The Kiehl’s Bottle and Design


Kiehls Jar

Graphic design author Robin Williams wrote once that “most people can look at a poorly designed page and state that they don’t like it, but they don’t know how to fix it.”

Practiced graphic designers know the fix. How? Because they apply some basic rules to their layouts that help to direct the viewer’s eye, clearly communicate a hierarchy of content, create an aesthetically pleasing design, avoid unintentional meaning, and more. Examples of some of these rules include:

  • Alignment: Every element on the page should have an intentional visual connection with other elements; they should line up with an implied grid—or with each other—and avoid tangents.
  • Proximity: Items that belong together should be visually organized close together.
  • White space: A layout should strike a visual balance between content areas and negative areas.
  • Eye flow: A successful layout should control the movement of the reader’s attention from element to element, from the most important element to the least.
  • Contrast: A layout should avoid elements on a page that are similar but not the same. The most effective layout includes items that stand out because they are very different in color, size, shape, weight, etc.
  • Repetition: Repeated use of visual elements in a design develops organization and strengthens unity.

That’s not to say rules are so rigid that they can’t or shouldn’t be broken when appropriate. Dada poster artists, counter-culture type designer David Carson, and numerous other successful graphic designers have bent or all out broken these rules with great success in their artistic pursuits. In these cases, their designs were successful because they were intentional.

Kiehls bottleWhich brings me to this Kiehl’s package, the item that spurred this whole column. From a designer’s standpoint, this bottle breaks a scad of design conventions:

  • The layout mixes center-justified and left-justified type, creating a conflicting and confusing visual alignment
  • The layout is crowded with content that is similar, but not the same, creating very little visual contrast.
  • The visual hierarchy is poor; the fact that the product is unscented appears to be of equal importance to the brand name and the UPC.
  • Items of different content importance (brand name to product ingredients) are grouped in one big clump, demonstrating poor proximity.

From a type standpoint, there are additional offenses:

  • The type appears to be set with Times New Roman. This type, readily available on nearly every personal computer, is more appropriate for school reports or newspapers than for a $20/8 oz bottle beauty product. The type choice appears to indicate that the product is homemade and the label was laid out in Microsoft Word.
  • Items are underlined for emphasis, a convention that is typically saved for internet links.
  • Some of the type includes bold, underlining, and quotation marks for emphasis. Simply making the item bold or increasing the size would emphasize the item with less distraction. Quotation marks should not ever be used for emphasis, unless sarcasm is intended.
  • The line length for the ingredients list is much too long for good readability.

Unintentional or intentional rule breaker?

Given the fact that Kiehl’s products have a cult-like following of celebrities and hipsters, I think it’s reasonable to assume that Kiehl’s isn’t laying out their labels with a word processing program, or can’t afford a graphic designer. Which leads me to believe that this garish design is intentional. But why? Some thoughts:

Typical 1800s Poster Design

• The typography is typical of the 1800s (see left), reinforcing the heritage of the brand (Since 1861) and evoking a sense of old-fashioned remedy that stands the test of time.

• Kiehl’s wants to present a brand that appears to focus more on their product than their marketing/branding. In other words, consumers believe the product must be good if they can sell it in such a crappy bottle.

• The design evokes a home remedy vs. laboratory-formulated vibe.

• The plain, black and white bottle with black type has a unisex quality. This separates it from competitors that market typically to either men or women.

• The plain, garish design stands out in its uniqueness against it’s more attractive competitors.

So, the verdict: the Kiehl’s design is an intentional rule breaker…a sort of evil genius that revels in its unattractive layouts and stands out in a crowd. It works for them. (Though you’ll never see a bottle of it in my bathroom).

But before you go out and create your own rule-breaking designs, keep this in mind: the rules are there for a reason. They help with communication, which should be the ultimate goal of design. Unintentional rule breaking is just bad design with no purpose.



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