A Thing I Like: Registration Marks

Enthusiasm is a complicated and often vulnerable state. I often feel temporarily invincible inside the sanctuary of my fandom (whether it’s my own bastion of knowledge and fervor or a community of like-minded votaries), but stepping outside the boundaries of the obsession can transform the wholeheartedness of my admiration into a chink in my armor. It’s difficult to negotiate the slings and arrows of modern life (cynicism, irony, snark) with your heart on your sleeve. If the object of my idée fixe is a specific person, communicating the appreciation can feel a little like visiting the confessional. But maybe that’s just me.


So let’s avoid the more complicated aspects of enthusiasm for now and start with something simple, abstract, colorful, and fun. Let’s start with registration marks.

You can see a few of the registration marks I’ve collected in the second half of this slideshow on Design Observer and a few others here (I have a lot more, but I’ve been lazy about scanning or photographing them), or you can just grab the nearest printed package and find one for yourself. Tear open a Kleenex box, peel apart a peanut butter label, or just closely examine any printed packaging (especially paper or cardboard) and you’re likely to find some colorful hieroglyphs in one corner or another.

Registration marks show up on the products of color printing, though they are often trimmed away or hidden (as with color books and magazines). On product packaging, though, they are often in plain sight, usually on a flap, bottom, or other similarly inconspicuous location, but still visible. (You can also sometimes find them on fabric selvages.) They’ve long appealed to me for their combination of bright colors (whichever primary printing colors have been used, usually some or all of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, and occasionally a spot color or two), their intricacy, and their often goofy geometry. I imagine them looking like something a Bauhaus designer on acid might draw, or the written language of a cheerful and musical alien race.

I went through a long & strong spy phase in my youth, so when I see colorful, inscrutable codes in the corner of a box of cereal or a milk carton, my interest is aroused. Of course the meaning of the marks isn’t really secret — it’s a simple check to make sure color plates are aligned and colors are printing correctly — but the elaborateness of the glyphs seems to promise something more. Most package design these days isn’t particularly engaging, and sometimes this little corner of colorful utility offers a brief respite from the unimaginative world of the wrapper or carton or box. Plus I love that the registration marks reveal something about the process of making the package, something in plain sight but meant to be ignored, like a gaudy version of kuroko in kabuki theater. Colorful but ignored, revealing yet inscrutable: of course I love them.



This entry was posted on Monday, December 23rd, 2013 and is filed under design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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