Sainsbury’s Sans Serif and Style

Growing up all those decades ago in South Wales, Sainsbury’s was not exactly the local shop.  When I went to university and encountered Sainsbury I was unimpressed, finding it sterile compared to my previous experiences.  Maybe it was an old, poor, high street example?  And even now, in Scotland, Sainsbury’s is still not that common. The local store in Stirling has never really captured my imagination – maybe when it gets modernised and its extension has been completed then I’ll give it another try and be won over?

But a new book – Own Label by Jonny Trunk and published by Fuel Design – makes a strong attempt to show me that I was wrong all those years ago.

Own Label is a ‘coffee-table’ picture book in one reading; but what pictures!  Based on the Sainsbury Archive – now there is something I really admire about Sainsbury, placing them light years ahead of their rivals, to their eternal credit and their rivals lasting shame – it covers the packaging design developed by Peter Dixon and the Sainsbury’s Design Studio between 1962 and 1977.

Maybe it is the nostalgic trend for retro, but what I thought of as sterile is revealed as sleek, design classics, clean, concise and remarkably advanced, and to my newly tutored eye, both beautiful and functional.

But the book, with its brief introduction to the Studio and it hundreds of photographs of packaging, proofs, design and outcomes, is more than a set of pictures – as great as they are.  It provides a social commentary on changing consumer and state demands and requirements.

The clean, mainly linear, detailed and precise designs are remarkable in the simplicity of the message. Photography on packaging only creeps in at the end of the period.  The products are what they say on the package and deny all ambiguity.

Some products are curios – broken eggs (for immediate consumption!) shout of a different time, as does Liver Crème.  Some seem almost unchanged – cornflakes remain a staple.  But all bring back memories and reflections on the 1960’s and 1970’s, whether you were a Sainsbury’s shopper or not.

The cleanliness and consistency of the design also brings another reflection – in today’s world we are bombarded on packaging with information (Nuts: may contain nuts or Water: calories = zero).  In this 1960s Sainsbury’s world, such detailed compulsory components are missing.  Are we really that much better off for all the extra stuff the state insists that we, as consumers, are meant to factor into our decisions? Perhaps in some instances, but have we gone too far and confused ourselves beyond belief?  And does our over-used photography promise far more than it ever delivers?

In this interesting and informative book, I only have one real quibble; I hate the title.  As the text says, the designers could propose pretty much anything for the packages (though it was always filtered by the ‘family’), with the exception of altering the name and its fonts (Sainsbury’s).  This common lineage marks these products out as true (retail) brands and not as the rather dismissive ‘own-labels’.  But then the balance of manufacturer and retailer brands across such phrases is also redolent of the period.

This book is well worth looking out at a bookshop near you, or from  It is not a long read but it will engage you and hopefully make you reflect and think – on Sainsbury’s, design, ‘humble’ packaging and our current and past lifestyles. Shops are wonderous places containing all sorts of magical concepts, which we sometimes overlook – design being one of these.

Trunk J (2011) Own Label: Sainsbury’s Design Studio 1962-1977.  Murray and Sorrell FUEL: London. ISBN 978-0-9563562-8-4.  £16.95.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Education and Students.
This entry was posted in Brands, Consumer Change, Design, Food Retailing, Sainsbury and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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