Burt Ward's Gentle Giants Dog Food Packaging Is a Case Study In Successful 'Anti-Design'
by Rudy Sanchez on 11/23/2022 | 4 Minute Read
What makes for a good design?
Asking such a question at the start of a story might seem odd. After all, we see loads of branding and packaging design projects daily—we curate the best examples and bring them to you, so it stands to reason that we have an idea of what constitutes "good" design. But once in a while, a project comes across our desk that defies convention and generally accepted design principles, making one wonder if the answer to the question of what good design is more complex than we assume.
Gentle Giants pet food is such a case. It’s primo, “graphic design is my passion,” in its branding and packaging. Gentle Giant’s over-the-top maximalism might make some of your eyes twitch in confusion over the multitude of typefaces, amateur photography, blocks of texts, and contrasting patterns and backgrounds.
Still, oddly, it works.
The execution makes more sense if one looks beyond Gentle Giants’ graphic design choices. Gentle Giants’ beginnings, claims, and mission is perhaps just as unique as its packaging, and it’s clear there is no other pet food on the shelf that looks like it.
Hollywood actor Burt Ward is best known for his role as Robin in the 1966 live-action Batman television series starring the late Adam West. After keeping the fictional streets of Gotham safe from the likes of the Joker and the Riddler, Ward continued to work in the entertainment industry and soon found himself pursuing an additional passion—starting a large dog rescue non-profit.
Ward and his wife, Tracy Posner Ward, started the Gentle Giants rescue in 1994. Since then, according to Gentle Giants, they’ve rescued over 15,500 dogs and lengthened their lives two to three times that of similar furballs through their nutritional regimen. Packaging for Gentle Giants features testimonials and pictures of canines in their twenties.
As in human years. The brand uses the large canvas of dry dog food packaging to cram as many testimonials and reviews as possible onto the bag. Additionally, the US-made food contains a lower level of crude fat than other brands of food, and Gentle Giants is GMO, byproduct, and Chinese-sourced ingredients free.
Ward’s iconic tenure as the Caped Crusader’s on-screen sidekick and protege also features prominently on Gentle Giant’s packaging. A picture of Burt’s Hollywood Walk of Fame star is included on the packaging, seemingly placed anywhere there was room for it.
Most pet food packaging will slap a photogenic pup or kitty on the bag. Usually, it’s a nice headshot of the animal, almost like a LinkedIn profile pic, but for pets. Gentle Giant’s furry models are cute, and any animal lover would turn into a puddle of "awws" and love to pet every single one of them. But there are also a lot of them. One picture on the packaging is of the Wards laying in their bed, literally surrounded by a room of dogs. It’s another instance of Gentle Giant’s visual identity going full-tilt boogie in presentation.
To be clear, nothing about Gentle Giant’s branding seems ironic. Burt Ward’s passion for improving and extending the lives of our furballs is abundantly evident. Gentle Giants includes all those positive testimonials as a not-so-subtle way of saying, “this is a good dog food, and if we could add more reviews to the bag from pet owners, we would.” Old pictures of Burt in his Robin costume clearly communicates the celebrity endorsement. Gentle Giants make gargantuan claims of adding years to a canine’s life through a visual approach just as bombastic.
You might look at a bag of Gentle Giants in the store and scoff at the notion of buying dog food packaged in such “ugly” packaging, but the counter-conventional branding appears to be working for Ward and his pet food company. Gentle Giants has been featured on national talk shows like Ellen and gets stocked at major retailers like Walmart, Target, Petco, Tractor Supply Co., and Chewy. For most brands, having that kind of retail footprint would undoubtedly be considered a case for successful design and a strong argument for calling it “good design.”
Such an “anti-design” approach isn’t appropriate for every brand, but Gentle Giants makes it work. Good design, in part, communicates the brand’s strengths and unique quality in a relatable way. A slick, clinical presentation might be more attractive to some, but it isn’t in line with the brand story, its founders' personality, or its mission. Gentle Giants successfully takes an approach similar to Dr. Bronner’s or Gen Z Water in forging its own brand path.
In that vein, you can probably even say that Gentle Giants’ packaging is “good” design.