From Beans & Beer to Brightening Creams: How Minimal Typography Can Shrink Wasteful Packaging

Product packaging is everywhere and people are sick of watching its short journey from store shelves to garbage bins. Toothpastes, body soaps and facial creams come encased not only in their own jars and tubes, but often in extra cardboard boxes buried under unnecessary plastic wraps. Quality goods do not need ribbons and bows to attract consumers. On the contrary, they demand less waste and better design.  

Dove maximum & clinical protection antiperspirants protected in unnecessary cardboard boxes.

But better is harder. In the graphic design courses that I teach at the Ontario College of Art & Design University, I tell my first and even second-year students that the greatest challenge is to unlearn everything they think they know about design. Teaching them to recognize decorative from functional design elements is probably the hardest. Out of insecurity or ignorance or both, many believe that the more they throw at their designs, the better they’ll become. It’s not only the design students who believe this. Numerous brands struggle to design simple, yet captivating, product packaging for the same reasons. It’s uncommon to find an understated package design that is visually innovative as well as ecological.

Often, the missing piece is good typography: letters, words or numerals that are inviting and easy to read, be it a product’s name or its ingredients. After all, ingredients can no longer be seen as incidental, but as key factors influencing every consumer’s buying decisions. Undeniably, they deserve to be treated with more than the typical near-illegible five or six points type size. A more readable approach to ingredients can be found on any bottle or jar from the LA-based natural age prevention skincare line Youth to the People (YTTP). The brand is so proud of its naturally derived products, that it has turned them into the centrepiece  of its plain typographic packaging. This enterprising direction is unconventional, yet entirely sensible.  In their words, “The packaging design takes the concept of juice packaging, listing out the natural wholesome ingredients, and brings it into skincare. This skincare line is revolutionary in the ingredients it is made from so it only made sense to make them the hero of the design.”

Youth to the People Superfood Air-Whip Moisture Cream & Superberry Hydrate and Glow Oil.

I would say that the type is the real hero of YTTP’s design. Created in 2015 by San Francisco-based Ashleigh Brewer, YTTP’s packaging uses only a single typeface, Milieu Grotesque’s Generika Regular, in all uppercase. The distinctive typeface was inspired by a rare typestyle “Bulletin” found on an old Adler typewriter and the condensed typeface with its blemished typewriter style provides a desirable contrast to the YTTP’s products’ pristine ethos.

The No Name brand utilitarian packaging.

Minimal type is highly democratic; it’s  a design principle that translates well from luxury goods to basic necessities. Canada’s No Name is another example of how a brand can stand out by using only one brilliant typeface with a couple of type sizes or weights. It’s easy to recognize the black printed, all lowercase, Helvetica Bold on a yellow background, whether it is printed on a can of beans or a can of beer. The No Name utilitarian packaging was designed by Toronto’s legendary Don Watt in the 1980’s, and is as relevant today as it was then–if not more. The pragmatic design has taken on an old-school cool because of its look and its bargain prices.

With a steady growth of ecologically savvy consumers, brands everywhere have been introducing “green” alternatives to their usual goods. To win over environmentally conscious  clientele, they have no choice but to do without double- or triple-wrapping their products. Brands that have reduced their packaging to the bare essentials have been gaining consumers’ attention through their massively appealing minimal style.

Good typography encourages better packaging design and less waste. We are already seeing  more brands minimizing their ecological impact as a way to maximize their profits and they are using type as an integral part of their strategy. Type may seem like a purely superficial solution to excessive packaging, but these small changes contribute to a greater shift in what we buy and don’t buy based on what we are willing to throw in our trash bins.