Packaging Design: The Forgotten Design Medium that’s Searching for Specialists
Packaging is a product medium that’s forgotten about all too often.
Brands that are selling a physical product, whether online or in a retail store, are often so focused on the product’s growth and development that the vessel to contain the product is left to the last minute.
When packaging is thought about, it’s usually left to the last minute, and a rushed solution is implemented, with design being left to the wayside.
For you, the visual designer, the benefit comes from the fact that when brands like this revisit their packaging, they’re usually willing to double down on their design efforts.
But designing unique and eye catching packaging supplies isn’t like designing an Instagram image or website banner. It requires a comprehensive understanding of the role packaging plays, the benefits of effective packaging, and your exact role in the process.
Luckily for you, this article is about to go deep into all of that and more.
PACKAGING IN A NUTSHELL
Packaging comes in many forms. It can be the plastic bag that your baby spinach comes in, or it can be the tag on a new pair of socks.
It can be the shiny box that your favourite tea comes in, or it can be the mailing bag that your latest online purchase arrives in.
Packaging plays an essential role for brands, as almost every physical thing that can be sold in a store and taken home (or sold online and sent to an address) requires packaging in some way, shape, or form.
However, many brands, both big and small, don’t realise that their packaging is the only marketing medium that reaches 100% of their customers.
So the opportunity for packaging to influence the purchasing decision and/or leave a positive first impression is often overlooked. Throw the concept of an unboxing experience into the mix, and it’s easy to see how important packaging can be.
Quite often, when medium brands want to make the most of packaging, they’ll turn to a designer to create something that does the job.
Now it’s here that it’s essential to make the following statement:
Good packaging design is easy. Great packaging design is a true challenge.
Designers that specialize in creating emails can’t automatically jump into packaging design. That’s like saying that anyone with their driving license can drive a tank – they’re similar, but not the same.
Here are the challenges when creating a unique packaging design:
PACKAGING DESIGN CHALLENGES
Anyone can put a logo on a box, but it takes talent and experience to create an unboxing experience.
Experience, or at the very least, a thorough understanding of the packaging goals, is required. Here are some things to consider when you’re getting your feet wet in the world of packaging design.
The materials that the packaging is made of are the canvas on which you create. But packaging designers aren’t always privy to a pristine, white canvas.
That being said, the various materials used in packaging create many exciting challenges for designers.
Take, for example, biodegradable poly mailer bags.
In recent years, small and large brands alike have made a shift to eco-friendly packaging. One standard product that small clothing, apparel and accessory brands rely on is mailing bags made from plant waste, usually corn, carrot or beetroot byproducts. From the onset, though, the bags aren’t always stark white but often have a tint of yellow, red or orange to them – obviously, due to the high amount of plant material.
This limited the colours that designers can use, so reverting to a monochromatic design is safest.
Many eco-conscious brands have also leveraged the natural texture of kraft. That is the natural brown colour of cardboard. Rather than using a packaging product with a printed laminated on top of the brown cardboard, the printing is done directly onto the brown cardboard in either black or white ink.
Impurities and inconsistencies complement the eco image of many brands. So how do you, the packaging designer, work with what is ultimately a brown canvas with only black or white ink?
One exciting challenge of packaging design is that you’re working in a 3D space but on a 2D plane. For example, when designing a box with six sides, you’ll more than likely use a flat ‘net’ of the unfolded shape of the box. This is called a dieline.
Understanding how a shape contorts over an edge or around a corner of the box is essential. How will that look when stacked side by side on shelves in volumes?
But, as you read earlier, packaging is more than a box. How will the brand’s assets translate onto tape, tissue paper, inserts or a shipping tube?
With many different mediums comes many different shapes – and, therefore, ways to get creative.
Primary or secondary?
Many products have two or more types of packaging—for example, cosmetics. There’s the tube or jar that the product itself comes in, and then there’s the small box that encapsulates everything.
As a packaging designer, you’ll be responsible for both mediums – the label on the jar or the tube, as well as the paper stock box that it comes in.
As close as they are, these two types of packaging play two different roles. Primary packaging explains the ingredients, instructions or nutritional information of the product and the company’s branding.
All the necessary information to influence the buyer’s decision should be on secondary packaging to convince the shopper to buy the product for retail brands.
For ecommerce brands, secondary packaging needs to be the basis of an unboxing experience and add value to the brand, as its packaging is the first physical touchpoint between an ecommerce brand and its customer.
Furthermore, it also needs to keep the product safe throughout the delivery process.
REQUIREMENTS TO EXCEL IN PACKAGING DESIGN
If packaging design sounds like an area you’d like to specialise in, here are several places to specialise in or, at the very least, be aware of.
As you read earlier, packaging can be seen as a marketing channel. Therefore, understanding how brands communicate with potential consumers and the role packaging plays in marketing can be highly advantageous.
An understanding of the materials commonly used in popular packaging solutions is advantageous. This helps you understand the texture of certain materials that may be the canvas for your design and understand the overall impression that the packaging should make.
In the last several years, more packaging designers and packaging design agencies have strived to better understand the process of printing in high volumes. The differences between lithographic printing, digital printing and offset printing are huge. For example, digital printing is known for creating much more vivid fluorescent colours compared to other methods.
High-end, elegant printing often brings in other elements of packaging design that go beyond that of flat, 2D graphic design.
The two most common types of finishes on mailing boxes are matt or glossy finishes. Both have polar opposite effects on the entire look of a box. A packaging designer needs to know if either of these finishes will be used and how that will affect the overall design.
UV varnish makes one part of the surface shiny and raised compared to the rest of the surface, which is usually matt—a nice effect for a luxury product.
Furthermore, debossing, embossing or foil print are all process-heavy elements that a good designer has sufficient understanding of. How deep is a 14pt deboss in comparison to a 16pt? Those 2 points are equivalent to approximately 1.5mm, but when used on a wine bottle label, is the difference between just seeing the effect and feeling it when picking the bottle up.
DIELINES & TEMPLATES
When designing packaging, the most common method is to design on a dieline.
A dieline is the net, or flat ‘exploded’ view of a packaging product. Packaging is designed in this method, as this is the entire pattern that’s printed on the product itself. This dieline is then sent to the printing facility, where print specialists then pick the appropriate printing method and print the packaging accordingly.
When designing on a dieline, it is important to remember several things.
Depending on the printing method, inks may bleed into each other. In other words, if a heavy dark colour is printed directly next to a light colour, there’s a slight chance that some of the dark may bleed into the light ink. This is a rare occurrence, but when it does happen, an untrained eye usually misses it.
Movements & margins
Due to the machinery used in high-volume printing facilities, the print itself may not always be aligned perfectly on top of the packaging material itself. In other words, there may be up to a 0.5mm difference between the edge of your print and the edge of your packaging.
This doesn’t mean that raw material will be visible, but it can create some trouble with borders and other elements close to the edges of a surface. To prevent any problems, it’s safest to place elements no closer than 5mm to the edge of a surface.
Texts & graphics
It’s best to keep texts at 7pt and lines at 0.5pt or higher in size. This is to ensure that the text stays readable given the quality of the printing process. Vector graphics are better than raster graphics, and photos and other imagery should be at least 300dpi or higher.
Packaging is best designed using the CMYK colour palette. To ensure that blacks are printed as black as possible, the ‘Rich black’ mix is suggested – CMYK 60% 60% 60% 100%. Using all values set to 100% will create a black that’s actually more blue in natural light.
Online design software
If designing on a dieline isn’t for you, or you want a better visualisation of your packaging, some providers offer a 3D rendering of your packaging.
Some of the more advanced packaging suppliers enable you to design your packaging online using software, with the typical ‘drag and drop methodology.
This is an excellent way for inexperienced designers to see how their ideas come into play on a 3D product. It’s easy to add logos, patterns, recycling and social media icons and more. From here, you can take your ideas and design on a dieline, as mentioned earlier.
EXAMPLE OF EXCELLENT PACKAGING DESIGN
You’ve heard a whole lot about ‘how to design good packaging’. But what does a good packaging design actually look like?
It would be easy to show you packaging examples from brands with endless budgets and access to career packaging designers and packaging engineers.
But that wouldn’t help you one bit – because, as a designer or small brand, you don’t have access to those things.
Instead, you’re about to see a handful of small to medium-sized businesses from a range of business models – ecommerce, subscription boxes, D2C, retail – that are effectively using packaging design.
Oase manufactures hair supplements for consumers that want to improve the look and health of their hair.
Their target market is women who have a self-care routine and want quality products to be a part of said routine. Oase knows this and packages its supplements like a high-end moisturiser or perfume.
The use of pastel pink is eye catching but not overwhelming. The use of an embossed, solid black logo stands out and encourages the consumer to open up the box.
Most interestingly, you can see how the colour pink used on the packaging is a shade of the soft gummy supplement itself.
Hemp Juice is a CBD manufacturer that’s trying to stand out in a very crowded market. The market has exploded as consumers start to understand and value the product’s therapeutic benefits, meaning many competitors use medical-like branding.
Hemp Juice steps away from the status quo by using pastel colours to show off the differences between their products. In the form of labels on the tincture bottles, primary packaging is clear and concise, with colour being used to differentiate the product range.
The use of pastel colours on the packaging is in sync with the effects of the product itself – calming yet also refreshing.
Anthem are an Italian brand that sells California-Esque skatewear. All products are made from organic or recycled materials, and the brand wanted a packaging solution with the same values.
The solution was biodegradable mailing bags, but the design is rooted in simplicity.
Nothing more than the brand’s circular logo, which’s also echoed on other inserts. This is a fine example of a product with understated branding having understated packaging.
Concrete Jungle is a German company selling jewellery made of gold, silver and concrete.
The brand’s use of precious metals next to an everyday material creates a contrasting dynamic.
Their packaging takes on a unique form and challenges this aesthetic. Rich greens with shapes of leaves and greenery create a feeling of a natural jungle. Whites make the greens appear even more profound, and gold highlights in the form of embossing bring the product’s colour into the packaging design.
Raylo is a British Telecom service that provides new phones to customers on a lease. The company is a reseller, so by nature, they’re selling products from another company—phones from Apple or Samsung, as well as phone cases.
The company needed a fully customised packaging solution that could encase all three products while also adding the company’s own branding.
Part of Raylo’s customer experience strategy is to make sure the customer feels that they’ve just interacted with Raylo rather than Apple. No mean feat in itself, but one that’s accomplished thanks to well-designed packaging.
Polu is an Australian company that manufactures reusable coffee cups made from bamboo. The company has environmentalism woven into their DNA, as their product is about reusability, and it’s made from readily available material.
The brand wanted its packaging to reflect those values, but not in an earthy, traditional way.
Using negative space, a design motif that complements their logo, they could use the natural texture of cardboard to create something that’s eye-catching and represents their brand in the best possible light.
There’s more to packaging than meets the eye.
Effective packaging design can help increase sales and make customers feel like they’ve just purchased something special. It can add inherent value to a product while also keeping it safe and secure.
But designing effective packaging that does all that requires experience. Luckily, graphic designers can easily make the step into the world of product packaging and, in time, indeed become go-to experts in the niche.
Phil is a bearded Australian living and working in Poland. When he’s not taking Packhelp to the world, he can be found trying not to kill his plants, pretending to be a stormtrooper, or hanging out with his dog.
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