The Grammar of Good Labels

Aesthetics, functionality, technical process

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Signed, Sealed and . . . Labelled!
Every label tells a story. Actually — not just one, but many stories. There is a story that comes with the brand logo printed on the label. That is the story that the product user gets to see. It is the story of what the brand stands for and what is being offered inside that particular pack as well as which agencies have approved that product. But, read between the lines and several other stories emerge. The quality of the label somehow represents all these stories. There is the story of the pack itself — its size, shape and closure system. How comfortably and in what size the label has been positioned on the pack tells this story. There is another story of the label materials used and how they have been applied. This is a story of technical competence — or incompetence, as the case may be. Finally there is a story of the design selected for the label. This is a picture of the design team and their grasp of the complex mix of art, form, typography, print process, label materials and the technology that go into the emergence of great labels. Labels, for example, like the international Carlsberg or the more familiar Kingfisher are timeless and iconic. Such labels not only carry the story of the brand, or product but in many ways align themselves so strongly with consumer sensibilities that they contribute to the growth of an entire category.
How does one go about developing labels that consumers will reach out to? What is the grammar of good labelling? What exactly defines the qualities by which a consumer is often unknowingly influenced? How can we, as designers, use the grammar of good labelling to be able to develop ‘shelf winners’ each time?

Recently, I was at a gathering of label convertors from all over India. These convertors supply labels to the top-most brands in India and a large quantity of labels are exported by them to brand owners across the world.  During this gathering I could hear a lot of discussions and see several examples of the most beautifully produced labels. Most of the discussions were tech-speak: “Flexo versus Letter-Press versus Screen; Single-Process versus Multi-Process; Rotary Die-cut versus Flat-bed die-cut; On-line inspection or Off-line inspection; Video Inspection Systems; Screen Angles; Dot Gain; Spot Colors or CMYK.’

Even the vast collection of labels put on display was classified by production process, in more than 25 categories. These ranged from single process line-jobs or tonal jobs to multi-process complex conversion or innovative uses of technology or materials. To see the vast array of products on display and get a sense of the tremendous efforts and dogged determination that must have gone into achieving them gave a heart-warming feeling of pride. It demonstrated, at one glance, the great strides that have been taken in India to develop world-class labeling technology and materials. In the midst of this visible demonstration of competency, then, what could be the big question-mark?

Just One Question Nagged Me: Design!
This is not to say that the labels on display were not up to design standards. There were some very good labels and a few were excellent. The point nagging me was that most of the excellent labels belonged to predictable categories — such as high-end cosmetics, toiletries or liquor. Many of the labels belonged to international brands and thereby were clearly using a design vocabulary and grammar that appeared to have been internationally developed and shrewdly adapted for the Indian market. This is not to say that there were no Indian brands with Indian origin ‘design speak’; Yes, there were Indian products such as: Ayurvedic Herbal Oil labels, Fairness Creams, Perfumed Talcs and so on. Many of them were powerfully creative and original. In some cases it appeared that the convertor, in turn, had applied all the innovativeness at his command, by a clever use of print process or selection of substrate material to rescue a poorly executed creative. In the end it seemed to me that material availability, inks, pre-press and technical process delivery in India have evolved dramatically. However, it was also apparent that efforts in achieving design excellence by a strategic use of technological resource combined with visual communication may have some catching up to do.

At this point many people may argue that a label is just that – simply a label! It has a simple function to perform and that is to identify the product and to inform intending users. In that respect, it simply needs efficient means of adhesion to the pack, adequate space to print information clearly and a good surface to allow sharp print which will read clearly and not scuff in transit. In many ways, pharma labels are examples of such ‘no nonsense’ objectives of labeling. But a little deeper reflection on the role of the label as a key touch-point between the product and user forces one to consider leveraging it to its maximum potential — its potential to tell a story; to engage the customer on a one-to-one basis unlike anything any other conventional advertising media can achieve.

Design Quality Level Categories
Any attempt to develop a market moving label must begin with a clear understanding of its required design quality level. Typically, one set of definitions put forward could be as below:

Prestige Quality
Such labels are used to reflect premium quality, high prestige brands. They are often multi-color process printed in solids and half-tones, or in many cases employ special spot colors with customised pre-press processes. The print is usually on the entire surface, die-cut or precision trimmed. Additional processes such as embossing, lamination, gold-stamping is carried out to enhance the effects. Such labels are made suitable for manual or mechanical applications.

Informational Quality
The primary purpose of such labels is on products of daily use where the primary objective is to achieve high shelf impact and inform the product attributes in a powerful manner. Such labels are usually multi-color process printed in solids and half-tones using any of the available print processes such as letter-press, offset, flexography, rotogravure or screen. The print is usually on the entire surface, die-cut or precision trimmed. Being largely mass-market products, such labels are made suitable for high speed mechanical applications.

Utility Quality
Identification of contents and displaying essential product information clearly is the key objective of such labels. Die-cutting or precision trimming are used to make them suitable for manual or mechanical applications.

While it may now seem obvious that product containers will bear the identification of the maker alongside pictures, nutritional information, ingredients, etc., this seemingly obvious feature of packaging has its own history.

In the 1660s, imports into England often cheated the public and the phrase “let the buyer beware” became popular. Honest merchants, unhappy with this deception, began to mark their wares with their identification to alert potential buyers. Official trademarks were pioneered in 1866 by Smith Brothers for their cough drops marketed in large glass jars. This was a new idea – using the package to ‘brand’ a product for the benefit of the consumer. In 1870, the first registered US trademark was awarded to the Eagle-Arwill Chemical Paint Company. Today, there are reported to be nearly three-quarters of a million (7,50,000) registered trademarks in the United States alone.

In this perspective intending label designers and developers may do well to invest as much time and effort in designing labels as they usually do in getting them converted. With this in mind I have tried to classify the design aspects that govern different categories of labels.

The Food Label
The key vocabulary of food label design is by a ‘delicious depiction’ of the food being packaged. This obviously demands the creation and use of hi-resolution food photographs which have to be printed with similar hi-fidelity, in strong, vibrant colors. Most food labels demand an Informational Quality design though there are several instances of gourmet foods that are depicted at a Prestige Level. An important aspect of food labeling in an increasingly health-obsessed society is the depiction of Nutrition Facts, which are usually in a tabulated format but sometimes as ‘run on’ text if space available is less. Care needs to be taken to allow space for various Statutory Marks such as the FPO, Agmark, Organic Certification, Non-Veg/Veg and now the latest — the Consumer Redressal Declaration. In addition food packaging is governed under the Packaged Commodities Act and must comply with the Weights & Measures ruling. To cater to the demands of modern trade, the provision of Bar Codes has also become a must.

High Fashion Cosmetics, Toiletry and Perfumery Labels
The labeling of personal care products is clearly led by the “brand signature”. Impressive use of display area and crisp typography are traditionally considered a clear reflection of the prestige of the brand. Minimal, “label less” looks are in demand with the use of sophisticated color shades and embellishments like embossing and foil stamping in keeping with Prestige Level of quality. In addition to these demands all the compliances demanded by the Drug & Cosmetics Act, Weights & Measures and Bar Coding are also required.

Pharmaceutical Labels
An emphasis on providing all required information clearly under the Drug & Cosmetics Act as well as creating sufficient brand recognition is the objective of such labeling. This often demands the printing of very fine text in a cramped space which in turn requires the use of highest quality pre-press and print processes.

Liquor and Wine Labels
This is probably lifestyle labeling at its best. Long years of liquor traditions and prestige ‘garden wines’ have led to the evolution of several forms of Prestige Quality labels, each trying to outdo the others. Often there is a need to create a deliberate ‘aged liquor’ effect with the use of ornamental design motifs and several embellishments like embossing, gold and textures. The ‘historical story’ of the origins of the liquor are also considered central to the display and displayed prominently.

Confectionery Labels
Demands of gifting and appeal to niche markets like children and teens determine this kind of labeling. Frequently this kind of labeling combines elements of Prestige and Informational quality, in view of the ‘food’ aspects of confectionery.

Counterfeit Protection
In the end no discussion on label design would be complete without a reference to counterfeits. Many fake products pose severe dangers to consumer health and safety. Ingestion of counterfeit foods, beverages and pharmaceuticals can have tragic consequences that touch many lives. Counterfeit liquor, for example, causes tens of thousands of deaths every year. Luckily with inputs of new technology in inks, substrates and adhesives the designer can build-in several layers of protection, such as:
– By Overt & Covert Markers
– By Tamper Evidence
– By Encryption & Tagging

Automating the Label Artworking Process
In any process we’re most efficient when we do things only once. The pharmaceutical industry depends on many automated process-control and quality-assurance systems to ensure that batch production is carried out repeatedly, reliably and accurately. Yet it’s amazing to see how little automation and control is applied when it comes to manufacturing the artwork required to produce product labels.

Much of the content we see on a label will have been pre-approved in an earlier process. Some of the contents may even have been part of a license submission and therefore consistency and correct usage become even more paramount.

A typical artwork process consists of the manufacturer providing data to an artwork studio. This studio will then filter the data based on experience, then utilising desktop tools such as Adobe Illustrator to create artwork. So, however well you have controlled and validated your data, you lose this control during the artwork production process, the result being rigorous QA inspections. So we check what we already have checked. Factor in that most artwork will go through three or more iterations, with inspections required after each iteration, you can start to see how resources are wasted across many departments.