What the Grocery Store Teaches us About Design

As a Creative Director, it’s easy for me to have an appreciation for design. In fact, it’s pretty much expected.

At its core, design is a form of artistic expression, and it’s not unlike the painting, drawing and sculpture classes I took while in art school... with the exception of one BIG difference. When creating “personal” art, the exploration is about self-expression. When I’m painting, sculpting or drawing, I’m often looking to create an aesthetic that caters to my own subjectivity.

That’s drastically different than what motivates my decisions while designing at work. As designers, we look beyond our own preferences and tastes and take into consideration the goals and objectives of the piece we are working on. Our entire design journey is about more than simply making something we like; it’s about creating something that delivers the appropriate message and tone in an easily consumable way. It’s about understanding our strategy and sticking to it. And, it’s about remaining on-brand for our clients in order to best resonate with their audiences. Good design that does just that is incredibly important—and it’s all around us, all the time.

I’m often reminded of this while at the grocery store. Yes, of all places... the grocery store.

Before I explain why, you need to understand the situation when I’m venturing into a grocery store. Nine times out of 10, I’m armed with a list (that I didn’t write) full of products (that I know nothing about). As I wander the aisles, I’m faced with decision after decision about which brands I’m going to choose.

In some instances, I’ll immediately spot a brand I recognize. It’s generally easy to spot a well-known brand, as long as they have done a good job in creating visual consistency across their products and advertising. If it’s a brand I trust, it’s a no-brainer; I grab it and move on to the next item on the list.

My selection process, however, changes drastically when I’m dealing with brands and products I’m unfamiliar with. I’m surprised at how often I defer to the design and aesthetic of the package to help me make a purchasing decision—way more than I do with price. In fact, I’m willing to pay more for these products, even if I have no previous familiarity with the brand, based solely on the quality of the design. I catch myself doing it all the time.

Take hot sauce. Sure, I like Frank’s RedHot®, and it’s always in my house. But I don’t ever go to the store and buy RedHot. When I’m at the store and looking for hot sauce, I’m probably buying something new that I’ve never tried before. Regardless of heat or flavor or price, I’m usually basing my decision on the package design. It’s the visuals on the bottle of hot sauce that can quickly evoke a feeling for me, compelling me to decide that this is the bottle I’m looking for.

My preference for good design can also work against me. In the past, I quickly discounted a product based solely on the design of the package... only to find out later that the product itself is great and exactly what I’m looking for. For example, the packaging for Huy Fong Sriracha sauce does nothing for me. It’s aesthetically unappealing, and I, judging that book by its cover, was always reluctant to try it. It was only after a friend convinced me to give it a chance did I realize how good it is. Without that friend recommending it, Huy Fong Sriracha would have never been up for my consideration, based solely on the package design. It makes me wonder if Huy Fong’s sales would change with a different, more appealing bottle design.

I believe that, at some level, the visual aspect of selection is a trait all consumers share. But, because aesthetic preferences are subjective by nature, not all design resonates with everyone the same. That’s because design creates an emotional response that can drive decision—but what drives that decision is different for everyone.

Every bottle of hot sauce in the grocery store says, “hot sauce” on it. The words do their job of letting the shopper know what’s in the bottle. But, it’s the design of the label that evokes the feeling. It helps each shopper make a decision and feel good about it. The wonder of design is that it can drive a decision for one product over another—especially when there is no brand affinity or a higher price to pay. If the design of the product feels premium, consumers will pay a premium.

Remember, design is no substitute for quality. A substandard product won’t be saved by a good design. Yes, a well-designed label might gain you an initial sale, but if the product falls flat, you probably won’t earn repeat business.

In a world full of choices, design matters. Good design works hard to give your product an edge over the competition. And when you have unsure consumers deciding between your product and the competition, good design could be the only thing that pushes your product to the front of the shelf.

Have questions or thoughts? Reach out to nick.pfahler@akhia.com to continue the conversation.