The State of Packaging in Today’s Market (Interview 1)
While working on a proposal for a package design recently, I stopped and noticed a certain routine to my work prompting me to wonder about the state of packaging in today’s market. It was seeming that prospects and clients alike were asking for guidance and recommendations on projects that disappeared as quickly as they arrived. Rough concepts were being requested in these early communications with interest in new materials, package size relations, discounts on runs and a larger numbers of samples and prototypes. It was appearing that some rumbling was going on in the industry and although change can be exciting, a sense of direction was being set without a proper compass. I started asking myself questions to help verify or clarify the changes and directions my profession was undergoing and it appeared that a better solution would be tapping others in the industry for input. Sometimes the thoughts from others helps to navigate a more successful path to fruition.
With that said, I am pleased to give the first installment of interviews I have conducted that will hopefully give a feel for the pulse of packaging today from some of the leaders in our industry. The group of individuals who agreed to partake come from all over the world with varied backgrounds and disciples. Those responding are designers, editors, technical consultants and strategists – all involved in packaging and working with some of the most popular, exciting and beautiful looking brands out in the marketplace today. My intent is also to start a dialogue with others in the industry and I look forward to your thoughts and comments.
My first interview is with designer, Matt Barnes, a Sr. Designer with RR Donnelley’s Global Packaging division. He has 10+ years in the packaging industry, with both experience in protective structural packaging and consumer retail packaging for products. Matt has worked in a wide array of packaging environments from being a structural engineer at a corrugated sheet plant to a design consultant presenting in the board rooms of Fortune 500 companies, and uses that range of experience to bring a balanced, yet concise approach when developing solutions for clients. Matt resides in Atlanta, GA with his wife, Jill, and their 3-year-old daughter, Abigail.
1. In today’s packaging, how much emphasis is placed on form and how much on graphics? Is one more dominant than the other?
I honestly see a healthy balance of both in the retail market. While packaging structures (forms) have become more complex and unique, product companies have also found their own way of influencing buyers with interesting or complex print graphics. From a graphics side, they must garner the attention from a few feet away on shelf. They don’t always have to be over-the-top flashy, but graphics must capture the customer in a quick glimpse and draw them in for a close look. There’s an abundance of high-resolution renderings or lifestyle photos, as well as more robust branding wordmarks, color schemes and copy placement. Those same graphics are being enhanced more and more via printing techniques such as soft-touch and/or spot UV coatings, as well as foils and embossing. I see packaging that includes more of a tactile engagement than ever before. And that’s where the transition into form/structure begins to make its influence. Although not as prevalent, interesting form factors do play a role in that first glimpse of interest, whether it be due purely to the use of an uncommon form or just different materials. And while packaging designers/engineers will always need to build structures to protect the product, there continues to be a growing emphasis on incorporating unique box-opening experiences. More and more companies want to build an experience into their packaging that makes their newest customer feel like they’re opening a personalized gift.
2. Has the focus on sustainability in packaging leveled off or will it continue to rise?
I feel like it has. A few years ago many product companies made that big push for using sustainable materials, no matter the cost or complexity of implementing, as that would become the differentiator for their brand. Nowadays, though, it just feels like that trend got worn out and became stale. Blame it on tighter budgets, or blame it on the overkill of the eco-friendly movement that became more about green-washing than using truly sustainable materials. I honestly think it’s a blend of both, and just see more emphasis on creating packaging that delivers on many other criteria. For instance, one recent client gave my team a list of 10 criteria to strive for when creating a new package. The top 2 were cost & functionality. At the bottom…environmental stewardship.
3. With the growing number of products entering the market, what are the expectations of companies in regards to sales performance based on package design and do you feel they are realistic?
There’s still an abundance of companies who believe the product will sell itself, regardless of how simple or complex the packaging is, and there is some truth to that. I don’t believe a package should ever oversell a product by making it out to be something it’s really not. At the end of the day, it’s the product, not the packaging that the customer will interact with. That doesn’t prevent some companies from trying to over achieve in the packaging in hopes of justifying higher margins, though. The influence of premium packaging has resulted in medium to lower tier product companies trying to emulate features or even completely mimic successful packaging. Take the Jawbone floating “jewel-case” style packaging. I’ve personally designed concepts using that form style for common products like healthcare metering devices and automotive parts. Not exactly your typical “wow” products. Does it translate into a higher sales point? I guess a better question is does that level the playing field and cause the actual Jawbone packaging to become watered down? I’d say yes. And because of that approach, I think there’s going to continue to be an “arms race” in terms of creating the next best packaging so that brands can once again stand outside the crowd.
4. Do you find budgets for package design growing or shrinking?
Mostly shrinking, though it depends on the company and the product being packaged. Some have looser budgets and some are deciding to take a leap as mentioned in the previous question, with hopes of a more costly package leading to a higher price points or margins at retail. As a designer, I also see a good amount of companies asking and sometimes demanding to maintain current costs, despite adding value into their new packaging. It’s almost as if they’re trying to stretch both the budget and the packaging manufacturer’s margins to the limits to get what they want. If not achievable, most back down, but I’ve seen others push and push right up until the end, only giving in to cheaper quality materials or printing to get as much of the original design as they can. It’s a tough battle to fight sometimes, that’s for sure, and even tougher to design around when the target seems to be continuously moving.
5. When designing a package, how connected are you to the manufacturing and fulfillment segments?
Depends on the client, the scope of work on the project and the packaging/fulfillment locations. As a designer, some projects are more of a loop in with designs get initial approval, hand off to manufacturing for refinement and move on to another project. Those tend to be less rewarding, but less stressful, of course. Other times I will lock in with a client and whether by request or by need, will then become the design lead for the project or group of projects for the client. Those usually have me involved from start to finish with initial conceptual work kicking projects off and then moving through every phase into refinement and even production. And being so involved in the design work, I’ve usually built the packaging in a way that included the process of kitting all or most of the pieces in a sequence of steps. My preference would definitely be on the long-term end-to-end involvement as I get to form relationships with both my client’s and our manufacturing teams.
6. How often have you bought a product based on the package?
Living on a budget and also having an affinity for eye-candy packaging, I’d say not that often. Doesn’t mean I haven’t stared at packaging at retail and debated on whether the product was worth buying to have the packaging, or better yet if I could actually write-off the expense if I’d actually assisted in the design of some packaging. That internal battle is brutal, and though I don’t really think about it, I’m sure those who notice me waging that battle in front of a planagram must think I’ve really lost it. Of course, I’m the same guy who must fix packaging that’s been either loosely put back together after being opened by a customer or just not placed back on the peg correctly. My excuse…I’m a packaging designer. We’re a strange breed.
7. Have you ever purposely designed a package to have a life (or use) past the product it contains?
I have actually been able to design a few, thankfully. Some I can’t mention, but there was a packaging line I developed for a series of cables while at Griffin Technology that I still love. During a brainstorming session with fellow Griffinites, our packaging team was challenged to try to incorporate post-use into our packaging if or when the opportunity presented itself. As the lone structural designer, that challenge sort of fell at my feet, naturally. And so we were given a group of audio/visual cables that would need to be package in the same PET outer boxes as we had implemented for many of the other Griffin products. We knew we had to have an internal structure (clamshell or single blister tray), and also knew the cable couldn’t necessarily be wrapped into tight coils due to the cable thicknesses. Without going into the long explanation of how I developed the solutions, I’ll just say that the results were a series of 2-piece blisters (front & back) that would snap together with the cable coiled on the outside perimeter of the blisters. I had my doubts even when I sent the files off for production, but surprisingly the functional intent remained and those ideas became reality for the Griffin cable packaging.
8. Many consumers complain about clamshell packaging due to the difficulty in opening one. Since that feature is in place to deal with theft, how would you counter or improve that part of the clamshell design?
If there’s a packaging designer that has not had to deal with this issue, you’re a lucky person. I still get asked by people when introduced as a packaging designer if I design those nasty hard-to-open clamshells, and if so, why can’t I figure out a better way to do it. I usually shake my head, deny ever designing a clamshell 3 times and walk away in shame. But honestly, this is a big challenge, and not an easy one to solve due to the security demands at retail. Thankfully, I’ve had the privilege of fighting the great clamshell problem while I was with Philips Design. I took lead in implementing what we had termed an “easy open” feature into the clamshell packaging of several of the Philips audio/visual cables & accessories a few years back. The design was simple. There were 2 punched out holes on any flat surface on the back portion of the clamshell. These were the “starter” holes that could be the entry point of scissors or other cutting devices. The customer no longer had to guess where to start cutting to open, and the area was usually much safer than along the rigid edge that most attempt. Then directly below the holes were a series of perforations that would lead to tearing that back panel of plastic off when both sets of perforations were tearing through. This would provide a more simplistic opening and, once open, a sizable gap to remove the product. Another initially unplanned feature was the ripping noise the plastic would make when the perforations were being torn. One buyer after trying out grew a big smile and then commented on how even if opened on the retail floor, the noise would hopefully cause the person to stop before fully opening as it would drive attention to the noise.
9. What package would you like to design?
Honestly, I’ve been blessed to design a wide array of packaging for a wide array of products. I love a challenge, and new products usually provide me with the opportunity to create new innovative solutions. I guess one area that I think is fascinating, but haven’t actually been involved with is high-end, short-run promotional packaging for new limited edition products. I’m a footwear lover, and if you do a search, you may see some really unique shoe packaging that’s done for athletes. There’s almost always the use of unique materials, print graphics and, of course, the ultimate box-opening experience. And I would assume there’s usually a very open budget because it’s all about incorporating that shock factor into the packaging. I guess the downside, of course, is most of these are probably hand-built and the lifespan of these holding up are probably extremely short. Still, it would be one heck of a design challenge.
10. What is your favorite package?
Hands down, that would the Amazon Kindle packaging. There a few variations due to the different models, but each version shares the common visual language of being on brand with Amazon in regards to who they are as a company and the hassle-free packaging they’ve strived to use for their customers. There aren’t flashy, “hey look at me” graphics, but there’s a classy appeal to both the graphics and form structures. The box is surprisingly structurally sound and can be considered eco-friendly with the use of recycle materials. I think they key differentiator for me and many others, though, is the incredibly refreshing box-opening experience. From the tear strip on the outside that begins the engagement to the clean reveal of the product when opening, the experience is worthy of the praise it receives. Very few product packages can claim to achieve so much. Of course, very few if any product packages also actually get to play a supporting role in the commercials like the Kindle packaging does. As a packaging designer, you’ve got to smile even just a little when you see the packaging itself getting air time. It might not be equal share, and the product will always be the hero, but it’s still a big win in my book.