Quirky Type Design on Labels

Ever since I became aware of type design in art school, I couldn’t remain unaware of it. We were taught to look for it wherever we could, and sometimes we could find mistakes in those examples, if not just oddities. We could find them in magazines or book covers, or as in this lesson, on packages.

It still rankles when I walk through a Walmart or Walgreens or any store for that matter, as to why these happen. Sometimes the oddities are coupled with strange design elements.

I came across a hand soap my wife had purchased some weeks ago, a Klar & Danver product. Klar & Danver is a label distributed by Greenbrier International, out of Chesapeake, Virginia, but actually manufactured by a firm in Mexico known as 4E. 4E is a family concern that has developed a large market for beauty and anti-bacterial items in our southern neighbor and is a major contributor to sales in Walmart Mexico. I don’t know exactly where the name “Klar & Danver” comes from, but that’s not my issue with their label designs.

Type justification, as most designers know, is flushing type both left and right. The type design in this particular label comes close to that standard and misses it by a few degrees on both ends, but in looking at it, why would they try it? With only four characters—K L A R &—on the top line, the spacing as a result looks and feels awkward when stacked atop DANVER. The rest of the label works well in clarity and readability, even graphically with the water swoosh framing the bottom two-thirds of it, which makes the quirky brand name layout all the more obvious. All of the Klar & Danver labels have the same type design.

The next label is on a bottle of shampoo, that of the L’Oréal line. This label has both good and strange things happening on it, but among the strange is the way a couple lines of type line up: Extraordinary and OIL. Aside from a center-on-center overall layout, the designer decided to line up the uppercase I in the bottom line with the lowercase i in the top line, offsetting those two lines. I’ve even taught classes on this kind of type design (using type forms as shapes), but seldom with just two lines and never combining upper- and lowercase that has emphasis on just one of the words. Here the oddity of it makes it look like a design flaw. The singularity of it points up an idiosyncratic mindset on the part of the designer, possibly a sophomoric effort to be different for the sake of being different.

Also on this label is a graphic element that is strange. The metallic filigree in the center of the label is an element that is used on all L’Oréal shampoo labels, but what’s strange here is the rectangular arm coming off it toward the left and then down, ending in two bullet points citing two features of the shampoo inside. The coupling of that thick rectilinear element with the fine curvilinear shapes of the filigree does not work here (framing the larger rectangle with a thinner line and using two smaller squares for the bullet points does). This also comes off as an endeavor by a young designer trying to do different things without knowing what works well.

Aside from those flaws, the rest of the label looks and feels what most marketing departments call “premium”. The cosmetic industry relies on this appearance to drive customers into thinking they’re purchasing higher-end products merely because they have metallic and lenticular printing on the labels and outer packaging. That’s what keeps most of the prices for these products higher at the cash register.

Last, we have another liquid hand soap, that of a Bath & Body Works product. This particular SKU is “Peach Bellini”, named after a cocktail drink. This line of hand soaps has a tight design based on a grid. A grid (sometimes referred to as a “Swiss grid”) is used primarily in magazine layout to unify page-after-page sequencing and overall continuity. The pattern became popular in the early 1960s. Here, the package designer uses that graphic thinking to allow for placement of type and pictorial elements that will align each and every time throughout the product line, no matter what the flavor (or scent) SKU is. This is a very good method for a line of any product by a manufacturer, especially on labels of a smaller size that need to maximize the typography and graphics to be descriptive and informative.

This same exact grid—on a label, bottle or box—could easily be used for a soft drink, a line of men’s slacks, or even disposal trash bags. Good thinking by the designer.

You don’t have to use a grid to have a good design on a label or package. But organization of type and/or graphic elements (a basic tenet of any good design) is paramount.

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