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English Traffic Light Nutrition Colors Spurs Label Design Discussion

Label Design: Is Color Worth A Thousand Words?

label design - color psychology Photo: John Thorpe Photography (Flickr Creative Commons)

In an effort to more dramatically convey nutrition information, England is moving toward a traffic light ingredient labeling system based on principles of color in label design. In nutritional terms, red is bad, yellow is middle-ground, and green is good. Everything from fat to salt content will carry a colored label along with numerical values (e.g., grams, number of calories). It will replace the country’s current Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) system.

Readily recognized color schemes such as the traffic light are just one-way designers can use color to heighten message impact and minimize verbiage on labels where space is scarce. Following are other ways to deploy color for maximizing impact:

1. Shading. Different intensities of the same color can connote more or less potent potions, ingredients, concentrations and the like. Color bars spanning light to dark shades can show the strength of everything from coffee to salsa.

2. Psychology. Graphic designer Debi Knight of Knight Design Studio says that different colors tie to emotions and gender. She points out, “Food labeling often features warmer colors because women prefer these colors and do most of the grocery shopping. Two warm colors, red and yellow, also tend to make people hungry—so these show up often on food labels.”

She adds, “Men tend to prefer cooler colors such as blue and green. And these colors tend to have a calming influence and make you want to eat less, in contrast to yellow and red, which stimulate and make people more aggressive. Red also puts people in a happier mood.”

Given these combinations, label designers can target gender and desired effect. Depending on the product and its marketing, this can get complicated. For example, a nutraceutical product targeted chiefly toward women, such as calming bath salts, raises the issue of whether or not to use warm female-preferred colors or cool calming colors. This is one area where an experienced graphic designer can be invaluable.

3. Context. Labels don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s the color, size and shape of the container to consider, along with variations within the same product line. “Design labels and coloring that look good throughout a series of products,” Knight recommends.

In the case of a clear container, the color of the contents come into play and can make the label look different (e.g., color of salsa in a clear bottle will impact label appearance). Notes Knight, “A label can either melt into the bottle or stand out from it. One color can make another look bad. For example, a cobalt bottle with a dark purple or green label will blend in. This isn’t good if you want your label to pop. In some cases, such as wine, subtlety in labeling may be exactly what you do want.”

Then, there’s always the issue of competitive products on the shelf. “Generally, make your colors stand out from similar ones on the shelf,” Knight notes.

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