A collaborative approach is key to making packaging design relevant, explains BRIAN LODGE of RPC Design…
At the turn of the year many organisations publish their take on trends in the packaging industry. They range in size and scope but all have similar content and most are very self-serving. I looked at one recently that was entitled “5 major packaging trends in 2017” and
consisted of five cardboard boxes. All very interesting, except the author was from a cardboard box company! Another article, penned by a design agency, featured 10 trends that exemplified its work for major international clients.
While there is nothing wrong with this style of self-promotion I do think it is a bit misleading to call them major packaging trends. I normally do an annual review of trends where I collate as many as I can and then find the 10 most common. This ‘poll of polls’ approach seems a more accurate way to find out what is actually happening across our industry.
However, I do question the value of these trends for designers, as virtually all these polls are retrospective and tell us what has happened rather than what is going to happen. Those that predict trends are usually very wide and nebulous and of little value to inform design choices. In fact, apart from a hard core of megatrends (sustainability, consumer convenience, authenticity etc.) the vast majority of trends are very short-lived.
This is an issue for structural packaging designers, as ours is a much longer-term project than most graphic work. Tooling and filling line equipment can be very expensive so the 3D designs have to last much longer than graphics, where the investment in print is much lower.
When I started out one of the first things I learned was that what you design now will ‘peak’ in three-years. It can take six- to 12-months to tool and launch a new product and a standard sales pattern usually sees sales peak two-years after launch. For structural designers, therefore, we really do need to design for the future.
The question is how to respond to this challenge. Obviously following published trends is no good because of the retrospective or short-lived nature of most of them; and we don’t have a crystal ball to identify ‘the next big thing’. However, one thing we can do is to create the trends ourselves.
This isn’t as stupid as it sounds because the polls that are out there are looking at things people have already designed. And one of the key roles for packaging is to help promote, protect and preserve whatever the new trend may be.
There are plenty of examples of this. As cars became more sophisticated in the 1980s, the oil companies responded with different grades and specifications for different engine types and driving requirements. Plastics packaging was then ideally placed to create the eye-catching container designs that helped to convey brand differentiation, along with practical features to improve user-friendliness.
Convenience may be an on-going megatrend, but structural enhancements and design adjustments have helped to make microwaveable packs much easier for the end-user, as have top down bottles that have further improved the benefits of squeezy
bottles for sauces and ketchups. Smaller sizes and portion packs support the trend to reduce food waste and fight obesity. In the personal care sector, innovative touch and slide technology enables hand and face creams to be dispensed more accurately and hygienically.
Effective design will also be critical in the other on-going megatrend of sustainability, helping to demonstrate plastic packaging’s vital role in the circular economy. This will be particularly important given the current media furore that means we are in serious danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water unless we can successfully demonstrate the material’s many environmental benefits.
By creating great original design that addresses all the many needs of a piece of packaging we can establish a benchmark for others to follow and in this way create the trend. To be able to do this requires a very creative and technically-capable team that can find the insights and convert these into designs that meet consumer, manufacturing and supply chain needs.
It is also important to remember that even if a trend is the initial idea of one person, it will usually take many more to turn this into anything lasting – so the earlier the packaging designer is involved, the better.
Certainly this approach is what has characterised many of RPC’s design successes. Having the right people and facilities mean we can meet the most demanding briefs to create packaging that stands the test of time – and hopefully appear in the packaging trends reviews in three-years.