“Sometimes, a product doesn’t need great design. This questionable package, for example, has sold incredibly well for almost 20 years now. We don’t know what the magic is, but it’s the packaging. (We didn’t design the bird, just repackaged it.) It doesn’t fit with anything else we do, but we’re scared to change it in case we kill the golden toothpick bird.” —David Wahl, Director of Awesome at Archie McPhee
The concept of a toothpick bird is, by any standards, pretty goofy. It’s practical but not useful, which is part of the joke (a practical joke?). The toothpick bird picks up one toothpick at a time for you, providing a service that is, as you can see from David’s photo, clean and handy.
Maybe part of “the magic” is that the packaging colors and typography hearken to the design of the ’50s. For example, compare it to this late ’50s record cover from Fats Domino, who died yesterday. Notice the similar jiggly baseline of the title typeface, the squished face used for “12,000,000 records,” and the awkward white space:
With the more playful, bold style of that era (Google image search “1950s record covers” for more fun), the toothpick bird packaging almost makes us feel like we are holding an antique that was mass-produced because it was widely popular back then. We might wonder: Did people actually have these in their homes back then, when waterpiks weren’t around? Or we might imagine a stylish ’50s couple out at a diner, conforming to all the dating conventions of the time, and each politely picking up a toothpick from the toothpick bird afterwards.
No matter how we imagine the toothpick bird might have been used decades ago, it is amusing. The notion of widespread acceptance of this not-so-useful thing seems ludicrous (yet possible) enough that we can grin at it.
But in my conversation with David, he added another layer: “Communicating bad taste in the correct way allows the customer to both feel superior to a product and unironically enjoy it.”
I suppose that the garish and gaudy design can count as “bad taste”—and the charm is undeniable, so it is done in “the correct way.” If the toothpick bird were packaged in a plain box and announced with a no-frills monumental typeface like Optima, the little bird brings less joy. It reminds us of nothing silly. See? Might as well be a tombstone.