Regardless of the product, most everything needs some sort of packaging, and the better the design of that packaging is, the more likely a consumer will be to buy it. Enter the packaging designer.
In this article we'll explore their roles as designers, who they work for, what projects are like, and more, thanks to several interviews with some fantastic artists. Consider this your guide to working as a packaging designer.
For practical tips on designing professional product packaging, read this companion article:
What Do Packaging Designers Do?
Let's start with a breakdown of some of the roles packaging designers take on in their everyday work lives:
- Concept Design: No matter the role, designers start with concept work for it. Concept design can range from the entirety of a packaging design or product to something like graphic work for an already established template or brand.
- Branding: Perhaps the product doesn't yet have an established brand. The designer would conceive of the product's packaging as integral to the overall brand, creating logos, style guides, packaging concepts, and more in line with the vision of the product or client.
- Graphic Design: All of the graphic work involved with packaging design. Logos, layout, illustration, typography, and more. Designers may have to contribute to any of those or even all of those facets of the design process.
- Packaging Template Design: This one requires some industrial design know-how. Designing the template itself means knowing how an object or product's packaging (box, label, bag, display, etc.) needs to function in the real world and how to it needs to be manufactured.
- And More... Anything else the job entails not covered above. It may range from having print media knowledge to creating other media related to the brand, product, or project. Designers have a tendency to do more than just a simple job description, especially where a brand's product is concerned.
"My role in package design typically starts at birth and goes into conception and then into raising the design-child like it was my own. Typically I only take on projects that have a blank slate, no prior branding, thus I am responsible and/or collaborate with my clients to create the brand name, the visual foundation, the concept, the design, and the brand execution." — Chad Michael, Designer
Who Needs Packaging Designers?
If a company or client is seeking to create a product, they'll likely need a packaging designer along the way in order to make it consumer-ready. So really, most everyone needs packaging designers. Consider any store you've ever walked into: it's filled with various products with a variety of packaging and label types. Even something as simple as a hang tag is designed by a designer.
Some designers work in-house for a company designing all of their packaging needs, either by themselves or on a team. These positions have a narrower scope of design, focusing entirely on that company's products and needs.
Some designers work in a studio or agency that creates packaging for a variety of clients. They may also take on the task of branding and other graphic design duties that contribute to the product as a whole. Additionally, their reputation is often built upon their ability to (pun intended) create the whole package: branding, graphic design, package design, etc.
"I am a designer who primarily has a focus on brand and identity that I apply to a broad range of deliverables ranging from packaging design to websites. Apart from Fieldwork, I have worked for a few agencies as an intern when I graduated which include The Vast Agency, Rabbit Hole and Golden. Again all of these companies are not primarily focused on packaging design however they all have an impressive client list. For example Golden does a lot of work for Nike and Rabbit Hole have been working on Coldplay's current album campaign.
"However at Fieldwork we have a broader clientele ranging from big clients like National Trust, RSPB, United Nations, Gates Foundation, Catch 22, ONE and Sustrans to smaller clients like The Wild Network, Voltalab Sound Studios in Rochdale to Dough Lover; a gluten free baker based in Brighton. " — Eve Warren, Designer
Some designers are freelancers, creating packaging designs for various clients and agencies. While their job is varied, working on a variety of products, many of them work on smaller contracted jobs, contribute to existing brands or products, or take on a variety of design work in order to fill in their client roster.
Really, any of these positions could fill the roles discussed previously. Of the designers I interviewed, a lot of their experience makes up what I've outlined in this section and may be something you can expect with in-house, studio, agency, or freelance jobs.
"Since the company I work for develops various licensed products, I was able to experience creating toys and accessories for big companies such as Hasbro, Mattel, Disney, Sanrio, and MGA. These products can be found in many retail stores throughout the globe! This is a very proud feeling of which I am glad to be a part." Chelsey Schmitz, Designer and Illustrator at Fashion Angels Enterprise
What Is a Typical Project Like?
Once a project is sorted out (contracts, goals, deadlines, etc.), designers often begin their roles with research into the product, brand, or product's industry. Knowing what the product is, where it would be sold, how consumers expect a product to look, and what the limits of the product are all help designers create packaging in a more effective and efficient way. It takes time to not only consider the box something would be packed in, but how a product will look on a shelf next to its competitors or how to get a consumer to pick it up and check it out.
As with any design project, clients will be sent concepts, mock-ups, and assorted design work during the process on the project. Depending on how many people are involved in the project's process, different people may assume different roles, resulting in a larger presentation for a design or maybe smaller presentations along the way. Some clients prefer a full concept to be presented to them, while others want to be heavily involved in the project, working with designers as they create.
"First, we research the product and the needs of the packaging. Second, we build mood boards and rough ideas for structure. Thirdly, we begin design concepts, and take those into renders to visualize the packaging for the client." — Hylton Warburton, Designer
Of the designers I interviewed, most experienced projects with the following process: research, concept work, first draft, edits, and final draft, with some variation along the way. Additionally, some projects involve the designers creating packaging themselves as mock-ups and preparing packaging designs, templates, and files for printers and manufacturers.
Finally, something for designers to consider is not only their design budget but the budget of the company for whom they produce the product and packaging itself. Since packaging is often a part of marketing materials versus just the product itself, budgets may be low and limit the packaging's materials or printing process.
Then again, it's the creative designer that can work with a small budget and make something interesting and unexpected. For some, this is a fantastic challenge to have.
"A typical project is packaging design that often comes as an urgent task with a small budget. In our segment customers do not always have money for marketing research and an advertising campaign so it’s impossible not to take these things into account while working on a project so we try to do research ourselves and help our clients as much as we can." — Regina, Art Director of Logo Machine
What Do Designers Need to Know in Creating Printed Media?
Whether a designer is working directly with printers and manufacturers or handing their designs off to others, they need to understand how the packaging may be produced and printed. This can range from knowing the printing process itself (digitally printed, screen printed, sublimated, etc.) to understanding or preparing for the materials being used.
All graphics need to be at the correct resolution a printer calls for, designs need to be on the intended template for printing and manufacture, and designers need to make sure they know if the colors they see on their monitors will match those the printer creates. Often printers work with Pantone colors and inks since they're a manufacturing and art industry standard easily referenced by clients, designers, and manufacturers without any surprises from concept to completion.
"In design there is a fine line between good and great. Most often the ‘great’ really comes through during print. There is so much value in a successful print job, which can take a design to a whole different level." — Chad Michael, Designer
Next comes paper, plastic, and other packaging materials types. Designers have to understand the limits in manufacturing and know if a certain paper or cardboard will rip more easily than others, not take ink in the same way another would, or be unable to fold into the box design properly.
Often mock-ups and various concept experiments made by the designer or with the printer or manufacturer, as well as experience, solve some of these design problems, allowing designers to create more freely as they learn what can and cannot be done with their work and the product for which they are creating.
"In the past I have worked both directly with printers as well as with a middle man who sends all my artwork to the printers. I prefer to work directly with a printer though as I feel like I have a lot more control and I can visit them proof check and make samples." — Eve Warren, Designer
What Are Some Key Factors of Good Packaging Design?
Nearly every designer that I posed this question to came back with the same start to their answer: good packaging makes the product easily understood by the consumer; good packaging makes the product clear to the consumer.
Logos and branding should be easily recognized and seen, the product shouldn't be confusing (unless that is a part of the branding itself in some way), and all of the information the product's creators want the consumer to have should be on the packaging itself.
Whether it's a product's description, a company's message, or even just the packaging's contents, a consumer should be able to pick up the package, look at it, and understand everything the creator wants them to know. Bad packaging will make it difficult for the consumer to understand what is inside and how to interact with it.
"Direct the product at the public and define your composition to concentrate the highest amount of information to the consumer in a specific way. Formatting also helps. Making a label for shampoo isn't the same as making a label for soap. It's good to know the who and how of a project." — Nacho Huizar, Designer
For instance, when you think of cleaning supplies, chances are you think of bubbles or citrus fruits or images of a sparkling counter-top. If someone packages a floor cleanser in a box with bubble gum and stripes and party balloons on it, the consumer may glance at the packaging and think it's candy or some children's product inside. Sure, they could read the copy on the packaging itself, but often a consumer is shopping in a store, gathering their week's worth of groceries, and doesn't have a ton of time to wonder if a box contains a clown or something with which to clean their floor.
While packaging can subvert a consumer's expectations, and designers are often applauded for doing so in an interesting and effective way, more often than not clients will want packaging that fits in with their industry. Good designers make this a part of their research and concept process when creating packaging for clients or their company.
"Know your target group. Don't be too focused on the actual look. A package should portray emotion. Only with emotional work can you attract a potential customer. Personally I believe in simplicity and out-of-the-box thinking." — Tom Jueris, Designer
Advice for Designers
"The majority of young designers are afraid to start doing real work. A good way to start doing a scary, incomprehensible task is to try and make everything the worst way possible. It’s a lot of fun, it’s liberating and helps you to overcome the critical thinking. Then you can break the task into smaller components and try to improve the result. Do not demand a perfect result immediately and don’t be afraid to fail. It brings nothing but anxiety, loss of confidence and depression. Refer to the process as a game in which any result is positive." — Regina, Art Director of Logo Machine
"Creative blocks happen to everyone. If you are feeling blocked, switch over to another project or at the very least another portion of the current project. When you have the feeling of success in one area, most often, the success will spill over." — Chad Michael
"Never stop experimenting and learning. Illustration and typographic skills are hugely valuable in packaging design. If you can master those two things, you can gain a major advantage in the industry. And finally, do your research, take time to soak up inspiration, and never just go with your first design." — Hani Douaji
The experience of packaging designers may vary, but the desire to present products in an interesting and engaging manner seems to unite most, if not all packaging designers regardless of industry or role within the design world.
As with most other design jobs, creativity, organization, dedication, and a desire to design are necessary skills for designers. Projects, clients, and products may vary, but the need for packaging for said projects will remain, in which case designers like you will be called upon to create.
The artists I interviewed had a lot to share about their experiences, which you can find in quotes and various work examples throughout this article. Their work showcases not only their skills but their know-how when it comes to fantastic packaging design, and I hope you've found it interesting and inspiring.
Many thanks to the brilliant designers who took time out of their busy schedules to answer my questions. You can, and definitely should, check out their work in the links below!