Deceptive Typography

4 min read
TheRyanFord's avatar
By TheRyanFord
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As designers, many of us look at packaging with a trained and criticizing eye. We'll often focus on the problems we see with the front of the package as well as the construction of it, talking about the poor design or ridiculous colors, not to mention how overpackaged it is or how dumb the wording is.
But rarely do we flip the package over and scrutinize the backside. Namely, the ingredients label.

Most people don't realize this, but ingredients labeling is intentionally designed to make it difficult for you to read what's inside the food you're eating. We tend to not think about this stuff, but sadly it's true.

Take a look at Fake Label 1 below

This is the common label you see on the back of your food products. The ingredients I chose above are meaningless and random. What's more important is the typesetting. Notice how it is set in all caps, bold, and is force justified. These particular methods of typesetting are known to reduce legibility in large blocks of text and actually cause people to be feel less motivated to read.

To get specific about it, let me break down the "ingredients" to this intentionally broken ingredients list:
  • All Caps: When setting long lines of copy in all caps, every glyph takes the general shape of a rectangle and the human eye has more trouble distinguishing one word from another at a quick glance. Caps should only be used to indicate the beginning of a word or a series of words when used in long lines of copy.
  • Bold Font Weights: Similarly to all caps, when setting long lines of copy in bold it creates a more visually solid reading atmosphere. In other words, the glyphs appear to be solid black shapes instead of uniquely varied tones of gray. The typical "regular" font weights are usually the best for typesetting legibility.
  • Force Justification: This is a huge no-no amongst typographers. There are several reasons why it's a bad idea to force justify multiple lines of type. For one, the human eye needs the semi-random and free-flowing rag on the right-hand side of the copy block to help distinguish one line of type from another (in fact, the more jagged and random the length of the lines are, the better). Second, the large gaps between words further reinforce the human eye's difficulty in focusing on individual lines of copy.
Contrary to what you may think, there is no law requiring food manufacturers to list their ingredients using all caps, bold, and force justified alignment. The only rules about ingredients lists revolve around the order in which the ingredients are listed, not the typesetting in which they are displayed.

Now take a look at Fake Label 2 below:

I've taken the exact same ingredients as in Fake Label 1, and the exact same amount of space available, and set the type in a more comfortable manner. It's suddenly a lot easier to read the ingredients, isn't it?
Every label on your food could be set similarly, but it's not done. Why? Because companies don't want you to read the ingredients! They want you to gloss over that back label and ignore what may/may not be inside the food you're buying. You might find, in your travels, that some food packaging is actually very simply labeled. Usually when ingredients lists are short and sweet, they are set in a comfortable-to-read fashion because the companies are trying to say, "Look! Our food is simple and good for you! See how few ingredients there are?!"


As you have seen, it doesn't take any more room to set ingredients lists in a typographically-sound fashion. In fact, it can take less room to set copy pleasantly. The obvious reason why ingredients lists are set as they are is because food companies don't want you to read what's in the food you're buying.

Stay sharp and buy smart, because now you're better informed than the vast majority of your fellow consumers.
© 2009 - 2021 TheRyanFord
anonymous's avatar
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pica-ae's avatar
how have i not known this before :nuu:
frozenpandaman's avatar
Very, very interesting. Thanks for sharing. :)
Awooo's avatar
In Canada : The government has a specific template you MUST use for Nutritional facts. It's very plain and rigid maybe this is also the case in your country.
TheRyanFord's avatar
That's cool that they do that, however here in the states we don't have a specific template that outlines the fonts that the ingredients must be set in. The template only applies to the structure of the nutritional facts label. This is why most foods have their ingredients set differently but all have identical Nutrition Facts labeling.
electricnet's avatar
This is a very interesting article. Reading it was a great way to start my week, so kudos! :thumbsup:

And to be honest, I have probably seen more ingredient lists in style #2 than #1, but that might be because of location, as you mentioned.
Aesi-in-Pursuit's avatar
I just went to the store. When I got back, this article was still up on my computer screen and got me wondering. Here's what I bought: milk, a local dairy's egg nog, donuts from the store bakery, two carbonated cranberry pomegranate "juice drinks", sliced Boar's Head meats and cheeses from the deli, a "Juicy Drop Pop", and several binned items including oats and banana chips.

Only one item had normal typesetting: the egg nog. Presumably this is because it came from a local company and, on reading the label itself, has no weird-sounding ingredients or preservatives. This company alone, popular with locavores, didn't seem to feel a need to hide its ingredients.
iruhdam's avatar
Very interesting..
billndrsn's avatar
That's cool...
It is a very manipulative world we live in and we must be aware of tricks that manufacturers use in their never ending quest to win us, the consumer over.
Lo-fat tends to be high in sugar and vice-versa in the battle to retain the taste value, so most dietary foods need to be perused very carefully, especial if you are a diabetic. Then we have the never-ending stream of technical names with so many letters and numbers so that we just give up and PRESUME that they MUST be ok so we buy the product anyway.
Additive THIS and additive THAT and then we have the hidden additives that escape the boundaries of what lawfully needs to be put on labels that I am sure are the reasons why there is so much intolerance and allergy to foods in todays society that were not around many decades ago when fresh products and simple choice was all we had available to us.
We are walk into supermarkets and are blinded by the bright packaging and the manipulative marketing that we often buy without actually knowing what we are actually eating. YES it is important that we read the ingredients but still be AWARE there is much they do not state on the products and it is of that which we should be WARY......:faint:
Sap-Green's avatar
ah, good to know :D
Tristan-the-Dreamer's avatar
Here's something i think about a lot: how can a employee find the line between "I'm hiding information from buyers, heheh, this will be so hard to read!" and, "I'm going to use Times new Roman font, 12 point, list the ingrediants in a colomn, one ingrediant per row. I am going to highlight all the unhealthy ingrediants, and also at the bottom offer alternative brands that are better than mine."

I just think it must be so ethically hard to figure out, "where do I stop making it very easy for clients to make a purchasing choice? I want to stay in business!!"
ladyblackmetal's avatar
Good! New things for me to learn everyday. =D
ARIrish's avatar
I'm drinking a can of Pepsi Raw right now, and took another glance at the ingredients - in this case, they've gone with a type 2 label (the good type), so good for them!
Snezhinka's avatar
sometimes on labels use really technical vocabulary like ribopentasiloxanolinosalicilatehexanolno naneOMG!

:noes: :lol:

;-) more specifically, e.g. acetic acid instead of vinegar, etc...

i don't know if it's a law that you have to write it like this, but it puts me off.
anniefelis's avatar
I have to read the lables of foods closely since I can't have lactose (and lactic acid bothers my stomach too). It's really frustrating to try to find it on the list of items, especially when they use that skinny font that's already hard to read...and then the jerks go put it in caps. I had wondered if it was intentionally hard to read, but thought that nah, it wasn't me. Guess it wasn't me after all.
FolhaEmBranco's avatar
Blackwing602's avatar
This is particularly true with cigarette package health warnings.
xxvenit-anathemaxx's avatar
It definitely takes more concentration to read the first one properly, but they won't deter me! I always check for hidden animal products and the like, but it would certainly be nice if ALL labels were like the second.

Great article! :)
unused-nick's avatar
Hm, maybe I am the only one but I don't feel like the first example (bold and CAPS) is harder to read than the second one. "O_o
Bubby-Bobble's avatar
:hmm: I can read both examples without any problem, though I do know several people who have a hard time reading the first example.
Of course it could be because I'm used to reading CAPSBLOCK walls of text. :lol: I read an ingredients list at least once a day, just to make sure what my food has in it.

It's kind of sad that companies seem to do this more often in America than they do in other places.
All of my imported foodstuffs have easy to read labels, where the font is easy on the eyes.

Pretty much all of the food that has been packaged locally has the capsraep ingredients list. :nirvana: As a matter of fact, I've yet to see a US made product that doesn't have all caps and a big chunk of text as its ingredients list.

What a shame... but it makes sense if you think about it. When the consumers are less informed it gives more power to the companies making the products.

Great article. Thanks for taking the time to write it.
IsBreaLiomCaife's avatar
This is very true. As someone who has a lot of food allergies from a big family where my mother, grandfather, aunt, and cousins all have different food and drug allergies, I know exactly what you mean about how hard it is to read the packaging. I have to every time I want to get something we haven'thad before. I can't just skip over it, since, if I get the wrong thing, someone could end up sick, and that goes double for my mother and I: we're both allergic to allergy medecine as well.

Personally I'm lucky in that I don't like food with a lot of fat, salt, sugar, or additives. Mom and I are allergic to preservatives, and I'm allergic to colors. We eat a lot of natural food, and we buy a lot of ingredients (produce, plain meat or fish, and dried or fresh herbs and spices) and make things ourself. If I went to the kitchen right now, I'd find at least 15 things labeled "natural," "no sugar added," "fat free," or "organic." While none of these exactly translate to "healthy," I can ensure you that we don't have hohos, hot dogs, or other highly suspect foods full of added HFCS, colors, and preservatives lining the shelves of our pantry. The worst I can say is that my parents eat the occasional pizza or hamburger. (I don't.)
CatsinSummer's avatar
Now see, that's good to know, considering this last year I've had to search out a certain few ingredients from that mass. One of your test ingredients is one I'd need to see. I wish they'd print their ingredients legibly!
Lostdogserenade's avatar
Very informative article, its good to get this info out to those less informed. myself included. :)
jigga-jayb's avatar
consiparsy stories! f them capitalist!
anonymous's avatar
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