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Cognitive Load and The Hidden Costs of Saving Money On Packaging Design

Money saved on packaging design often increases other less-apparent costs. Certain money-saving actions increase the cognitive load on the customer, which may lower sales, and at worst damage the long-term consumer-brand relationship. It lowers the possibilities and effectiveness of design. And adds to visual pollution, which decreases the value of the information given.

Most companies with international distributions save money on packaging by printing the ingredients in numerous languages on the same label. This is understandable, and on the surface even sensible, because it saves money on printing and complies with existing regulations. However, it also does damage to product sales because it harms the brand relationship and the customer experience by ncreasing the cognitive load on the customer while making that critical first decision to buy.*

On the front label of the package of cashew nuts (above) the turquoise V symbol for vegans and vegetarians is a helpful addition, however the poorly printed versions of the phrase “Serving Suggestion” in nineteen languages next to it is not only confusing, but seemingly unnecessary, and it disrupts an otherwise fairly clean design.

But it is the back label that increases the cognitive load the most, because the printing of the ingredients in nineteen languages takes up design space which could be utilized for a less constipated, more effective design; space that could be used more artfully to communicate the brand’s ideals. And:

  • There are any number of reasons a customer may want to check the ingredients, like allergies, or sugar conscious parents, and not least because of the high number of products whose labels tell visual lies about the contents. (see Packaging that Lies 2).

  • The customer must search through nineteen language versions to find one he or she can read.

  • The ingredients are printed in a tiny 4 or 5 point font, that even people with good eyesight struggle to read, and the text wraps from the right back to the left margin, making it easy to lose one's place. (See our post Customer-Centricity.)

  • Research has indicated that much of the decision to buy is made below the cognitive threshold. Therefore the question must be asked, "What is the packaging indirectly communicating on this level other than information about the contents?"

  • Too much textual information is visual pollution. If the information is there for the benefit and safety of the customer, such packaging not only discourages reading it, but, with a cynical public it could be understood to be saying, "We don't want you to read what is in this product."

  • This is an example of how policy, even packaging laws meant to protect people, needs to be monitored and updated when necessary, especially in times of rapid change. (See Rebecca Costa: Simplifying Complexity)

Tuc (above): The singlefront, back and sides of a package. This is an example of visual pollution, and how much potentially effective design space is lost to information. There is so much information in small nearly unreadable print that it renders the information virtually useless. Compare this to the clean elegant redesign of Danone's OIkos yogurt.

The result of this increase in cognitive load:

1. Wasted time and an increased likelihood that that first purchase may not be made.

2. It is disrespectful. It sends a message that the company does not see customer’s time as valuable to him or her.

3. This package adds to information overload and requires work to be done by the customer that should have been done by the designer.

4. This package adds to visual pollution, which sends an undesirable message to consumers.

5. It increases the likelihood that that important first buy will not happen, which can slow growth.

Corny (above): Not only could this product do with a more natural (see The Rise of the UnDigital) look and feel, the back is just plain ugly and unappetizing. This is an example of visual pollution. What company wants their products to be seen in the same light as pollution? A snack's packaging should say, " Take a break with me." This packaging says exactly the opposite.

Pickwick (below): This design handles the information much better, granted they have more space on the box, but notice how the ingredients are separated with margins and the text wraps from right to left in columns, and much information is given in pictogram form. What does this communicate about the product experience compared to the ones above? How much more effective might this look like if the ingredients were given once in visual info graphic form, instead of eleven times?

The Point: if you are intent on building a strong brand relationship with loyal customers, and you are considering the savings of a certain design decision, these other costs must be considered, and problems such as this must be solved (by design). Just because these costs are harder to measure, does not mean they are not real, or considerable. Discuss these costs with your designers or design agency. If sales are good they can be even better. Don't settle for good enough.

The Challenge: Granted, with regulations as they currently exist this may not be the easiest problem to solve. However, as designers and producers of products we must consider the cognitive load our designs require. Do your designs reduce it or increase it? Because, if the designer doesn’t do the work, then the customer must do it.

One possible solution: ​ At B&H we believe is a good example of how design can solve problems. Might it be possible to list the ingredients as a multi-lingual or non-lingual infographic that “shows” the ingredients and instructions as pictograms? If you have any other ideas for this conundrum, please leave a comment below and start a discussion. (Also for the idea of labels as info graphics see our posts on Nutella's big step, and Ingredients on the Package)


*For more on packaging design and its role in cognitive load reduction, see our post on Rebecca Costa’s presentation at the recent Dieline summit in Paris, 2014.





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