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Essential Elements of Packaging Design

By Scott Kirkwood

Holding a Coke bottle in your hand. Reading the words Ben & Jerry’s in that delicious chunky typeface. Removing an iPhone from a simple pearl-white box. The best packaging designs can spark strong emotions and forge surprisingly intimate connections with consumers. We spoke to some of packaging design’s top practitioners, and asked them to share their advice for designers who may be new to working on labels, containers, and the like.

Designs for Bootstrap Brewing Company, by Moxie Sozo.

SOLVE THE PROBLEM

Before you get too caught up in shapes, materials, and cutting-edge printing technology, remember that you’ve been hired to solve a problem.

“When we start a new packaging project, we begin with the overarching goals,” says Derek Springston, chief creative officer for Moxie Sozo in Boulder, Colorado. “Are you trying to disrupt the category or just eke out a little more market share? Do you want to evolve the brand or do something audacious?” If it’s a new type of product, for instance, you’ll need to devote some of the packaging’s often minuscule real estate to explaining what it does—fast.

When you’re working on a packaging concept, think about what makes the product unique. For this packaging for GivePet dog treats, Whiskey Design highlighted the fact that the company donates its products to animal shelters.

“Early on, we need to figure out who we’re talking to, so we can ultimately figure out how to catch their attention,” says Matt Wegerer, owner and creative director of Whiskey Design in Kansas City, Missouri.  Next, Wegerer wants to know where consumers are most likely to encounter the product: “Is this going to be in a box on a convenience-store shelf as an impulse buy—something you’d pick up and hold in your hand—or is it more of a premium product?” he asks.

Another important question: What separates your product from everyone else? GivePet donates 10 of its dog treats to animal shelters for every bag purchased, so Whiskey plastered that promise across the front of the package.

IDENTIFY THE PACKAGE’S FORM FACTOR EARLY ON

The shape of the canvas dictates the painting. This is where you and the client will need to weigh the advantages of certain materials and manufacturers. For instance, a clear window might entice customers to buy chocolates, but will exposure to daylight shorten shelf life? An overseas manufacturer might offer significant savings, but will shipping logistics erase that advantage?

Designs for Toronto-based bakery Sorelle and Co., by Vanderbrand.

“One of the first questions we ask is: Are we creating a new form factor or using an existing one?” says Springston. “If it’s new, are we considering a custom option or finding a stock container that already exists?” If you’re working on a beverage, for example, a custom mold could set your drink apart from competitors (think Coca-Cola or Crown Royal), while cheaper stock shapes would allow you to invest more in label design or point-of-purchase displays.

Restless Spirits distillery was founded by the great-grandson of an Irish immigrant who helped construct America’s intercontinental railroad, and Whiskey’s label designs called upon that heritage. Every drink comes in a different stock bottle, but all of them feature broad shoulders that suggest the physique of manual laborers from another era.

Design for Restless Spirits, by Whiskey Design.

READ THE FINE PRINT (AND THEN MAKE SOME OF YOUR OWN)

If you’re creating packaging for food, beverages, dietary supplements, cosmetics, or (of course) drugs, you’ll need to follow a long list of guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That list includes a mention of obvious things like ingredients and calories; after that, things get complicated—for instance, the product’s net weight must appear in the lower 30 percent of the front panel, in bold type, at a letter height determined by the package’s dimensions, measured by the size of a lower-case letter o (unless all upper case letters are used), and separated from other text by its overall height on all four sides. There are many, many stipulations like this. 

Designs for The Snack Brigade, by Moxie Sozo. 

“The FDA takes things very seriously,” says Evelyn Cadman, a consultant who helps clients sort through the 900 pages of guidance surrounding the regulations. “The best designers want to get creative with their packaging, to separate themselves from other products, but when you’re working with a scaffolding that’s already been established, you can’t simply flip everything on its head—you’ve got to comply with the regulations.”

Although the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau must approve all alcohol labels (a process that generally takes a few weeks), the FDA doesn’t have enough staff to review everything under its purview. For a small product destined for local shelves, Googling “FDA packaging regulations” might be enough. But when the stakes are higher, errors and oversights could lead to massive product recalls, the reprinting of thousands of labels, and a visit from the FDA to investigate more potential irregularities. So look to a senior designer, leverage the client’s in-house expertise, or bring in an experienced consultant.

TELL THE TRUTH, THE WHOLE TRUTH, AND NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH

The FDA also polices claims around a product’s ingredients and benefits—going beyond the fine print to photos and the product’s name. Terms like fruit-flavored and natural get plenty of scrutiny. Phrases like “serving suggestion” must accompany images of items not included in the package. And if you use your considerable Photoshop skills to accentuate the texture of a single corn puff, you’ll have to note that as well. Got a new product? You can highlight that fact for exactly six months, at which point the FDA insists it isn’t new anymore.

Designs for Petit Natural Juice, by Sweety & Co.

“Whether it’s text or a photo or an illustration, everything on the product’s package must be truthful, fair, and supported by data,” says Cadman. A dietary supplement might not make a single health claim, but if the packaging contains an EKG readout or a Valentine’s heart, it’s making bold implications that could cross the line.

GET PHYSICAL

Don’t rely on Dieline, Pinterest, or a Google Image search to conduct research—visit a store to find your competitors in their natural habitat. Get actual bottles from manufacturers; print out labels at 100 percent to ensure that every word is legible; create physical design comps that the client can hold in their hands; and photograph your designed product next to five or six key competitors to see what customers will see when they’re shopping.

Designs for Beer Salt, by Whiskey Design. 

“Through the years, we've specialized in digital 3D rendering as a way to present packaging projects,” says Rafael Eifler, a designer with the Brazilian agency Sweety & Co. “We feel it’s always easier for the client to see their package from every side, rather than just a plain, flat label.”

A low-tech approach works too. “We often start with two or three bottles we like, and cut out pieces of paper to see how they might fold or wrap around a certain shape,” says Wegerer. “We might think a bottle is really cool, but then discover the neck prevents us from executing a certain idea. So before you put a piece of type down or lay one color down, get some scissors, some tape, and some paper, and figure out the bottle’s limitations.”

Designs for Wander + Ivy, by Moxie Sozo. 

BE DIFFERENT

“At Moxie, we have a saying: ‘Safe is risky,’” says Springston. “It’s much harder to push creative work [from conservative to bold] than it is to reel it back in. Moxie’s work for Wander + Ivy wine aimed directly at the trend toward single-serve cans, but adopted a luxe package to match its price tag. The result suggests high-end perfume or cologne more than cheap soda or light beer.

Whiskey’s design for GivePet stands out, too. Instead of using a typical pure-bred portrait or a loveable mutt frolicking in a field, Wegerer’s team turned to a bold color palette and quirky illustrations that pay off the flavors: A beagle in a fishing hat represents salmon-flavored Campfire Feast, and Breakfast All Day (with bacon and eggs) features a pug in pajamas.

CLOSE THE DEAL

“Our design approach is to make products interesting,” says Eifler. “We don't like to reveal everything instantly, but rather make the customer pick up the package and discover it for themselves.” Sweety & Co.’s designs for Mochila yogurt and Teff cereal do just that, with colors and shapes that you simply don’t expect to see in their categories.

Designs for Mochila (left) and Teff (right), by Sweety & Co. 

One of Whiskey’s first packaging clients, San Antonio’s Beer Salt, summed up the challenge of packaging perfectly: “No pressure, but the first sale is on you,” said the owner. “People don’t know this product and they’ve never tasted it, so you need to get them to walk up to the shelf, pick it up, read it, and take it home.”

“Package design is that one form of visual communication where the competition is right next to you, and you’re fighting for attention,” says Wegerer. “And if I can get you to pick up my product, I feel pretty confident it’s going to make it into your cart.”