarled master brewers and drayhorses. The device isn’t shaped to pretend it’s a wooden cask.  Instead it’s about bright primary colours, minimal san serif typography, clean lines and simple forms.

While the key reason to buy is – of course! – the beer, the environmental credentials to the product are a crucial part of its appeal. No single use containers, no transporting bottles and cans around the country. Rather than tinkering around the edges of lightweighting containers, it is a genuinely disruptive change.

The Pinter is proof of a realignment taking place around sustainability, one that is profoundly important for how brands present themselves. Sustainability is less and less about looking back to an imagined past. Environmental concern and climate change awareness are mainstreamed. Every new product has to acknowledge environmental credentials.  It is simply not possible to claim to be innovative without the validation of true sustainability

The implications of that are worth thinking about. It means that sustainability isn’t about looking to the past, it’s looking to the future.

Culturally, part of the appeal of looking backwards was due to the fact that people in the west were so worried about the future (in 2018, far more than half of respondents across Europe and the US expected their children to be worse off than themselves*). As we move out of the misery of the Covid pandemic, the future is now looking a lot brighter than the present. And that means that the past doesn’t quite have the hold on the west that it used to.

And science, technology and medicine have reminded everyone of their transformational and positive impact on everyday lives. Future facing innovation is saving the day, not folk remedies

The semiotics in design around sustainability can reflect some of this optimism – building a better future, not trying to recapture the past. And while technology has always been part of how a solution to climate change is constructed, this recognition is increasingly mainstream. That language of modernity now has a place in the semiotics of design to encode sustainability.

Our mantra is that whether you like it or not, culture is always shifting the way people respond to the design of your brand. But surely, a return to positivity, modernity and innovation in tackling the biggest issue of our time is something to embrace.

*Pew Research

Picture credit: The Greater Good Fresh Brewing Company