Semiotics in design: why formality is the rule where over-indulgence looms

We’ve noticed a couple of articles recently that talk about humankind’s ancient relationship with alcohol. Pre-historic stone troughs – 10 000 years old – that still retain the by-products of brewing have been discovered in Turkey. Some historians speculate that it was farming grains for brewing, not bread, that first brought settled communities. Early grains being great for beer but hopeless for bread, apparently.

The significance of this is that a lot of early drinking seems to have been ritualised. It was a part of building the social bonds that are vital for human survival and well being.

Alcohol would break down inhibitions , facilitating storytelling, music, dance and the rest – just as it does today. And just like today, it is very simple to have too much of a good thing.

And so the semiotics in design of drinks brands are interesting. Everyone knows the kind of design that ‘feels right’ – what a whisky looks like, what a beer looks like and so on. What is rarely considered – because people are simply unable to articulate the way culture determines responses to design – is how drinks design reflects cultural codes against excess. Everything in successful design speaks to a visual language of formality and control – even if the positioning is all about wild times.

Excess pleasure is sinful

In every culture, uncontrolled indulgence Is frowned upon. While some indulgence is permitted – whether chocolate as a treat, sex in a relationship, ritualised drinking (whether in a pagan ceremony or the golf club) and so on: too much becomes characterised as unacceptable or ‘sinful’. It’s hardly surprising – humans are hard wired to desire high calorie foods or sexual pleasure but a society where these activities crowded out everything else would cease to function. And so culture is damning of the obese and the promiscuous.

So before regulation spoiled the party, the trick to communications around countlines was to pretend they were food – not health food, but decent kitchen food nonetheless.



Innocence versus control

And it’s therefore not surprising that a lot of chocolate confectionery actually has quite formal design – think of Swiss chocolate for example. Cadbury’s purple is regal as well as indulgent, recognising a certain formal power structure. Meanwhile the innocence of its recent illustrations are subliminally disarming- how can something so child-like be ‘bad’?

And it’s the same with alcohol. Occasional loosening up builds relationships and can inspire creativity. Out of control drunkenness is a different matter – threatening the social order and damaging to the individual.

And in this light, it is very interesting to see how the dominant theme of alcoholic drinks branding, the semiotics in design, is of control and order. Formal typefaces, highly structured layouts, signifiers of authority like crests, dates and royal warrants, muted colours and so on – these are the dominant themes of spirits packaging. In beer, just why is the ‘racetrack’ – the holding shape of Heineken, Becks, Newcastle Brown Ale, Amstel et al such a dominant code, a code that literally fences the brand in?


Big brands have highly structured, formal design

All of these elements send a signal of reassurance about losing control. Consumers are unconsciously buying into respect for authority and the established order The ‘truth in the product’ – of hedonism, pleasure, loosening up – all these things are notably absent in the design systems of successful brands. Brands that think such codes represent an opportunity stay small and attract disproportionate levels of criticism and controversy. They do not ‘feel right’ – not only to those who want to maintain order in society, whether a newspaper columnist or a Tory MP or a chief constable, but far more importantly, to the consumer.

The impact of culture in the way we all interpret design is profound, yet almost impossible for consumers to articulate. When it comes to something as powerful and impactful on the individual, the group and society as is alcohol, it is not surprising that design codes are so strongly biased to a sense of control and order. And despite what Tory MPs might say, the semiotics in design of alcoholic drinks show no sign of changing. Design moves on, it becomes more contemporary, but the core message remains – take it easy. The brands might now all verbalise ‘Drink Responsibly’ but their designs have been saying it for a long time – perhaps for 10 000 years.