6 rules for packaging design that will shine on the shelf

Peter Vukovic

According to FMI (Food Marketing Institute), the average supermarket in the USA holds around 40,000 different items. This nearly $600 billion industry relies heavily on consumers, distributors, manufacturers and… graphic designers.

Product packaging, as a graphic design discipline, is an industry itself. Multinational design agencies like Landor, CBA’a and Coley Porter Bell employ hundreds of designers who focus almost entirely on creating strong brands through packaging design and branding.

Here at 99designs, product packaging is a growing category waiting for great designers to enter and build their portfolio. But this demanding design area requires more than a good eye, so let’s see what makes and breaks good packaging design.

1. Clarity and simplicity

Next time you go to a supermarket, pick a random shelf and browse through some products. Glance at each and ask yourself two very simple questions:

  1. What’s this product for?
  2. What’s the brand behind it?

A great example of simple, clear yet highly distinctive packaging design.

You will be amazed how hard it is to find answers to some of these essential questions in less than 4 seconds, which is the maximum time average consumer will dedicate to any particular product on the shelf.

You’ll find products listing dozen of benefits with no clear brand name. You’ll find products that look great on the outside yet fail to explain what’s in the box. You might even find cleaning products in packaging more appropriate for kids juices.

This is a BAD example! This cleaning-product looks dangerously tasty, don’t you think? This packaging design might confuse consumers and fail to deliver on clarity.

Although some product categories allow for a bit of mystery (think perfumes and luxuries), failing to identify the product in terms of content, usage or brand identity is a horrible practice which usually results in a packaging design which doesn’t perform well in stores.

So remember rule number one: be clear about the product, be clear about the brand.

2. Honesty

Beginners in packaging design, and I’m talking both clients and designers, often strive to depict the product in the most perfect way imaginable. They will show a cookie drenched in chocolate, when in fact you’re buying a simple chocolate flavored biscuit. They’ll show rich, fresh cherries on fruit yogurt with little fruit content.

By depicting a product ten times better than it actually is, you’re misleading and ultimately disappointing the consumer, which only leads to poor sales performance and very bad brand image.

This product might taste good, but the packaging is clearly misleading. More packaging v.s. real food comparisons on this site.

This is where honesty comes in. Consumers have nothing against simple, inexpensive products, as long as they know what they’re buying! Of course they expect “face lifting” to some degree but not to a point where product appears to be something entirely different.

As a designer, your task is to represent the product in the best way possible but keep in mind that consumers – you included – deserve to be treated right.

3. Authenticity

Originality, character and memorability are at the heart of great brands and of course, great packaging designs.

It’s easy to understand why – there are hundreds of products out there, all competing for consumers’ attention. The only way to set your brand apart is to be different, to be authentic.

Because this is truly a matter of creativity and exploration, it’s impossible to give advice on how to “be authentic,”especially nowadays when people are faced with myriad of brands, looks and appeals.

This packaging design from Colin Porter Bell is a great example of authentic and memorable packaging design.

If you’re stuck with a generic looking packaging design then apply an uncommon design style with strong “visual standards.”

For example, if everybody is going for product photography, use illustration or type-based design. If everybody is using a horizontal layout, reach for vertical. If most designs are rather contemporary, try introducing something retro with focus on quality appeal.

Be bold, be different and look into other product categories for unexpected sources of inspiration – spirit label designs can be a great way to brainstorm ideas for that new chocolate packaging project.

4. Shelf impact

From a shopper’s point of view, a product is never seen alone and never in great detail. Because of the viewing distance from shelves and the fact that products are arranged in rows and columns, all we see are veritable patterns made of various products. It’s not until a certain pattern attracts our attention that we decide to take a closer look.

This distinctiveness and appeal of the product when placed on an actual shelf is something retailers call “shelf impact,” and it makes a huge difference in product sales.

This is what you actually see in a supermarket. Which product caught your attention first?

Shelf impact is something you need to test and explore in your designs. You can do this by imitating the placement of your design on an actual shelf and surround it by other products (for best results, use several rows and columns of each product). The more distinctive it looks, the better it sells.

Note: you will be amazed at the results – sometimes the best looking design will simply blend in and become invisible, while more simple designs “pop” in this environment.

5. Extensibility

A product packaging design concept should allow for an easy introduction of a new line extension (product variation) or a sub-brand.

For example, imagine you’re creating a packaging for new brand of apple juice. You and your client opt for a certain design featuring apples which looks really great. However, a few months later, the client decides to launch a cherry flavor under the same brand name.

Good packaging design allows for easy variations without loosing visual appeal.

To your dismay, you understand that the initial design concept you created heavily relies on apples to work and that cherries will not look nearly as good. Plus, cherries have some benefits to be communicated on the front panel, which works against your idea. You have a problem with extensibility.

To avoid this, you should always design product packaging with the future in mind. This means creating a visually systematic design which allows for easy changes of product visual or other information, so you get a fine looking family of products in the end.

6. Practicality

Practicality deals with the actual shape, size and functionality of the product container, not just the label or wrap. The more practical the product, the more sales it gets – when Heinz turned the ketchup bottle upside down, sales skyrocketed.

Turning things on their head helped Heinz sell more ketchup when ketchup industry was in growth crisis.

Practicality is the most overlooked aspect of packaging design, simply because clients often pick the “tried and true” route which is a lost opportunity for innovation.

But if you get lucky and do get a chance to design the next bottle, box or a cup, always think practicality first – or in most cases, how you can make the product easier to use, carry or store.

Practicality alone can solve many of the packaging design challenges.

To wrap up

Packaging design is a large and demanding design field always looking for designers who can deliver both product originality and sales performance. Packaging is the last message a consumer sees and a last chance to convince him to buy the product. Clarity, honesty, authenticity and other rules described above play an important rule in this process but are by no means the final word on the subject.

If you’re just starting out, I definitely recommend to follow the work of great packaging design agencies, blogs like Dieline, and build your portfolio through packaging contests on 99designs.

Love packaging design and have tips to share? Let’s discuss in comments.

The author

Peter Vukovic
Peter Vukovic

Peter Vukovic is a seasoned designer & creative director with 10 years of experience in worldwide advertising agency. He is a proud member of the 99designs community. You can view his 99designs profile here.

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