What Makes for an Upscale Food Label?

Food labeling is an area I’ve been around for a long period of time, design-wise. But that experience, even though it has given me a lot of insight into the business of selecting imagery, directing photography, and working with marketing teams, seldom melds with the abstract clarity of academic design.

And that clarity is usually what is sacrificed in most companies’ obsession with cramming information onto the primary display panel (PDP) of the label, that which faces shoppers at the store shelf.

We’ll use the above images of pasta sauce for this rant today. Simplicity is something that design students (should) learn early on to achieve beauty and clarity in their design assignments. And once they learn that, and then go out into the real world, they also learn quickly how fast that simplicity disappears.

Getting right down to the essence of this is the marketing department falling in love with the graphics on that PDP instead of letting the colorful beauty of their food, showing through the glass jar, speak for itself.

What isn’t necessary is the over-colorful descriptive information beyond that. Yes, tell us what it is; no, the added photography is not a requirement (unless the packaging is opaque, such as a box); and further, the colorful panels behind the type (including the background) can easily be way too intrusive. In a word: cluttered.

The label at left has that cluttered feel, and it’s heavy. The colors tend to choke together because they’re close to the same density, value-wise, except for the light blue. But the black behind that panel, although it unifies the panel elements, ties it all way down. Even the cap, echoing the black color, adds to the weight of the colors.

Then there’s the choice of typography, which is too “everyday”. The semi-primitive font is OK, and it might work much better against a lighter background, but here, because of the heavy colored panels, becomes a tad clumsy. The label has an ’80s feel overall, and that period had a lot of bad labels.

The label at right has a much cleaner feel. The white of the label tells you right away how uncluttered it is, how simple it is, how honest it makes what’s inside the jar look. The label has fewer colors and needs no photo. Its straight up-and-down orthographic alignment’s only real embellishments are the decorative panels left and right, not too light or dark, but echoing the color of “parmesan pomodoro”, and the small but centered script G in a circle, letting you know the quality of the food from Giada de Laurentiis, marketed by Williams Sonoma, like a small but important fingerprint.

All that makes for an understated, yet well-thought-out assembly of design. The gold cap adds a feel of quality, and the security tape is a further premium touch.

The problem most all marketing departments have is not letting go of their dear promotional ideals, that selling to the customer at the store shelf. If they’d allow their focus groups the latitude of comparing what their product actually looks like against premium competition, they might learn something.

And looking like premium doesn’t cost anything.

 

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