The Full Guide to Product Packaging Design

Written by Mariana Magalhães
20 February 19 | read

The Full Guide to Product Packaging Design

We work with a lot of small businesses who sell a product requiring some form of packaging design. If you are completing package design for the first time, we empathise. Like doing anything in business for the first time, there’s a lot of questions about the process.

That’s why we put together this handy guide. We explain the entire process of package design, from the initial brainstorm to the design through to the final product so you can familiarise yourself with what to expect when working with a packaging designer.

As you’ll learn along the way, there are many stakeholders that work together to produce the final product. The three key personnel include;

  • Packaging Engineers (important if you are creating bespoke packaging. For example, if the container that your product is in is not a standard shape.)
  • Manufacturers (the people responsible for producing your packages)
  • Designers (the people responsible for designing the artwork on your packaging)

Just to clarify, we will be discussing the design process a typical client would go through rather than the engineering of the packaging itself.

Continue reading to learn about the how to design product packaging with and without a template, how to design a label for your package and what kind of visual aspects you can add to your project to make it stand out on your social media, in your investor meetings and most importantly, on the shelves!

We’ll go through:

Let’s start sprucing up your product and jump right in.

Before Designing Your Packaging

Packaging design isn’t a purely aesthetic exercise.

There are many elements that go unnoticed that were feats of product engineering of their time. Even now digital technologies and the rise of biomass materials are affecting the way we manufacture and store our food. Many packaging designs—especially where food is concerned—is strictly safety first and then visual design second.

These are some tips of what to think about before beginning the design process.

Packaging Design Should Be Intuitive

Think about the famous IKEA package.

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind? For me, it is how easy it is to carry and transport because it’s most often a square/oblong and not shaped like the furniture contained within it. This is on purpose! It makes it easy to transport, stack and store.

These three principles—transport, stack and store—can be seen as the pillars of any successful packaging design.

That’s what true design is: it’s practical, intuitive and easy to use. Think not only about how your customers will use your products in their home but also, more shelf space = more money. The less room you take up per item, the cheaper and more practical your product will be to transport, stack and store.

Packaging Is for Protection

Before you start designing the packaging for your product it’s important you define what the package is going to fit and how is it going to fit. It’s important to realise, one of the package’s main function is protection of the product. Unnecessary packaging will have an effect on the environment. Now more than ever environmental concerns are in the spotlight with media so be sure to do your research into the most sustainable options.

For example:

Most traditional French perfumes come in non-glass bottles. When I had the privilege to attend a class at a Parisienne perfumery, I asked the expert why their perfumes were not placed in glass bottles.

I was told the glass bottle tends to erode the good qualities of the perfume. Meaning that just by putting it in a glass bottle, you’re not smelling the perfume as it was intended because some of the notes get lost in the glass packaging. Additionally, glass bottles are extremely sensitive to the sun; if you have your perfumes by the window seal or if it so happens your perfumes are located in a sunny place, they are more likely to evaporate and lose their concentrated smell.

With that being said, most of the leading beauty companies still sell glass perfume bottles. With glass bottles, they’re able to be more creative with the packaging and sell more. Often the glass bottle can be covered by some sort of metallic foiling in order to reduce the effects of smell erosion (e.g. J’Adore by Dior or Gucci Guilty), however, they’re still placed in a glass bottle.

This means many fail to protect the original product; they produce aesthetically pleasing bottles while sacrificing the quality of the product itself.

glass perfume bottle

Packaging Is for Information

As with any design, knowing what information and copy needs to be included in the artwork dictates the final design.

Is it a food product? You’ll most likely have nutritional and ingredient requirements. Is it skin care? Again, you may have ingredient requirements and allergy legislation to comply with. Do you need to include weights and expiration dates?

Here are some sources that can help guide you through food labelling legislation.

There are different requirements for each industry and you may have company requirements for what information you want to be included in the product packaging. Decide this from the get-go because this can drastically affect the design layout.

Tip: Any good packaging designer will require these elements to be laid out before they start on the artwork. This is for the best and saves you revisiting the design when you realise you haven’t left room for the barcodes or legislation!

Barcodes

Speaking of barcodes, before you come to a designer for the artwork, you’ll need to register your products and get the barcodes for them. You can register them here: GS1 UK.

GS1 is a global register that provides you with a unique barcode for your product.

While the barcodes aren’t free, GS1 work on a turnover based payment model, meaning the smaller your company, the less you’ll pay for your barcodes!

Are Barcodes Mandatory?

While barcodes aren’t mandatory if you’re thinking of reaching out in a retail market, most retailers will require barcodes as standard. In this case, you should register your product with GS1.

With barcodes there is the added benefit of efficiently keeping track of the inventory and diminishing the possibility of human error.

Bespoke Vs. Off-the-Shelf Packaging

There are two very distinctive methodologies when it comes to creating packaging design: bespoke and off-the-shelf.

While people tend to gravitate toward bespoke package, more often than not, you’ll more likely require an off-the-shelf packaging product known as a “folded carton”.

What’s the difference between bespoke and off the shelf? I’m glad you ask. Many folded cartons are mass produced with no branding on them, these are precut and sent to the printer of your choice.

Bespoke packaging is packaging that has a personalised and original design done specifically for the product.

types of package design

Bespoke box design retrieved from Sierra Nevada (left): the package is purposely designed to fit the company’s food without disruption when delivered. The box includes space for different types of sauces, this is the perfect example of bespoke packaging that is fit for purpose.

An off-the-shelf box design (right): the box is a standard, straightforward rectangle-shaped box.

Which one to pick?

Choosing between a bespoke and off-the-shelf packaging is merely an option.

Bespoke isn’t better than off the shelf. In fact, most of the luxury brands tend to keep packaging very simple with a straightforward design to appeal to a wider audience. By choosing folded carton boxes, you will also benefit from a lower cost.

Figure Dimensions & Print Layout

Once you’ve picked out which kind of design package you prefer it’s time to research places to print your final product.

Why is this stage important to do now?

Because you’ll need to ask for the template so the designer can map the artwork to the right dimensions.

A printing company, before agreeing to print and produce your product’s packaging, needs to provide you with a cutter guide of the packaging. This document is often referred to as a net or a cutter guide.

illustration of a flat open map net/template traced in black
This is what a net template looks like

A flat dimensional shape that contains information on how to put together the packaging, a net will have instructions on where to fold, cut and where to print. This document will need to be sent off to the graphic designer or the design agency who’s putting together your artwork. Again, the designer doesn’t touch the shape of your packaging, only the design itself. Be proactive, and request the net when you’re contacting the printing company of your choice.

If the designer goes forward without the net, the artwork may be created in the wrong dimensions and not look as good in the correct printing dimensions.

Therefore, getting the net is a crucial step.

Checklist of What You’ll Need Before You Start Designing Packaging

Ok, so before jumping into the design phase, let’s make a quick checklist of what you need to gather before the designer can start working on the artwork. You will need to:

  • Check security, measurements and legislation that you need to include on your package.
  • Think about product protection.
  • Think about how you like the packaging to be intuitive for consumers (think IKEA).
  • Decide if you want a barcode and apply for one with GS1.
  • Decide if you’re opting for bespoke or off-the-shelf packaging.
  • Contact the printer and ask for templates/nets; try and order some samples!
  • Gather inspiration on the art direction you would like.

We’re created a nifty pre-design checklist for your packaging design to ensure you’re not forgetting anything.

Download Your Before Design Checklist

During the Design Process: Artwork Design & Development

Now that we’ve reached this phase, it’s time to think about the artwork. Some things to have in consideration regarding artwork:

Your Product’s Packaging is Part of Your Brand

This one goes without saying, but having good-looking packaging as the face of the product goes a long way to securing all eyes are on your product, especially if you sell it physically in a store.

The Brand’s Visual Identity

You should already have a visual identity and a brand in place before commencing on your packaging journey. Be sure the packaging aligns with your brand’s audience, the tone of voice and identity guidelines.

Maybe your business doesn’t yet have a “face” to it, worry not, now is the time to put it together. If you are bringing a new product to market, developing these assets will then allow you to be more “free” as you can play around with different, very distinctive styles—while staying on brand, of course!

Your designer will be able to help you define your style based on your other visual assets.

If you need more help building a brand, this blog walks you through the process and helps you establish a more consistent brand for a solid foundational starting point that you can base your packaging design on.

The Product’s Audience and Purpose

The brand’s audience, its competitors and your goals will be an important first step in making any decision about the creative direction of your artwork. You need to know your audience before designing anything. If you do not adequately research beforehand, you could end up designing something that appeals to 5-year-olds when the target audience is in fact 15-year-olds.

Before getting ahead of yourself and jumping straight into the design process, think through what the purpose of the product and packaging is.

Answer these questions before thinking of a creative direction:

  • Who’s the predominant target audience?
  • What’s the goal of this product packaging?
  • What do you want the product to communicate to your audience? What’s the product’s voice?   
  • How can you make this packaging stand out on the shelf to be sold?
  • What are your company’s competitors doing with their packaging?

Designing a Product Label

Now you have your brand on mind, you can start thinking about your label.

Most product packaging has a label of some kind. When designing a product label your designer should still pay attention to white space and breathing space.

Remember, white space is more important than filled space. If you feel quite overwhelmed with the look of your packaging, it might be a good indicator that you need white space added in; do not hesitate to communicate this to your designer.

Research the style of packaging you would like but stay within your brand guidelines. Brand guidelines do not mean you can’t be creative with your design, they simply help you ensure your product packaging have a cohesive look with your other products, your online presence and your other marketing materials.

When choosing a style for your product packaging, going broad on your theme may make it be difficult to convey all of your ideas into one package.

Here are some tips to keep in the back of your mind to help you when designing a label.

  • High contrast.
  • Research the mandatory information. Again, this is a must! For instance, if you’re packaging food, research what information is crucial to feature in terms of nutrition for food. This varies from country to country.
  • Play around with the different typography. Consider how you can utilise different typography with your art. Sometimes, it is possible to combine a few styles.
  • Make it easy to read. Ensure its readable. Text shouldn’t be so small it can’t be read or overly large for no reason.
  • Add illustrations and patterns. Illustrations and patterns are one of the easiest ways to spice up your packaging. If fits your branding why not add some colour, even if subtle?

Prototyping & Printing Your Product Packaging

The best way to know if for sure it’s ready is to find out for yourself.

Print out your project in a smaller size and try and put it together with tapethis is called creating a dummy.

Guaranteed it won’t look amazing, but it can give you an idea of what you’re working with and if that fits your vision.

Once you’ve done all of the necessary tweaks to your artwork, it is time to go ahead and send your final product to the print company for a prototype. So exciting!

A prototype is an early model of your packaging to test the concept and get a feel for the real thing.

It’s easy to get excited about this phase when seeing your product’s package in place for the first time. However, this is time time to go over everything with a fine-tooth comb. It is critical you ensure everything is well and ready to be mass-produced to avoid any disappointment and environmental waste in the future.

Here are some questions you should be thinking about:

  • Is the artwork as you envisioned?
  • Does the artwork merge well on the packaging?
  • Is the ink colour correct?
  • Are there any small, white borders?
  • Does the size fit your product efficiently?
  • Does the package protect your product?
  • Is the package intuitive for the customer to stack, store and transport?
  • Does the package have shelf appeal? Tip: take it into store and hold it up against your competitors.
  • Is the package targeted to your preferred audience?
  • Does the package have all the mandatory requirements by law? Is the information clear and legible?
  • Are there any spelling mistakes?

If you feel like you’re too attached to make a decision, give yourself some distance. Take some time away from looking at the packaging design and then come back to it. Sometimes distance is the best remedy.

Once you’ve checked all of these points, it’s time to officially send your design to print.

And with that, you’ve completed the process of creating packaging for your product.

Congratulations Susan, have a cuppa, you product packaging queen you.

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