Packaging speaks. It has to—otherwise it’s not doing its job. But what a folding carton or rigid box says to a consumer is as important as how it says it. The font or typeface you choose can mean the difference between a carton that tells an engaging story to consumers and one that doesn’t say anything at all.
Skeptical? Consider this MIT study where participants were asked to read two versions of the New Yorker, one with a “good” font and layout and one with a layout that professionals would consider poorly designed. Among other conclusions, the researchers found that reading the good layout put participants in a good mood. And what do we do when we’re in a good mood? We’re inspired to take positive action—we buy. That’s the ultimate goal of packaging.
The Functions of Fonts
So, fonts matter. But how does it work in packaging specifically? The written word has two major functions in packaging: 1.) to resonate emotionally with consumers and draw them in, and 2.) to inform them about the product and contents. Therefore, when choosing typefaces, you must think about brand impact and as well as clarity.
Although all packaging fonts should be emotionally engaging and readable, certain elements of the package tend to emphasize one element over the other. The product name or “headline,” for example, should be large and emotionally impactful while the secondary product details should clearly inform the consumer after she or he has picked up the package. You can see these elements at work in the Mixx Tail box submitted by WestRock into our Carton Competition a few years back. While the “Mixx Tail” moniker appears in a large, stylized font, the supporting details inform the consumer about the product in a smaller, simpler, and more standard font.
The Mood of Fonts
Did you know that fonts have moods, too? When choosing a typeface, it’s crucial to consider what mood it conveys—and, importantly, whether the product’s brand and target consumer align with that mood. Although there are countless fonts out there, here are four major families you’ll want to keep in mind.
Serif fonts. As the name suggests, this typeface family features serifs—slight projections known as “feet” on the edges of the letters. Serif fonts are generally viewed as more traditional, offering an air of respect, formality, and reliability.
Sans-serif fonts. Ditching the feet, sans-serif fonts offer a clean, modern vibe. They’re seen as less formal and are more popular today. The Mixx Tail carton uses a sans-serif font for its secondary information. Almost all packaging should present these details in a small, legible sans-serif or serif fonts.
Script fonts: These fonts mimic cursive handwriting, conveying elegance, creativity, and the affection one might feel upon receiving a handwritten greeting card. Although a script font can be used for the product name or branded information, you’ll want to be sure that it works with the company’s identity.
Decorative fonts: Fun, unique, and usually custom-designed, these fonts fuel brand impact and engage the consumer. The Mixx Tail product name appears in a decorative font above. Although they’re ideal for the product headline, decorative fonts should not be used to convey secondary details.
When it comes to font choice, there are a few more considerations beyond psychological effect. First, less is more—stick to only two or three fonts per package design. You may also want to consider kerning, the spacing between letters and words. More space can ease readability in the secondary text, but more condensed typefaces can add visual appeal in the headline if used carefully. Also remember formatting elements like italics and bold when you want to add emphasis to some textual elements or contrast others. Finally, your font’s color also makes a difference. (The psychology of color is a huge topic, and worthy of its own conversation. Start here if you’re curious.)
Design elements like structure and visuals tend to dominate our thinking about package design, but don’t forget about fonts. Subtle choices in typeface make a world of difference to the overall design—and the story it tells to consumers.