Smart Tips for Designing Your Own Food Labels

Richard Morris

Richard Morris › Writer, painter, and gentleman farmer, Richard Morris practices small-scale food production on a home foodstead. He ...


Some time ago, I was transfixed by an exquisite work of art. The object of my attention was not some post-impressionist masterpiece, but a bottle of homemade sun dried tomatoes. I marveled at those tomatoes, suspended in a golden elixir of extra virgin olive oil. Flecks of basil, sea salt, and rosemary orbited them like moons in a miniature galaxy. Beautiful? Yes, but the designer in me was struck most by the simple, yet stylish, label. It evoked the same hand-crafted gravitas that, to borrow a phrase from Robert Frost, “made all the difference.”

Food labels can either serve to hide what’s inside the package – often the case with some mass-produced foods – or compliment them. Traditionally, labels serve a utilitarian purpose, but there’s no reason they can’t be as unique and imaginative as the food inside. The trick is to remember that, with labels, less really is more.

If you’re selling food to the public, the requirements for food labels are determined by the local laws in your area, but there are times when you want to label your food just for yourself. Labels can help you organize, categorize, and brand the foods you preserve and package. Even if you’re just sharing food with family and friends, a simple, but well-designed label reflects the care and attention to detail that goes into the food.

The three things to keep in mind when designing food labels are function, form, and usability.

In Virginia, there’s a bill before the legislature which stipulates that labels for small-scale, home-produced food must include the producer’s name, address, ingredients, and a disclosure statement. In my case, I might add a logo and a slogan of some sort. You might also want to include when the item was produced. Once you’ve addressed the functional requirements, it’s time to have some fun.

Form refers to what your label actually looks like. First, think about what your product means to you and how you want others to think about it. Now imagine a label design that reflects that ideal. This exercise will help determine whether the shape of your label is rectilinear or curvilinear, is in black and white or color, or looks old-fashioned or modern. Look at examples of well-designed labels to get a feel for some of the basic conventions.

Usability refers to how well your label functions as a label. Is it easy to read? Can people find the information they need quickly and easily? Is the material the label is made from appropriate for the use? Is the information organized hierarchically, from the most important piece of information, to the least? Can it stand up to being handled? Does it communicate the right message about your food?

Smart Tips:
Keep spacing in mind. Too little space around your words, graphics and in the margins, and your label will look and feel visually congested. Culturally, there is a negative connotation associated with congested spaces, so aim for a 50/50 balance between positive and negative space.

Use easy to read fonts. Try to stick to no more than a couple of fonts, and use size and weight differences within a font family to create visual variety when needed. Don’t go crazy with colors and stick to appetizing colors that are more closely associated with food. Think fruit, vegetable, and meat colors in the red, green, yellow, and brown ranges. They often work better than blues and purples. Black and white are neutral and will work with anything. If you’re using transparent packaging, your label should be big enough to meet its functional requirements, but not so large that it hides what’s inside the package. People love to see what they’re going to be eating.

In most cases, a computer, laser printer, and blank self-adhesive labels are all you need to get started making labels for glass, plastic, cardboard, and wooden packaging. Labels can also be attached by means other than adhesive, such as a cardboard label attached with a string. You can buy freezer labels for items that will go into cold storage, and of course, you can take your label designs to the next level by having them preprinted.

Professional vector and raster graphics programs are good for this kind of work, but you can find a number of low cost options online, including some free ones. If you’re not a graphics guru, even programs like Microsoft Publisher, can be adapted for label design.

“The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.”
– Paul Cezanne.

Cezanne may not have had your pickled beets in mind, but that’s no reason you can’t revolutionize your pantry with stylish, and practical, homemade food labels.

Do you make your own food labels? What are some of your favorite tips to keep in mind?

Photo Credit: Richard Morris