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.
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.