American families were enjoying the convenience of TV dinners and potato chip casseroles in 1956 when Williams-Sonoma introduced classic French cookware to American kitchens. Before Julia Child, Cuisinart and fast food crêpes became part of our culinary world, founder Chuck Williams opened his first gourmet cookware store in Sonoma, California, offering the omelet pans and soufflé molds he’d seen at shops in Paris. The luxury brand appealed to the upscale urban consumer and Williams-Sonoma expanded into home furnishings, agrarian products and a broad spectrum of specialty foods.
The packaging design of Williams-Sonoma’s products, such as their Chocolate Chip Pancake & Waffle Mix, combines the brand’s relaxed sophistication with an artisanal, small-batch spirit. The style is confident, clean and simple, reflecting the farm-to-table ethos and the niche markets of locally-sourced foods. A visit to Williams-Sonoma’s packaging designers finds them at corporate headquarters in San Francisco; a picturesque spot with its views of sailboats anchored at Aquatic Park and tourists visiting Ghirardelli Square, famed for its ice cream and chocolate shop.
Within this mega-brand, the small in-house team designs hundreds of Williams-Sonoma’s assortment of food products. Michael Hester, senior design manager of packaging, heads the staff of ten. Their challenge is to interest the customer buying the superior knife or the best copper pan to choose the richest hot chocolate. “As a designer, it’s really fun,” Hester said about the creative freedom he feels. “There is an unspoken brand guardrail that it shouldn’t go too far this way or deviate too far that way. But within this defined space, it makes sense.”
Core foods, such as salts, pastas and breads stay on shelves year-round along with the changing seasonal and holiday items. New foods are continually introduced, such as their healthy smoothies and soups featured at the beginning of the year, followed by confections and candies relating to the Easter holiday in spring. For summer, the outdoor living theme includes barbecue rubs and sauces, which are grouped with barbecue tools, spatulas and grill pans in stores. The food packaging coordinates with all the curated products on a feature to tell a story that will connect with customers.
Hester works with Daniel Biasatti, vice president, brand creative, and Anna Last, senior vice president, creative services, to develop the vision for effective marketing. “My direction for our Halloween packaging this year was for them to go a little less Harry Potter and a little more Hendrick’s Gin in look,” Last said. “We ended up with something quite different from both references, but the direction was effective in that we avoided an overly cutesy clichéd look and elevated our product, while still being fun.”
Last singled out several design solutions, including the packaging on the Bourbon and Black Pepper barbecue sauce and the Mango Key Lime salsa as being contemporary, but with a nod to a classic style—an important design factor for a heritage brand. Another favorite is the look of Williams-Sonoma’s new Agrarian products. “[The designers] managed to keep it elevated and stylish and avoided a ‘crunchy granola’ persona, while retaining the authenticity the product needs to maintain its authority,” she said. “That is not always easy to do.”
While 60–70 percent of the work is done in-house, an extensive list of freelance designers, photographers and illustrators are on call. Normally, eight to twelve projects are scheduled on any given week, but during one recent week, more than twice that many were due. The packaging team is accustomed to working fast. With very little time for back-and-forth revisions, Hester prefers designers possessing “an entrepreneurial spirit, self-motivation and self-editing [skills].”
He still hears prospective job-seekers worry that working in-house means more structure and less freedom. They have the idea it’s going to be boring and repetitive or they’ll be limited creatively. After having worked in design firms, agencies and freelance, Hester finds working in-house is a lot more relaxed and enjoyable. One difference between working in a design studio and in-house: You might have five or six weeks to develop a package at a studio, while creative development time at Williams-Sonoma is typically much shorter—sometimes only a week or two. “You have to make quick decisions and be confident in what you’re doing,” he said. “But there isn’t the competition among designers that often exists in an agency or studio setting. The in-house environment is much more supportive and collaborative.”
Many designers he interviews have found their niche in retro-style work. “There is a lot of what I like to call ‘hipster’ designers out there right now; a certain look of line illustration or vector illustration that every young designer seems to be copying. For us, if we stick to one thing, we’re going to be dead in the water. So, I really gravitate to things that have a context to them, that have a sense of nostalgia.”
Referencing the past while interpreting it into something that feels current gives the product the authenticity their packaging is trying to achieve. The design has to reflect contemporary tastes and values, while also reflecting the brand’s values. “A nod to a time and place can be very powerful, but it needs to be adjusted so as not to be kitsch,” Last said. “I like to avoid what I call theme dressing or period-drama packaging—anything overly stylized to a specific period, anything too retro or Victoriana—unless designing packaging for a set on Mad Men or Downton Abbey!”
Hester begins with research and mood boards with images from Pinterest and Google. It helps describe both the style direction and the tone set by the merchant team for each project. The key to the discussion is whether the product should feel expensive, like something customers would bring to a dinner party or if it’s more of an everyday item for weeknights when they get home late from work. The product should also feel giftable. Foils, papers and textures are sometimes used to enhance the dimensional effect of the package. “It’s really easy to create packaging that is elaborate and has lots of flourishes and ornamentation,” Hester said. “But if you can create a minimal design and have it feel considered—every font, line, color and element has a purposeful application and treatment within the context of the whole piece—I think it’s really hard to do.”
The designs are continually being refreshed, usually every two-to-three years. Sarah Hingston, senior packaging designer, updated the Hot Fudge and Salted Caramel ice cream sauce that was originally created in 2003. For the new label, Hingston said her design used, “a spot gloss varnish to enhance the graphic idea of the gooey sauce running deliciously over the label, making you almost want to lick the jar.” Her solution was simple, fun and engaging and the redesign had an immediate effect. The products sold far more successfully, extending the product’s range. It also lead to further product launches, building up a strong identity for ice cream sauces in the store.
Seeing the full lifecycle of a project is a distinctive in-house perk of the design process. As someone who likes to cook, Hester enjoys getting to know a new product, such as a new line of jams. He’ll review different jam varieties, taste the product and fully experience its advancement to market. Currently, he’s engrossed in a new feature highlighting the experience of the Bay Area’s Napa Valley wine country. The products will be available this fall and his research shows that the look should feel very sophisticated and artisanal—the very core of the brand’s style.
In the absence of competing brands on the shelves, how important is design for the Williams-Sonoma product? According to Anna Last, it’s the difference between it selling or not, “which in our business is everything,” she said. “Do you want to pick it up? Does it surprise, delight or intrigue and [will you] keep it for yourself or gift it? These are all responses to successful packaging design.” With new shops in Australia and Kuwait, Williams-Sonoma’s global presence currently includes 261 retail stores, millions of catalogs and e-commerce. Once customers walk into the store, they know they’re at Williams-Sonoma and it becomes a question of what products speak to them. Or as Hester put it, “What will please their epicurean palette that day?” ca