Janet Martin

Illustration Student at Emily Carr University

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The Design History of Cereal Boxes

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Breakfast cereals consisting of flaked instant foods were only invented around the turn of the century. Pre-Art Noveau era, cereal boxes were simple, contained little information, what information there was was informational rather than selling. Few font faces or illustrations were used. Illustrations were often health-related consisting of pastoral landscapes, farmyard images, or mother and baby. The order of information was fairly flat.

I expected to find more ornate packaging during the art nouveau period but that was not the case. During that time period, the focus seemed to be on print advertising rather than package design. I found quite a few examples of print advertising showing elaborate painting and design, often the cereal box was pictured and it was very plain in comparison. Into the 20s, more decorative elements began to appear on boxes and by the 30s you can definitely see the development of more type hierarchies and logical ordering of information. Still, cereal boxes were nowhere close to what we have today.

1930 to 1960s: Rise of the Modern Cereal Box.

From the 30s to the 60s there was a huge change in cereal box design. In 1935 a cartoon character (Mickey Mouse) appeared on the front of cereal box for the first time. Information became more clearly ordered. Distinct brands started to be more clearly identified. Cartoons and illustrations became bright and commonplace. From this point on most cereal boxes begin to look the same in terms of what content is on the front (e.g., branding, illustration, free inside promotion, selling points) with some slight variety in layout. My favourite designs are from the 60s because I love the modern graphic style of that time period as well as all the sans serif fonts that were used. Also there are no drop shadows/milk splashing/starbursts/etc, just great linework and clean design.

1970 – 1980s: More cultural than major design change.

From the 70s onward there’s still some change, but mostly in terms of the specific font faces and pop-culture images or illustrations appearing on boxes. Into the 70s we begin to see a lot more tie-ins with television and movies. What has increased a great deal is the amount of secondary text appearing on cereal boxes and designers have had to address that problem. This includes nutritional information and other content not directly related to selling the product.

1990s to Present Day: A mixture of styles.

A quick jaunt to the grocery store to look at modern cereal boxes was interesting. Companies trying to cultivate a more healthy or a granola-style brand tend to throw back to older more simple styles with simple decorative elements. I also noticed some modern brands aiming for a super-minimal look with lots of white space, especially brands that are trying to cultivate a clean, low-fat image like Special K for example. Movie and TV tie-ins still exist, but it seems, not as prominently as the 80s.

My final conclusion? Prizes used to be way better!

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