Five Trends in Packaging Design
Ever since people have had goods to transport, we’ve used packaging. Leaves and gourds bound early humans’ food; the ancient Egyptians carried liquids in glass; and canned food was invented for battle under Napoleon.
When branding appeared in the late 19th century, packaging exploded in complexity: its shape and material reflected the era’s most cutting-edge ways to hold and transport goods, while brand messaging on the packages touched on the zeitgeist. The blue of the original 1878 Tiffany box embraced an upper-class love of turquoise; TV dinners addressed the burdens of domestic labor in the 1950s; and after the attack on Hiroshima, the iconic Kikkoman bottle demonstrated Japan’s relevance in the modern world.
At any point in history, there’s a lot to be learned about society by simply examining its packaging design. So what can we learn about ourselves through our packaging in 2019? Let's look at five trends running across consumer categories and what they tell us about our world today.
THE SUSTAINABILITY TREND
“I’ve got one word for you: plastics.”
How chilling it is to look back on this line from the iconic film, “The Graduate.” In the 1960s, plastics won accolades for being sturdy, lightweight, and transparent, and they have since dominated consumer packaging. Fast-forward to 2019, and plastic is polluting our oceans at an astronomical rate: In March, a whale was found dead in the Philippines with 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach, and National Geographic estimates that the sea will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.
As the public has come to understand the extent of plastics’ environmental damage, consumers launched an informal campaign against plastic straws in 2018; that crusade has since expanded to encompass a broad anti-plastic movement in which shoppers work to reduce the environmental impact of their shopping habits.
Amy Wilson, senior designer at Seattle firm DEI Creative, notes that sustainable packaging is "almost becoming more of an expectation than a trend,” observing, “The plastic ban... has started to pick up speed now that we're seeing environmental legislation drive the sustainability trend even more."
The pressure to design sustainably is coming from sellers as well as customers. Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, even published a sustainable packaging playbook for their suppliers to help them comply with environmental standards.
In kind, brands are using more environmentally friendly materials in their packaging. One DEI client, a company that makes a dog-food supplement called Green Juju, recently replaced its plastic tub with a paper one that has a compostable lining. Legacy brands are also reducing the impact of their single-use products: Dunkin’ Donuts recently introduced a new insulated paper cup to replace their insulated styrofoam cups, and Starbucks and others are following suit with the NextGen Cup Consortium.
A company called Loop is partnering with major labels like Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestlé, and PepsiCo to deliver consumer products, including ice cream and toothpaste, in reusable containers made of metal and glass. And the fast-casual chain Just Salad claims to eliminate 75,000 pounds of plastic waste per year by offering a reusable salad bowl to returning customers.
THE MINIMALISM-PLUS TREND
Over the past few years, minimalism has permeated our lives, from the simple serifs and all-white packaging of direct-to-consumer brands to the mid-century modern furniture in our homes. Forecasters initially cast the aesthetic as a passing fad, but it’s clear that it’s here to stay, and with good reason.
Since its inception in the art world in the 1950s, minimalism has functioned as a device to strip away representational details to convey an object's essence. When packaging creates that kind of direct experience with a product, it can have a powerful impact on the consumer.
In 2018, Acure Organics gave its products a colorful rebrand, coding product functions by hue and splashing those colors across the top half of each box, tube, and sachet. Maker Oats, a purveyor of overnight oats, washes the side panel of each white package with a distinct color for each flavor: green for apple coconut, yellow for banana coffee, and purple for mulberry chia.
At long last, the basics are brightening up.
THE MAXIMALISM TREND
Other designers are really done with minimalism, and a number of brands are leaning in the opposite direction, incorporating as many frills, flourishes, and clashing patterns as possible to evoke a sense of personality.
John Earles, co-founder of the Houston agency, Field of Study, reflects that, since consumers have become so accustomed to minimalism, a product that diverges from that aesthetic demarcates itself as exceptional.
So, Earles’ studio brought a bit of “complexity,” in the words of Earles’ co-founder Jennifer Blanco, to the brand Apolonia Coffee. The imagery on the beans’ brown paper bag is inspired primarily by Mayan textiles and patterning of the Apolonia founder’s Guatemalan heritage; she says it balances the “modern with historical feeling.”
Then there’s Ample Hills, whose ice cream pint containers are lined with cartoon drawings of the brand’s Brooklyn home underneath a fat, red logo and a red lid to match. The combination of splash and down-home drawings conveys Ample Hills’ friendly, homespun personality, laying the groundwork for whimsical, treat-packed flavors like The Hell’s Kitchen Sink and Ooey Gooey Butter Cake.
In the world of liquors, Star Union Spirits has just rolled out two new brandy bottles by Kevin Cantrell Studio. Every available space on the bottles' white bodies is plastered with ornate gold-lettered messages about the joy of libations (“Courageous and Free,” “Til it has poured into every cup”), nestled between etched images of trains, clocks, and designs evoking industrial Americana. The bottles wear their hearts on their sleeves, and the freewheeling embrace of the product experience projects a sense of confidence that stands in delightful contrast to more muted designs.
In advertising, being remembered is paramount. And people remember those who dare to stand out.
SPEAKING OF MEMORY: THE NOSTALGIA TREND
The past few years have been full of uncertainty. In the United States, political factions have deepened under an unprecedented national leadership. Elsewhere, coups, secessions, and arms threats threaten to change the nature of daily life. And in the digital world, where people across borders spend more and more time, the public has discovered that the most ubiquitous services are gleaning users’ personal data, which many fear may be released without their consent.
In a moment when so many things feel so precarious, consumers are thirsting for a simpler time, and designers are responding with packaging that romanticizes moments in the past.
“In an age of screens, people love the analog and vintage,” says Tim Owen, head of planning at Turner Duckworth. But, he points out, what’s old can also come with a dose of new: “You can have a modern brand with contemporary relevance anchored in a vintage aesthetic.”
Accordingly, a number of newer brands are making the past a part of their DNA.
Sonoma Brothers Distilling evokes good-old-days Americana with old-fashioned typography, gilded detailing, and individually printed batch numbers on their liquor bottles. Kala Styles’ soaps use graphic designs in 1970s hues of orange, avocado, and brown on their paper soap boxes, stripping out shading and other contemporary details to instead evoke the age of shag carpets.
Of the Vietnamese brand Marou chocolates, Rice Creative partner and creative director Joshua James Breidenbach says, “The lush patterns and hand-drawn illustrations are derived from papers we see at all of the markets in Vietnam, very much still in use as ceremonial decoration and wrapping paper. The typography references older, hand-made typographic signage, still visible in the everyday in our city."
THE TACTILE DESIGN TREND
A number of brands are getting playful with tactile packaging that incorporates wonky shapes and textures.
Ample Hills' co-branded Disney pint is square. “Reminiscent of the early pints of the 20th century, invoking a sense of nostalgia,” according to their rep Tavo Dam, the square pint also enables the package to include two disposable spoons under the lid for on-the-go sharing.
In the personal care space, Kevin Murphy hair products come in a hodgepodge of geometric shapes: their signature shampoo places its cap at the bottom left of a rectangular bottle, offsetting expectations of how a bottle ought to work; a volumizing powder sits in a squat, lopsided pot that appears to have been artfully squashed so that its cap opens on a tilt; and a touchup spray comes in a long, thin cylinder.
Meanwhile Myro, a direct-to-consumer deodorant brand, places refillable sticks inside a bright, plastic holder that’s contoured with several thin vertical panels. Fenty Beauty and Fenty Galaxy also employ vertical paneling on their blocky, hexagonal lipstick tubes.
Why all the texture? In a world in which formerly physical industries are going digital (think: books, commerce, and beyond), designers are celebrating that which cannot be digitized, leaning into the tangible and the tactile.
We’re in the midst of what John Earles calls "a larger trend toward not only having people utilize products, but have experiences with those products. When all these packages have interesting textures and interesting shapes, it makes the whole experience memorable."
As today’s designers create functional packaging to appeal to contemporary consumers, they carry on the age-old art of encapsulating societal preoccupations in everyday objects. From helping products pop on-screen and in real life to finding eco-friendly storage solutions, the latest trends in packaging design reflect society’s relationship to our technology and to our moment in history.