Chapter 18: Packaging design and development – Packaging Technology


Packaging design and development

B. Stewart,     Sheffield Hallam University, UK


This chapter firstly considers the packaging design process, describing the interaction of elements and activities that make up a typical design study. It then examines each of these in greater detail, beginning with the brief and progressing through research of both technical and market issues. Description of the design phase follows, looking at stimulating creativity, generating concepts, working with both structural and graphic elements through to analysing design candidates and recommending solutions. Finally, the process is illustrated through a case study.

Key words








18.1 Introduction

The fundamental needs for packaging are echoed throughout this book but we can be sure that packaging must be effective in containing, protecting, identifying and promoting products and it should do so with the least impact on the environment and at minimum cost. Clearly, we have here a mixture of technical, environmental, financial and communication issues to resolve even at the most basic levels of packaging design. Frequently the emphasis on each of these issues varies. Few of us are likely to question the level of packaging required to ensure, for example, that hospital supplies, swabs, needles and other medical items are sterile and unambiguously identified for the benefit of the medical team using them and, ultimately, for us, the patients, wherever in the world we are being treated. Here, the emphasis is to deliver packaged products that guarantee unwavering performance at minimum cost. Considerations of environmental impact and branding, while not ignored, are of less importance. In fact, even here, good packaging design can provide benefits for medical staff by, for example, being easy to open and use under medical conditions.

By contrast, the packaging of fast moving consumer goods, particularly within self-service retail environments, is a direct consumer interaction. It demands that the function of identification be greatly augmented to include promoting the brand and, importantly, allowing the packaged product to stand out from competitors’ products. The pack in this scenario is often the only channel of communication between potential purchaser and product and, while pack cost and environmental performance are still vital components, sales performance dominates.

When we move to luxury goods, the relationship between functions becomes even more distorted. Here, in the case of packaging for fragrances, for example, the pack cost may exceed the product cost. We are buying the image, the dream, the brand and the envy of others. Packaging in this scenario becomes primarily the purveyor of status with cost and environmental considerations relegated to the background. Less dramatically perhaps, creating packaging that reinforces the emotive bond between product and user is often a key component of a brief across a range of products. Costs and environmental performance are still key issues in all design studies.

In this chapter, we shall consider how the design process works, how it incorporates these issues and the parts played by each of the component parts of the process itself. Using a case study, we shall gain a practical insight into how packaging designers tackle the task, how creativity might be stimulated and what tools they might use to help express their ideas.

18.1.1 The design process

Figure 18.1 shows the design process represented by a logical progression of events, beginning with a brief, followed by a research phase, conceptual designs, through to developing design candidates worthy of progression, testing, refinement and final recommendations. The chart also indicates how the elements of structural and graphic design fit within the process and how the requirements of consumers, technical aspects and sales are fed into the study. While all these functions need to be considered even for the most modest packaging project, it should be understood that the linear nature of such charts tends to conceal a cyclical process also taking place within the process itself where different design concepts are being originated, developed and assessed. Frequently designs will be tried, refined, tried again and so on, ultimately being progressed as potential design solutions or rejected along the way.

18.1 Packaging design process chart.

There is seldom just one solution to any design problem. It is more likely that a number of design solutions emerge, some perhaps more costly but offering consumer benefits, others perhaps providing better distribution efficiencies or improved environmental performance. In many instances, the overall design is likely to be a compromise but one that must have a strong rationale for supporting it.

Figure 18.1 purposely simplifies the design process for clarity. Most packaging design companies break down a study into a series of stages. Figure 18.1 shows a typical three-stage packaging project where stage 1 involves research and concept creation. This is usually the most important and longest stage where creativity is being challenged. At the end of this stage, it would be usual to present conceptual work to a client, together with recommendations for further development of preferred design candidates. The project then progresses to a second stage where concept development and product/pack testing and evaluations take place, ending as before with a client presentation. Finally, in stage three, with specifications, drawings and artwork completed, the project ends.

This represents a typical packaging design project but a major project can extend over many months, involving multiple suppliers within different countries using different machinery. Consumer testing, again often in different countries, can yield results requiring slight modifications or even a radical design rethink. We can now consider the component parts of the design process in greater detail.

18.1.2 The brief

The project brief is probably the most critical part of the design process. It not only begins the process but becomes a reference throughout the lifespan of the project and, ultimately, is the yardstick by which success or failure will be measured. It is not something to be read before design work begins and then discarded. It accompanies work at every stage so that the design team can question whether or not their concepts meet the brief. No matter how clever or ingenious we might consider our individual design ideas to be, if they do not meet the brief we are simply wasting time.

It is true that briefs can vary and some packaging designers might claim that they worked from a brief written on the back of a paper serviette. The majority, however, will be more familiar with receiving a verbal briefing by the client accompanied by a comprehensive written briefing document. Most of the larger corporations and major brands work in this way, where the brief is provided by marketing staff or brand managers, often to consultancies on their ‘roster’ of design companies. As might be expected, frequently briefs from these sources are comprehensive, citing brand values, amongst many other attributes, that must be incorporated into the design work. The brief might be accompanied by market research results, competitor analysis, an advertising strategy or other data that helps the design team really understand the exact task ahead.

Smaller companies may not have the resources to employ such specialists and may encourage some assistance from designers to help establish a valid brief. For designers, this too can be rewarding as packaging designs at this level may be of greater significance in shaping company strategy. The design team members have the opportunity of demonstrating their expertise in design but might also augment that by contributing their experience of market sectors, human interaction or of other areas useful to the project and the client company.

The structure and organisation of client companies clearly show wide variations. Some employ their own in-house packaging specialists and design team, where technical packaging experts, purchasing managers, graphic and structural designers respond to marketing strategies. In this scenario, familiarity with product, production, suppliers and distribution capabilities provide a clear advantage over bringing in outside designers. A disadvantage sometimes results from such familiarity however, by a reluctance to challenge established company conventions or disturb departmental budgets. Understandably, a production manager, for example, may not welcome a design proposal that requires installation of new, unfamiliar plant and machinery that uses up his entire budget. Conversely, other production managers may be delighted at the prospect and have been pro-active in pressing for it. Many companies also respond to supplier led innovations, where packaging suppliers and client company work together developing new concepts.

Clearly there are many routes to packaging design that may involve designers working alongside specialists from marketing, production, advertising, distribution, suppliers, merchandising, sales, legal and environmental/sustainability departments, and, of course, packaging technologists. In this chapter, in order to highlight the packaging design process itself, we have elected to consider design as a separate entity. So, while reference is made to design consultancies, the design process remains broadly the same for in-house design teams and other organisational arrangements.

As with client companies, the structure of design companies also varies in size, structure, speciality and track record. On one hand, there are small studios with just two or three designers; on the other, major companies with offices throughout the world. Somewhere in between lie many well-established consultancies employing 20 or 30 staff.

Whatever the nature of both client-company and designer, design projects begin with a brief. Typically, a packaging brief will contain the information summarised in Table 18.1. While the emphasis is likely to vary from project to project, all the information categories listed here should, at least, be considered on all packaging design studies.

Table 18.1

Checklist for a packaging brief

Many design consultancies view the brief as being of such significance that they take the time to review it with their team and feedback their understanding of the brief to the client. In this way both parties can be sure that all details are confirmed and no misunderstandings are likely to surface as the project progresses. This is also the point that a design consultancy will normally respond to a potential client with an indication of fee costs and timings, often broken down into stages.

18.2 Research

While the brief establishes the aims and parameters of the design project, further research is inevitably required before any design work begins. This may be, for example, to help the designer or design team fully understand a market that is unfamiliar to them or, perhaps, see for themselves what point-of-sale conditions are like. There are a number of research areas designers need to consider at the outset of a design project, some of which may be very specific to the nature of the product or area. While, for example, the packaging of medical products for hospital use may place a different emphasis on the direction of research, nevertheless, all the research shown in the following sections should at least be considered in all packaging studies. Broadly, research can be considered in two sections: marketing considerations and technical considerations.

18.2.1 Researching marketing considerations

Referring to Table 18.1, we can see that, even before any design work can begin, there is a substantial amount of background information to be gathered. Without an understanding of the market and a knowledge about the consumer/purchaser/end-user, designs would be created in a vacuum and lack any clear focus. The main areas for further investigation are outlined below.

Product positioning

Client marketing groups will often spend time explaining how they anticipate the product being positioned in the market. We can consider an example to illustrate how this can be done. A confectionery manufacturer briefing the design team explained how the product, a chocolate truffle bar, was to be positioned as an ‘indulgent treat’. They had identified the market as being almost exclusively women who wished to reward themselves with a small treat for accomplishing a task. The rationale was that, having taken the children to school, completed the ironing or taking a break in the office, a little time could be set aside for a treat and the indulgence justified in terms of calories expended finishing the task. We also see this approach in advertising, the ‘just because you’re worth it’ campaign by L’Oreal, for example or, more directly, Nestlé’s Kit Kat, ‘have a break, have a Kit Kat’. It is important for designers to investigate the purchasing motivation of the purchaser or consumer as it will have a direct outcome on the design work. In the above example, rich dark reds and golds were used to underpin the positioning of the product in the indulgence market sector.

In some instances products may be bought as ‘distress purchases’. These are items that are usually bought quickly, reacting to a domestic crisis or forgotten birthday for example. Product category identification and branding are particularly important here as purchasing decisions are being made almost instantly. A 500 ml bottle of mineral water with a distinctive shape associated with an established brand is likely to be selected as a safe bet, preferable in circumstances of limited time, to examining the alternatives before making a decision. If visual standout against competitors is critical in such circumstances, it is also important in almost every other situation. Even when purchasing behaviour is more considered and less pressured by time, rapid brand and product identification is one of the most important attributes of packaging.

Brand values

Brands are often a company’s most valuable asset, often representing, in monetary terms, many times more than the value of company land, plant and machinery combined. Company take-overs are frequently about the acquisition of brands rather than just physical company assets. A successful brand, therefore, has a monetary value based on its ability to sell products, together with an emotional appeal to its target market, carefully nurtured by marketing and advertising strategies usually over a considerable period of time (Table 18.2).

Table 18.2

Top-branded products

2009 rank Brand Country of origin
1 Coca-Cola US
3 Microsoft US
4 General Electric US
5 Nokia Finland
6 McDonalds US
7 Google US
8 Toyota Japan
9 Intel US
10 Disney US
11 Hewlett Packard US
12 Mercedes Benz Germany
13 Gillette US
14 Cisco US
15 BMW Germany
16 Louis Vutton France
17 Malboro US
18 Honda Japan
19 Samsung Korea
20 Apple US
21 H&M Sweden
22 American Express US
23 Pepsi US
24 Oracle US
25 Nescafe Switzerland
26 Nike US
27 SAP Germany
28 IKEA Sweden
29 Sony Japan
30 Budweiser US
33 Cannon Japan
34 Kelloggs US
35 Dell US
36 Citi US
37 JP Morgan US
38 Goldman Sachs US
39 Nintendo Japan
40 Thomson Reuters Canada
41 Gucci Italy
42 Phillips Netherlands
43 Amazon US
44 L’Oreal France
45 Accenture US
46 ebay US
47 Siemens Germany
48 Heinz US
49 Ford US
50 Zara Spain

Source: interbrand, Best Global Brands, 2009

If the project concerns packaging a branded product, it is vital that the values of the brand are accurately reflected, reinforced and promoted by the packaging design. To achieve this requires that the designers understand and become familiar with the brand’s values. We, as consumers, might assume that we buy a particular brand because our experience of it has been positive, for example a cleaning product that we have found to be effective in the kitchen or a savoury sauce that we really like. Both are examples of products that physically satisfy our needs. In addition to this, however, we form emotional bonds with such brands, often based on trust. Probably all baked beans are much the same but we might select Heinz, for example, because it is our ‘ old friend’, the one we trust not to let us down. The Heinz brand has changed little in over 100 years and it is of little surprise, therefore, to find that the packaging of Heinz baked beans is distinctive, standing out from the competition and making in-store selection an easy task. For many, choosing ‘our’ brand for the price of a small premium makes product selection quick, easy and risk free.

As with ‘trust’, most brand values are expressed in human terms, reflecting their emotional value. Descriptors like ‘serious’ or ‘fun’ are often used. Brand values associated with Apple, for example, or Apple’s brand personality to put it another way, could include ‘imaginative’, ‘rebellious’, ‘passionate’ and ‘different’. An iPhone or iPad becomes an object of desire rather than simply functional electronics. Apple has been successful in promoting its brand values and creating a loyal following of consumers eager to purchase and, importantly, to be seen by others, to purchase Apple products. Whatever brand the packaging designer might be working with, it is vital that brand values become intertwined with all stages of the design process.

The market

Packaging designers need to gain an insight into the market that the project is addressing in order to respond to its demands. In particular, they need to get a feel of how the market is developing, what trends are driving it, which brands are succeeding and why this is the case and which brands are losing market share. It may be important to the study if there are seasonal factors that affect the market and, if so, how these can be incorporated within the design task. Later in this chapter the case study reveals how market information drives the direction of design work.

Target audience

All packaging design work needs to provide a communication between the product, brand and the target audience. In many situations including all self-service transactions involving packaged goods, the pack plays a critical role in communication. In most situations the purchaser may also be the consumer but often, say in the case of a mother shopping for her family, the purchaser may be buying for someone else. If mum is accompanied by family members, she may be influenced in her choice by them. We must establish, not only who the principle targets are that we are designing for but begin to understand their motivations. The target audience will often have been identified by the client in the brief but now, at the start of a project, our task is to identify and understand what motivates them, identifying their wants, needs and desires. This can be done in a number of ways.

Demographic data provides statistical and numeric information about populations that can provide a useful input to a design study. It is helpful to know, for example, in a study concerning speciality teas, that the fastest growing market sector is amongst the 25–35 year olds, although the majority of tea drinkers are currently in the 55 + age group. Failure to understand such details can drive design work in the wrong direction, in this case aiming at an older market when, in fact, younger consumers are more promising targets.

Psychographic data, by contrast, is concerned with people’s beliefs, opinions and lifestyles and seeks to identify the motivations of groups of like-minded people. Often these groups are given names, reflecting their shared lifestyles. For example, we might describe ‘urban adventurers’ as city dwellers, driving black 4 × 4 s, brand aware, ‘ cool’, health club members, living in a flat within a gated development, chrome and glass décor, skiing in France, enjoying dining out or elaborate meals at home with friends, and so on. Descriptors like this are immediate and vivid, helping designers understand the target audience and providing clues about what might motivate them and drive their purchasing decisions.

Both the above types of data can be sourced from published reports and surveys. There are many lifestyle magazines that reveal, through their articles and the type of advertising they include, details about particular groups of people. Additionally, field research conducted by designers themselves can supplement this information and contribute towards creating a market profile. This might involve direct observation of a target group’s behaviour, organising focus groups to discuss lifestyle choices, brand selection and motivations for purchase or, as we will see in the case study, simply talking to friends and family if they happen to be in the target group concerned.

By following these research techniques, a consumer profile begins to emerge. It can be further developed by probing deeper into the lifestyles of the target group. We may, for example, want to question which brands they might buy, what car they might drive, where they are likely to go on holiday, their choice of music, and so on. Designers often try to encapsulate this information by creating mood boards. A mood board is simply a collection of images, tear sheets from magazines, sketches, materials, colours or any other items that represent the target market’s lifestyle. It helps encapsulate target market research into a visual reference, meaningful to designers or a design team. By considering the target audience in this level of detail, it becomes easier to design products and packaging that will appeal directly to them, creating an emotive response that is likely to encourage and maintain product and brand loyalty.

Consumer requirements and benefits

How packs perform from purchase, through storage, in-use and disposal is an important consideration for consumers and, therefore, important also for designers. Some products might benefit by allowing inspection prior to sale. Abrasive papers in the DIY market are an example here. Consumers might also expect packs to comply with any market sector protocols and be confused if they do not. A green coloured chicken stock cube breaks the ‘ yellow for chicken’ that has become an established convention.

Good packaging design can recognise consumer needs and build in consumer benefits through an understanding of these areas; for example, simplifying the opening and re-closing of containers, the ease of dispensing or pouring product and providing containers that are stable in the environment where they are used (Fig. 18.2). A shower gel that can be dispensed one-handed and does not topple over when placed on a shelf would clearly provide a consumer benefit compared to other brands that might have adopted a pack format that has not considered end use.

18.2 Using packaging to benefit the consumer. Consumers require a pack that is stable and easy to use within its environment. Here, the pack is designed to be always on display, reinforcing the brand at every use.

For some specific target groups, building in these types of features should be part of the brief. With an increasing market of people aged over 60, for example, it is becoming more important to consider issues of manual dexterity, when joints become stiff and painful and where the ability to grip is weakened. The over 60s, however, are not one coherent market. The category fragments into sectors from fit and healthy through elderly and infirm to those in care. Any packaging design that aids opening a tin, for example, must be inclusive, suitable for all ages and not stigmatise one sector. Currently, research is ongoing to make ring-pull tops easier to use. The study, taking place at Sheffield Hallam University, has identified that many people struggle to lift the ring-pull into a position where leverage can be exerted. One simple solution, amongst several being trialled, is to incorporate a recess under the ring making the operation much easier – for all, not just the elderly. Clearly, where brands and products are perceived as being designed with end-users in mind, in terms of ease of use, storage and disposal, they are likely to encourage repeat purchase and brand loyalty.

Competitor products

Products, brands and packs compete against each other on-shelf. Clearly, for designers, it is important to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of competitors, particularly within a supermarket environment, where the retailers follow their own merchandising strategy, largely outside of the control of brands. This becomes increasingly important where brands introduce product variants. Five different flavours of crisps from the same brand can begin to compete for market share with each other without actually increasing overall sales. This is referred to as cannibalism, where, for example, smokey bacon flavoured crisps might erode the sales of cheddar cheese flavoured crisps, while, overall, total crisp sales remain static. Designers should also be aware that the product or brand they are working on may compete against a different category of product adjacent to it in the aisles. Loose tea and tea bags often, in this way, compete with roast and ground coffees. Category, product and brand standout are even more important in circumstances such as that. Standout is probably the most significant challenge for packaging designers within retail markets.

18.2.2 Researching technical considerations

To ensure that all information is in place, the checklist (Table 18.1) provides a detailed list of considerations. Not all apply to every design study but, by checking them all, you may be assured that nothing has been overlooked. The sections below indicate some of the principal areas that designers have to address.

Containment, protection, preservation and compatibility

As covered in Chapter 2, the technical functions of packaging are fundamentally concerned with containing, protecting and preserving products. Containment seems obvious, but in many instances the pack design must be effective in not permitting any unwanted product loss during the total product lifecycle, including such times when the product is partially used and then stored. Packs must protect their contents against degradation or spoilage, most frequently caused by moisture, oxidation, UV light, microbiological contamination, temperature extremes and odours. Additionally, any known compatibility problems between product and packaging material should be recognised as, clearly, this will impact on the choice of packaging materials, often eliminating some at the outset. There are often shelf life requirements that will also eliminate some packaging materials from subsequent design considerations. Although, ultimately, packaging design culminates in producing packaging specifications, in the early stages of a study, a broader approach is acceptable. If, for example, we know that flexible laminate films work for similar products, we do not need to discuss detailed specifications until later in the study.

Production, distribution and point-of-sale

In the research phase, before design begins, designers should, wherever possible, gain an insight into how products are produced, packed, distributed and sold. Seeing how jam is made, for example, how jars are filled, sealed, labelled, collated and packed into secondary cartons, provides a useful backdrop to any packaging design study. Designers begin to get a feel about the nature of the product at different stages and the speed of production lines. They can see, at first hand, the importance of retaining contact points on jars, for example, helping to eliminate conceptual work on new shapes that will not provide sufficient pack stability on the lines.

Similar practical details will be revealed when warehousing, handling and transport operations are visited. For packaged products, particularly those produced in large volumes, packaging design impacts directly on the ‘bottom line’. Efficiencies gained in palletisation, warehousing, transport utilisation and weight reduction, all contribute to profitability. Packaging design proposals that challenge any of these areas have to be justified, usually through their potential to increase sales.

There are also efficiencies at point-of-sale where pack size and configuration may influence both technical and graphic design. Technically, shelf optimisation is frequently an issue. Graphically, the main sales panel of the pack should present itself to potential purchasers. It is unrealistic to think that retail staff will have time to spend rearranging packs. In addition, by seeing the point-of-sale conditions, the designers can see what actual conditions are like. Ice cream tubs, for example, might be displayed in a chest type freezer where the lid is the most important panel and where the job of product description and branding needs to be strongest.

By experiencing the above areas through visits, a valuable body of knowledge is created concerning the practical implication of design decisions. There is a danger, however, that feeding this information too early into a study might restrict creativity in the subsequent design work, stifling imagination in favour of practicality. Feed it too late, however, and time might be lost working on concepts that have no practical application. Most design teams deal with this dilemma by having a technical specialist who will allow some creative work to get underway and guide the direction it is taking. For individual designers, the task may be harder, working creatively and then analysing results. Fortunately, we are built with brains that allow us to be creative on one side and analytical on the other. Packaging design challenges both.

Environmental considerations

Although it is convenient to separate out a section on environmental considerations, in practice all design work should be underpinned by environmental considerations at all stages of the design process. We should begin by questioning whether the product needs packaging at all. In some instances, it might not. Certainly, there are instances where point-of-sale (POS) units could remove the need for retail packaging. DIY hardware, drills, sanding discs, etc., are robust enough to survive without packaging. They can be identified by POS material and protected against theft by microchip. If packaging has to be used, then it should be at minimum levels. The packaging industry has quietly but effectively worked in the background, reducing packaging levels, for example, by lightweighting containers. Even so, designers should seek to minimise the impact of packaging by removing it where possible and minimising packaging levels where necessary. By using mono-materials, or, at the very least, enabling different materials to be easily separated, recycling and composting by consumers is eased. In many instances, recycled materials can be used to create new packaging. For some products, a closed loop system of packaging might be a solution, where containers are returned to a central location for refilling.

Although designers should always strive to minimise the impact of packaging on the environment, it should be remembered that the often high value of a product is being protected by the relatively low cost of packaging. In other words, the energy invested in the product is protected by a very much lower level of energy invested in the pack. Should the product become damaged, not only is there an energy loss but additional energy wasted in obtaining a replacement. Additionally, food packaging, in particular, helps to extend product shelf life, reduce product spoilage and increase consumer choice. These are difficult factors to resolve within the complex situation of balancing feeding the world’s population while also preserving the planet.

18.3 Conceptual design

With a thorough knowledge of the product, market, consumer profile, production, distribution and point of sale conditions, design work can begin. Of course, while all the above activities have been taking place, some ideas will already have been forming. What we need now is a free ranging supply of ideas, even those that we might discard later. This stage of packaging design is the creative phase where thinking should be lateral as well as logical. It is the most critical part of any design study and often the most extensive in terms of time and cost.

18.3.1 Sources of inspiration

Many inexperienced designers put off starting design work by prolonging the research phase, collating more and more material. Now, faced with a blank pad of paper and empty screen, it can be difficult to get going. In commercial practice, designers often work in teams. This has the benefit of combining the differing skills of individuals but is also valuable in that ideas can emerge during discussion and debate within the group. It is also useful to create a stimulating environment based around the project by bringing in samples of the product, competitor products, mood boards and other materials that relate to the product or brand.

When working on the packaging design for a natural range of products, one highly acclaimed design company created a ‘ natural’ environment within the studio, including an astro-turf floor. This might be going too far but for such a brief involving natural products, why not get the design team into a field, farm or botanical garden? Another agency gave a sum of money to each member of the design team and gave them a time limit of one hour to go out and buy packaged products that they most admired. If the project involves, for example, snacking on-the-go, get the team or individual designer to watch what people actually do in stations, parks, around offices and, if possible, take photographs. The point here is that creativity is stimulated by external factors so that it is worth replacing the situation of blank paper in a sterile office by something a little livelier.

Another frequently used technique is brainstorming. Here, a group of designers is encouraged to suggest concepts, even implausible ones with all ideas being noted for subsequent discussion. It can be surprising how some, initially crazy, ideas can be modified and adapted to provide interesting design solutions. To get the best out of brainstorming, sessions should be properly structured and there are sources of information recommended at the end of this chapter.

18.3.2 Generating concepts

The process for creating conceptual designs will vary depending upon the nature of the project but where both structural and graphic design is required, where do we begin? In this section we show that while the two elements cannot be considered entirely separately, the usual progression of events looks at structural design first.

Ways of working

It is perhaps worthwhile at this point considering some of the ways that packaging designers work. Many work directly with sketches for both structural and graphic concepts, quickly generating ideas and exploring both technical and graphical features as they go (Fig. 18.3). Others, particularly on a structural project, prefer to create three-dimensional rough mock-ups, using simple materials such as paper, board, solid foam, clay, plasticene, wood or by modifying found objects. Whatever medium is used, it needs to allow concepts to be generated quickly without hindering creativity. Precision is not required, just a standard capable of communicating a concept. Computer generated work is far too slow and limiting in this initial stage.

18.3 Sketch of glass jar project showing how the structural design is complemented by working on the label design at the same time. Here cut-out parts of the label reveal the colour of the jam.

If the project is concerned with both structural and graphic design work, each structural concept needs to be accompanied by a rough indication about how the pack form could be decorated. (Decoration is the term used to include all forms of graphics and includes direct print, labels, sleeves, embossing and debossing.) In this way, we might, for example, consider the shape of a new household detergent bottle while simultaneously evaluating how it might be decorated. In practice, however, where structural design is required as part of a packaging design study, it is usual to begin by considering this first, realising that it should not prevent evaluation of the graphic potential of structural design candidates.

Structural design

Structural packaging design concerns working with shape and materials. Any one category of materials imposes design constraints through the nature of the material and its ability to be converted into packaging. It would be usual, therefore, to begin a study by considering packaging options broadly, in terms of packaging types. Could the product be packed into rigid tubes, jars, bottles, cartons, flexible tubes and pouches, thermoformed trays, tins, tubs, sleeves, etc.? Sometimes, importing a pack form from another area provides a distinctive ‘new’ design, as in the example shown in Fig. 18.4. Here a board container associated with liquids now provides a convenient and easy-to-use dispenser pack for sugar.

18.4 This French pack for sugar demonstrates how a pack from one market sector can emerge as a new and interesting design in a totally different sector. It is also very easy to use and store.

Technology is also providing new materials and creating new opportunities. Working at sub-molecular levels, nanotechnology has already provided self-cleaning surfaces, plastics with the strength of steel and transparent waterproof paper. Electronic technology has established radio frequency identification (RFID) systems that we are all familiar with, particularly in the form of security tags. They are, unsurprisingly, becoming increasingly sophisticated, smaller and capable of storing data and programmes. Already they are used on-pack to monitor transit conditions and product deterioration. When this technology is combined with miniature paper batteries and electroluminescent inks, packs can provide information, display animated graphics and interact with other devices. Microwave packs that self-set the timer, packs that send text instructions to your mobile phone or update your computer shopping list when they are empty – all are possible now. When selecting materials, designers need to be aware of these new and fast developing ranges of possibilities.

At this point, probably designers will be working with sketches as a fast and efficient way of exploring initial ideas. It is a good idea, however, to quickly move to sketching packs at their approximately correct sizes. Working at 1:1 scale often reveals practical issues that can be masked by smaller sketches. Mock-ups are a great way to bring pack concepts to life. They need not be elaborate but good enough to provide a visual reference to the pack form they represent. Here we also need to be able to understand what materials are being represented by mock-ups and sketches and how they might be decorated.

Graphic design

Conceptual graphic design work may be running in parallel with structural design or following it or, more usually, a bit of both. Until the structural design is established and the materials decided, graphic design can only remain conceptual. Nevertheless, it can suggest directions from an early stage. It might explore photography versus illustration, branding and sub-branding, colour, use of imagery, investigate typography, or consider corporate requirements.

Importantly, any graphic design must be effective on the panel most seen by consumers at point-of-sale. Deciding which panel will become the main panel is normally a first step. It is not always the largest panel. Earlier research should indicate how the product/pack will be displayed. Sometimes it might be the end panel of a carton that is seen and, if so, this is where graphic design will be most critical. Having selected the main panel, the field of vision needs to be checked. A cylindrical container offers a restricted width for graphic visibility, for example, often reducing the available area to carry branding and product descriptor. It is better to establish such restrictions early in a design study to avoid spending time developing graphics that do not work when applied to the pack.


It would be usual for the design team to hold an interim meeting at this point, putting all their individual ideas on the table and discussing the relative merits of each, relegating some design candidates while promoting others for further development. The brief is always used as a reference for judging the success of any design candidate. In some instances, designs might be found not to meet the brief but most often design concepts will meet some aspects of the brief. It becomes a question of degree. There are also the practical aspects of production and implications for transport, distribution, warehousing and point of sale to be considered, together with costs. These now also begin to become criteria for judging designs.

It is rare for one individual design to succeed at this stage. Design A might provide terrific standout but present filling problems, while design B provides efficiencies in storage and transport but lacks shelf impact and differentiation from the competition. Some design groups use assessment grids to rank design candidates; others do so more informally. Table 18.3 shows some assessment criteria that might be used to rank design candidates. All, however, must now decide which designs need further development and, almost certainly, there will be more than one.

Table 18.3

Assessment chart for design concepts

Often, too, some concepts might be identified as benefiting from cross-fertilisation, combining positive points between designs and creating hybrid design variants. In a commercial packaging design project, at this point the work conducted up until now, the first project stage, would be presented to the client. All work would be shown, recommendations made and a rationale provided for developing favoured designs.

Design development

In many packaging design studies, the development process might extend into many months. On the marketing side, there may, for example, be consumer testing to take place. Technically, there may be filling trials, transit trials and other tests that need to be conducted before any new pack form can be introduced. In order to ensure that all activities are coordinated, it is usual to produce a chart indicating activity, timing and staff resources required. Once agreed by all parties, this document schedules all further stages in the development process through to product launch, imposing deadlines for completion of all interim activities. There are many software programs that can create project charts and provide a critical path analysis, particularly useful for complex operations. Figure 18.5 provides an example of the level of information required and how the development process is structured. It allows for further concept development and refinement before scheduling a series of tasks to be completed leading up to product launch.

18.5 Simplified project plan presented as a Gantt chart. Most projects would require greater detail and show agreed start and completion dates.

As indicated in the previous section, it is frequently the case at this stage that there may be more than one design concept to be developed. In each case, concepts begin to be refined, sketches giving way to accurate drawings and provisional specifications established. Discussions with packaging suppliers are an essential part of the development process where suppliers often identify modifications to design concepts that contribute to production efficiencies. Inevitably, there will be negotiations at this point between designers, perhaps wishing to retain a feature and suppliers who see the same feature as a production restriction or cost factor. For example, incorporating a built-in handle on a blow moulded HD polyethylene container might be championed by designers who see it as a consumer benefit, but a supplier might view it as increasing the weight of the pack. This has penalties in terms of unit cost, transport costs and environmental performance. Here a central neck section and cylindrical configuration provide the best opportunity for reducing weight but might not meet marketing criteria or find favour with consumers. Such contradictory issues might require consumer tests to help resolve them.

It is likely that models now supersede mock-ups produced earlier. These will be to a much higher finish and will include both structural and graphic design elements. The example shown in Fig. 18.6 has been fabricated from vacuum formed plastic components, hand finished to create a realistic pack. Rapid prototyping techniques are also frequently used and specialist model makers often employed by design companies to create one-off models or, in some instances, a series of models for consumer testing. Many companies seek consumer approval of any new packaging design before making a final commitment to the project. Focus groups are often used where members of the public, selected to represent the target audience, are given realistic and often working models of new designs to evaluate. Depending upon the nature of the product, this may involve handling, pouring, dispensing, closing or other tasks. Feedback from consumers might result in design modifications or, more often, helping a company decide between design options. If consumer tests are required, it is important to include realistic timings in the project plan for producing models/ prototypes and to coordinate this with the market research company organising focus groups.

18.6 Highly finished model package. The concept was for a dim-sum steamer. This detailed model provides a realistic representation of how it might look. Mock-ups are not required to meet this standard of production.

This stage also sees the development of secondary packaging and the evaluation of packaging performance on line and in transit. Often undecorated containers can be used for trials, although designers should be aware that, in some instances, pack performance could be affected by print. Corrugated fibreboard, for example, can suffer some slight crushing of the flutes during printing that might adversely affect performance. Production departments will normally run trials to establish filling, labelling, coding, collation, and stability on line. Transit trials can be organised using trial packs sent on representative warehousing and distribution systems. These should be designed to replicate typical conditions of pallet use, stack heights, transport methods and handling. Alternatively, packs can be evaluated using simulated package testing carried out by specialist companies. This is often quicker than real-time tests and has the advantage of being able to incorporate climatic testing, where packs can be humidity and temperature conditioned as part of the test sequence. Vibration testing can also simulate transport methods allowing the different vibrations from road, rail or air transport to be incorporated. (Pira International, a long-established company offering specialist package testing services has more information on its website, The project plan must identify and incorporate appropriate timings for the required level of pre-production testing. Graphic development would include the extension of initial graphics from main panels onto other surfaces and incorporation of mandatory labelling requirements. The stage would see outline costs being established and would conclude with a presentation of work to the client team.

18.4 Case study: yoghurt for children

To help put the points discussed in the previous sections into context and illustrate how they operate in practice, it is useful to consider a case study. Although, in this instance, the brand is fictional, the case study is based on a real-life project. Here we only have space to show snapshots of the work at an early conceptual stage of the design process. As always, the project begins with the brief.

18.4.1 Outline brief

The company is a well-established manufacturer of dairy products and currently a brand leader in the butter market. It now wishes to establish a greater presence within the healthy food sector by increasing its portfolio of organic products. A key strategy is entry into the yoghurt market with a new range of organic yoghurts. The company has experience in this market through manufacture and supply of own label yoghurt products. This brief is particularly aimed at providing mums with a choice of healthy snacks for their children’s lunchbox. The product range, under development, will initially include apple, strawberry, peach and raspberry variants in a creamy organic yoghurt base, using real fruit. Portion size will be between 80 and 100 ml and, unusually, multipacks will contain five portions (one per day). The target audience is 25–35–year-old women with young children aged 4–9. Products will be sold within the chill cabinet yoghurt section of the major multiples. The pack design must work on two levels, appealing to caring mums and engendering brand loyalty from young boys and girls.

Brand values

The butter brand is well loved in the UK and is a tried and trusted friend in many households. It is not yet readily associated with organic products but brand values are, ‘friendly’, ‘trustworthy’, ‘adult’, ‘countrified’, ‘traditional’. For this project, however, a new sub-brand will be used, endorsed by the parent brand. (For reasons of confidentiality, the parent brand will be omitted from any design work represented in this chapter.)


Previous butter advertising featured lively animated cows with some of the fun element in the ad, rather puzzlingly for an adult product, carried over to the pack design. An advertising strategy for the yogurt includes TV and magazine coverage combined with a promotion tied to the company’s butter products.


There are many competitors including those featuring franchised characters from Disney, Bob the Builder and other children’s favourites.

18.4.2 The design study

At the outset of a packaging study, depending upon how broad the brief may be, the designer may have a palette of materials and pack forms to choose from. Of course, in many instances this will not be the case and the packaging project may be more evolutionary in nature, directing the designer to pack forms that, for example, can run down existing production lines without major modification. To help illustrate how the packaging design process works in practice, we can consider the approach to a case study where, in this instance, the design team is presented with a broad choice of pack forms and materials.

In this particular study, the advertising agency, a high profile multinational company, provided a two-person copywriter/designer team to work alongside the packaging designers and to contribute to the conceptual thinking. The client company provided a resource of technical and marketing assistance on demand and also presented a full range of competitor products to the creative design team. As the product had not yet been fully formulated, it was confirmed by the client that we could use natural yoghurt for trials. The in-house food technology department provided samples of the range being developed.


Research begins by considering the market, expanding on information supplied by the brief as described in previous sections of this chapter. The market for children’s yoghurt should be viewed within the overall UK yoghurt market as purchase is overwhelmingly carried out by adults, although children may influence the purchasing decision. Mintel International provides a readily accessible source of market data and analysis. The following information is typical of the detail provided and is extracted from the Mintel report, Yogurt – UK – May 2009 illustrated in Table 18.4. The total market for yoghurt and fromage frais has grown by 27% between 2004 and 2009 and is estimated to be valued at £1,590 million. Of this, products specifically for children represent around 18%, £275 million. In addition the report highlights some significant points, relevant to this study.

Table 18.4

Leading companies and brands in the UK yoghurt market

Source: Mintel, Yogurt – UK – May 2009. Brands and products in bold, indicate particular relevance to case study target market. Note that other products, fromage frais and fruit compots also compete in this market.

Overall, products are being positioned and repositioned in different ways to reflect market changes:

• Light/diet products are being repositioned as consumers take it for granted that all yoghurts are low fat.

• Active health products (probiotics) have encountered some consumer scepticism about unsubstantiated claims.

• Organic is less important than price and is not providing benefits to justify price differentials.

• Tubes and pouches for children’s yoghurts gained ground on the basis of being freezable and easily packed into lunchboxes.

Additionally, the design team also considered other market factors appearing in this and other market reports, surveys and publications, including those investigating:

• market value, seasonality, trends, brand shares

• brand values

• target audience profile, purchaser/consumer/end-user/decision-maker

• consumer requirements, in-use, storage, disposal, opening/closing

• competitor products.

The target audience had been clearly identified by the client company as young women aged 25–35 with young children (Fig. 18.7), so desk research was augmented by unstructured and informal interviews with parents of young children in this category. In this instance, the team used family, friends and parents at a local school.

18.7 The target audience in the case study represented by a mum and two children of school age.

Clearly, the healthy lunchbox was seen to be a key factor currently driving the market. Although Mintel reports that tubes were gaining market share, most mothers, however, were not in favour due to the mess tubes could cause on opening. They favoured conventional rigid pots where the contents can be eaten with a spoon. Any floppy pack form was less favoured, especially if it could not be resealed. Experience of children snacking in the car convinced parents that the child/tube interface was not controllable. School staff echoed this view through their experiences during school lunch breaks. Some parents, however, disagreed and were of the opinion that if packs could be resealed some children would not finish their yoghurts.

It was recognised that ‘pester power’ influenced brand choice in store. Characters featured on-pack were both a strength and a weakness as children quickly switched character allegiance with age and peer pressure. Most parents, in any case, were becoming fatigued by characters and pointed out that many girl heroes were pink and delicate whereas boy heroes were action figures. They did not want gender issues causing squabbles amongst children.

Amongst the team, there was a feeling that the new brand would be wise to feature natural values, represented in a simple way that could span a wide age group of children rather than adopt more specific and intense characters. Parents were also keen to try and restrain children from messy eating, some making comparisons with Tetrapak-type mini-drinks, where the straw often proved to be more of a device for spraying juice than for drinking it. A small sample of the competitor products are shown in Fig. 18.8, illustrating tubes and pouches, the most radical of pack forms currently in the UK market.

18.8 A selection of yoghurt for children already on the market, concentrating here on pouch and tube formats.

Design concepts

As is common practice, the design team now began by working on unit containers, considering a wide range of pack concepts. It was felt that although research was already beginning to influence some directions, the team should attempt to be open minded and receptive to all ideas and not introduce too many constraints. The concept range included pouches and tubes but also other forms of squeezable packs (Fig. 18.9). While there were advantages in the tube format, freezability, cost, novelty, and ease of collating five per pack, there were also disadvantages. Secondary packaging would have to be robust as the unit packs could not contribute to stacking strength. Also, the parental reaction indicated a resistance to purchasing this format.

18.9 Initial sketches of possible concepts in yoghurt packaging design.

As the conceptual phase continued, two major design routes were emerging. Both favoured rigid containers where yoghurt would be eaten with a spoon. Thermoformed pots were seen as more conventional but in line with brand values. In addition, the company already had experience of this format, supplying own-label yoghurts. It would also be possible to shape the ‘pots’ to allow five per outer carton or sleeve, meeting the one-per-day requirement of the brief.

The second route explored traditional paper-based ‘ pots’, associated sometimes with high quality ice creams. It was felt that this format could provide a more natural and better quality image and also differentiate the product from competitors. In many ways, this is the opposite of tubes. While it was thought that it would appeal to parents, it perhaps lacks the fun (and hazards) that children might enjoy by squeezing tubes.

In each case, the team considered secondary uses for the packs. Thermoformed packs were considered with simple insect shapes moulded into the base. The team acknowledged that seeing an outline of an insect at the base of a yogurt pot is more fun for a child than an adult but the pack could later be reused as a mould for producing clay or plaster casts. The paper pot could find secondary use as a small plant pot, using the wooden spoon as a label. The team could see how encouraging the link with a natural product and nature itself could be the basis of promotions. Free seeds, supplied through a web-based ‘children’s’ site in exchange for codes on the packs themselves, could form the basis of a marketing dialogue and user database.

Experimental graphics concentrated on natural elements but began to develop illustrations of animals to feature on-pack and in subsequent advertising (Fig. 18.10). Mock-ups were made of a range of design ideas, the paper pot mock-up carrying experimental graphics shown in Fig. 18.11. The paper pot, however distinctive, was difficult to collate efficiently into fives, a major disadvantage and one that would challenge the brief. Thermoforming, on the other hand, allowed for production efficiencies, providing web-fed forming, in-line filling, sealing and sleeving.

18.10 Some rough graphic concepts for yoghurt packaging design. It is often quicker to work with sketches but, in this case, the designer chose to work directly with Adobe Illustrator.

18.11 Mock-up of paperboard yoghurt pot. The rough graphics from the previous figure were converted to an arc shape, printed and simply applied to an ice cream carton – a quick and effective way of creating a mock-up.

Design analysis

The environmental performance of packs was important per se but, in the context of a natural organic product, of significance to an environmentally aware target group. The tubs and lids could be made from rigid paperboard; these frequently have a thin plastic coating that interferes with recycling. Newer coatings are claimed to overcome the problem being both recyclable and biodegradable. At this stage there was some doubt about coating performance in contact with acidic yoghurt and a cost implication to be investigated. As mentioned earlier, the thermoformed tray concept provided efficiencies in production and in cost. The plastics were not immediately recognised as recyclable and overall appearance more difficult to market as an organic natural product.

All work was presented to the client company and design recommendations made during a formal presentation. The rationale was explained for making decisions and a programme of further work proposed. Here, unfortunately, we are forced to leave the case study at this point to maintain client confidentiality. The case study, however, provides a flavour of how the design process works in practice and, in particular, how introducing mock-ups begins to bring the project to life. The study shows that understanding consumer groups is key to developing packaging that will meet their needs and reflect their lifestyle values and behaviour. Ultimately, the commercial reality is about designing packs that help sell products.

18.5 Conclusion

Packaging design involves creative, technical and analytical disciplines and, as we have seen, follows a process that seems linear and logical but is often cyclical and occasionally tangential. Nevertheless, the design process as outlined here has been proved to work in countless design studies and with different types of organisations.

18.6 Sources of further information and advice

18.6.1 Packaging design books

Dabner, David London, Thames and Hudson. Graphic Design School. Good coverage of the design process with a chapter on packaging design by Bill Stewart.. 2004.

Grant, John London, Texere. The New Marketing Manifesto: The 12 Rules for Building Brands in the 21st Century. 2000. [Another slant on how brands are established].

Shaugnessy, Adrian London, Laurence King. How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing your Soul. 2005. [Mainly graphic design but useful, showing how designers work.].

Stewart, Bill London, Laurence King. Packaging Design. 2007. [Complete guide to packaging design.].

18.6.2 Brainstorming and creativity

There are numerous websites covering brainstorming techniques, but the following source is recommended to help stimulate creative thinking.

Alan Fletcher, The Art of Looking Sideways, London, Phaidon, 2001. A selection of thoughts from one of the most interesting, talented and outstanding designers of modern times.

18.6.3 Useful websites – UK environmental activist – Source for European packaging legislation – European marketing reports – Useful packaging design case studies – Branding, structural and graphic packaging design at its best

18.7 References

Global Brands, Best. 2009. [accessed 12/01/2010.].

– UK – May. 2009. [Companies and Products, accessed 12/01/2010.].