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Packaging design's full circle

Packaging design is pretty much all I’ve known for nigh on 25 years.

My old guv’nor at Smith & Milton (Howard Milton) told me in my earlier days that packaging design was easy. All you needed to make the case to consumers was a brutally simple idea that drew upon the brand’s visual strengths. Of course, the real trick is that crafted distillation which only comes naturally to the most able packaging designers.

And when I look back at some of those packs* (some are featured below), it's their iconic simplicity that strikes me the most.

In the years since, we’ve seen much change. Not least, a revolution in food and beauty; huge shifts in consumer lifestyles; tighter regulation; ever increasing environmental issues and less dependence on advertising as a main broadcast medium. All of which has heaped greater pressure on the pack to work harder and do more.

Consequently, clients need to – and often must – say more on their packs. But all at the risk of obscuring the brand’s proposition and core product features. Agencies and designers have had to adapt and become cleverer at saying more but avoiding clutter.

One of Wonderland Design's long-standing clients, Marigold Health Foods, has always had a lot to say on its packs. As the food revolution grew, so their products became more relevant. There was much more to highlight - such as vegan, less salt, organic, gluten free, yeast free, added vitamins, no preservatives, nutritional goodness...not to mention the humble branding and product descriptions.

Consequently, we now tell the story across the whole pack, using ever more creative ideas to protect the integrity of the brand and keep messaging hierarchies as clear as possible. And the back of pack has helped to take the strain. However, there’s no denying that packs on our shelves today contain a huge amount of visual and verbal communication. The trick is to retain a sense of relative simplicity and order!

Our work with another one of our clients, beauty brand Skingredients, is a useful example of how we are being asked to work with more information but still present a single-minded brand theme. The brand wants to feature the products’ ingredients and what they do, as well as provide an easy guide to how and when to use. And then, there are the ethical messages, the ingredient declarations, contact details, social media icons and, of course, the designer’s favourite – the QR code. All valid, all necessary but a lot to accommodate on a pack.

Yet, ultimately, we’ve learnt how to work with this expanse of information (and in Skingredients’ case, to make a strong brand equity out of it). But without destroying the art of good packaging design and – vitally – maintaining the attention of the consumer.

But perhaps the biggest recent change to impact upon packaging design has been online shopping. Standing out, communicating the brand’s message and product offer on the physical shelf has always been the pack’s challenge. But on a screen, roughly the size of your palm?

Now, packaging designers have to adapt once more and embed another discipline into their skills armoury – the art of online packaging design.

Or do they?

Interestingly, having just completed the design of over 50 Planet Organic packs to appear online (some examples below), what strikes me once more is just how wonderfully simple they are.

Just like those packs from 20 odd years ago.

* Packs designed by Smith & Milton. Lucozade moved from a positioning of recovery to energy; E45 just simple and effective; Sainsbury's washing powders demonstrate the perfect distillation of words and pictures - these packs could work happily in an online setting today.

Lawrence Barnett is MD of Wonderland Design London.

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