10 Things you need to know about packaging design

In its overuse, most people dislike the phrase “thinking outside the box” and there are countless packaging companies using similarly un-inventive tag-lines. You don’t have to search too far to find a blog by a branding or design agency discussing the merits of “brand communication” and “consumer engagement”. Today, however, I wanted to pick out what I feel to be the important aspects of packaging design and how they relate to the real world of packaging manufacture…

In plain terms, here are my packaging design top 10 dos:

1) Think about the contents.

Contents

Whatever anyone tells you, and however “loose” the creative brief, the MOST important thing about a piece of packaging is what goes in it. Packaging in its most basic state is created to contain something, so in order to consider the design, we really need to understand the product which it has to contain. The contents will therefore determine for us, at least, the minimum size, weight and shape, and in turn the method of opening.

2) Understand the function.

Burgopak

In 1896 Louis Sullivan posed the term “form follows function” which became a maxim for the modernist movement. This idea is therefore not a new one, but it is very important. Although there are some great examples of clever and unique packaging inventions, just creating something that’s different is not in my mind good enough. In order to create truly great packaging we really need to justify our design by relating the shape, materials and all the other elements, firstly to the content, and secondly the journey through which the product will travel. If we can answer the question, what function does this packaging need to serve (whether it’s strength, ease of use or so on) we can then create a truly meaningful design.

3) Be mindful of the supply chain.

A great example of why the supply chain is important is the success of shelf ready packaging (SRP) over recent years. In the world of the supermarket, product would be delivered to a distributer in a box, then shipped to the store in a box (sometimes a smaller one) then removed from the box, and placed onto the shelf loose or on another display unit or box. So some clever people decided that by designing the outer packaging in a better way, you could do 3 things – reduce the time to shelf in store, reduce the amount of wasted packaging, and improve and enhance the brand message during the journey of the product, while giving better protection. If we think about the way the product is stored and transported, we can help to minimise the impact of our design on the wider world.

4) Establish the brand message.

Once we’ve considered the product and its function, we should design our packaging in a way which helps to enhance the message which the brand intends to portray. By selectively choosing the materials, shape and images we can help to communicate the brand to the buyer both consciously and subconsciously. Every element of design from quality and texture through to the strength and complexity can augment our idea.

5) Add an element of security and safety.

Whether attempting to subvert thieves in store, or minimising the risk of loss or damage in the post, if we can add a security feature to our packaging, we will help to improve its market effectiveness. There are many forms of in-store protection in the forms of labels tags and cases, but unfortunately many of these are uncompromising or ugly. By adding an element of “benefit denial” using intelligent materials or design, not only can we improve the look and feel of our product, we can enhance the effectiveness of the packaging as a product in its own right.

6) Research the materials and techniques.

Part of my draw to the packaging industry is the range and speed at which modern technologies are evolving. Even in my relatively short career I have seen some massive shifts in techniques and materials. I could in fact write a new blog about this subject in itself. By really understanding the tools available to us, whether it’s a clever printing technique or a new material technology, we can start to enhance our design in a unique way which works hand in hand with the processes available to us, rather than being limited by our own knowledge.

7) Design the opening experience.

This is my favourite bit of design. It may be true that success isn’t really measured beyond the shelf, but by getting in the head of the end-user and thinking about how they feel as they open the box, we can enhance our product by taking our customer through an experience which is easy and fun rather than annoying and frustrating. You don’t have to search far on twitter to find someone talking about a clamshell pack they couldn’t get into or a product that disappointed them on arrival due to a badly packaged state. If we can improve what I like to call the opening experience, we can begin to convert the sometimes negative image of packaging.

8) Be creative.

Ultimately, what we’re really trying to do here is to come up with something unique that people are going to talk about, or be interested in. If it’s a product on a shelf or delivered via online shopping, we need to design our packaging with words like impact and outstanding in the forefront of our minds. The world is becoming busier and louder, so it’s our job to help our design stand out.

9) Realize the Product/Brand extension.

Marketers call packaging the “silent salesman.” In many cases, for example toothpaste, the packaging is or has become the product. If we think of the packaging as an extension of its contents, we can help present it in a coherent way. Not only can we make a dull product desirable, we can engage the consumer by expanding the uses or features of the product by delivering it in clever ways or combining with other products to create new uses. Some brands even join forces to enhance one another’s image – for example, Jean Paul Gaultier and Coca-Cola (both of whom already have iconic packaging) have merged their brands for this promotion to create something unique and interesting.

10) Don’t forget to Develop.

Just because you’ve created a great idea now, doesn’t mean it will always be great. In order for a design to be relevant and up to date, it should continue to evolve. By considering this at the outset, we can even program ideas into our design so that we can add seasonal or promotional elements to help enhance the message in the future.

Procure! for procurement sake

Although politicians have been avoiding phrases like “green shoots” in recent months, the general consensus seems to be that the economy is once again starting to cultivate. Whether spending or saving is the best route to recovery, many companies have been erring towards caution by cutting as many ‘unnecessary’ costs as possible. I wanted to reflect on how this has affected the packaging industry.

First some facts…

P&G known as the biggest spender in the world of marketing implemented a 5.4% budget reduction between 2010 and 2011 having already reduced their advertising spend by 20% in 2009. At the same time General Motors reduced its yearly marketing budget by 16%, while concurrently channelling 15.7% towards online methods.
Even within the world of media, ironically, there is a reported drop of 11% in marketing spend across the board.
(sources: Times Business, Research-live.com, EHow.co.uk)

The general trend is to spend more effectively by targeting consumers covertly through social marketing campaigns. Analysts therefore predict that marketing using online channels will overtake all other streams by 2016.

“P&G lay off 1600 staff members after discovering it’s free to advertise on Facebook”

So how does this affect packaging?

One of the prevalent strategies that companies seem to have adopted is to re-focus this spend in areas such as procurement. In the boom years, the driving force behind packaging sourcing and spend was the marketing department whereas in recent times, there seems to have been a significant increase of incumbent procurement companies and departments. There have been many new agencies offering these services on behalf of brand owners, while existing print management companies such as WilliamsLee-Tag and HH-Global have been diverting their attention to the world of packaging.

“Why you should consider a career in procurement”

If we can reduce cost of goods and increase competition in the world of packaging this is a good thing, although sometimes the ‘cheaper’ solution isn’t always the most cost-effective.

When outsourcing packaging, it is easy to reduce the cost of materials (e.g. weight reduction or material conversion strategies) or simply remove additional supply chain costs such as print enhancements, reducing the amount of component parts or offering a ‘generic’ branding alternative across territories or form factors. These kind of cost savings are quick hit and easy to quantify.

The Procurement Strategy

The problem with cost reduction strategies is that even when comparing direct campaign effectiveness, the long-term benefits of brand quality can be difficult to measure when trying to gain trust and recognition in the new world of social media. Cost inherently (but not always) affects quality so it is important when designing packaging that we fully understand the benefits and effectiveness of the plethora of finishes and materials in our toolbox.

The good news is that many of the manufacturers, meeting the challenge by being careful with costs and reducing spend during the recession have started to see comfortable balance sheets leading to new investment in premises, technology and machinery.

The packaging holy grail…

I’ve always believed that it’s the little details that count in the battle between good and mediocre design. By understanding the brand message and intended usage it becomes easier to convey this through use of materials and design. But even then, it is important to involve the right people throughout the supply chain from marketing through to manufacturing to ensure that the initial message is communicated in an effective and coherent way.

If you’re looking to promote a product through the viral effects of social marketing, the way it looks on shelf (or tiny .gif thumbnail) is no longer enough. In order to achieve the holy grail of a “YouTube unboxing moment” we must consider the whole opening experience. The unquantifiable and subjective ‘look, feel and quality aspects’ are key to the “I want one of those” effect. It is therefore important, while being conscious of price, to consider all the elements of the packaging such as material choice and design style during the evaluation stage. This way we can begin to really understand the wider effects of packaging upon brand effectiveness and customer opinion.

Why I like making Pop-ups

I love my job, but It has to be said that having to explain what it is that I do to everyone I meet, can become tedious.

“You design boxes?… But aren’t they all square?”

Although technically a ‘square’ (sided) box is actually uncommon, I have to concede that the unrelenting parallelogram has actually become the sequitur of my design career. To begin with, I would explain that it really is more interesting than it sounds. I would then proceed by embellishing in brand names and products that I worked on. Nowadays, I just agree.

Pink PSP Pink PSP detail

I first encountered pop-ups a couple of years into my career; someone showed me a credit card holder and asked if I could replicate something similar. The design was fairly simple: a folder with a slot and a panel which lifted the card when you opened it. This lead me to the realisation that I could add value to the design by presenting the product in a different way. From here on, the packaging became an enhancement to the product rather than purely a method of enclosure.

Guillermo Del Toro Detail 1 Guillermo Del Toro Detail 2 Guillermo Del Toro Production

The packaging company I worked for understandably required me to design in a way which suited their mechanical production lines. This meant that there was a limit to the complexity of the design I could create, but this only heightened the appeal of my self induced challenge.

Reindeer Pop-up  Church Scene

I spent the following months trying to find different ways to display the product while creating a design that could be automated. I dissected pop-up books, browsed through guides and instructions, copied and read up on some remarkable designers until I had visualised and replicated all of the main constituents of typical pop-up construction.

My first design took a while to migrate into a real product (I designed it with a view to creating the greatest movement with minimum assembly) and I was immensely proud when it was used in production.

One of my favourites

Each time since where the opportunity has arisen, my childlike enthusiasm has become difficult to contain. I will happily stay up all night cutting and sticking until the final iteration is successful.

Heavy Trash the making 1 Heavy Trash the making 2 Heavy Trash the making 3 Heavy Trash the making 4 Heavy Trash the making 5 Heavy Trash Studio

Heavy Trash page 1 Heavy Trash eyes-brain Heavy Trash Head

From “Heavy Trash- I want Oblivion” Video – check it out here

The challenge with pop-up design is turning a flat piece of artwork into a 3D moving scene. For products where I’ve been able to work directly with the illustrator or key artwork, this process is much more fluid. But whether I’ve been involved at the start or fixing a design problem later, the consummation of adding value and creating something from the original shape is greatly satisfying.