Product packaging design: everything you should know

BRIGADE BRIGADE is a brand and packaging design agency — creating award winning work for established and rising companies worldwide.

From functional to frivolous, and from innovative to classic—packaging can be the most vital part of a brand. Following is a history, overview, and journey through the packaging process.

What is Product Packaging?

Product packaging is the exterior part of any product. It is the means by which your products are contained, protected and transported. Examples of product packaging include:

  • Boxes
  • Cans
  • Bottles
  • Dispensers
  • Tubes

In fact, the vast majority of products that can be purchased come in some kind of packaging or other. From the tube that holds your toothpaste to the box that keeps your laptop safe, both functionality and design are crucial.

More than a tool

Of course, product packaging is more than just a tool for safe transportation. Packaging is a big part of what can make or break your brand.

Good product packaging design can help you tell a story about your brand. It can engage your customers on every level from the way it looks to how it feels in their hands. Good design lets customers know exactly who you are, what they can expect from your product, and where your values lie.

The packaging is often the first part of your product they see, so you know you need to make a good first impression — would you buy a $300 luxury perfume if it was packaged in a plain brown cardboard box? Probably not. You might buy a $10 perfume that was packaged that way, sure, but a premium product? Not likely.

And why might that be the case? Most likely because plain, uninteresting packaging communicates cheap and uninspired, whereas a sleek, velvet black box with gold embossed lettering, well that speaks to luxury and what you would be expecting to buy at that price point. If you want to get product packaging right; if you want to convince your target market to buy, you need to make sure that their expectations and your packaging are a match.

In this guide to product packaging, we’re going to get into the history of packaging before taking a look at what you can do to ensure your product packaging hits the right note with your intended audience.

The History of Product Packaging

The history of product packaging is a long one. I mean 300,000 years is a long time in anyone’s estimation—where did it all start? That’s the subject of much debate, but most historians agree that early hunter-gatherers probably used a rudimentary form of packaging. Back then people moved around a lot, so they had to think of something to carry their tools and transport their food with, thus the beginning if the packaging era.

What did they use back then? Probably leaves, animal skins, and hollowed out wood, nuts, and gourds — a far cry from the sophisticated product packaging design we use today. However, it did
the job well and enabled early humans to carry their loads from place to place.

It wasn’t until much later, some 3,500 years ago, that the first semblance of modern product packaging arrived on the scene, and it was the Ancient Egyptians who started it all. What was their first foray into the world of packaging design? A glass pot that could be used to transport water and other liquids. They made lots of them, making them the first civilization to industrialize product packaging.

In 200 B.C. China changed the game again by first using mulberry bark to transport food products. This eventually evolved into the advent of paper packaging — something that didn’t make its way to the West until much later on in around 1310.

Another game-changer arrived in 1810 when Nicholas Appert — the father of canning — created the first canned food packaging, spurred on by Napoleon, who was looking for an easy way to feed his troops in the French army.

Just 7 years later, the cardboard box was invented in Victorian England, followed hot on the heels by the world’s first paper bags in 1844. Just 26 years later, cartons came about accidentally when a paper bag making machine malfunctions in Brooklyn, USA.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that DuPont, acting for Birdseye, produced the first waterproof frozen food packaging, paving the way for faster, fresher, food.

Tin cans hit the scene in 1935 thanks to Krueger Beer, and a couple of decades later Coors updated the design by switching to the aluminium version we know and love today, which are lighter and less expensive.

Wondering where plastic product packaging design comes into the equation? Plastic was first used as a form of packaging in 1946. It was used as a container for “Stopette” deodorant. Polyethylene Terephthalate or PET packaging didn’t show up until 1977, but due to its recyclability and non-toxic properties, it soon became a firm favourite.

What about product packaging design?

Okay, so containers to carry things around and keep them safe have been around since, well since humans came to exist, but what about product packaging design in terms of style?

Up until the 20th Century, product packaging was purely practical and incredibly bland. In fact, manufacturers didn’t think much about it’s potential to entice customers. That all changed when companies like Pringles and Coca-Cola realized the immense marketing potential of combining practicality with beauty. That’s when we started to see more interesting shapes and an increase in the use of graphic design as part of the product packaging design process. This is a trend that has continued right into the 21st Century.

Why Focus on Product Package Design?

There’s no denying that a product that is as good looking as it is functional will attract customers far more readily than packaging that was created as an afterthought.

Good product package design will also ensure that your products reach the buyer in peak condition, which means more happy customers and fewer issues for your business.

Product Package Design: Where to Start?

We’ve established that good product package design is more likely to attract attention and ensure your customers are satisfied, but how do you begin to create packaging that really stands out? When designing product packaging, there are a myriad of elements to consider, including:

  • Stability
  • Security
  • Preservation
  • Safety
  • Information
  • Legalities
  • Sustainability
  • Branding

Combining both function and form, each of these elements is crucial to effective package design. To ensure your product package design effectively promotes and delivers your product, take a look at each element in a little more detail:

Stability

Before you do anything else, you need to work out how to transport your products safely. Choosing the right materials can go a long way to achieving this aim.

Although there are literally millions of packaging designs on the planet, there are just 5 different materials which are commonly utilized in the industry:

  • Rigid packaging
    • High-density polyethylene (HDPE)
      • E.g. hard plastics, bottle caps, pump dispensers
    • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
      •  E.g. firm plastics, soda bottles, milk cartons
  •  Paper/Paperboard/Fiberboard
  • Aluminum
  • Flexible Packaging
    •  Low-density polyethylene (LDP)
      • E.g poly bags and tubing
    •  Linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE)
      • E.g. stretchy and flexible wrap
  • Glass

Most packaging designs will use more than one form of packaging as it moves through the supply chain. For example, that can of cola may be in an aluminum can, but that can almost certainly will have made its way to the store in a paperboard tray and that paperboard tray was almost certainly contained in a corrugated cardboard box and so on—if you want your goods to be protected, many layers of packaging are often necessary if you want to avoid damage and ensure your product is saleable.

Security

Product packaging design keeps goods secure until the time of purchase. If you want to prevent loss, it is one of the key elements of your product to focus on.

While products need to be in user-friendly packaging, making them too easy to access makes them vulnerable to theft. Combining the two competing aims of ease of access and protection from loss can be a tricky dichotomy for packaging designers, but innovative package designs help to overcome these obstacles.

Often, excess packaging can be used to help keep goods secure. For example,  Inserting custom tissue paper between the first and second layers of packaging makes it harder to access the product without someone else noticing. Alternatively, PET seals and stickers make it easy to see when packaging has been opened.

Both of these are relatively cost-effective measures that can be incorporated into a wide variety of packaging designs. Despite their simplicity, they increase the security of products in fulfilment venues, in stores, and in transit.

Branding

Your business is your brand; ensure you build a strong one.

In order to succeed, your brand identity should be front and center in everything you do. From your product design to your company ethos; a strong brand is identifiable throughout. Product package design should reflect your branding at every opportunity. Whether you use a bespoke logo and typography or memorable imagery and custom color combinations, your packaging should be instantly identifiable as part of your brand and your brand alone.

The way your product packaging looks is a vital part of your branding but the way your packaging communicates with potential customers is critical too. Your brand personality should shine through via your product packaging design and reinforce existing elements of your corporate identity.

If product packaging design is the first time you’ve really thought about branding, then you’re already behind the curve. Product packaging design should be an extension of your branding, rather than the epitome of it.

Creating a brand may sound deceptively simple but it’s trickier than you think. Companies should avoid major rebrands where possible, so your brand needs to be able to evolve with your business and your audience.

Successful branding is key to a profitable business, regardless of what industry you operate in. As a result, it’s well worth seeking specialist advice to create an inimitable and effective brand identity.

Once your brand identity is well-established, you’ll have the tools you need to inform your product package design. For example, the fonts, colors, and graphics you use on your product package should reflect your branding and truly represent your story and point of differentiation.

Information

You mustn’t forget that packaging isn’t just there to look pretty and make carrying goods easier — it’s also a key piece of communication.

With the opportunity to use imagery, graphics, text and even QR codes, you can feature a wide variety of information, from allergy information to product set up instructions, even on relatively small products.

What you choose to include on your packaging is important in terms of the sales cycle. In addition to attracting potential customers, your product package design can play a critical role in informing them too. With persuasive packaging copy and design, you can effectively propel customers through the entire sales cycle, even if this is their first interaction with your brand.

Legalities

Most products are legally required to contain certain information. For example, if you’re a food company, you’ll need to ensure your product packaging design contains enough information regarding ingredients and allergens, as well as best before dates. On electrical equipment, your jurisdiction’s statutes may require you to state the voltage and appropriate usage guidelines.

Given the dangers and penalties associated with improper labeling, it’s worth seeking legal advice regarding this element of your package design. Fortunately, an established package design agency will also be able to provide you with critical information regarding the type of content that must be present on your packaging.

Remember – don’t just look at the legal requirements in your own region, country or jurisdiction. If you plan on selling your goods globally, you’ll need to ensure they meet a range of conditions.

Preservation

Extending the shelf-life of goods significantly increases their value and minimizes financial losses. Fortunately, the development of the packaging industry means products can be well-preserved for extended periods of time. While the shelf-life will depend on the nature of the goods you produce, the right product package design will make all the difference.

When considering the preservation properties of packaging design, most people focus on extending the lifespan of fresh produce. While this is certainly a major issue for food producers, there are numerous other sectors that need to consider preservation too.

Moisture is a big threat to a wide variety of products. Whether you’re selling printer paper or smartphones, preventing moisture absorption is critical to maintaining your product’s value. By incorporating preservation into your product package design, you have more control over where your products are stored prior to being sold. 

Instead of financing temperature-controlled storage areas, for example, effective product package design may enable you to use standard storage methods and reduce your costs accordingly.

For these purposes, the durable nature of PET and High-Density PolyEthylene is invaluable, particularly when it comes to storing food and other items that could spoil when exposed to air —beauty products for example. 

Similarly, aluminum and glass can be used to increase shelf-life and freshness. incorporating silica packets into your product package design helps to reduce the risk of water damage affecting goods and aids in preservation.

Safety

When you consider safety in terms of product package design, there are two main issues to be aware of. Firstly, you may need to protect workers and consumers from potentially harmful elements of your product. Secondly, you will need to ensure that the integrity of the product is maintained.

Say, for example, that you manufacture garden equipment, chances are your products are capable of causing injury if they are used incorrectly. Minimal or insubstantial packaging could increase this risk and unnecessarily increase your company’s liability. By choosing the right packaging materials and design, you can ensure that your products are safely contained until they are opened by the end-user.

Your packaging will also need to ensure that the product itself remains unused and untouched. Products that are consumed or used on the skin, for example, must be safely secured so that they cannot be tampered with. The packaging industry, in part, evolved due to high-profile incidents of product tampering, so this is a prime concern in some sectors, such as the pharmaceutical and food production industries.

Sustainability

Issues surrounding sustainability are becoming increasingly important. Due to the potential negative impact on the environment, many companies are updating their product package design and there is a ton of focus and innovation happening in this space. 

While some businesses are doing this voluntarily, others are under pressure from governments and environmental organizations. Furthermore, sustainability is becoming more relevant to consumers when they are making product choices.

That’s why it’s worth focusing on sustainability when designing product packaging. While some brands are known for their eco-friendly processes, any company can enhance their ‘green credentials’ by using environmentally friendly packaging where possible.

Unfortunately, the highly durable nature of some common packaging materials, like PETs, can pose a problem for companies. While hard plastics offer a range of packaging benefits, they are typically less eco-friendly than other options, like fiberboard. In some cases, switching to a more environmentally friendly form of packaging could reduce your products’ lifespan, which must be avoided.

The good news is more and more sustainable product packaging solutions are being made available all the time. From biodegradable packing peanuts to cornstarch packaging if you’re serious about being sustainable, there’ll be something out there for you – it’s just a matter of finding it.

Designing Your Product Packaging

You may have a clear idea of how you want your product packaging to look or you may be wondering where to start. Although many business owners and product developers take an active role in packaging design, there’s a good chance you’ll need creative support throughout the process. For companies, there are three main options when it comes to designing bespoke production packaging:

  • In-house designers
  • Crowdsourcing
  • Specialist agencies

In-house Designers

Multinational corporations typically have the budget to hire permanent, in-house designers. If companies have the financial resources and an extensive product line, hiring full-time designers can make commercial sense.

However, the vast majority of businesses don’t have the capabilities to hire an in-house design team. Most companies also don’t really need full-time product package designers. 

Following the launch of a product, updating its packaging occurs on a cyclical basis. Depending on how many products you manufacture, you may only need the services of product package designers on an ad-hoc basis.

Not only that but working solely with an in-house team could stifle creativity. By outsourcing your product packaging design needs, you’ll have the opportunity to reduce your on-going costs and access a wider range of creative input.

Crowdsourcing

The internet has revolutionized joint enterprises and crowdsourcing is now more popular than ever. Used in a variety of different ways, there are a lot of crowd-sourcing platforms aimed at product package designs. These include:

  • 99 Designs
  • Design Hill
  • DesignCrowd
  • Crowd Spring

Crowdsourcing theoretically offers a range of benefits. Many people believe crowdsourcing can reduce costs. It also presents businesses with the opportunity to engage with designers from all over the world. Such collaborations seem more likely to generate fresh new ideas for your product packaging.

However, crowdsourcing your product package design does have drawbacks too. Although many people assume that crowdsourcing is a cheaper way to access professional services, it doesn’t always work out that way. Different crowdsourcing platforms have varying setups and you could end up spending more than you think.

While most crowdsourcing sites have general terms and conditions in place, it will be up to you to agree on the terms of the contract with potential designers. Unless this is carefully considered and negotiated, you could end up paying for revisions or receiving designs that are unusa

Some businesses assume using crowdsourcing to effectively run design competitions is the most cost-effective option. Inviting designers to submit their ideas and paying for the one you like best seems like a great way to access a wide range of expert designs to choose from.

However, the vast majority of professional designers simply don’t operate on this basis. This means you’re likely to receive submissions from amateur designers or hobbyists. No matter how great their designs look, they will lack the professional edge that an established designer offers. 

Furthermore, hobbyists and amateur designers are unlikely to have access to the tools required to prepare a design for use. They probably won’t have the in-depth industry knowledge required to design effective packaging while taking other conditions, such as security and legalities, into account.

You also need to consider that effective packaging design requires knowledge of confidential business information and pre-release product data. Working with an endless number of unverified individuals via crowdsourcing puts this information at risk and could lead to unwanted data leaks — that’s the last thing you want to happen, just ask these companies!

Crowdsourcing certainly has its place and can be an effective way to connect with creative talent, but it may not be the best way for you to access the specialist skills you need. Given the importance of product package design and the impact it has on your business, this is an area that is often best served by established professionals with proven track records.

Specialist Agencies

Working with a package design agency often gives businesses the opportunity to access the ‘best of both worlds’. Outsourcing to an agency means companies can avoid hiring in-house staff, which means lower costs, while still having access to amazing product designers.

With a professional-grade team with the tools on hand, your designs can be created, revised, enhanced and prepped by a group working seamlessly with your internal team. This ensures a cohesive approach to branding, messaging and package design, which is reflected in the final design.

Professional product package designers don’t just have expert knowledge of packaging design and production, they’re experts when it comes to branding and marketing too. As packaging design is — or should be— intrinsically linked to your brand identity and marketing strategies, it is so very important that they inform the design process.

By working with a specialist package design agency, you’ll gain access to designers, strategists, marketers, fabricators, and producers that will propel your business forwards.

Better yet, work with a design firm that also does point of sale, branding and storytelling, and you’ll find that your packaging design is a springboard for a much larger impact.

Product Package Manufacturing

Once you’ve approved the final design of your product packaging, it will need to be manufactured according to your specifications. Savvy product package designers always make sure the manufacturing process actively informs their designs. Why? Because they know it plays a crucial role in the viability and effectiveness of the packaging.

Often, product package design agencies have connections throughout the wider industry. This means you’ll have access to established, reputable manufacturers, which reduces the risk of unfulfilled contracts and wasted expenditure.

Additionally, many packaging design firm work with external production partners, or clients’ have their production and procurement people in-house. So finding a packaging partner who can work well with these extended team because vital.

Various methods are used to manufacture product packaging, including:

  • Foil blocking
  • Embossing
  • Debossing
  • Lamination
  • UV coatings

Not only that but bespoke manufacturing can be used to enhance the design of your product packaging via:

  • Branded closures including zips, press studs, and magnetics
  • Luxury handles e.g. ribbon, leather, braiding, and plastic
  • Dye sublimation and printed fabrics

When designing and producing product packaging, you will also need to consider what type of printing is most suited to your needs. In some cases, this will be determined by the design, while some packaging designs can be achieved using a range of methods. These include:

  • Digital printing
  • Litho printing
  •  Dye sublimation
  • Gravure printing
  • Screen printing

In addition to standard printing methods, the design of your product packaging may require specialist printing formats too. If you’re using metal within your packaging design, for example, lasering, engraving or 3D printing might be viable fabrication options. 

With so many options to consider, this is something that typically requires expert input. As an established package design agency has existing relationships with printers and packaging manufacturers, they are often well-placed to make these negotiations on your behalf.

As well as having the in-depth knowledge and expertise required to convey your needs in the most appropriate terminology or ‘industry speak’, working with a package design agency could reduce your production costs too.

When you access package manufacturing services via an agency, they may have a long-running relationship with the printing house or manufacturer. This often means they will have access to better rates and lead times, which is good news for your business.

Choosing the Right Product Package Designer

As highlighted in this guide, your product packaging plays an integral role in the success of your products and your business as a whole. With legal, financial, practical and branding considerations to take into account, product package design encompasses a wide range of expertise and talents. 

Due to its vital importance, you’ll want to ensure you find the right product package designers for your business.  

When selecting a product package designer or agency to work with, be sure to do your homework. Before you hire a package design agency, learn everything you possibly can about their working methods and processes. This will give you a greater insight into how they operate, as well as how the progress of your designs will be conveyed to you.

The best design agencies will want to work in partnership with your business and be actively involved in helping you to succeed on your terms. This type of symbiotic relationship ensures your company’s needs remain at the forefront and prioritizes your commercial success.

At BRIGADE, we’re committed to delivering outstanding creative input at every turn. Focused on driving your business forward, our award-winning designs are created to attract, inform, and persuade your customer base. With a dedicated team of designers, strategists, and creators, we have the expertise, resources, tools, and experience to help you succeed.

Want to learn more about perfecting your packaging? Contact BRIGADE at hithere@brigadebranding.com and talk to the team today.