Sourceful Blog

Packaging design: where to begin

Ali Straessle · Sep 28th, 2021 · 8 min read

Packaging design is the process of creating packaging that's both functional and appealing. It combines visual design and product design, which encompasses everything from brand visuals to packaging structure and usage.

There's a lot to consider. So putting a structure in place before you start designing packaging can help keep you focused. The process most often used for this is design thinking. Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO, defines design thinking as a human-centred approach to innovation that considers people's needs and behaviours, as well as the possibilities of technology or commerce. Each stage includes different but related activities that together form the right conditions for innovation.

Let's dive in.

Answer the why

Before you start actually designing any packaging, it's important to think about your vision. Why are you designing this packaging? What problem are you solving? Who has this problem? What do you want to achieve? You need to understand what you're trying to build and why. It might be that you want to design more secure packaging or move towards more sustainable packaging. Or it might be something else. Defining your vision will help to make the next phase easier: aligning your design with your vision.

1. Empathise

The first stage in design thinking is empathising with your customers. Gaining customer insights will allow you to better understand their motivations, needs, and values and create packaging in line with these.

Last year, Amazon introduced packaging boxes with interactive features following customer research. They discovered the majority of their customers reuse packaging or repurpose it at home. Amazon then used these insights to launch a new, more eco-friendly box packaging design as part of their "Less Packaging, More Smiles" programme. The boxes displayed information on how to recycle them and a QR code with instructions for how to make cardboard creations like a rocket or a pet fort. Amazon empathised with their customers and responded.

Learning about your customers' behaviours, emotions, actions, and values will provide you with invaluable information with which you can craft your design strategy.

2. Define

Once you've gathered customer insights, you can start to define your customer's point of view and define what problem needs to be addressed.

Foundation, one of Manchester’s largest independent coffee shops, noticed that around 1% of their customers would bring a reusable KeepCup when they ordered coffee and the rest would use takeaway cups. These were then thrown in the bin. Their response? Foundation switched their branded coffee cups to be compostable. By observing their customers' actions — and the values they represented — they were able to adapt their packaging accordingly.

This stage is key for identifying what you want your packaging to address and achieve. In other words, what function does your packaging need to fulfil, and what features will support that. If, for example, you have a heavy product, durability and strength will be essential. Or if you have a product with a high return rate, packaging that can be returned easily by customers may be important.

3. Ideate

The ideation stage is where your team can get creative. Now that you've defined the function of your packaging, you need to find solutions to achieve it. During this stage, it’s also critical to validate any design assumptions.

Remember to consider the outside and inside of your packaging design. The inside includes the packaging components that keep your product safe, such as inserts or tissue paper.

There are a lot of techniques that can help with ideation, including sketching and storyboarding. The former involves sketching out aspects of your design to see what it will look like. And storyboarding involves outlining the user experience. It helps you understand the overall journey of your packaging from when it leaves the warehouse to when it arrives at your customer's doorstep. You can also use software to create photo-realistic renderings and animations of your ideas. Programmes such as Adobe, Solidworks or Cinema4D offer free trials for those who want to experiment.

This stage is an opportunity for you to deep dive into your packaging. Do research. Understand any limits in manufacturing and find out how durable different materials are, how they interact with inks, or if they're suitable for a specific function. You will also need to think about how you want your packaging to look visually. If you have multiple packaging components, you may want to ensure they're visually aligned.

This was the case for Fenton, a B Corp luxury jewellery brand. Fenton decided to overhaul their packaging to make it both luxurious and sustainable. It took multiple iterations before a moulded pulp insert was created to bring together all the packaging components. They also tested over 40 fabrics to replace the animal leather and suede of their original ring box. The final material was vegan, and the colours and textures complemented the Fenton brand. The result was a dramatic improvement in the unboxing experience for their customers.

4. Prototype and test

The final stage of designing packaging is to prototype your packaging design ideas and test them. Here you can build a mock-up of your ideas. This could be drawn, built out of cardboard or created using tools such as Figma.

Once you've built a prototype you can test it. It's important to get your team and customers involved and to be open to different perspectives. This stage is about different users' experiences with your ideas. It allows you to gain feedback and make changes to your packaging before moving forward with a final design. Keeping your customers involved throughout the process is also a nice way of keeping them connected.

The aim of this stage is to start with a lot of ideas and then distil these into a final solution. There will always be multiple iterations of a design before it's finalised, meaning you may go back and forth between ideating and prototyping before you get to a solution. This is an investigative journey so iterations are necessary. You may find what you thought was right at the start isn't always the best solution, so it's okay if your vision changes.

Blue Moon Brewing Co., a Belgian-style white beer, tested several prototypes when they were designing packaging to celebrate their twenty-year anniversary. The first prototype had a structure that revealed the beer bottle using a folding carton. Another included a folding carton design with a sliding feature. After testing the prototypes and gathering feedback, Blue Moon created a final packaging design that blended the two.

The takeaway

Having a structure in place allows you to define both why you're designing packaging and how you're going to do it. Design thinking is one such structure. And whilst there are different stages to design thinking, you can see them as a series of helpful, creative spaces that encourage innovation, rather than defined steps you have to follow.

The result is a better understanding of your brand and your customers, better packaging designs, lower risks and costs, and more employee collaboration.