A neat little package
Like a lot of other people, I spent most of yesterday afternoon wrapping my holiday presents. It sounds like it should be a relaxing activity—A Charlie Brown Christmas playing on vinyl, a hot beverage, rolls of paper and ribbon on the floor by the tree—but it’s always a little more frustrating than I expect, even without a three-year-old insisting that she can wrap everything herself. Some packages, like books or big rectangular boxes, are satisfying and easy to wrap. Yet there are always a few gifts that stubbornly refuse to cooperate. They’ve got weird shapes, or protrusions, or they’re soft and amorphous, and since you never have all the gift bags you need, you end up trying to adapt your simpleminded method of wrapping a box to something that isn’t a box, and the result is always a bit hideous. Even boxes themselves can be tough: a small box is much less forgiving than a large one, and if your estimate of how much paper you’ll need is off by even a centimeter, you often have to start all over again. (It’s for much the same reason that short fiction can be harder to write than a novel.) I always think that there has to be a better way, and, of course, there is. The trouble is, like most people, I wrap presents only a few times a year, with weeks or months going by between birthdays and holidays, so I’ve never bothered to develop that particular skill set. Whenever I do it again, I feel as if I’m figuring out how to wrap a present for the first time. If I did it more frequently, or if I had to wrap hundreds of presents at once, I’d probably come up with a few good tricks. As it stands, I get pretty good at it by the end of each wrapping session, and the next time around, I find that I’ve forgotten everything I learned.
My real problem is that I insist on wrapping every present as if it were a rectangular prism, since that’s the one thing I sort of know how to do. In fact, there’s an objectively right way to wrap any shape, assuming that you’re willing to put the effort into it. (It probably isn’t a worthwhile use of energy for a present that is just going to be torn apart on Christmas Eve, but bear with me here.) Wrapping a package is largely a problem of translation: you’re attempting to capture the essential information about a three-dimensional shape in a two-dimensional form. In design terms, you’re trying to construct a net—a single, two-dimensional piece that locks around itself to enclose a polyhedron. And a net that has been logically conceived is an object of rare beauty. There’s a lovely book called Structural Packaging by Paul Jackson that discusses this in detail, and it handles the topic with a level of clarity and precision that should serve as an inspiration to anyone interested in solving creative problems. Jackson writes: “A net is either absolutely correct and perfect, or incorrect and in need of correction. In design, the concept of perfection is almost unknown—how can a magazine layout, or a color, or a choice of fabric be described as perfect?—but in package design perfection is achievable and necessary.” Elsewhere, he says that he has developed “a simple system—a formula, even—for creating the strongest possible one-piece net that will enclose any volumetric form which has flat faces and straight sides,” and he advises his readers that for the best results, his method “must be followed accurately, almost to the point of obsession—at least at first.”
So how would Paul Jackson wrap a package? The first step, after you’ve figured out the overall shape, is to construct a dummy using sheets of card and masking tape. You cut loose the lid, which is the one set of cuts that you know you have to make, and place a tab on the edge opposite the hinge. The rest of the process, which tells you how to fold the dummy flat, consists of a set of elegant rules of the kind that I find hard to resist. Jackson tells you to cut the shortest edges first, and to continue to cut, proceeding from short edges to long, until the entire net can be unfolded. (This makes intuitive sense: a design that situates its hinges along the longest edges will be the strongest, and it will also occupy the smallest area of the card that will be used to manufacture the finished version.) You then place more tabs on alternate edges, starting with the lid tab—as Jackson notes, any net, no matter how complicated, will have an even number of edges, so this approach always works. Finally, you determine the shape of each tab, one by one, based on the shape of the face to which it will be joined. Jackson notes: “There is no quick way to do this—every tab must be designed carefully and accurately, one at a time.” This is the point, in other words, at which the general rules give way to close observation and analysis. Jackson says that if this method is executed with complete accuracy, it gives you a remarkably strong net; if it’s even slightly less accurate, the net will be noticeably weaker. And he frames the discussion with an important reminder: “Sometimes, creativity comes from thinking freely without limitations, and sometimes it comes from learning something thoroughly and then applying it. Structural packaging is definitely in the latter category.”
And I can’t help but compare this to other kinds of creative thinking, particularly writing, which is the art form I know best. When you’re writing a story, you’re performing a similar act of translation, turning the three-dimensional world around you into a form that conveys the same information on the printed page. And it’s all too easy to approach every subject using the same handful of tricks: trying to cram every story into the same formula—as so many mainstream movies do—isn’t so different from wrapping every present, no matter how unusual its shape, as if it were a box with rectangular sides. In reality, you need to tell each story on its own terms, evaluating the problems it presents according to the basic rules of craft. (As David Mamet puts it in On Directing Film: “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate this rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.”) And even after you’ve followed the rules to the letter, you still have to put in the tabs, or the connections between scenes and ideas, which can only be done by paying close attention to the shape and relationship of the constituent parts. You learn this only by doing it repeatedly, which is why it’s important to write every day: otherwise, you’re like someone who wraps presents a few times a year and has to figure it out from scratch each time. I’m reminded of another book, How to Wrap Five Eggs by Hideyuki Oka, that seems as far from Jackson as you could possibly get: it’s about the lost art of traditional Japanese packaging, in which eggs were bound together using just a few wisps of rice straw. But both approaches, as Oka says, represent “a kind of crystallization of the wisdom that comes from everyday life.” This can emerge either from systematic theory or from the accumulated experience of generations. The first step is to respect the package itself. And when you’re done, you can tie a bow on it.