This story is part of our Weekend Reads series, where we highlight a story we love from the archives. It was originally published online in 2021.
It used to be that if you needed a sleep aid, you went straight to the medicine aisle, but things are rarely that simple anymore. They are, however, a lot more fun: you can have a midnight snack with a Good Day Chocolate sleep supplement, or a nightcap with Kin Euphorics’ Dream Light, and still sleep with a clear conscience. The latter, with its apothecary-meets-mixology branding by RoAndCo, includes ingredients like melatonin, reishi mushroom extract, and the amino acid L-Theanine, helping the drink adapt to an individual’s nighttime needs “like a thermostat.”
The same adaptive nature could be said of the food and beverage industry as a whole, which has found unique ways to tap into the collective anxiety and restlessness of the past year. The concepts for sleep-oriented products like Nightfood and PepsiCo’s Driftwell both predated the pandemic (the latter came out of a 2019 internal company pitch contest), but they have each used design to appeal to a growing attention on rest and relaxation. These and the many other products like them aren’t quite medicine, but they’re not just something to idly sip or snack on either. Instead, they’re part of a growing category of products known as “functional food,” and their function, as conveyed by their soothing design, is to chill you out.
Late last year, PepsiCo entered the functional food market with Driftwell, an “enhanced water beverage” that contains L-theanine and magnesium. Driftwell’s branding features an inky blue background and yellow accents, with an abstract moon dipping into a wave. PepsiCo’s design senior manager Matthew Buchwach and Ange Luke, design and innovation director of North America beverages, describe the Driftwell brand as “quiet,” a careful balance of “commerciality and differentiation.” The Driftwell looks like a Pepsi product in some ways (a central circle, rounded edges) but has a polished, modern asymmetry not usually found in traditional soft drink design.
“Sleep has gone from a mundane necessity to an industry estimated to be worth upwards of $40 billion in America alone.”
The word “sleep” does not appear on Driftwell’s packaging, but it doesn’t have to. The visual language of somnolence and its associated products and rituals has become ingrained enough in the past decade for consumers to know that a dark blue or purple product with neutral accents probably has something to do with winding-down. ZzzQuil first appeared on shelves in 2012 and used a deep purple in its design instead of dark blue, likely as a way to differentiate the sleep aid from their blue and green Vicks line. (When mattress brand Casper first appeared in 2014, it also used a deep purple in its branding, along with a curled “C,” not unlike Driftwell’s receding, over-the-moon lettering.) Before the 2000s, there just weren’t enough sleep products outside of medicine or bedroom accessories to merit an entire set of norms. But in short order, sleep has gone from a mundane necessity to an industry estimated to be worth upwards of $40 billion in America alone.
For a long time, sleep was undervalued not just commercially, but also culturally. The “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mentality of thirty years ago started to peel back in the early 2000s. In 2006, the term “sleep hygiene” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. In 2010, Arianna Huffington gave a TED Talk titled “How to Succeed? Get More Sleep,” which she eventually spun into a company. The idea of not just getting enough sleep, but the right kind of sleep is relatively new. Naturally, a cottage industry has sprung up to help you get it.
When Nightfood first started 10 years ago as a snack bar company, the expectations were different for sleep aid products back then. CEO Sean Folkson says that, these days, people are more knowledgeable about how our habits affect the quality of our sleep. Now solely an ice cream line with a “sleep-friendly nutritional profile,” Nightfood recently invested in a redesign, darkening the backdrop of its packaging to match the drowsy feel of brands like Som and Driftwell. The company had realized that the existing packaging “undersold and underplayed the sleep-friendly component” of the product, says Sean Folkson, CEO of Nightfood, though he cautions, “We’re not pitching sleep, we’re pitching better nighttime snacking.”
With traditional products like oral supplements, design can help a consumer mentally reframe a sleep aid into a lifestyle choice instead of a medical need. For Proper, a ZzzQuil competitor and “holistic sleep solution” company, the product’s heavy, reusable glass pill bottle is meant to elicit “an emotional reaction” that “validates the idea of spending more,” says Robin Kannard of design firm Unspoken Agreement, who created the company’s brand identity along with partner Saxon Campbell. For tea, which has always been associated with mood-altering effects, the design is even more nuanced: There isn’t a hint of indigo on the package for Celestial Seasonings’ Sleepytime tea, a product that’s been on the market for over forty years. But, the less traditional the product, “the more obvious you have to be,” says Whitney Siegel, strategy director at food and beverage design agency Interact Boulder. “As you get into weirder and weirder formats,” design has to do more work, she says, reflecting what the product is formulated to do, and in a way, priming the consumer to feel those effects. As the market for sleep aids continues to expand, we can expect to see more representational design (crescents, stars, blues), at least in the near term.