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.


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We invited writers to respond to our cover image
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