When it comes to packaging design, there are almost as many theories and stratagems as there are designers. However, when BRANDPackaging approached leaders at four agencies from across the country, we found that while there might be variations in wording, but their thoughts on design topics are quite similar.

These design gurus include: Michael Duffy, group creative director at Equator Design; Terri Goldstein, CEO at The Goldstein Group; Blake Mitchell, partner at Interact; and Simon Thorneycroft, founder/CEO of Perspective: Branding.

In this article, these four leaders share their responses to questions at the core of the design process and the methods they employ to create packaging that personifies the brand and results in better sales and profits.


BRANDPackaging: generally, what would you say are the key factors in great package design?

Thorneycroft: At Perspective: Branding, we believe that the most impactful brand packaging in the world has three common attributes: It is Visible, Visceral and Memorable. Here’s what I mean by that:

  • Visible: A brand must stand out from its competitive set and have stopping power. It doesn’t matter whether it is an airline or a bag of chips; if it’s not visible, it won’t last.
  • Visceral: We have to create a positive emotional reaction; one that results in a preference. It’s the designer’s job to make people feel something. Packaging that doesn’t move us emotionally is a missed opportunity; the brand will not become an important part of someone’s life.
  • Memorable: The design must pass the memory sketch test. Imagine asking a consumer to sketch a brand design with some colored pencils. The memorable visual that the consumer recalls should drive straight to the heart of that brand’s position.

Mitchell: In the context of our focus, it’s all about creating sales-effective packaging that consumers can quickly connect with on an emotional level as well as rational for them to decipher if this brand/product is for them. 

Goldstein: Informed design, achieved via research each and every time, to remove the inherent subjectivity often found in brand packaging. Understanding who the brand target is, including their preferences, wants, needs and desires. If our client cannot afford research, or the time allocation is not there, we have some proprietary techniques that can uncover this vital direction. In addition, it is key to understand the brand owner’s aspirations and their gold standards both in category and out of category. At The Goldstein Group (TGG) we then synthesize this into the No. 1 key success factor of the process: an informed and visual, digital creative brief. We ask that this vital document be approved by all client stakeholders, before any creative begins! It is not unusual to update this multiple times to ensure all team members are heard and on the same page.

Duffy: Packaging design hinges on two things: The emotional connection to the user and the functionality of the packaging. Both of which need to work in tandem. If you have a beautiful pack that is completely non-functional, no one will buy it. Ultimately, the aim of packaging design is to sell product. Great design has the ability to stop consumers in their tracks and forge an emotional connection with them. However, more important than good design is creating a design relevant to the end user.


BRANDPackaging: how does packaging fit in to defining a brand?

Mitchell: Packaging is really only one piece of a brand, but within CPGs, packaging is everything. It can make or break your brand because it’s the main physical expression of the brand—besides the product itself—that consumers interact with. There are several ways to extend your brand experience through packaging, whether it be messaging, design nuances or its structure.

Goldstein: Often, packaging IS the brand. It sets the tone, brings the proposition alive, builds the brand recall and is the first stop of the brand experience, which drives instantaneous purchase intent.

Duffy: All brands start on shelf and work outwards, so packaging plays a huge role in brand definition. This is especially important when launching a new brand, as the consumer’s first experience of a pack on shelf may also be the first encounter with the brand. Private brands don’t have the nostalgia of big brands like Coca Cola or Oreo, so they have to rely on the representation of their product on pack. Pack design is the first impression for brands and often becomes their cornerstone, so it’s hugely important to get it right.

Thorneycroft: For most of our clients, the packaging is the No. 1 gross rating point, and so it really defines the brand. Many clients do not have the budgets any more to invest in much advertising, so the weight of the communication falls on the packaging.


BRANDPackaging: are there any steps in the design process that are commonly overlooked by both clients and/or agencies?

Goldstein: Yes! I find there are two key factors: Understanding the destination that the brand will live in which could be consumers’ bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens or out of their homes; in their gym bag, car and lunch bags. At TGG we ask; “Does the brand reinforce the reason-to-believe once it is out of the primary package? Does the brand have the proper core identifiers; colors, shapes, symbols to reinforce the brand’s purpose and strong brand recall to ensure the brand is blazed into their mind, for repurchasing purposes. To design with intellectual property protection in mind, today you can own both trade dress and trademark elements of the brand design to attach true and enduring brand value. A color in a category may become owned and protected as long as it is not a category functional color code. You can also own a shape beyond the structure - the shape of the brand architecture. This may become protected if it too, is highly distinctive.

Duffy: Everything! We work with our brands to help us look through the eyes of their customer. We listen to everything the client tells us about their customer base and harness all that knowledge to create the perfect design. We work with the client to solidify the brief whether that means challenging their perceptions of the market or helping them to gather more data to make sure we are designing for their actual customer instead of a perceived customer.

Thorneycroft: Qualitative research is always a great guide to the consumers’ temperature for the work we are doing. But we seem to do less and less of this. The only research we tend to see is at the end of a project to qualify its potential success, which in packaging is almost impossible to do. It should never be used as an absolute … but certainly provides great insight and guidance along the way.

Mitchell: We commonly see design firms forgetting about the consumer when creating packaging design. The majority of consumers show up at the shelf looking for something specific, so your packaging should reflect your value proposition, what’s in the package, flavor, variety, key purchase drivers such as gluten-free or no sugar added (dependent on the category). These small things are commonly overlooked when a design firm leads with their own design motives versus truly helping their clients be successful. 


BRANDPackaging: what information is critical for brand owners to supply when they start the launch of a new product?

Duffy: Everything! We work with our brands to help us look through the eyes of their customer. We listen to everything the client tells us about their customer base and harness all that knowledge to create the perfect design. We work with the client to solidify the brief whether that means challenging their perceptions of the market or helping them to gather more data to make sure we are designing for their actual customer instead of a perceived customer base.

Thorneycroft: Brands should provide a target – a specific/tight one. Targeting everyone is not realistic. Equity – true equity, background in the company/brand. Appetite for change – Define how the organization really views change. Otherwise you end up creating boundary pushing creative for a conservative organization. This is effort and money not well spent and often can build resentment for not ‘listening’ correctly.

Mitchell: Well for an existing brand, we always request dielines, nutritionals, ingredients, and a brand style guide to start. If we are building a brand from the ground up,  then dielines are important if the structure has been chosen. In either case, we are always seeking the “why” behind the brand—whether that be in the form of prior positioning work or extracting the founder’s or brand steward’s passion and intent.

Goldstein: We seek the gold standard they prefer, both in category and out of category to use as a preference measurement. Also, the demographics and physiographics of the brand target. It is key to not design in a vacuum, we ask to know the entire agency network; advertising agency, social media, content strategy, PR firm etc. We have a brand intake document that brings all of the brand consultants together. We find that understanding their respective needs allows TGG to build a brand while ensuring that the assigned core identifiers may be seen, felt and understood in a highly succinct manner, across all communication vehicles to reinforce brand recall.


BRANDPackaging: how important is “chemistry” in the relationship between agency and client, and how can this best be achieved?

Thorneycroft: I think it is critical. There are almost always going to be some tough decisions and conversations along the project road, and if you cannot trust each other, then mistakes can be made. We spend a lot of time with our clients and always strive to build a relationship that can work over the long haul. It’s also critical that you are able to have a chuckle along the way, and enjoy each others’ company. How do you make it work? Like any relationship, listening skills! If you truly listen to each other, then you will better be able to support one another and appreciate the other’s point of view.

Mitchell: Chemistry is key! Chemistry is where the best communication, trust and ultimately work stem from. We use the courting process as a way to understand if the potential client will be a good fit with our agency culture. If so, we set the stage with new clients at the onset of the engagement to ensure everyone’s expectations are being met throughout the relationship.

Goldstein: I call this the “IT” factor. The best brands build off of the entire team’s ideas, wishes, aspirations and energy. I always say: “Successful brands are forever about the people behind them.” When I started this group in 2005 my personal mandate was to work for clients who foster trust, open communication and team-building. Why? From this the brands soar. Brands are only successful when everyone is on the same page.

Duffy: This is probably the most important aspect of a partnership. Chemistry between client and agency ensures that there is good communication, proactivity and boundary pushing to allow creation of a perfect pack. Having a great relationship creates a space where the client and the agency can have complete transparency, allowing honesty in terms of creativity and cost.


BRANDPackaging: graphics vs. structure — which is most important in packaging design and why?

Mitchell: They’re both key. However, if you’re just starting a brand, I would recommend investing in your overall branding, which includes graphics first, as there are so many stock structures available for use today. Once you’ve validated your product,  you can then create a proprietary structure. Your overall branding is where the value originates. It’s where you make connections with consumers.

Goldstein: Structure/shape can inform regarding usage, disrupt the shelf and bring game-changing qualities. However, changes can be expensive and often requires re-tooling. Structural changes are often reserved for companies that have time and the deep-pockets. But there are many ways to add shape to a brand. Letterforms and brand-marks can build iconic recall as can brand architectures with strong shapes. TGG’s  Shelf Sight Sequence™ always speaks to the sequence of cognition: Color is first, shape is second, symbols are third and words are last in brand recall. If our clients cannot afford structural brand services and re-tooling costs, we build shapes that can cut through and serve as holding shapes for the Unique Selling Proposition’s that we build into the words.

Duffy: Both go hand in hand. A unique structure can be a great way to create shelf breakout and capture the customer’s attention by projecting a product’s innovation. However a new structure is often not an option, so the graphics will always play a role as the main leader to help an item jump off the shelf.

Thorneycroft: Both are really important, but some industries require structural creativity more than others.  I always approach the project thinking that the graphics will need to work extremely well, regardless of the structure.


BRANDPackaging: are design trends cyclical, evolutionary or revolutionary? what’s likely to be the next big “wow” in packaging design?

Duffy: I think trends can be cyclical, fashion comes back around eventually, just in different incarnations with slight twists. All fashion, whether that’s interior, clothing or packaging comes from the catwalk in the first instance. We’re careful to keep up to date with the trends and stay ahead of the curve, but we also make sure only to use them when relevant to the customer. It’s not just catwalk trends that we keep up with, but food and shopping trends as well. We are committed to applying global thinking with local insight.

Thorneycroft: Currently we are in a trend of simplicity, or rather – anyone with a computer can design it! All packaging is beginning to look the same (at least among CPGs). Simple type, clean backgrounds, average-looking photography. I think we will swing back to creating true brands that have concept at the center of them, instead of just being driven by style.