Welcome to Design Decoded, the newest member of Smithsonian’s digital family. As you might guess from the name, this blog aims to unlock the ways design factors into the world around us, particularly its role in the everyday—seemingly undesigned—environment. For each topic we tackle, we’ll be developing a multi-part series of interlocking posts, which will combine, we hope, to offer a new lens for viewing the familiar. Today we present the first installment of a long and winding story in which a tiny, seedless fruit becomes the iPhone of the produce aisle.
You’ve seen these in the supermarket. Their brand name—Cuties—has practically replaced their horticultural name—mandarins—in the way that Kleenex once replaced “tissue.” Grown in California, Cuties are now the leading brand of mandarin, a citrus category that is on pace to unseat the common lemon from its slot at #2 on the Golden State’s production roster. Cuties come in a crate-shaped cardboard box or a mesh bag with a label that features a smiling mandarin emerging from its peel through a zipper. The cheerful image references an agricultural term for this variety—“zipper fruit”—so named because of the ease of removing the peel.
Unzippability is just one of several characteristics that make mandarins supremely marketable. They are also seedless, sweet, and diminutive. Upon these four “unique selling propositions” (to use marketing speak), Paramount Citrus has built an empire. Back in December, Paramount Citrus launched a $20 million advertising campaign to promote the Cuties brand. The 15-second commercials open with a young child’s voice asking, “You know why Cuties are small?” A little arm reaches over a kitchen counter to grab a mandarin from a bowl and the same voice answers, “’Cuz kids have small hands.” In another, a girl in a tutu lies on a sofa with a mandarin in hand. The voice asks, “You know why Cuties are seedless? ‘Cuz kids hate seeds.” In a third, a little boy sits cross-legged on the floor, peeling a piece of fruit. “You know why Cuties are so easy to peel?” The voice asks. “’So kids can peel ‘em.” Each spot ends with the campaign kicker: “Kids love Cuties, because Cuties are made for kids.”
It’s working. According to the USDA’s 2010 California Citrus Acreage Report, land area dedicated to mandarin cultivation nearly tripled between 2002 to 2010, and the fruit looks primed to outpace Valencia oranges and lemons for total productive acres. Al Bates, the general manager of Sun Pacific, which packs and markets mandarins in the San Joaquin Valley, says the category has grown faster than any other citrus fruit over the last 50 years.
Hardly anyone would notice this boom, of course, if all the oranges in the grocery store were distinguished merely by fingernail-size stickers. The mandarin’s superiority as a consumer product only dawned on me when the Cuties commercial delivered its message. I was struck by the notion that this fruit is “made” for kids. I wondered, has it been engineered in some way? (I learned that Cuties are not genetically modified—more on that later.) But Frankenfood fears aside, I was most compelled by the idea that the entire campaign focused on the physical and structural attributes of a Cutie. Essentially, this was a celebration of a fruit’s ideal design.
And here lies the entrance to the rabbit hole. While more obviously designed objects are constantly examined to better understand how they’ve achieved market dominance, we rarely consider the sequence of intentional decisions that push one agricultural product into our shopping basket instead of another.
Over the next month, we’ll map that process. We’ll look at decades of experimentation in plant genetics geared toward improving the user interface of the mandarin; the novelty of marketing fresh fruits and vegetables; the rise, fall, and comeback of graphic design in the produce aisle; and growers’ ongoing battle to keep bees from trespassing and pollinating their seedless crops. Nature may be the original designer, but much human ingenuity is responsible for optimizing the mandarin.