The Beginner’s Guide to Packaging Design
Designing your first item of packaging can seem like a daunting endeavour, but taking your 2D designs into 3D territory needn’t be scary. This is your ultimate quick-start guide to packaging design, from which software to use to knowing about different packaging shapes and styles. You'll also learn how to prepare your 2D artwork for printing, and we'll look at some of the different print finishes you can apply to your designs.
Otherwise, if you're ready to start designing your own beautiful packaging designs, let’s dive in...
1. Choose the Best Software for the Job
Before you start designing your packaging, you need to carefully consider which program is best for tackling the job. Most packaging designers will send their 2D artwork to the manufacturer in a vector format. Vector files are scalable, and it’s easy to create dieline templates using the line and shape tools in vector programs like Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape.
It becomes a little trickier when you want to visualise your design as a 3D product, because most vector software is designed for producing 2D images, but you can find plugins or different programs to help out at this stage. Esko is a software plugin for Illustrator that allows you to fold dielines and render the design in a 3D format. You can also rotate the packaging, allowing you to view the design from different angles. Some packaging designers also like Cinema 4D, which renders your flat designs into a 3D format.
Many packaging designers will skip Esko or Cinema 4D in favor of mocking up photorealistic designs in Adobe Photoshop instead, which we’ll take a more in-depth look at a little later in this guide.
2. Create a Dieline
A dieline is the flat template for the package. This is usually put together by the packaging designer in a vector program, like Illustrator, using simple lines and shapes.
The dieline should indicate where the packaging template should be cut and where it should be perforated (an impression is made by a machine, ready for folding). As these are two separate pieces of information for the printer, the cutting (trim) lines and perforation (fold) lines should be placed on separate layers and as spot colors, which means the cutting and trimming will be performed at different stages.
It’s also advisable to rename the dieline layers in your Illustrator document to ‘DO NOT PRINT’, which is a clear note to the manufacturer that these layers are intended for post-print processing.
Creating your own dielines from scratch can be fiddly at first, but it gets easier with practice. A good way to practise is to find a box that closely matches the dimensions you’d like for your own packaging design, take it apart and measure it. Use these measurements as a basis for creating your own dieline.
In this tutorial you’ll learn how to create a dieline for a pillow box in Illustrator with an on-trend marbled effect:
3. Home Truth No. 1: A Box Isn’t Simply a Box
Thought a box was just a box? Think again! Take a look around your house or office and find some examples of packaging—you’ll notice that almost all of them will be some kind of box, but they may vary in size, depth, and shape, and they might have flaps which are integrated with the design, or even a separate lid.
Although boxes may appear in many forms, for technical purposes all you need to know is that boxes come in two production formats: setup boxes and folding cartons. Setup boxes are more expensive to produce and are used for high-end products, like retail packaging, special confectionery, and gift boxes. They are often made up of two parts, a top and bottom tray, which are printed onto rigid card. Setup boxes are a good choice if you want to produce something particularly special and don’t mind spending more to manufacture it.
Folding cartons are used for a huge range of products, from food products to household goods. The cereal box is one of the classic examples of a folding carton format. Folding cartons often consist of just a single template, which is created as a fold-out 2D design, before being sent to the packaging manufacturer to be printed onto card, and then laminated, folded, cut and glued.
You should choose a box format which suits both the product and the retail price point. There’s no point packaging biscuits in an expensive setup box if the retail price is relatively low, but you might want to opt for a setup box if you’re packaging something more expensive and aspirational, like jewellery or shoes.
4. Home Truth No. 2: There Are Tons of Box Closure Types
Yup, just when you’d got your head around box formats, you discover that there are also loads of different ways that you can close the box. Much like sailors’ knots, there are seemingly dozens of closure types. Many of these are designed to function as a sturdy seal for your box, as well as being easy to open when required. Some of the more common types of closure are:
- Standard Tuck End
- Reverse Tuck End
- Full Overlap Seal End
Dissect some of the boxes hanging around your home—can you identify which type of closure each box has? No type of closure is right or wrong, but some are easier to design than others, and some more complex closures work well without needing to be glued, which can save time and money at the production stage.
There are also some specific styles of box which have industry-standard formats and closure types. Just a few of the most commonly used are:
- Pillow box: a simple curved box shape, with curved closures to match, which usually packages candy or cosmetics.
- Display box: for displaying point-of-purchase items on counters and shelves.
- Edge-locked sleeve: this is the card covering over ready meal and other food items.
- Book style box: with a book-like shape and a hinged lid, this is often used to package custom software, medical or cosmetic items, often as limited-edition or sample products.
5. Open Your Mind to Other Types of Packaging
Packaging isn’t only restricted to boxes—there’s a huge range of types of package to suit different purposes. While a box shape might be relatively easy to design as a 2D template, designs for less angular items, like tubes, pouches, and wraparound bottles, might be a little trickier. This is where accurate measuring and 3D modelling comes in handy, allowing you to judge exactly how the design will look, even on curved surfaces.
Some types of packaging are actually even simpler to produce than boxes, which makes them a great choice if you’re a complete beginner to packaging design. Labels are completely 2D from start to finish, requiring nothing more than length and width dimensions.
Bag designs are also simple to create, and often only require a logo design that can be repeated across a solid-color bag.
6. Make Your Design Awesome!
OK, so making something ‘awesome’ is no easy feat, but you can be well on your way to creating an amazing design with just a few choice tips.
The first thing you need to consider is making the purpose and brand of the product crystal clear. You can do this by prioritising the logo, product name and product description on the front-facing side of the package. This is without a doubt the most important thing you can do in your design—if what the packaging actually contains isn’t clear, the consumer will skim over it and buy something that’s more obvious.
You also need to make sure you are designing for the target consumer. Many designers get swept up in designing packaging that they would likely buy, which no doubt makes for a pretty result, but this could end up alienating your target market. Talk to the client to pick up some of their knowledge about the target consumer, and do some market research into packaging in the same sector to get a sense of the colors, graphics and typefaces that feel appropriate for the product’s market.
Another great tip is to design your packaging from an emotional perspective. We interact with dozens of packaged products every day; because we are saturated with visual information, it takes something with a real emotional pull for us to pay attention to it and ultimately purchase it. Emotional design can take many forms, targeting feelings of aspiration, nostalgia, joy, or even physical attraction. Keep the emotion at the forefront of your design and you’ll find that consumers are more naturally drawn to the product.
Discover even more great tips for packaging design from pro designers right here:
7. Allow for Extras: Promo Stickers, Barcodes, & Symbols
Once you’ve created a dieline and started designed your packaging with graphics, color, and typography, you need to make sure you allow space for a few essential items of information.
Firstly, leave a bit of white space on the front-facing side of your design. White space doesn’t need to be actually white—this is simply a clutter-free area of the design that doesn’t have any major graphics or text. Many retailers will do sales and promotions, and they'll produce their own stickers advertising cut-price offers. Leave at least one corner of the front of your package free of clutter, to allow the store to attach the sticker without blocking any key information.
The second thing you need to allow for is a barcode. The client will probably have already registered for a barcode number, but you may need to use that number to generate an image of the barcode using an online barcode generator. This will generate an EPS image, ready for you to place onto your design. Barcodes are usually placed on the reverse or side of the package, and to conform to international standards the barcode should be 16 mm in height.
You also need to make room for a range of symbols on the back and bottom of your package, which indicate the materials used to make the package, whether the packaging conforms to national and/or international recycling and waste standards, whether the product meets any association standards, and also the ingredients of the product inside. If you’re designing a package for a client, they will probably tell you what information needs to be put on the design, but you need to know what the packaging will be printed on before you can confirm everything.
You can download a vector set of back of pack symbols here, which includes a use by symbol (to indicate the time after opening that the product must be used), Mobius loops (recycling symbols) and a bin symbol which indicates that the product shouldn’t be disposed of in a conventional household waste bin.
You can also download three of the most commonly used association marks here. These are:
- Jumping rabbit—indicates that the product hasn’t been tested on animals.
- Soil Association—this society sets environmental standards for products that cover a range of industries.
- Vegetarian Society—indicates that the product is suitable for vegetarians.
All of these marks need to be visible and legible on the product, but they can be discreetly placed at small scale so as not to distract from the main design of the package.
8. Create a Mockup
Creating a 3D mockup of your packaging artwork is an essential part of the design process, allowing you and your client to see exactly how the packaging design would appear in real life. There are two ways you can create a mockup, and these have different purposes.
A digital mockup, whereby the design is grafted onto a photorealistic image, is a great way of showing a client how the design would appear. This is purely a visualisation aid, allowing you and the client to see how the design might appear when on the shelves. You can create product mockup images from scratch in Photoshop (for a photorealistic appearance) or Illustrator (for a more cartoon-like appearance), or simply buy a ready-to-use template. You can feed your 2D design into the template, and the action or smart object will then generate a 3D result. You can find a huge range of realistic-looking templates over on Envato Elements.
The second method of creating a 3D mockup has a more practical, technical purpose, intended to help you work out whether your design is sized correctly. This involves printing a physical copy of your template and assembling it.
This mockup can be as basic as you like—simply print it out onto standard printer paper and don’t worry too much about the quality of the print. This exercise is purely to allow you to assess how the product folds and stays together, and you can also judge which parts of the design will be most visible to the consumer when it sits on the shelf. This is also an essential process for judging the size of type on your design. It’s amazing how text can look way too small when printed in hard copy.
Tweak your digital design if you need to, and print out and assemble a final mockup. Once you’re happy with the result, you can take this along to the printers as a tool for explaining exactly how you would like the package to be assembled.
9. Understand Your Print Finish Options
You’ve created your dieline, added design elements and symbols to your template, and produced a mockup—now you’re ready to move on to the printing stage. For many budding packaging designers, printing can be the scariest part of the design process. Handing over your beloved designs to another party to be produced can feel a little unnerving, but there are ways you can make sure your finished package is going to be the very best it can be.
Once you’ve tracked down a potential printer, you should pay them a visit and take your mockup with you. It’s much easier to explain exactly how you would like your template to appear with a prop in hand, and your printer will appreciate the extra clarification too. Ask for their advice about suitable print stock (the material on which your package will be printed), which takes into account the required sturdiness of the package (consider the weight of the product inside) and the final print result that can be achieved on different paper coatings (matte or gloss) and weights (a heavier paper weight, measured in GSM, results in a stronger, sturdier stock).
The printer will also be able to advise you on what print finishes might be suitable for your design. These finishes are applied after the template is printed and can add an extra textural and visual dimension to your package. Some of the most popular finishes for packaging designs are below:
- Spot Varnish—creates a high-gloss effect on part of your design, such as a logo or brand name.
- Die Cutting—cuts out part of the package to create a window effect.
- Lamination—adds extra coatings to the package’s surface to add gloss or provide protective qualities.
- Hot or Cold Stamping—adds a metallic or special colored effect to part of the package.
- Embossing or Debossing—creates a raised or depressed area on the packaging to add texture and a 3D quality to flat graphics.
Find out more about print finishes for packaging in Simona Pfreundner's comprehensive course on preparing packaging designs for print:
10. Prepare for Printing
Once you’ve discussed your printing requirements and come up with some stock choices and print finish options, you should get a quote from the printer for the job. The expense will vary depending on the print materials, the time to trim and fold each package, the number and type of print finishes to be added afterwards, and the size of the print run. Larger print runs are normally better value than small runs, so it’s a wise idea to get a quote for several different quantities—you may well find that you can produce twice as many packages for very little extra money.
The printer will require your file in a press-ready PDF format, and it may be a good idea to provide the native files too (the original artwork files, prepared in, for example, Illustrator). This means the printer can re-export your artwork if the PDF file hasn’t been set up quite right.
Make sure your exported artwork uses high-quality 300 DPI images, and make sure to convert any RGB graphics, text or color to a CMYK colorspace. When exporting your artwork, choose the PDF/X-4 preset from the menu of PDF options. This preset preserves the layers in your artwork, allowing the printer to set up different print runs easily, for CMYK, spot colors and print finish layers.
When the printer has finished your packaging, and the packages have been trimmed, folded and glued, you should be vigilant in checking the quality of all the packages in the batch that’s delivered. Sometimes individual packages are misprinted or the colors look different—if this is the case, you should ask the printer to replace the faulty items.
Conclusion: Your Finished Package
Awesome work! Your package design is finished and printed, and ready for the retail shelves. There’s nothing more satisfactory than seeing your very own packaging design sitting on a store display—make sure to get some photos of the packaging in situ to use for your portfolio.
In this article, we’ve covered the fundamentals of the whole packaging design process from A to Z. Let’s briefly recap the main stages of the process for future reference:
- Choose the best software for creating a 2D template and rendering 3D mockups.
- Create a dieline using vector software.
- Know your box types.
- Know your closure types.
- Understand a little about other types of packaging.
- Get designing and make your artwork awesome—aim for legibility, clarity, and emotional appeal.
- Allow for extras on your design, such as symbols, barcodes, and promo stickers.
- Create a mockup to see how your design will appear and function in 3D form.
- Understand your print finish options.
- Prepare your digital artwork for printing and send it off to be manufactured.
Looking for even more packaging design help and ideas? This course takes you through the whole process of producing packaging designs for print in detail: