Everything you need to know about packaging design
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Packaging design is an artform, and it’s one of the most prominent in the modern world. Every time you pass by a shop, prepare food or buy a product, you’re engaging with customized packaging that someone has carefully considered from multiple perspectives.
It’s a deceptively nuanced skill. Good package design:
- Works within an expected formula: people expect shoeboxes, toothpaste and tablets to fit within a formula, for example
- Serves a practical purpose: it must maximise space while looking good and maintaining the integrity of the product inside (whether it’s milk or M&Ms)
Package design can be implemented to scale (those aforementioned shoeboxes) or at an individual level, like a personalised gift, for instance.
Before we go into the design bit, let’s discuss packaging objectives in detail. Your carton of milk does more than hold liquid...
What is the purpose of packaging?
The accepted wisdom when it comes to packaging is that it serves seven specific functions and falls under 4 types.
The 7 Functions of Packaging
- It must attract buyers’ attention: does it make you stop and look?
- It has to protect the goods inside: nobody wants stale bread or broken machines
- Packaging should be easy to open and use
- Relevant information and description of the contents should be clearly visible
- Benefits of the product inside should be explained
- Information like warranties, warnings and consumer information should be included: age ranges for toys, for instance; poison warnings; use-by dates; or if it requires batteries, and so on
- Provide information related to value, price and the products’ use
4 Types of Packaging
Naturally, different products require different packaging. Here’s a breakdown:
1. Anti-corrosive packaging
This protects what’s inside with (for instance) extra layers of bags, bubble wrap, and even oils and paper. You might use it for metals that have to travel great distances or products crossing climate zones.
2. Plastics packaging
This is used for items that need protection from air, dust and water (among other elements), but are non-perishable. So think small components (headphones, say), toys, batteries and so on.
3. Pharma packaging
This is sometimes called “drug packaging”. It’s a sensitive, precise discipline, as it involves perishable, valuable and often delicate contents like surgical devices, dosages (liquids and solids) and sometimes even blood.
4. Flexible packaging
As you might imagine, this type of packaging is capable of changing shape without compromising the freshness of what’s inside.
The 3 Ps of Packaging
Some of these criteria were outlined above, but the “three Ps” formula is a handy way to remember the most important aspects of the trade. Packaging must:
1. Protect Every package must shield the product throughout its journey. The protection should survive the journey from its creation (whether that’s in a kitchen down the street or a factory in another continent) to its unboxing by the customer.
2. Preserve The package must maintain the product’s freshness and/or usefulness for the agreed-upon time. Naturally, this is especially important when it comes to food and medicine. But it also applies to less perishable products like clothes.
3. Promote The package should be aesthetically appealing and on-brand. It should also (as mentioned earlier) contain all relevant information.
Levels of packaging
Packaging exists in levels, from the warehouse boxes to the display units to the items sitting on store shelves (to use one example).
These levels are categorized by point of contact. In other words, the more likely a customer is to open a package themselves, the more likely it is to be “primary”. Here’s how it breaks down:
What is primary packaging?
This is sometimes known as “consumer” or “retail” packaging. It’s the package that the consumer will open themselves, whether it’s a box on a shop shelf or the last piece of plastic wrapping around a tshirt they bought online. Our own poly mailers are good examples of primary packaging by mail, working like strong, plastic envelopes and used for soft goods.
What is secondary packaging?
Secondary packaging might be a box for the box, like a 24-pack slab of beer, for instance. But it also applies to mail order packaging, like the box that your goods were shipped in. Secondary packaging also includes add-ons, like tape.
What is Tertiary Packaging?
Tertiary packaging is usually not seen by the consumer. This is the larger package for containing multiple goods, bringing them from a factory to a shop’s warehouse, for example.
Characteristics of good packaging
So what makes good packaging? All good packages have the following in common…
1. They look appealing
Not only that, but their appearance is consistent with the product. That might be quirky, dependable, chic, and so on.
2. Good packages are convenient
They’re no bigger than they need to be, they use space well, and they’re easy to carry, open and (if necessary) re-close. If it needs built-in grooves or handles for carrying, then they should be added.
3. An effective package is economically sound
Remember, if a product is successful, it will be shipped and sold in bulk. And savings grow with scale. So that first package you decide upon should be affordable.
4. Packages tell stories
At a glance, the consumer must be able to tell what a product does, why it’s worth purchasing, and any pertinent information (sell by dates, for instance). Pictures tell a story too, of course. A photo of ripe tomatoes may not be Moby Dick, but it’s important to the story of a bottle of ketchup!
5. Strong packaging is distinctive
This is a tightrope: you want your packaging to be distinct, but not so much that it sacrifices information or customer expectations.
6. They keep the product safe
Mentioned earlier, but pretty essential: the package is the final line of defence between a product and the outside world!
How packaging is different from branding and labeling
The terms packaging, branding and labeling are often interchanged, used incorrectly or even combined, so let’s clear up the distinction between them.
Packaging vs. labeling
Packing, as established, can be summarised as the container your product arrives in (be it a packet of cheese or your new smartphone). Labeling is the information on this package. This isn’t restricted to just labels or tags - in this context, “labeling” means all of the information on the package, even if it’s been printed directly onto a bottle.
Packaging vs. branding
Branding is a much broader proposition. Your company branding is the emotional connection that your customer feels. That might be sentimental, a sense of fun, luxury, value, and so on. You can portray this emotion in several ways, of course, including in how your packaging looks.
Why is packaging important?
Think of the last thing you bought that you were excited about. Even though that candy bar/phone/dress was exciting in itself, the packaging was part of the story too.
It’s not surprising (at least to us!) that unboxing videos are so popular on YouTube. As YouTube said recently: “The amount of time people have spent watching unboxing videos just on their phones is the equivalent of watching the holiday classic Love Actually more than 20 million times.” Unboxing is anticipation - a magical moment.
Packaging is called “the silent salesman”
Like the best salesmen, packaging can sell to people who don’t even know they’re being pitched to.
Traditionally, this applied to items that were seen in shop windows and aisles; but the principle works for online shopping too. If a product is tastefully and distinctively packaged, it’s exciting to receive in the mail. And, naturally, this can drive repeat business.
You may not be thinking about packaging aesthetics so closely, but there’s a good chance your competitors are.
How packaging adds monetary value to the product
At this stage you probably appreciate that a package is more than just a functional container. But how can it add monetary value?
Pricing is based on perception (among other things), and a package helps communicate its contents’ worth. Books are judged by their covers, coffee cups change with the seasons, and packaging often represents the products’ design philosophy (Apple is a classic example, with sleek, minimalist boxes for their similarly intuitive products).
How packaging attracts customers with shorthand
There’s a language to packaging that we all speak fluently, even if we don’t do it consciously. And good packaging designers speak this language to communicate with customers.
We know which colors represent which kinds of products; children’s cereals have bright primary colors; foods marketed as organic tend to have autumnal hues like brown and orange; washing detergents veer towards green and blue (colors synonymous with water).
Tech products tend to have black, white and shades of metallic blues and grays.
A logo speaks a thousand words, to the extent that many brands simply forgo text in favour of an image; the Nike swoosh, the Adidas leaf or the eponymous fruit of Apple.
These logo recognitions didn’t happen overnight, of course, but they are examples of an effective anchor symbol that can become an asset for a product. And the packaging then serves as countless mini billboards.
A more recent evolution is in the actual shape and size of the package becoming synonymous with a brand. The Red Bull can is a good example, but you can see it everywhere you look, especially in high-end fragrances; the Gautier perfume bottles shaped like the brand’s sailor mascot, for instance.
Communicating with materials
It’s possible to convey a message with the strength and materials of a package: strong, impervious boxes suggest a valuable, special product inside; recycled packages send a different message, conveying a conscientious company.
How do I design my product packaging?
So, where to start on this product packaging journey?
1. Start with your own logo and coloring
If your logo is, say, pink on a gray background, that’s a perfect place to start, colour-wise.
2. Browse for inspiration
As you might expect, good ideas are everywhere, including on our own site. We’re especially proud of our work with etsy products. Our guide to etsy brand packaging covers everything from materials, to strings to tape and beyond.
3. Go to your local store!
Bring a notepad and go to your favourite stores to see how products you like are packaged. Take pictures, and note specifically what you like about their shape, design, size, colours, messaging and materials.
How can you make your packaging environmentally friendly?
This is of increasing concern both to consumers and businesses. Here are the key steps:
You can use materials that are biodegradable, so can be safely put in with compost waste, replenishing the earth. Naturally, this means no plastics!
Going further, you can wrap your products in entirely recycled materials. Paper is the best-known recycled material, but reclaimed plastic is growing in use and popularity too.
Another option growing in popularity, packing your product in easily recyclable material can make a difference.
This is growing in importance: many consumers simply don’t know what can and cannot be recycled, so clear instructions on the packaging for each of its materials is a good idea.
How can you make your packaging design stand out?
It can be tricky to create unique packaging, inventing packaging in a crowded market, but it’s entirely doable if you have an open mind and a little imagination. And there are resources out there to help make your package design stand out. For instance:
1. Use packaging inserts
Inserts are a lovely idea - a little extra in the package to make it memorable. This can be a card, a note or something else. For more, read our guide on package inserts.
2. Consider custom packaging tapes
Fun fact: you can customise packing tape, to add personality and branding to an otherwise bland, functional item. We have a guide to branded vs regular tape, plus some creative ideas for custom tape.
3. Use printed packaging
A stamped print on a package has an endearing, retro feel, and can be unique to your company. It’s just one of our tips in our guide to making packages stand out.
Sticker Mule - the whole package
Sticker Mule are industry-leaders when it comes to custom-stickers, packaging and just about anything you put in a container. Check out our range of custom stickers or hit us up for some custom samples.