It’s small, hard to read and boring. It’s also associated with the seedier side of business. Small print has a pretty bad reputation and it’s little wonder that designers have done their level best to ignore it. Yet, while the glamorous side of design concentrates on the front of the box, the back plays a crucial role in building brand trust and persuading a potential customer to part with their hard-earned cash.
Richard Williams, founder of consultancy Williams Murray Hamm, explains its analysis: ‘It’s a three-stage process. You see it from a distance and walk close to it, you pick it up, you turn it round. Then, hopefully, you stick it in your shopping basket. We work as much on that third stage as we do on the first.’
By way of example, Williams cites the designs they developed for Brooke Bond teas. While WMH put considerable effort into finding the right pictures and design for the front of the packet, it was careful to think about the back as well. ‘We got a wine writer to write the copy on the taste notes,’ says Williams, ‘and used pictures of found objects we collected when shooting the main photograph. I actually think it’s very important and a much undervalued part of the design process.’
What is required in the small print varies from product to product, but for food it includes things such as a list of ingredients and their quantities, shelf-life of the product, special storage requirements and the country of origin. Barry Jones, director of Packaging Solutions Advice Group, which implements packaging concepts, comments: ‘If you look at packaging 20 years ago, there was little information compared to the amount today. Part of that is due to legal requirements, but it is also the willingness of brand designers to show off how pure the product is. A lot of what you do is dependent on the interpretation of the local trading standards officer, so you go and ask them.’
The danger, Jones says, is getting ‘pack clutter’, particularly for products such as baby food, where the packaging is small, but the amount of information that’s required is very high.
However, a lot of information means there’s the potential to use the words creatively.
Bruce Duckworth, creative director at Turner Duckworth, says the back of a package is where you really get an idea of how good a design is. ‘If you think something is a great piece of design, turn it round. If the back isn’t well designed, you know it’s a fluke,’ he says.
By being aware of how and where a product is used, Duckworth says designers can tailor the small print to fit. For a bottle Turner Duckworth designed for a cosmetics group’s bath product, his team took into account the fact that people will have time to read the small print while lying back and enjoying their bath.
The company took a similar attitude with a design for Virgin Atlantic. ‘On a ten-hour flight with nothing to do, people will read the most ridiculously small things. So Virgin Atlantic turn that to its advantage and make those things fun. Although it’s mandatory information, it can still be made entertaining and enhance brand value,’ says Duckworth.
Williams points out that design consultancies can sometimes get too focused on the visuals and forget about the words. ‘An ad agency would never think of doing an ad without a copywriter, but for some reason design groups design without thinking about copy. They either just take what the client has given them or drop in some category-type words. I think it’s a really big opportunity, and one that lots of them are missing,’ says Williams. He believes one of the best examples of a product that uses small print well is seen on the soft fruit drink, Innocent, manufactured by a young company called Fresh Trading.
It is perhaps no surprise then that the founder, Richard Reed, used to work for an ad agency. ‘The idea behind the packaging is that each time you read a bottle you’ll be reading something different,’ Reed says. The small print uses a variety of tricks and jokes to make the labels more entertaining. Where it uses the trademark symbol TM, Fresh Trading puts an asterisk next to it which it translate as, ‘tasty mixtures’, and the list of ingredients will say things such as ‘207 bananas, half a strawberry and some pebbles’, and then have an asterisk which says ‘only joking about the pebbles’.
The smart thing about this strategy is that it is not only entertaining, it also reinforces the brand image that the drinks are all about being pure and unadulterated. Reed says: ‘At any one time, we have 36 different labels in circulation and we change those every two months. Normally, packaging is static and doesn’t change from year to year, but it is the one sure way of having a little chat with your consumers. You can’t guarantee they’re going to pick up the magazine with your ad in, but you can guarantee that if they buy your product, they are holding it in their hand. We think our labels are our biggest resource to help people understand what we’re about.’
The quirky option used so successfully by Fresh Trading won’t be appropriate for all products but, unlike most sets of instructions, small print is something that people will actually look at, so you might as well make it worth reading.
Small print for older consumers
The power of the ‘grey pound’ is beginning to be recognised throughout the Western world, but that awareness has yet to be fed into the process of production or, arguably, into the consciousness of older consumers themselves. Certainly in design terms, judging by such products as Stannah Stair Lifts or the sweets Werther’s Originals, products for older consumers are still designed and marketed with an image of grannies knitting by the fire and grateful for any attention they get.
If this is the image you have of people over the age of 50, then Frank Philippin’s project, Small print: improving visual pack information for older consumers – part of this year’s Royal College of Art Helen Hamlyn Research Associates Programme – will seem a worthy, but not very significant addition to design knowledge. On the other hand, if you see affluent, fastidious shoppers with high standards who happen to be over 50, then the research might seem more important. As it is estimated that 41 per cent of the population of the UK will be over 50 years old by the year 2021, it is probably worth taking a look in either case, especially as the over-50s already possess 80 per cent of the nation’s assets.
Philippin’s research project showed that both branding and legibility mattered to older consumers. First, he tested designs for milk and Paracetamol that concentrated on communication with no concern for branding. He found that the focus groups he worked with – from the pressure group University of the Third Age – chose the packaging which was more difficult to read but branded, over the redesigned packaging, particularly in the case of the Paracetamol. As one man said: ‘Never heard of it, could be a dodgy import.’
In the second trial, Philippin included some basic supermarket branding on the products and the results were significant. For the milk bottle, nine out of the 12 participants chose the redesigned, easy-to-read packaging over the original, while ten out of 12 chose the redesigned Paracetamol bottle.
Philippin, who has a design partnership called Brighten the Corners, comments: ‘Up to a point, they just wouldn’t buy the stuff that is easier to read and better in terms of information because they were so influenced by their gut feelings. If you buy something for 40 years you will probably buy it for the next 40 years, whether it’s legible or not. On the one hand, they say they want to be informed, but then they stay with the safe things. However, if Safeway, for example, said it would improve [the packaging] they would really appreciate it.’
– So, from a manufacturer’s point of view, a clear design won’t replace a trusted brand, but in a tie-break situation it could make all the difference.
– Philippin also points out that thinking about small print requires designers and their clients to consider questions of honesty. For something such as a sell-by date, unclear information can work in a shop’s favour if it wants customers to pick the oldest products first. That is a bargain that is becoming less attractive, as all consumers become more sophisticated and reward those brands they perceive are putting information first.