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Starting a Packaging Project: Tips for Non-Packaging Designers.

by Wendy Jedlicka - Jedlicka Design, Ltd.
First appeared in Reference Site - 1998

As personal computing has made design accessible to the trained and untrained alike, many manufacturers, under the assumption they're cutting costs, have taken to creating their packaging themselves. A walk through any store will tell you that just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. And really good products are going unsold because their packaging isn't doing its job. Also, just because you have a really good Graphic Designer on staff doing your catalogs, or you may be an Artist yourself, doesn't mean you're qualified to do packaging as well. Packaging design is more than decorating a box, it's a combination of psychology and physics united to sell your product.

The following series of articles will go over things like marketing goals, budgets (and how to maximize them), analyzing the competition, eco-responsibility and its consumer perception, shelf impact, creating and sustaining brand equity, graphic impression, the laws of physics, and a bunch of other useful stuff that people never think about. This isn't the whole story of course, but the Non-Packaging Designer might now better understand in general, what goes into designing an effective package and how to get the most out of their Packaging Designer and final product.

Part One
- Introduction: What IS Packaging?
- Who Does What?
- Analyzing the Competition: Pay Attention to ME!


Part Two
- The Packaging Design Budget
- Physically Getting Your Product to Market
- Eco-responsibility and Its Consumer Perception
- Shelf Impact and Facings
- Creating and Sustaining Brand Equity
- Packaging in a Nutshell

Part One

Introduction: What IS Packaging?

So you want to do a package for your product? Many businesses, big and small, go to a box manufacturer, find a ready-made box that's the right size for their product, print something on the box, dump the product in, and wait for the money to roll in. It's fast, it's cheap, and it sometimes works. "What do you mean sometimes" you ask?

Q: Let's start from the beginning: What IS packaging?

A: In the Western retail model anything that contains, sells, and informs. Architecture, magazine and book covers, websites, and the usual boxes/bottles/bags/cans/jars/etcetera, are all forms of packaging.

In most Western countries, stores are no longer clerk attended (where all the goods are behind a counter, you tell the clerk the things you want). Since around the middle of the 20th century, most stores are self-serve. This means packaging changed from simply "Protecting and Informing" to the new cornerstones "Protect, Inform, and Sell." Packages have about 1/8th of a second to attract attention to itself. As more products come to market and competition increases, the greater impact the package has to have. This doesn't mean it has to scream louder than the competition, it just has to be more effective. Las Vegas has a great example of this.

Over the years, as more casinos moved in, the light displays outside got bigger, and more complex. Soon there was so much going on you could barely discern one casino from the next. The designers of the Luxor casino realized that just being visually or audibly louder than their neighbor wouldn't make any difference. So instead they took the opposite approach. Their casino is a black glass pyramid topped by a single bright spot light. The Luxor is instantly recognizable not because of what it is, but what it's NOT. As you scan the Vegas scene, the Luxor is a hole, an absence of light and is instantly picked-out by the viewer.

I was talking to one of the architects of the Internet a few weeks ago (Mr. Internet Gopher himself). He thinks packaging will become obsolete as more products are bought online, never having to see a store shelf. What he was ignoring is that the website itself becomes the package for the product. Also, once the consumer has the product in their hands, how it's presented is part of its perceived value. If you buy a $2000 item and it comes in a brown box stuffed with nasty styrofoam peanuts, you feel kind of cheated.

For centuries, the Japanese have made a fine art of presentation and perceived value. Even humble noodles at a corner lunch shop come in a beautiful lacquered box. The consumer feels as though this shop's noodle lunch is more delicious not just because it tastes good, but the visual presentation says "These noodles are special," they deserve this $200 serving box. Once the lunch is consumed, the diner returns the lacquered box to the noodle shop. This not only reinforces return business, but eliminates the need for disposable packaging.

The shopless model of commerce and its effect on packaging also ignores the aspect of "Inform and Protect" that will still need to be addressed, even if the product is just being shipped from a warehouse. In Europe, where packaging laws are becoming stricter and stricter, products purchased online will not be able to be in a box at a warehouse and then dumped into another box to ship, as is common practice in the U.S. mail order business. Now only one box can be used to get the product from the manufacturer to the consumer in Europe. This is known as Primary Packaging as Shipper, or Palletable Primary Packaging. This type of packaging is the staple of U.S. warehouse club stores.

With the removal of the Transport (aka Secondary) Packaging, the lone protection for your product is the very one your potential customer will see on the store shelves. If it arrives at the store all battered and torn, or gets dirty and scuffed within the store's warehouse, the consumer will think the goods inside must be damaged too, and will pass it by. Here is where the laws of physics must be obeyed, and where simply dumping your product in a box and hoping for the best is really a bad idea.

For surprisingly little money, when weighed against overall returned/damaged goods savings and environmental impact, you can buy a few hours of a Package Engineer's time. By involving a Package Engineer at the beginning of the product design process (and not at the end were the packaging design phase usually ends-up), they can give you an understanding of what your product will have to endure on it's way to the consumer. With this information you can adjust the design of your product to better withstand the trip, and require less protection from the package that will deliver it.

This simple step at the start of your product design process not only saves the trees to make your paper box (in the Western World), but fuel to get your product to market, increasing your per unit profitability. It also cuts down on air pollution in the paper making and recycling process, as well as in the transport phases. Another way to lessen the impact your product's packaging has on the environment as well as increase your profits, is to make sure your package does all the things it's supposed to do, not just good enough, but really well.

Who Does What?

The packaging design industry itself over the years has been undergoing a change. As consumers become more educated about the environment, the packaging design industry has had to redefine itself. Packaging is still mistakenly considered by consumers to be the number one pollution problem (where actually industrial waste [to produce the products the consumer buys], consumer durable goods, residential yard waste, and building/construction materials, make up the greatest share of the wastestream).

Responding to pressure from consumer groups, legislation has made the life cycle of packaging more expensive, due to additional collection and reprocessing steps. Of course these costs are then passed back on to the consumer. In order to turn consumer perception around as well as make better use of the materials used in packaging, the industry is slowly recognizing that the rolls of Packaging Engineer, Graphic Designer, and Marketer can no longer be compartmentalized, which usually results in added waste.

The new profession of Packaging Designer is part industrial design, part graphic design, and part marketing related. Still, very few schools offer this combined discipline, so finding a genuine Packaging Designer is still not as easy as finding a Packaging Engineer or Product Marketer, but this is changing.

So who does what? Put quite simply the Package Engineer gets your product to market in one piece. The Product Marketer helps you understand what the consumer needs to buy that product once it gets there. The Graphic Designer makes sure the package is executed well, conforms to the Marketer's plan, and that all the information is printed on the box in a way that is understandable by the consumer.

The Packaging Designer though is a bit of all three. Able to think beyond the 2 dimensional plane, the Packaging Designer can deliver visuals more dynamically than most Graphic Designers can. Trained in Industrial Design, the Packaging Designer can integrate graphics into structural concepts within the realm of executability that the Package Engineer can refine with little extra effort. The Packaging Designer too understands the psychology of sales in terms the Marketer understands, there-by extending the creative process on that level as well.

Analyzing the Competition: Pay Attention to ME!!!!

Today's corner stones of packaging are to "Protect, Inform, and Sell" the product. If any of these points are underserved the product will fail. Many of my clients, rather than spend money on advertising will put all their resources into packaging design and distributor/in-store promotions. This is the best way of maximizing a small budget. Since the small competitor doesn't have the advantage of a big ad budget -- especially if they're a small player in a market dominated by big corporations -- a great package can get the customers attention to at least try their product. I've seen a lot of numbers thrown around, but the general theory is that about 70% of the purchase decisions are made right in the store. That means that even though the consumer came to the store for a specific thing, chances are they will walk out with something else.

There have been tons of studies done on psychographics and shelf presence. The one book I'd recommend is "Consumer Behavior in Marketing Strategies," by John A. Howard. There are also snippets of good non-technical information in the IoPP book "Fundamentals of Packaging Technology," by Walter Soroka. It's an overview of technical manufacturing stuff (good for understanding the mechanics of your packaging), for the non-designer the intro is interesting dealing with an overview of Marketing, Printing, and other points. For the product producer, it will give you a better understanding of what your packaging will need to do, and how it does it. But before you get to the nuts and bolts of having your package created, you have to nail down what exactly it is supposed to do. And to do that we start by looking at what the other guys are doing.

In spite of a lot of marketing hype, perpetuated by the Marketers themselves I suppose, analyzing the competition is not rocket science. As a potential competitor yourself, you need to understand your competitors products as well or better than you understand your own. You can start by going to different stores with a pocket camera (your cell phone is good enough), a little note pad, a watch with a second hand, and a small wad of cash. These few things are part of what the pro's use to do your competitive analysis. You won't look at the information with the same trained eye as a Marketer, that's what you're paying for, but it's good to do this leg-work yourself occasionally.

Visit as many stores as possible that you hope to sell your product at. While there, and in this order, do the following:

1) In your note pad write down the store name, and roughly how the place looks. Is it well lit or dark, trendy or discount, lots of customers or very few, what are the customers like (yuppies, slackers, parents with kids, whatever).

2) Find where your products will be. When you find the shelf, write down the very first thing you settle your eyes on. Was it like your future new product, or just in the neighborhood? Next write down the first of your product type that you noticed and what you noticed about it (Was it yellow? Was the box an odd shape?).

3) With nobody looking (that's why small camera and no flash) take a picture of the entire area (if possible floor to ceiling) that contains competitive products to yours (this is like a Plan-o-gram). If it's a small shop you'll be noticed so get permission first.

4) Linger in the isle for a while. Take note where other shoppers look first. Note down where they're looking, how long (use your watch with the second hand), and what they buy if it's in your product category.

5) Buy one of each of the competitive product. Note down if the store is offering a special discount and what the original retail price was supposed to be.

If you're going to be selling in several parts of the country, and you have friends in other states, have them do this exercise too (except for the buying product part, they can just write down the prices) and send you the photos and notes.

When you get home, line up the competitive products on a table. Write down everything you notice about them. Have a friend over, write down everything they notice about the products. If you have a few friends over to do this, this is called a Focus Group. The difference between your informal gathering and a real focus group is that usually a person's friends have similar tastes and interests as their own, you won't get the variety of answers a professionally moderated and selected group would get. It does however give you some useful insight and it's a good excuse for a party.

Once you have all your notes gathered you're ready to analyze the results. It's best to put it in a table format. Something like this:





PKG Type



Wow Factor Grade

Prod. A




Paper Box


(30% Recycled)

C, mainly it's just blue.

Prod. B




Paper Box


(50% Recycled)

A, it was the first I saw, and I really like it. The stripes caught my eye.

Prod. C




Paper Box laminated


(Recyclable, but not here)

B, I can't get it open, but I like the drawing

Retail Price (RP) - This is not the selling price but the "List Price"

Wholesale Price (WP) = RP x 50%

Cost of Goods (COG) = WP x 50% (Depending on the industry, packaging can be anywhere from 1% to 30% of this cost. In the cosmetics industry it can be as much as 80%.)

Package Type (PKG Type) = Paperboard box, Corrugated box, Plastic (make sure to note the recycled seal number. This tells you what kind of plastic it is), Glass, Aluminum, Steel, Other. Note the material and add "w/label" if it uses a label instead of direct print graphics.

Outstanding Characteristic of Package (OCP) either good or bad. (Great graphics, hard to open, etc.)

Eco-Grade - Is it recycled or recyclable, tree-free? Give them an eco-citizen grade. (This is a perception grade, so you don't have to know much about eco-friendliness. Use this guide: A= Made of 100% recycled materials, B= Made of some recycled materials, including Post Consumer Waste, C= Recyclable, but contains no recycled materials, D= Not recyclable but not excessively packaged, F= Not recyclable and excessively packaged )

Wow Factor Grade - Give the package an overall grade based on the 3 cornerstones "Protect, Inform, and Sell," other shopper info you noticed in the store, and the info you got from your informal focus group.

With your competitive information chart filled in, start to make a list of how your product will need to stack up against the competition both on price and look. Next define who your customer will be. Just saying upscale or Asian American isn't enough. Describe how your product will fit into their lives (this is called Targeting the Demographic) and why yours is better, cheaper, faster, cooler than the competition.

Once you have this information sorted out you're ready to talk to a Packaging Designer. Before you even talk about budgets these are the first questions they will need answers to. If you choose to have them lead a professionally moderated focus group to better define your direction, with this minimal information in hand you'll get the most from your experience.

Once your initial direction is defined and your market targeted, you and your Packaging Designer will be able to address the next round of questions:

- The packaging design budget,

- Physically getting your product to market,

- Eco-responsibility and its consumer perception,

- Shelf impact and facings,

- Creating and sustaining brand equity.

Part Two

- The Packaging Design Budget
- Physically Getting Your Product to Market
- Eco-responsibility and Its Consumer Perception
- Shelf Impact and Facings
- Creating and Sustaining Brand Equity
- Packaging in a Nutshell

©1998-2001 Jedlicka Design, Ltd. - All rights reserved.
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