Ask three professionals how best to design a cover and you may well get three completely different answers. Jim Powers said he enjoys coming up with concepts that catch a consumer's attention with the must-see shock value of a car crash. Darkko encouraged simplicity, while Vivid Alt box designer Alaska said he wanted to shake up the industry in ways it hasn't seen since, well, ever.
Powers, who has won awards for both his directing and his box covers, has come up with hundreds of box cover concepts over the years. One of his personal favorites was "A Pervert Walks Among Us," an idea he got from an early-1960s Life magazine.
"It had this girl walking down the street," he explained. "I had her in color and everything else was in black and white except for one figure: A pervert in a yellow raincoat who you can see in the background, and a lot of distributors didn't like that cover because it wasn't a sexy cover."
Despite decades in the business, awards and acclaim, Powers admitted that he was unclear what distributors wanted. Despite some inspired work, he said he didn't think such tactics registered with the buying public.
"They do not appreciate it," he said. "You kind of do it for yourself."
Darkko, who was a professional photographer before he entered the adult business, said he doesn't like a complicated cover.
"I think the porn recipe is simple: pretty girls being nasty," Darkko said. "I go back to things I learned in the modeling business, where models had their composite cards and they're going to castings where they're looking at 2,000 model cards in a day. I think of porn the same way: You have to grab someone's attention and have them lift it off the shelf. That means everything."
Alaska, who recently established his own Six Months of Light design company and is known for covers he has created for Vivid Alt, Jack the Zipper, Eon McKai and others, has his own deconstructionist take. He was quick to admit that he has not been schooled on the history of adult design, and was just as quick to say he had no intention of that happening.
"I never look to other porn for inspiration," Alaska said. "I think they're digging their own graves with their cookie-cutter designs of box covers."
He pointed out that record companies once thought album covers needed to feature photos of bands to sell, and that many mainstream companies today advertise without ever showing their product.
"A lot of people say a cover has to have a sexy girl, but I'm going to make them think otherwise someday," Alaska said. "Another thing that I want to get away from is the name of the movie on the cover. It should be somewhere on the package, of course, but I don't think it has to be on the cover."
Ever since the oversized VHS box, the adult industry has made an effort to steal attention from the competition. Some of the more recent techniques have included covers with foil, lenticular effects, embossing, foldouts; Exquisite Multimedia even came out with a sampler that featured built-in blinking lights.
"Gimmicks work well as an enhancement to draw attention to your product," Grdina said, "but you need to make sure you are attracting the consumer to a good box. I'm waiting for the LCD box!"
Other companies found simpler innovations to draw attention to their releases. New Sensations now designs three covers for each release — soft, hard and extreme penetration — allowing different types of stores to stock the different packaging.
"When we started doing extreme last year, almost no one wanted them," New Sensations Vice President of Domestic Sales Belle Casten said. "The more people tested it, the more it tipped, and now almost everyone wants extreme."
Production companies can also reap an unintended reward from innovative packaging: thwarting bootleggers.
"It's not only for attracting the attention of the consumer," Evil Angel publicist Karen Stagliano said, "but any step beyond normal printing on paper stock helps make it more difficult for bootleggers to try to make their copies look authentic."
Most companies contacted agreed that there was a place for all of the innovations mentioned. The vast majority was also quick to point out that the methods were virtually useless if they didn't effectively introduce the customer to the brand.
"When merchandising a page, the box art is a big factor," Leah Perry, business development assistant manager at Gamelink, said. "I'm a sucker for good branding, so I'll give better placement to a company that consistently does it right."
Just as there is no formula for design or innovation, there is no single forecast for the box cover's impact in the future. There is no one girl — barring Jenna Jameson, perhaps — who can sell virtually any cover on any shelf or website the world over. Whatever form it takes, the cover appears to have a lease on life that outlasts the box and moves into some form of virtual reality.
"You have someone's attention span for a second or two, then it's over, and they're already sifting through the black sea of porn," Darkko said. "There's a million titles out there, what's going to make someone pick yours? For me, it's a great box."