Presto Labels Blog

5 Key Design Principles for Creating Labels for Small Containers

Posted by on July 22, 2019

Happy Woman Reading Label on a smal container in grocery store

Labels are a vital part of any product packaging. They’re not just a decorative sticker you slap on a box or bottle; each label contains vital information which is required by law, industry regulation, or tradition to include. No matter how small your product may be, there are a few basic elements which must be included on every single label, even small containers.

Product Label Basic Elements:

  • Brand Name
  • Product Name
  • Label Decor
  • Ingredients
  • Instructions
  • Warning
  • Bar code

Fortunately, small print isn’t your only answer for fitting branding and information onto a small label or shrink sleeve. Special design principles can be used when your company sells products in small containers. Whether your business is selling cosmetics or hardware, a small container holds a unique challenge which you can tackle with the following tricks:

1) Brand & Product Names: Front & Center

No matter how small the container, your brand and product names need to be front and center; large enough for consumers to spot your product on a store shelf, or at home. There’s no question these two items will thus take up the majority of your label space, at least half of the front panel, and at least one sixth of a full body shrink sleeve.

Brand Logo vs Brand Name

If you have a distinct brand logo which can stand in place of the full deco-fonted name of your company, then consider a design substitute. A tidy and unmistakable logo can often fit more cleanly onto a small label than the company name or brand product line.

If you do not have a conveniently shaped brand logo for the label, consider a mild redesign which attractively fits your brand name into a smaller (narrower) space. Alternately, you can invent a new version of the brand name-logo; a distinctive first letter or initials followed by a smaller and/or stacked brand name completion.

Invent Product & Variant Logos

Many brands create custom designs and logos for specific products, product lines, and variants of product lines. Travel-sized lotions, for example, might be represented by different, distinctly colored ‘lotion drop’ logos indicating the scent and moisture level of each lotion. A green lotion droplet is much more efficient than writing “Lotion for Sensitive Skin”, which you can print much smaller beneath after giving the visual cue.

2) Ambient Label Decor

Many brands get caught up in the decorative design elements of a label. While it’s true that your labels should be attractive, these design elements seldom have any room on labels for small containers. The key here is to make the decorative elements of your label ambient, so they fill the ‘white space’, rather than needing any designated space which could make the label look cluttered.

Background & Color

Use the color and background of your labels to maximum effect. Make your brand’s labels distinctive by using an unmistakable color or even a detailed pattern as the background of every label. Remember to account for readability in the design with pattern-free spaces for text and other informative details.

Label Shape

You can also make your labels distinct by choosing an unusual shape. A label with an ornately cut arch, or a unique shape, will be much easier to spot because customers can use shape-recognition to pick your product off the shelf.

Edges & Corners

Don’t forget the design elements for the edges and corners. Flowers or baroque curls in the corners of a label seldom take up vital information space but can set your labels apart from others even on a small container.

3) Handling the Small Print

Next, you want to think about how you’ll handle all the small print which regulations and tradition insist must be on your product packaging. The obvious way to deal with lots of information on a small container is making the text microscopic. We would rather recommend you use pictographs which explain basic concepts, or you shift the responsibility to the outer packaging instead.

Pictographs

Pictographs are a powerful tool for any brand looking to make tiny labels more readable. If your designers can come up with truly informative images which display the usage instructions and/or warnings for a product without the small print, your customers will appreciate the consideration for both their eyesight and understanding.

The trick to pictographs is to make sure your images are understandable to the average Joe. Consider focus groups to be sure any time you choose to go with pictographs instead of text.

See Outer Packaging / Insert

Then there’s the outer package. For many very small labeled containers, there is an outer box with more room to print, or possibly a folded paper insert to explain the rest of the information. Decide carefully when it is appropriate, or necessary, to offload your ingredients, warnings, and instructions to outer packaging labels.

4) Detailed Information Techniques

You’ll also want to think specifically about how you will deal with the three types of print elements on your label or shrink sleeve. Each type of information should be treated a little differently.

Ingredients: The Basics

Customers want to know what’s in their product, but they don’t really need the full laboratory readout. If you have limited space for an ingredient list on the label, keep it simple. List the items your customers care most about (ex: lavender oil, aloe vera, mustard powder, etc.) and put the complex ingredient list on the outer package or insert.

Instructions: Tiny Print or Pictographs

It’s usually best if the instructions for use are on the container, at least in their most basic form. This will allow you to make the print a little larger, use pictographs, or combine pictographs with very few words. Basic instructions can serve as a reminder and a quick guide for customers to prevent accidental misuse of your product. Outer packaging or product web pages can provide more detailed product use guides.

Warnings: Pictographs

Most necessary product warnings are already paired with recognizable warning pictographs and symbols. Customers already know to watch for these symbols so you can often eschew the text part of the warning or push it to the outer packaging.

5) Placing the Bar code

Finally, there is the bar code to consider. Every product sold online or in stores needs a bar code to scan. This allows sellers to track inventory and customers to check out quickly at the register. But a bar code can be a tough thing to place on a tiny label. We have two pointers for small label bar codes.

Get Creative

The bar code is a necessary collection of thin and bold lines, but it doesn’t have to be an unattractive or bulky block in your design. It just has to be scannable. So get creative. Use the bar code as a design element. It can be used as a vertical divider between elements or segments of your small container label, or it can be used as a border element along the side or bottom. It can even be shaped as part of a decorative design element, as long as it is scannable.

Outer Packaging

Of course, for many very small products, you don’t even need a bar code on the inner-container label. A bottle in a box, for example, doesn’t need a bar code on the bottle. Only on the box which will be scanned. So make use of your outer packaging and save small-container label space for the truly necessary elements the consumer will need after the outer carton and instructions are thrown away.


Labeling a very small container doesn’t have to mean sacrificing design elements. With these tips, you can easily design an attractive, distinctive, and regulation-compliant label for your small products with the help of your brand graphic designers. For more labeling tips and tricks of the trade, contact us today!