When Sainsbury’s was out on its own

Featured in the September issue of CR, Own Label tells the story of the Sainsbury’s in-house packaging design team of the 60s and 70s

Sainsbury’s Own Label Cola label, 1966

Featured in the September issue of CR, Own Label tells the story of the Sainsbury’s in-house packaging design team of the 60s and 70s.

The full story of Sainsbury’s in-house design team is covered in September’s CR


For British people of a certain age, Fuel’s new book, Own Label, will prompt waves of nostalgia. In fact, nostalgia was what tempted its editor Jonny Trunk to propose the book in the first place after a visit to the Sainsbury’s archive. The supermarket’s lovingly preserved packaging samples stirred Proustian memories in Trunk of a time when no Abigail’s Party was complete without a few taramosalata-topped Snax biscuits.

Snax crackers, 1968


The Modernist-inspired work produced by the Sainsbury’s Design Studio between 1962 and 1977 that features in the book is extraordinary in its consistency and simplicity of approach: most was printed in three colours with typeface choices left to the individual designers and illustration predominant.

Egg packaging, 1964


In an essay from the book, reprinted in CR, Emily King describes the strong working relationship between Sainsbury’s then-chairman John Sainsbury (known to everyone as MrJD) and its head of design Peter Dixon. Both were committed to modern, distinctive design delivered at a time when Sainsbury’s was in the vanguard of a revolution in British shopping and eating.

Biscuit assortment, 1967


“If you have a big batch of red labels one side and a big batch of green labels the other, then it’s best to design a white label with stark typography, which would then stand out from the other brands,” says Dixon of his approach to making sure shoppers noticed the own label goods on the shelves of its newly-opened ‘supermarkets’.

Broken eggs packaging, 1965

What comes through is how deeply committed both men were to a family-run company which they felt actually stood for something other than just ‘maximising shareholder value’. Dixon stayed with Sainsbury’s until he retired in 1989. “People ask me why I stayed so long, and I tell them it was because the company had a moral code I agreed with,” Dixon says in the book. A supermarket being credited with a ‘moral code’? Hard to imagine now. As is Sainsbury’s attitude to advertising: “We thought it was rather disreputable to spend money on heavy advertising,” says Mr JD. ‘Good food costs less at Sainsbury’s’, a slogan devised by agency Colemen, Prentis and Varley in 1959 was used for some 30 years.


Sainsbury’s Own Label packaging from (top to bottom) 1964, 1976, 1970 and 1978

But while it’s tempting to yearn for these seemingly principled, pre-Jamie Oliver times, the hierarchical, patrician management style of Mr JD’s time and what it led to was not without its problems. By the late 90s, Sainsbury’s had begun to lose ground to its aggressive rival Tesco, its offer no longer strong or distinctive enough for British shoppers. Even the company’s own website refers to the years leading up to 2005 as “a disappointing period in our history”.

AMV’s Oliver-led “heavy” advertising campaign, launched that year, contributed to a turnaround in the company’s fortunes – as did its packaging which is now produced by a roster of independent firms.


Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference range designed by Brand Me

Basics range by Williams Murray Hamm


Shampoo and conditioner packaging by Storm Brand Design

Would any of the work featured in Own Label be successful on a supermarket shelf today? Some purists would applaud but I can just imagine other commenters on this blog dismissing it as ‘lazy’ or ‘like student work’ (as if that were something terrible). The nearest comparable range today would probably be Havas City’s Monoprix packaging (shown below) featured in our February issue.

Sainsbury’s Own Label Table Salt packaging, 1966

Contemporary Sainsbury’s Basics salt packaging by Williams Murray Hamm



There’s much to enjoy in Own Label (cover above) and much for today’s designers (and clients) to learn from – in the relationship between Mr JD and Dixon in particular. But while the book is full of beautiful work, it’s work that is very much of its time.

You can read all about it in our September issue, which also features of pick of this year’s top graduates plus a profile on new Japanese creative supergroup Party and much more.

If you would like to buy this issue and are based in the UK, you can search for your nearest stockist here. Based outside the UK? Simply call +44(0)207 292 3703 to find your nearest stockist. Better yet, subscribe to CR for a year here and save yourself almost 30% on the printed magazine.


  • i miss the simple design from those old days less flashy n less attacking. everything seems less bright but more comfortable.

  • Awesome – bring back 60’s Sainsburys!

  • LmL

    oh the old days, the wonderful old days. these packs are lovely! A bit like Damo Hirsts medical food packaging. Lady J should bring some of these old packaings back!

  • Jeffrey

    I think it was nice in it’s day, but these things seem to look much better standalone, as a piece of modernist design, then they do on the shelve, where it would soon look extremely boring. It is inspiring to see it, but times have changed, and the new sainsbury packaging looks very nice, and more approachable.

  • Ah, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be!

  • Big influence on other areas of design. Not enough impact to grace the shelves of today however.

  • Interesting how some of the packages are refreshingly simple, yet sometimes stray into looking like medicine.

    Would have been interesting to see everything on the shelves. It would have looked either gorgeously simple, or cold and pharmaceutical.

  • Chris

    Sorry but much prefer the newer designs. Can you imagine a supermarket filled with the old stuff, sure it’s a modernist’s wet dream but they are so non-descript it would be hard to find what you actually want.

    The basic range for Sainsburys by Williams Murray Hamm shout cheap to me (although I’m not keen on it), and the taste the difference range feels premium. That’s what I want to see as I browse round a supermarket, definition on price and quality. That and how much of my weekly shop I can do in the reduced section.

  • ian anderson

    shame on you sainsbury’s putting profit before pure design. as a former employee i can attest that there was no finer way to spend thursday and friday evenings, and saturdays in the mid to late seventies manifesting physical warholian repeat patterns stacking bracknell’s shelves regimentally with sainsbury’s own label products (except diving in the bull for a quick cooking lager when out collecting trolleys!)

  • This takes me right back to the 70s when I used to work on the checkouts at Sainsburys. (Which, incidentally, was a great place for a teenage boy to look down the blouses of suburban housewives as they fumbled around for that last tin of corned beef in the bottom of the trolley.) I remember some of these packs, and they always used to say ‘cheap’ to me, which they often were compared to branded products. Very different nowadays where own brand ranges such as Taste the Difference are packaged and priced as ‘premium’ products. We had that Francis Rossi from Status Quo in our Sainsburys once – he bought a trolley full of Pedigree Chum.

  • JESS

    fantastci article. so wonderful to see!

  • If their packaging looked like that now i’d buy it all.

    Apart from the dried milk and broken eggs. Thats just weird.

  • The Own Label designs are brilliant, although modern day equivalents (Tesco Value, Morrisons Own Brand et al) don’t compare, which (judging by the efforts in the 1960’s) is a real shame.

  • Got to agree, the old designs are inspiring, text book perfect.

  • I couldn’t stand it. You walked around the shop and dog food packaging looked like biscuit packaging. It was so dull and ‘big brother’. We used to call it ‘Swiss Graphics’ when I was at college. The whole concept just didn’t work in the same way that stark tower blocks in architectue didn’t .

  • Wow, so retro! love the older simple designs but the new extra special ones look upper class.

  • GeeDee

    I agree with John Amy — this sort of stuff always looks great out of context, the intent and theory behind it is always well-thought out and meaningful but in practice, the sort of thing that would make a great clinical-looking modernist photograph — clean lines and unintrusive design, would be overbearingly boring and oppressive. And then surely that means it’s failed in its job even as ‘pure design’. If design isn’t successfully answering a brief then what the hell is it doing?


    Call me a purist, but I like shopping at waitrose because their own brand labeling is very simple like this – the colours are great and it looks good on my kitchen shelf (superficial but i’m sure i’m not alone).

    Of course this packaging didn’t work in the 90’s it was just old fashioned then not old school, but it would be lapped up now as a re-launch and give the brand a massive lift aesthetically and ethically. We live in a culture of re-cycle/re-use and what better way to represent that than to re-use some old packaging designs. I think this identity works perfectly with the Jamie Oliver product too . . . who represents nostalgic, simple living in the kitchen better. Make it happen Sainsbury’s!


  • Jonathan Gould

    This is a really great article. I do find those old cornflakes packets a bit depressing though.

  • Peter Dixon

    A classic example of Top Management allowing it’s design team to produce good consistent
    creative work without interference!!!…..{ I know, I was there!!! }


  • Great article!

    I can’t think of any UK supermarket that produce enticing designs (perhaps bar Waitrose with some of their designs). It’s now largely left to independent to think outside the corporate box. If I was to play devils advocate I might argue that Sainsburys own-brand packaging of 2011 communicates simplicity using a contemporary vernacular; design has progressed and it wouldn’t work to reproduce modernist designs. We all can recall the white and orange Sainsbury’s basics range and for that reason it achieves it’s function of communicating value. But I think it would go along way for Supermarkets to try something a little more stimulating for the consumer.

  • I’m certainly a sucker for buying something cause it has nice packaging. If I saw products like that on the shelf today, I’d certainly be choosing them over the posh brands. Most of Sainsbury’s current own brands are designed really nice, certainly compared to say Tesco and Asda. But M&S and Waitrose have it down to a T I would say, I prefer going into Waitrose to buy something cause I enjoy looking at all their packaging, even though I know it’s going to cost me 5x more than Tescos would.

  • Tasty stuff!

  • Oh, I miss the retro design from the 60’s and 70’s!

    Particularly love Peas & Carrots and Snax Crackers packaging.

  • Clare Wood

    All the designs in this book were sourced from the Sainsbury Archive at the Museum of London Docklands


    The collection is particularly strong in terms of packaging design; some examples are on public display in the Sainsbury Study Centre, and the rest are available for research by appointment. More information about the history of Sainsbury’s packaging is available at:


  • love the current packaging, but also find the old ones so fabulously retro! great showcase, I re-posted about this on my site too 😉


  • Robert Baldock


  • PatrickBurgoyne

    @ Robert
    “Turk”? “Trunk”! Typo fixed now, thanks for the spot

  • we’d add the record cover concept by PIL 1985 http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/5/54/Public_image_ltd_album_cover.jpg and cassette, compact disc, single, etc. were done in this “own label ” way

  • Although the 1960’s designs still look great now, we agree that they might miss the point on the current supermarket shelf. Especially considering that there are now double as many products on offer as in 1965. When designing the Basics range, we were of course inspired by the simplicity Peter Dixon’s design and his coherent use of colour.

    Coincidently our own Richard Williams started his career in the 60ies under Peter Dixon at the Sainsbury’s inhouse design team.

  • Rik Moran

    Brilliant work. Very reminiscent of Ken Garland, which is never a bad thing.