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.