Noise and clutter are generally not very welcome. The garish excitement of a neon-filled nightscape in Shanghai or Tokyo may be thrilling as a film set, but it is not the kind of effect you necessarily want to emulate on the front of a chocolate bar wrapper or a tin of paint.
Tidy, discreet minimalism may be what we have come to expect in the public spaces we inhabit, but the world of packaging is deafeningly noisy. There is a proliferation of semaphores and logos, all proclaiming different attributes, affiliations and snippets of information: Best before, Guideline Daily Amount, Carbon, Fairtrade, Soil Association, Vegetarian Society Approved, nut allergy or hazard warnings. The list goes on and on.
And to confuse things further, many of these pictograms are not standardised. In some cases there are even competing systems. The messy battle being played out between the Food Standards Agency’s voluntary traffic light system and the alternative Guideline Daily Amount system supported by much of the food industry itself is being replicated by a similar battle between different ways of showing the carbon footprint of a product. Throw into the mix any on-pack promotions, and the result can be a messy, confusing, patchwork of signs.
So how in the current environment do marketers and designers go about creating new packaging? “Outside issues put pressure on us to load up the packs,” says Nir Wegrzyn, managing director of design consultancy Brandopus. “It is a problem that we come up against all the time.”
He believes the role of the brand is undermined by the clutter, and that brands should be strong enough for consumers to trust them to be doing the right things without having to proclaim them with multiple logos on pack. “These devices might be effective in research groups, but not in the real world,” he says, adding/ “It plays straight into the hands of own-brand.”
“Marketers don’t want to plonk these things on their packs either,” points out Paul Cousins, a former marketer for Jacobs and now director of marketing consultancy Cousins Davis Associates, adding that often the information is a legal or semi-legal requirement.
However, he concedes the pressures do come from marketing departments and above. “There is a lot of clutter due to over-zealous marketing out there. Too often it is there for corporate reasons, to make the company feel good about itself, rather than anything else,” he says. “These devices should be there only if the consumer demands them and if the consumer makes a sales choice as a result. If the marketer has no proof that it sells the product, it shouldn’t be on there.”
He observes that “mega brands” don’t tend to over-clutter their packs, largely because they have the means to communicate with consumers by other means, such as advertising.
Cowan Design creative director David Pearman recently redesigned the packs for the Heinz baby food range. He strongly believes that the first job of a packaging design it to draw the consumer in.
Colour, clarity, images
“All the ingredient details, and warning copy which have to appear on a pack only come into play if the consumer picks up the pack in the first place. It is a well-known fact that a pack has but a few seconds to attract the consumer – it certainly can’t do this effectively if it is cluttered with front-of-pack information,” he says. “Our research has shown that consumers are drawn to colour, clarity and images but not to writing.”
Nevertheless, devices such as the traffic light systems have their supporters on both sides of the fence. While admitting they can be a millstone around the neck of brand designers, Dave Brown, chairman of brand consultancy Enterprise IG, says: “The introduction of a visual language to help consumers make decisions on the mandatory stuff is also a positive step forward – the traffic light system on some foods seems to be an impactful shorthand to help consumers make choices at point of sale.”
He adds: “We live in a society increasingly obsessed with knowing what’s in products, thanks to Jamie Oliver, Gillian McKeith ©and a ‘you are what you eat’ media agenda – but conveying this information shouldn’t mean an impenetrable barrage of legal jargon. Take Innocent, for example. It applies an engaging tone of voice to make the mandatory stuff fun.”
For some products, such as hair dyes, the amount of information that can be given is extensive. Smart Beauty is a challenger brand fighting for attention on the shelves against competition from the likes of L’Oréal and Procter & Gamble. Under the EU Cosmetics Directive, hair dyes are only obliged to give a caution, but Smart Beauty seeks to differentiate itself by offering more rather than less information.
“It is about treating consumers with respect,” says Smart Beauty managing director Mike Rushby. “We look at people at the fixture, and it is a very well researched purchase. It is a serious matter, get hair colouring wrong and it will affect self-esteem.” Potential health issues are addressed on one side of the pack given over to four detailed health warnings, another side details ingredients, and a very detailed pictorial step-by-step guide is included as a fold-out inside, all with the intention of giving reassurance to the consumer.
In many situations, though, Richard Williams, a founder and director of packaging design agency Williams Murray Hamm, believes the information cluttering the packs is totally superfluous. “It is obvious that Nescafé is served in a mug, so why have that on a pack? Brands have been adding messages but not taking messages out, nothing has moved over to make way.”
Williams says as a consumer he does not have a problem scrutinising packaging for health information. “It just means you should get rid of something else,” he says. “Design is a great editor – it is there to make life easier. Branding should be effortless, it shouldn’t be akin to reading Mandarin.”
Media and political scrutiny of our everyday life, particularly when it comes to issues surrounding health or the environment, shows no sign of abating. And this is likely to translate into more regulatory pressure and ever more onerous requirements, particularly for food and drinks companies. The resultant information burden means brand owners and designers will find tidying up becomes an ever more difficult, though desirable, task.