Salsa Label Designs

When you think of salsa, you think spicy, tasty, festive…right?

Salsa is one of those things that America “discovered” back in the ’50s and ’60s, when our palates came of age after the GIs had come back from WWII and the Korean Conflict and while baby boomers were on their way into the world. Pizza had become one of the new things to try, even if it was out of a box of Chef Boyardee. And items like La Choy Chow Mein were getting to our tables, things that made preparing dinner easier because in many households (mine included) both mom and dad worked.

And the way of the world in this country was that American food companies processed these foods especially for American tastes. Pizza in Italy is not like American pizza. And a burrito in Mexico is different than an American chain store burrito. And that’s OK, for us. Taco Bell and Pizza Hut will keep hoping you don’t mind.

Today we’ll examine salsa labels. I’ve chosen a bunch of images from various companies to compare designs. I have a good working knowledge of package label design because that is one area that I worked in during my last several years as a practicing designer and photographer. And the thing that always sparks my attention here is the kind of thinking that was done that brought these items to the store shelf. All these designs are different, of course. But the thinking behind each is what we’ll look at.

I chose two prominent brands first: Pace and Ortega. These two have very similar graphic items in their designs: both have a graphic sun as part of the logo, and both have images of tomatoes, peppers, and garlic as peripheral elements to dress up the designs. Adding vegetables and other condiment items to label designs is nothing new, but notice that the eight other brands shown have almost none of these. And we’ll get to that.

The Pace and Ortega designs are also the most colorful ones, and you might think that they were made by the same company. But Pace is a Campbell Soup brand, and Ortega is owned by B&G Foods. And they are the two most widely sold salsas in this country. The Pace design is somewhat freeform in that the text blocks are all “banners” flanked by the vegetables. The Ortega design has tighter, more rigid banners within a framework flanked by the veggies. Both work well, and the colors show off the banners for text readability, best for legibility as you cruise down the store aisles. Very good at catching your attention, and these two are the stars of this show. Nothing is out of place, nothing over- or under-done. A on both. Remember—inviting color, contrast, legibility, and one other important quality: graphic balance.

We can jump down to the bottom row to compare the Tostitos label to the Pace and Ortega labels. The designers at Frito Lay lost on this one because the label is yelling the brand name at you at the expense of the pictorial elements behind the type, which you can’t really see much of—the tomato, pepper, and garlic. It’s just black type on top of red and white shapes on top of a dark background. Surprising for the top name in snacks in America. D. What Tostitos lacks in design, the brand makes up for in sales  merely because they merchandise their salsa right next to their corn chips. If it weren’t for that, Tostitos would be a second-rate salsa.

Moving along, we’ll address the rest of the top row. The Arriba! label is also sad, one of the drab ones here, in color especially. The Arriba! brand has several salsa flavors in its line, but  I chose this one because it is the worst. The black shape behind the type is an iron skillet flanked by cheddar cheese (whose red sliver of color is the only save) and a slice of bacon. And behind the skillet is a drawing of a grill, which you can’t make out. The whole design is over-wrought, as if done by three designers. D.

Mrs. Renfro’s Habanero Salsa label is not terrible, but with four flat colors (not process), you’d think their budget would allow something more here. The drawings of the veggies don’t really cut it in this subdued design, which by the way, the cap on the jar is not the right color— a red cap would be much more appropriate. C+. I’ll save Archer Farms for last.

Bottom row, Amy’s Salsa looks like something Amy is doing when she’s not quilting or needlepointing. The bowl of salsa framed amid all that patterned whatever is not appetizing enough for me to try it, even though it is a tight nifty layout that’s at least readable. But no veggies. And the cap is a little off. Thought process? Is the pattern more important than the salsa? C+.

Old El Paso. Here we go: all that label space, and wadda you got? Small logo, small flavor descriptor, small bowl of salsa way off to the right. Enough space left to drive a Jeep through. Terrible. Nice cap, though. C-. The Santuario Salsa has a pretty painterly background, but it suffers in its use for a label (no punch) and the red type gets lost along with the even smaller red and green type midway down. Too delicate all over. C-. Jardine’s Tomatillo Salsa is not bad for not having pictorial elements in it. It’s at least clean, but that descriptor to the right—“Made Fresh”—what’s with that? I hope it’s made fresh. B-.

Now to the Archer Farms. Target’s own food brand has an understatement about it that tries hard to be top tier. To them, less is more. To me, it’s just another way to look posh, but isn’t. Having no graphics (that tiny blue banner telling me this one is “mild” does not hack it at all). It’s like Archer Farms is trying to look like a wine label on that squat low-hipped jar. No appetite appeal, no effort expensed. And once again, the cap is the wrong color. Does Target know what “dour” means? F.

What some of the ones here lack is that graphic balance: an even application of elements that no one part is overbearing or encroaches on the rest of the design. Example: the Tostitos name is too big and heavy for the space on that label. Another: the fabric background on the Amy’s label is too cloyingly craft-like and takes up way too much space. The designer should always be asking what’s important (the brand name and SKU) and enhance those with subordinate elements that relate in context.

Package design is all about artful design of a container—jar or bottle or box—enveloping a product—an implement or perishable—and making it desirable to the consumer at the shelf level. The container should be ergonomic, and the label should invite the consumer to enjoy what’s inside. It isn’t hard. Here, you have a choice of a jar, a cap, and a label. Easy, right? So why are so many so bad?

Probably because most of these were designed by committee.






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Newer Is Better

(This is a repost from the original back in March of 2018. Dan Blanchette is on assignment.)

Why does a company introduce a new package for a seemingly ordinary line? Can’t they use an existing brand and indicate that it‘s new?

Well, yes (sorry) they could. But it wouldn’t have the impact that a brand new line would. Remember, good design has impact. And in packaging, impact is almost everything. Without it, a package will die on the store shelf.

And there‘s nothing like a brand new package for a brand new line in a food company‘s pantheon of products. They can make it whatever they want to be: new graphics, new photography, new colors, new copy, new name. They can make the PDP, the primary display panel, anything they want. In this case, that front of the can, it can be anything they need it to be, that endangered 40% of the label.

Campbell‘s new line of soups has a catchy name. Well Yes, of course, refers to “wellness”, one of those words I feel is kind of dumb, like “tiredness”. But no matter. It works here, and the semi-freeform design of the name works, also. Especially sitting as it does on the label. And the flavor SKU sits right below it, and the photo of the main ingredients sits right below that. 1, 2, 3. Easy and direct.

And this new label treats the consumer like he/she has a brain: there’s no “beauty” shot of a bowl of soup on the front. Don’t need it. Everyone knows what a bowl of soup looks like. It’s the ingredients that count. And the label has plenty of areas denoting what the health information is, mostly in a large and easy-to-read panel on the back.

They have fourteen SKUs in this new line (so far), all without artificial colors or flavors. Campbell’s says each has “purposeful” ingredients. And that, of course, is in line with the relatively recent wave of consumer-minded things like “organic” and “non-GMO” tags you see on food packaging. But in this new line, not all are non-GMO ad none are organic. Some are delineated as vegetarian or vegan, according to their ingredients. If you’re looking for protein or fiber, they have those, too.

So it’s new. And it’s different (part of what Campbell’s calls the Sage Project). And Campbell’s knows that if it’s new and has that impact they need, consumers will see it, pick it up, and read the label. And because the design is friendly and informative, and having all those friendly ingredients pictured right there, people will buy it. Yes, partly because it’s Campbell’s—a name we trust. But the design really carries it.

And the large “Yes!” in the name is instantly inviting. It has an intrinsic, positive vibe. Everything in the design (and ingredients) is positive. It’s no wonder that Campbell’s decided it had to be a new line. It was such a fun thing to do.





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When Design Is Art

(This is a repost originally from January 26. Dan Blanchette is taking the week off.)

I was watching some of the events leading up to the 2018 Winter Olympics the other night, and observed the beautiful forms made while the skaters performed their ice dancing. And if you’d ever watched ice dancing, you know that it is not like other olympic endeavors. It takes immense skill and strength, no doubt, and supreme discipline—after years of effort and practice. But that’s just one facet of it. The other is the art it makes.

That’s right: it makes art. Right there in front of you, a performance like ballet. The forms, the shapes and colors, all done in performing just in that one occasion. Like watching a watercolor move across the paper in the succeeding brushwork, creating a picture.

Design can be art as well. Thing is, there’s just so much out there that is not art. Take consumer packages: most are merely functioning as information on the shelf, with little or no beauty to them. But every now and then you see a package that approaches a certain essence of perfection, letting your brain, through your eyes, see the art in it.

Like those ice dancers who show things like repetitive shapes and synchronized movements and lines, you’ll see the same things happen in the artful packages. The Microsoft folding mouse packaging above shows that. It’s so simple: it takes a simple shape and repeats it, inverted below, as a semi-revealing window. It shows how the mouse folds. Charles Eames couldn’t have done much better in designing his forms in furniture. The elegant lines of the mouse itself almost demanded a good design here, and the package designer did not disappoint.

Zealong’s tea packaging is a good example of using the name to inspire a shape: a diagonal in its dieline to emulate the “Z”. How simple and yet elegant this is. And the colors—just black and lime green—bring out the contrast to enhance that dieline.

Maybe some companies need to look elsewhere for design inspiration the next time they want to redo their packaging. Maybe nature provides some input, like the shapes of leaves or flowers. Maybe it can come to a designer in the shapes of industrial items, like automobiles or furniture. Typography can be a source. Or maybe it can come from watching sports.

You can’t say those things of all packaging out there. Only a small percentage show it. That elegance, that shape, those lines. That art.

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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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