Adobe, the design software giant, recently conducted research to understand packaging from the designer’s perspective. Turns out, designers care about two things: 1) a focus on 3D design and 2) how quickly a job can be completed so that more content can be created.

There are many tasks a packaging designer will need to consider during the creative process, such as: How will the packaging fold? How does my design wrap around the pack? But if you have tools to remove the grunt work, you have more freedom to explore new approaches and be as creative as possible. 3D tools have progressed so far that designers no longer need to understand the science behind the system. These tasks can be automated, making packaging artwork technically correct, so the design isn’t compromised during production.

With 3D influencing many aspects of branding, packaging and experiential design—from virtual reality to highly visualized CGI renders—there has never been a better time to jump in, says production specialist and 3D designer Mark O’Donnell, who spent 12 years working with global brand design agency Elmwood, leading the company’s creative services division. “Whenever you see something in 3D, it becomes a tangible object. It removes any interpretation from the flat 2D concept,” observes O’Donnell. “Three dimensional views instantly show the true essence of your design. You understand what it is and how your branding or design is aligned with its packaging form.


Benefits of 3D Software

3D software can revolutionize the way brands handle packaging and point of sale development. It can shorten the design approval cycle and save on mock-up and studio photography costs. Brands can also increase the success rate of product launches by seeing upfront how they will look in the store. With collaborative software or a simple viewer application, brands can look at mock-ups on any mobile device and view and approve a design from anywhere, at anytime.

The 3D applications can work for virtually any type of project. With 3D options now available within traditionally 2D design software, you can fold up cartons into a 3D shape, create round objects with one or more labels, automatically warp designs for conical labels, even work on flexible packaging—all while automatically aligning your design layouts on screen.

“Using 3D tools, your designs instantly become more considered,” explains O’Donnell. “For example, when you create a 3D prototype early on, you give yourself more time to refine and craft your designs throughout the remainder of the project. You also bring others onboard much earlier to review the design direction, so the brand’s decision making becomes a lot easier.”

With speed comes the ability to explore design options and iterations. With a quick click, the substrate or print finishes can be changed. The entire application can be shown on the fly from a laptop during a presentation. O’Donnell once took Esko Studio and Visualizer to a client design meeting. “We rotated around the packaging concepts on screen,” recalls O’Donnell. “The client was blown away by the detail and consideration at such an early stage and signed off right there, with only minor copy changes as we moved to production. It gave them an easy way to visualize a real product, without taking that huge step from two-dimensional flat concepts.”


An Undistorted Look at Sleeves

In the past, some designers have been careful to show concepts that are easier to produce by suppressing some creativity. For example, there’s shrink sleeve packaging. As the film shrinks, artwork needs to be repositioned and there must be compensation for distortion.

“My shrink sleeve tool paid for itself during the first project, working with an irregularly shaped packaging structure. Designers typically work with the film manufacturer and printer, who produce a grid pattern on which you create your design. After running the job through a shrink sleeve tunnel, you’d have to measure the distortion for each graphic piece,” remembers O’Donnell. “The 3D shrink sleeve tool was easy to use and understand. We positioned our graphics around the pack, and the application did the work for us, allowing us to review and manage any pre-distortion. Avoiding mock-ups saved a lot of time, and real-time graphic decisions were made easily.”


Reality Sets In

Designing in 3D has advanced recently with real-time, high-resolution rendering applications such as Luxion’s KeyShot. Integrating the software with 3D design applications improves the appearance of physical goods such as plastics, liquids, metals and glass for realistic pack shots.

“For years I struggled to get nice glass reflections because you would need to understand spectral values. Now, there are simplified workflows that can achieve high-quality photographic results in minutes,” says O’Donnell. “Realistic pack shots can be created even before packaging is produced, eliminating the need for expensive photo shoots of the final printed package, while also creating assets that can be repurposed for future updates.”


Off the Shelf

In-store visualization lets designers view and interact with packaging in a virtual retail environment. They can see the product on the shelf next to competitors, presenting a complete launch including packaging and displays. It helps test the visual impact of the latest design.

Clients feel like they’re walking through an actual store and can see shadowing on the shelf, see random positioning of the product and see how print effects will be visualized on various materials. Designers even have the freedom to build their own virtual stores by picking the flooring, ceiling, aisles and shelf layouts. They can even put on goggles to experience the store virtually. 

With 3D visualization tools, O’Donnell has been able to advance not only the quality of his creative work and increase speed to market, but he has also developed his own knowledge of 3D.

“3D has played a large part in my process for delivering key assets or making decisions throughout the design lifecycle—from conception to manufacturing, producing final CGI renders that are utilized in marketing campaigns,” says O’Donnell. “Brand packaging designers who bring 3D into their workflow will unleash their creativity and never look back.”