Samples of packages created by Whiskey Design for the food brand Papadums.

Solving Problems with Smart Package Design

By Terri Stone

How does a Kansas City design agency get hired by an Indian food brand based in Trinidad and Tobago? For the Papadums Go-Go Gourmet project, that unlikely turn of events was simply par for the course.

Matt Wegerer is the founder of Whiskey Design. He's not afraid of risk, so when the email came asking for a food-truck design for the Caribbean start-up, he didn't blink an eye. "The client had some great recipes and he was doing some food-service stuff," Wegerer says, "and before he went all in with brick and mortar, he wanted to build a fan base and work out the kinks through a food truck. In Trinidad and Tobago, those don't really exist." And that's how the geographically unlikely relationship came to be: The client searched the internet for "cool food truck design" and stumbled on the Rocket Pizza Truck in Whiskey Design's portfolio.

Wegerer and Micah Barta, Whiskey's art director and illustrator, jumped into the Papadums challenge. Because the client didn’t have a visual identity, the duo had to build the brand from scratch. The brief for that was, um, brief. "They basically said, 'You guys just do what you do,'" Wegerer recalls. However, the lack of direction didn't indicate a lack of vision. Wegerer says, "He told us to make it scalable—that they were starting with the food truck, but we should make something that works when they have 50 stores." Eventually, the project encompassed the logo, food truck, to-go bags, food packaging for markets, and more.

A rendering of the food truck design. Wegerer and Barta made the three-foot-long "rockets" on the back out of plywood and shipped them to Trinidad and Tobago.

While a bare-bones brief may sound freeing, it has its own challenges. Because there wasn't time or budget to travel to the dual-island nation, on-site research of the target audience and competitors was impossible. The Whiskey team gathered as much information as they could from the client. "We normally like to know the target market's ages, where they work, things like that," Wegerer says. "But the client said, 'Don't worry about that. We're going to be close to the university, so we know we'll get that crowd, but if a 65-year-old banker walks in, we don't want to turn them off, either. Just make it young, fun, and vibrant.'"

There was also no time for photo shoots of the food. Think about that: You're designing a package for market shelves that must grab attention, communicate the contents, and make mouths water—all without photos of the product! To solve these issues, Whiskey turned to illustration.

In an earlier exploration, the main ingredients were all rectangular, perhaps referencing cafeteria trays. Whiskey dropped this direction when they decided the sketches didn't clearly convey Papadums' "on the go" message.

During their research, they were attracted to figural painting on old pottery from India and the Mediterranean. "The gestures were sharp and forced," Barta says, "and that's where a lot of the strict angles in our illustrations come from." They also drew inspiration from architectural columns and parchment scrolls. Says Barta, "It's not an obvious nod, but it's there."

Whiskey took its color palette cues from the client's request for a fun, vibrant feel, while being mindful that the colors would be associated with food. "That's why you don't see a lot of greens in this—it can be icky when food turns green," Wegerer notes. "Instead, you see more oranges and reds. Although there are teals and pinks, which aren't usually hungry colors. But they're not your traditional fast-food blues and reds."

Some sketches (left) and finished illustrations (right). Pretty speedy-looking chicken, right?

In his illustrations, Barta rendered food ingredients in black and white, and then layered in engines, propellers, and rockets—things on the move—in pops of color. The resulting mix feels energetic and attractive, but not cute. "If they were too cute, you wouldn't want to eat them," notes Wegerer. Barta used Adobe Illustrator CC to create the drawings.

It might seem relatively easy to draw a chicken or lamb that conveys movement, but what about a potato? When the client said he needed packaging for potato samosas, Barta was temporarily stumped. After a few attempts, he ended up putting the tuber in a wheelbarrow.

Micah Barta's early sketches are on the left; the final potato is on the right.

The food ingredient illustrations were designed to function together, forming a background on several products, and separately, indicating the contents of meal wraps and packages. That flexibility was especially useful when the Whiskey team encountered yet another hurdle: the price of doing business in Trinidad and Tobago. "When we started on the packaging, we had more custom methods in mind," Wegerer says. But once cost confined them to readily available shells, they embraced the challenge.

Whiskey selected black standard shells—a bold choice for food packaging—and kept the rest of the packaging materially simple but visually rich. "We wrapped them with paper or cardboard and sealed it with a metallic sticker," Wegerer says. "We did a little bit of die-cutting, but this isn't one of those exercises in custom whiskey bottles with embossing. This was a project where the skin had to be interesting because the carrier methods were pretty standard."

An example of how Whiskey made the prosaic look premium.

One trick of the trade Whiskey drew on was to lead the consumer's eye. "We know we have a very small window to get someone to care about what's on the shelf or sitting in front of them," says Wegerer, "so we maximize our opportunity the best we can. It's just the rules of art: Keep your eye going around and get the consumer to look where you want them to. That's why the Papadums logo is always isolated in its own color field and everything else is kind of busy. Since we only had a limited amount of real estate, we had to make a pattern that leads your eye to the right places. It really had to work, not just look fun."

Whiskey knew they wouldn't be able to oversee the production. To craft foolproof instructions for the printer, they broke out analog tools and constructed dozens of prototypes. Even one little to-go tray required eight scores plus an enclosure; without the prototypes, they couldn’t be cerrtain their digital files would work in the real world.

Examples of the documents Whiskey Design sent to the packaging printer.

The adventure that began with a food truck has now expanded into groceries and the brand's first restaurant, and more is on the horizon. However Papadums Go-Go Gourmet's packaging needs evolve, Whiskey's smart designs will be able to meet them. 

If you're interested in package-design fundamentals, check out "Essential Elements of Packaging Design."

March 8, 2019