Branding for a life in paradox: How to balance restraint and excess in design

In the third of their series of articles for CR on Branding for a life in paradox, Coley Porter Bell’s James Ramsden and John Clark look at how to balance excess and restraint in brand design projects

The definition of restraint: ‘a measure or condition that keeps someone or something under control. Unemotional, dispassionate, or moderate behaviour’.

The definition of excess: ‘an amount of something that is more than necessary, permitted, or desirable. Lack of moderation, especially in eating or drinking’.

Directly opposing elements, both demonstrating undesirable and negative traits. Yet in design, both restraint and excess have been huge movements that have proved not only popular, but lasting. Whether it’s clean-living, or Freakshakes, we either can’t get enough, or love that we’re lacking.

Food is often the first sector that comes to mind when we talk about these opposing ideas. Clean eating, avocado on toast, raw food and sugar free are on the rise; but so are unicorn lattes, Deliciously Stella, bubblewrap waffles and edible cookie dough shops. For every healthy snack coming to market, there is a calorific antidote in the other camp.

But can restraint or excess ever be a good thing? And more importantly, can you find a balance between the two?

Packaging for Cloetta’s Allsorts Black and White edition by Bond

The trick to making restraint desirable? Make it look beautiful…

We’ve seen packaging on mass taking a more minimal approach. Brands like Honey Hunter, Mandarin Natural Chocolate and even your traditional Liquorice Allsorts have taken on a pared back and restrained look. Our desire for simplicity means we’re seeing packaging that might not tell you everything on first look. Amongst shelves of shapes and colours, often the absence of something, stands out more. Consumers are drawn to this as it’s easier to focus on the typography of the letters or the quality of the card stock that is chosen to reflect the product.

Honey Hunter packaging by Fresh Chicken in Russia

Helping people exercise restraint outside of the supermarket is Redemption Bar, an alcohol free venue that has the look and feel of a cocktail bar with beautiful and elaborate drinks, yet everything  on the menu is non-alcoholic. The idea is that you can still socialise with a drink, but you’re not indulging – it’s the perfect mix of Instagramable abstinence.

But restraint isn’t solely for food and drink. From mindfulness, to phone bans, lots of people are craving restraint as a way of exercising control in their busy and full lives.

For example, minimalist fashion is nothing new, but the experience of fashion has traditionally been one of excess. Balenciaga has taken restraint to a whole new level with its website, stripping everything back to the point where it’s not even clear what it’s selling. A few simple lines and the words ‘women’ and ‘men’ are almost mannequin like in their appearance and the lack of information enhances the brand’s exclusivity.

The Balenciaga homepage

Can excess be a good thing?

In complete contradiction, many of us also want to indulge ourselves from the stresses and anxieties of modern life. Indulgence is now seen as a necessary counterpoint to being ‘good’ the rest of the time, and if you’re going to have a cheat day, you may as well over-indulge in a luxurious and over the top way.

From the @freakshakes Instagram feed

Freakshakes are the ultimate indulgence and have taken social media by storm. Why? Because they look amazing – feats of engineering which host a variety of treats, colours and concoctions. In addition, categories are nibbling into other categories to create new combinations. Cronuts and Duffins alike, the exclusivity of bespoke recipes and arrangements make the calories worth it.

In fashion, unlike Balenciaga, Adidas’s Knit For You pop-up store in Berlin promises to spin you a perfectly tailored sweater. With full body scanners, computers and knitting machines, customers co-create garments tailored to their exact measurements and what they love. You can have any combination of design without being restricted by the season, collections or stock. An excess of options, designs, colours and styles leaves no room for restraint.

So how do you balance both?

Technology has always been successful at this – the likes of Apple pioneered a sleek and restrained look with ingenious and excessive functionality years go, but many other sectors aren’t always so successful.

Streamlined body care range, Meant, arguably has managed to balance both successfully. With only a few products in the range, it’s presented with restrained minimal cues, but with great functionality. Each of the five products serves more than one body care need, streamlining consumers’ beauty regimes, but with luxuriously executed design, ingredients and production methodology. The excess and restraint is focussed – you don’t have to get overwhelmed with choice, but can spend time appreciating the individual products.

Another brand that has mastered the balance is Seedlip, a non-alcoholic drink, with the look of a high-end spirit. It looks expensive with a nod to botanicals in the imagery and a beautifully crafted typeface. It’s mashing of design cues follows through all of its touchpoints, from the website to the bottle design; making not drinking feel like an event all of its own.

When it comes to balancing these tricky paradoxes, you need focussed excess; more function, less minimalism. Paradoxes are a fact of life, but don’t be on the fence, own them. Being in the beige space is the worst place to be – go to extremes and do things that get you noticed. However, hitting the golden spot, is the balance of both, and therefore the hardest. If you can do that, it’s the most exciting place to be.

James Ramsden is ECD and John Clark, Planning Director at branding and design agency Coley Porter Bell

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