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Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps

The crowded design of a countercultural icon introduces a unique typographic challenge.

Contributed by Nick Sherman on May 10th, 2012.

The labels for Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps are a thing of wonder. The dense mass of esoteric text has symbolized the brand of earth-friendly soaps for decades, expounding ideas about the “Moral ABC’s” and “Spaceship Earth” as written by master soapmaker and mental institution escapee, Emanuel Bronner. With curious sentence structures, liberal use of exclamation marks, all-caps emphasis, and long strings of words joined by dashes, a typical passage from the label of the peppermint soap reads:

5th: Whatever unites mankind is better than whatever divides us! Yet, if absolute-unselfish I am not for me, I’m not but classless, raceless, starving masses, never free nor brave! Only if constructive-selfish I work hard perfecting first me, like arctic owls – penguin – pilot – cat – swallow – beaver, bee, can I teach the MORAL ABC’s ALL-ONE-GOD-FAITH, that lightning-like unites the Human race! For we’re ALL-ONE OR NONE! ALL-ONE! “listen children eternal father eternally one!” EXCEPTIONS ETERNALLY? ABSOLUTE NONE!

Just as bewildering as the rhetoric on Dr. Bronner’s packaging is its typography. Due to the sheer volume of text involved (the 32 oz peppermint bottle carries over 2,500 words), many compromises are introduced. Line lengths of 250 characters or more are wrapped all the way around the bottle, forcing readers to turn it as they read each line, then return to search for the beginning of the next line. With type as small as 4 points, often justified and squished to the limits of legibility, the white words on a colorful background that are a hallmark of the brand quickly become a readability nightmare. Of course it also doesn’t help that the whole thing is set in Helvetica and Times New Roman, neither of which was designed for such difficult conditions. Letterforms blur, punctuation is lost to the spread of ink, and legibility suffers overall.

Detail of a label for Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap

In many ways, this outlandish typography fits perfectly with the message it carries. In fact, improving the typography and encouraging potential customers to read the idiosyncratic ramblings might even dissuade them from buying the soap. As Dmitri Siegel hypothesized in his article about Dr. Bronner for Dot Dot Dot, issue #12:

His message is not communicated effectively on each bottle, but it is more widely distributed because of that poor visual communication.

Nonetheless, every typographer who examines the bottle while standing naked in the shower has to wonder: “How could this unique design problem be solved more effectively? How could one improve this design without diluting this iconic brand’s typographic aesthetic?” With those questions in mind, I recently helped to organize a formal assignment for the typographers of the world …

Introducing the All-One Typography Challenge!

Together with fellow Fonts In Use contributors André Mora and Indra Kupferschmid, I’m happy to present The Dr. Bronner All-One Typography Challenge! The basic premise of the assignment is simple:

  • Design a new label for the 32-ounce bottle of Doctor Bronner’s Magic Peppermint Soap.
  • Use only the original text, dimensions, color, bar code, and third-party logos.
  • Do not add any new text or imagery.

The official website provides more details, as well as text and graphics files one might find helpful when attempting a redesign.

The challenge is totally un-sanctioned and independent, so while we have no expectations of actually changing the official label, we believe there is still a lot one can learn about typographic design from such an experiment. We hope you give it a try yourself.

For the full story of Dr. Bronner and his soaps, check out the 2006 documentary, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox or the official Dr. Bronner’s timeline.


17 Comments on “Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps”

  1. Andrew Klein says:
    May 11th, 2012  6:08 pm
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    Oh dear god... I have a strict "design contests are sepc-work and thus evil" personal ethic code, however I always had a feeling that one day I would be confronted with a design contest that I would consider some type of exception to my rule and that I would have to do. This, for some reason, is it.

    Challenge Accepted.

  2. Nick Sherman says:
    May 11th, 2012  6:17 pm
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    Andrew, please note that this is neither a contest nor spec work. There are no winners or losers or rewards or anything like that. As the article says, we don't even have any official connection to Dr. Bronner's. This is more of an open assignment that we thought people might find as interesting as we did.

    Either way, I hope you have fun with it!

  3. Andrew Klein says:
    May 12th, 2012  10:03 am
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    I got it, perfect!

  4. Carlos says:
    May 15th, 2012  4:09 pm
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    Nick, I think (or hope) it's not my lazyness speaking, but I don't see the point of this experiment at all... As you cleverly remark in the post, the identity of this brand resides mainly in its graphic quirkyness, and on the other side the graphic solutions to repair the typographic crimes are obvious: a font suited to small sizes, with an ordenated and restricted progression of bodies, a grid to order and tighten the line lenghts, and to keep the colour scheme. Sorry to be a killjoy, dunno if I'm the only to think this way...

    Best

  5. Nick Sherman says:
    May 15th, 2012  4:32 pm
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    Carlos, perhaps the improvements are obvious, but the true challenge lies in actually making them work in a real layout (not to mention one that maintains some connection to the existing brand aesthetic). As with most typographic problems, the solutions are vastly more easy to explain than they are to bring to a practical reality. Give it a try and you’ll quickly see what I mean :)

  6. mikebiewer says:
    May 16th, 2012  1:40 am
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    The challenge could be real fun! I do think it is funny that the headline of that landing page isn't in Times New Roman or Helvetica. Not showing much team spirit there!

    Maybe I'll give it a try. Anyone else gonna do it?

    Mike

  7. zen says:
    May 17th, 2012  12:57 am
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    I am on it.

  8. Mandy says:
    May 17th, 2012  2:54 pm
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    I love the idea of this 'contest'; it's so ridiculous. I wish I had the patience to really sink some time into it.

  9. Nick Sherman says:
    May 17th, 2012  3:07 pm
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    Mandy, perhaps you should read the label for inspiration. Here's an excerpt about hard work and discipline to get you started :)

    … hard work our salvation, unity our goal, free speech our weapon. All-One our soul, self-discipline the key to love, uniting All-One above! Above!

  10. Roque says:
    May 23rd, 2012  3:01 am
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    I cannot for the life of me find the deadline for this contest. Is there a deadline somewhere that I'm completely overlooking?

  11. Nick Sherman says:
    May 23rd, 2012  9:33 am
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    Rogue, it's not really a contest so much as a challenge – there are no winners or prizes – so there isn't any official deadline or cutoff date. Knowing how designers can use a deadline for motivation though, maybe we'll invent a deadline for if people want to be included in a follow-up post. In the mean time, I suggest working on it as soon as possible … lightning-like!

  12. Rasmus says:
    May 31st, 2012  6:16 am
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    I can't find the logo attached … the magic all-one, with the earth and the arms … should it not be featured?

    BTW, love your incentive here!!!

    r.

  13. Michael Norcia says:
    Jun 12th, 2012  2:07 pm
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    I suggest putting a new label over the existing one that says "Dr. Bronner's Pure Castile Soap" and instructs the buyer to peel off the label for further details.

  14. Jun 18th, 2012  4:35 pm
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    Great post Nick, but I'm surprised to see smack dab in the middle of the bottle typographic cacophony a typeface that wasn't identified in the article. Here's a shout out to Alan Blackman's Galahad. I pointed it out to him recently via email and he wrote back to say "Many thanks for your recognition of "Galahad" on Dr. B's cleansing products--wdn't miss it for the world . . ." Keep up the great work and ps. I'm too chicken to try a redesign, so I put my support behind Michael Norcia's solution.

  15. Wei says:
    Jun 29th, 2012  7:15 am
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    Dimitri Siegel wrote an essay called 'Message on a Bottle' in Dot Dot Dot about this. Have a read, guys: (PDF).

  16. Nick Sherman says:
    Jun 29th, 2012  3:07 pm
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    Rasmus: Interesting, I’m not sure how this was overlooked. I suppose I was focussing more on the text than anything.

    Terrence: Good call on the Galahad. Apparently I just totally overlooked that section part of the bottle!

    Wei: Yes, I had seen Siegel’s essay … there’s even a quote from it in the post. But thanks for the link.

  17. Brenda Malone says:
    Aug 18th, 2013  7:24 pm
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    Hi. Did you ever post any of the design submissions? If so, where can I find them. Thanks.

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