March 26, 2015

Barnes & Noble’s new bags are a small, beautiful, very small step in the right direction


Barnes & Noble's got a brand new bag.  (Hey! Come on!)

Barnes & Noble’s got a brand new bag. (Hey! Come on!)

Last month, Barnes & Noble unveiled its newest attempt at revitalizing its flailing brand: a shopping bag. According to Bloomberg, the bags debuted in New York and will be making their way across the country soon. More interestingly, the new bags are explicitly designed to target Amazon’s hegemony:

B&N has decided to use its shopping bags to emphasize something doesn’t offer: bookstores that offer handsome plastic bags.

“You don’t get a shopping bag when you shop online—you get a box,” says Glenn Kaplan, Barnes & Noble’s creative director. The company distributes more than 90 million bags a year, making the totes one of its most effective advertising campaigns. That’s why its latest bags, featuring first pages from a classic work of literature in a florid sans-serif font, signal a return to traditional bookselling roots.

There’s an easy way to write this story. “Barnes & Noble finally enters the 21st century… by redesigning a bag.” “Barnes & Noble retreats from hardware and embraces the…. paper bag?”  “Barnes & Noble thinks a bag can save their flailing business, lol.”

It’s no secret that Barnes & Noble is struggling and it’s no secret that many of its decisions are interpreted in that light—though in most cases, interpretation isn’t necessary. Barnes & Noble is struggling, period—flailing, really. They don’t seem to have a long-term strategy about how to survive in a post-big box, post-Amazon apocalypse world. Actually, they don’t seem to have much of a short-term strategy either. Most of the tactics they’ve employed over the past two years seem disjointed, unimaginative, and generally uninspired.

Most of what’s been written about the company over the past half-decade has been laced with doom and gloom, and for good reason. Barnes & Noble hasn’t been particularly good at selling books for quite a while and they haven’t seemed particularly interested in it lately, either—to enter the floor space of a Barnes & Noble today is to be awash in books, yes, but also records, chocolates, CDs, cards, board games. These are high-margin items, but they emerged at a time when Barnes & Noble needed to get better at selling books; instead, they turned their back on them.

For years, to put it slightly differently, Barnes & Noble has seemed a bit insecure about being a bookseller. That’s not entirely their fault—investors demand profits and, with Amazon gobbling up market share and book sales generally declining, Barnes & Noble turned to other avenues for success (well, maybe not success, but at least lessened failure).

It’s tempting to plot these bags as part of Barnes & Noble’s decline because everything seems like a plot point in decline when a company is declining. And yet, these bags strike me as a positive step for the company because they show pride in the company’s core identity as a bookseller. Barnes & Noble has tried to save itself by being a chocolatier and a music store and a boardgamesatier for a while now, but it’s never been able to shake off what it really is: a bookseller.

Of course, these bags certainly won’t reverse Barnes & Noble’s fortunes and they don’t seem to signal a return to form, though they are back-to-basics, in a way: they call out the fact that you have just bought a book at Barnes & Noble, and that strikes me as a good thing. For many, books are an aspirational product, and the new bag strikes me as a branding (gross, sorry) win: Barnes & Noble’s old bags weren’t much to show off, but these are bags I wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen carrying.

In large part, that’s because they’re not bad to look at. But I’m certainly no design expert—I’m wearing a children’s sweatshirt listing every home run Mark McGwire hit in 1998 right now—so I thought I’d turn to someone who is, Melville House’s art director Adly Elewa. Here’s what he had to say about Barnes & Noble’s new aesthetic:

Ohhh I really love the new bags. I was always on the fence about B&N’s use of etchings. The portraits of authors were always solid but I hated the ugly split pea soup colored book/leaf etching that was slapped on everything. I especially disliked how they double downed on the triteness by pairing the old style etching with old style serif typeface. yuck.

The new totes nicely leverage what was so great about the etchings. The color is kept natural and familiar. Off white back-round with text color black illustrations. There are no fussy textures or gradients to over sell the antiquity.  The logotype is also nicely handled by being neatly tucked on the “spine” of the bag. The serif version feels super fresh and authoritative.

B&N’s investment in these totes is very reassuring. It shows an alignment to what book publishers and designers have been preaching all along to the “PRINT IS DEAD” doomsday cults. People like thoughtfully designed physical objects. Especially readers.

Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.