Less is More

Steve Kelsey


Steve Kelsey, an expert in sustainable branding with consultancy Pi Global, explains how to add meaning to ethical labelling.



ONE OF the paradoxes involved in designing for brands is that you learn early on that consumers don’t read brands. They recognise them. That is, they see the general outline and colour used by the brand and the brain fills in the rest of the information almost instantly. There is a lot of evidence to support this behaviour: providing a word contains the correct letters the brain is pretty good at ‘deciphering’ the meaning. Now, if consumers pay so little attention to something as important as a brand, what does this tell us about the efficacy of ethical labelling. Quite: the news isn’t so good. Consumers are very poor at reading ethical labels, but they can recognise them if they already know about and care about the topic concerned.


Added to this problem is the consumers’ attitude to information overload. They respond to too much information exactly as you might expect: the information is not differentiated in terms of importance. We are all consumers, so let’s just accept that a consumer’s perspective on ethical labelling provides us with all the practical guidance we need because, at the end of the day, if the consumer doesn’t understand what is on offer, all our diligence is misdirected.


Often, we must deal with a consumer who is walking around with a set of issues they care about, so the best we can do is provide labels that trigger recall of these issues. Luckily for us there is a model for signalling information that we can apply, and where it is employed it is usually very successful.


The next time you look at a computer screen consider how much information a computer icon delivers. Glance across the row of icons and you will see that for each one there is a cluster of information that they prompt. Take the Microsoft Explorer icon. It tells you what it is for, who made it, what to expect when you click on it; it even prompts an emotional response in terms of how much you enjoy or dislike using it. Now look very closely at that icon. Exactly where does it contain all this information? How many words does it use to convey all these insights? Where is the record of how you felt about your last outing to the Internet?


Glance across the row of icons in the task bar and consider how much information is contained in a short line. If you don’t think the space is so small, hold your thumb up to your eye and consider how much information is packed into a thumb’s worth. Now apply your thumb to an ethical label on a pack.


The computer industry spends hundreds of millions of pounds in the design of icons because they work. Ethical labelling, especially for food services, is too important to be left in its current state, which is at best, poorly understood and badly designed. We need to understand more about how information is consumed if it is to become effective and the true role the ethical label performs in communication. Once we grasp these fundamental issues, the rest of the debate on what issues can and should be communicated, whether this should be topic specific or more generic, will be more meaningful and the solutions more effective. Fewer words and more thought will mean better messaging. Trust me, I am a designer.