Small batch ice cream is big business these days, with a wave of artisanal varieties crowding out bigger brands on grocers’ shelves. According to the National Restaurant Association (NRA) artisanal, homemade ice cream was a top food trend in 2016. Yet even for a stalwart artisanal brand, the market influx poses a problem: Last year, Van Leeuwen Ice Cream, a Brooklyn staple for nearly 10 years, was beginning to feel overlooked by customers with too many options.
The owners—Laura O’Neill and brothers Benjamin and Pete Van Leeuwen—suspected that an answer to their problem might be a refresh on packaging design, and for that, they turned to Pentagram partner Natasha Jen. Van Leeuwen’s new identity, which has been rolling out since the fall, makes the brand stand out by stripping down its visuals. On shelves full of pints with old-fashioned typography, cutesy illustrations and general visual clutter, Van Leeuwen’s cheery pastels and clean type are eye-catching in their simplicity.
Van Leeuwen launched in the Spring of 2008, with one pastel yellow ice cream truck on the streets of New York and Brooklyn. Since then, the brand has grown to encompass several more trucks, as well as eight brick-and-mortar stores in New York and Los Angeles. They have a cookbook and a large Instagram presence and generally give off a sense of homespun cool that seems as meticulously crafted as its delicious, high-quality ice cream. The milk is hormone-free from pasture-raised cows on a farm in upstate New York, and they have a large line of vegan flavors.
Suffice to say, Van Leeuwen enjoys a good reputation in Brooklyn, where stylish artisanal brands reign supreme—and that reputation helped when the company wanted to commission new branding from Pentagram. “At first they were a little worried about Pentagram because everyone’s initial reaction is that we’re going to be expensive,” says Jen. She and her team were already big fans of the ice cream, though, and she was willing to work out a price that was affordable for the small brand. “When we really want to work with people, we make an exception,” she says.
The biggest challenge Jen faced with the redesign was consistency: the brand has two product lines, classic and vegan, and at the time they were packaged so differently they looked unrelated. Then there was the fact that, like most ice cream packaging, there was way too much going on for something as small as a pint container. “The way that I’d characterize it is a graphic design and typography and color explosion,” says Jen. The classic packaging featured an illustration of their recognizable truck, with a variety of illustrations and different fonts for the descriptions. The vegan option was covered with text rendered in different typographic standards, sizes, and styles.
The old branding may have been a visual overload, but it was also in line with the identities of most other ice cream companies. “In ice cream and even now in artisanal ice cream categories there are several mainstream visual vernaculars,” says Jen. Illustrations are a big one, and many have an old-school look and feel to emphasize that they are homemade. Crowding lots of different visual elements onto one-pint container is something that can be seen everywhere from big brands like Häagen-Dazs to other local brands like Brooklyn’s Phin and Phebes. “I think Ben and Jerry’s started that whole idea,” says Jen. “Now the style is being revised for a more artisanal look and feel, so slightly more sophisticated.”
Jen and her team took Van Leeuwen in the complete opposite direction. They stuck with the familiar script for the wordmark, but stripped the packaging of the illustrations. Starting with the trademark buttercup yellow of the truck, they developed a pastel color palette where each flavor ice cream—which might range from Passion Fruit Layer Cake to Peanut Butter Marshmallow Crunch—is assigned one color. The vegan line shows the inverse, with each pint given a white background with colored script and accents.
The rebrand makes the pints eye-catching on their own, while still existing as a part of a unified system. The approach seems to be working—since the introduction of the new packaging in the fall, retail sales have increased 50%, according to Van Leeuwen. “Standing by itself [each pint] is minimalist in graphics and typography, but a maximalist terms in the colors,” says Jen. As the artisanal ice cream market continues to grow, and as brands stack on the visuals to emphasize that their product is unique, a touch of minimalism can go a long way.