Craft, Design & Technology

Bonnie Howard October 16, 2014


“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like; design is how it works.” – Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, neatly summarised the essence of successful design. Design has to be a combination of looks and functionality, and that includes how it is made. Design is too often viewed as a styling exercise, when it can be – indeed has to be – so much more.

rpc2014.084  Demon FoamBut who is best-placed to deliver effective packaging design – an external design agency or an in-house team at the pack manufacturer? The answer may largely depend on who you ask, but as I’ve worked for both an agency and in-house, and also for an end-user, perhaps I can give a reasonably objective overview!

rpc2014.084 Demon Foam with TriggerAgencies are seen as being the ‘creative’ ones who will deliver the look, feel and consumer benefits; the in-house designers are considered to be better technically, and for this reason focus primarily on getting the pack made. Or to put it more simply, agencies are consumer-focused whereas in-house is manufacturing-focused.

This is just one of several generalisations that tend to surround the comparisons between agency and in-house. Others are that agencies are generalists – because they are not constrained by materials or technologies – and in-house teams are specialists, but tied to a specific technique; for the same reasons, while agencies can take an innovative approach and use modern techniques, in-house teams are conservative and use tried and tested methods; agencies integrate structure and graphics and manufacturers do not.


Arriving at the perfect packaging conclusion  can be a long journey

Arriving at the perfect packaging conclusion
can be a long journey

As with all generalisations, it is easy to find examples to both prove and disprove any of the above statements, so a more sensible approach in choosing between a design agency and in-house team is to decide what you require out of either of them. When selecting an agency, creativity is naturally a prerequisite. So too is technical ability – the need to be fully conversant with areas such as manufacturing processes, materials, filling technologies and logistics.

They need to have suitable available resources to cope with the workload, an understanding of the brand they are working for, a good track record in similar types of design projects, and they need to be good at keeping the client informed of the project’s development at every stage; and what should you look for in an in-house team? Exactly the same!

The point is that brand managers are seeking an effective piece of packaging and, ultimately, it does not matter from where it is sourced.

Perhaps a better starting-place therefore is to focus on what is driving the need for design. Is it for a re-design of an existing pack or something totally new? Is there a requirement to ‘refresh’ a brand? Are you looking to change format or explore new materials? Are you seeking to enhance the environmental credentials of your pack? Whatever the specific reason, most brand owners will be looking for evidence of innovation in the pack, so who is best placed to deliver this? Manufacturers will be able to deliver innovation in areas such as improved processes and technologies and the use of particular materials; agencies will have a wider remit in terms of seeking a new format or material.


In the end, there is no simple answer – companies and brand owners need to do their homework and decide what is best for their specific requirements. Although agencies and in-house teams are drawing closer in terms of skills and capabilities there will still be differences – agencies are unlikely ever to fully bridge the technical skills gap; in-house teams will not be able to choose from the same wide range of
technologies and materials.

Like an engine all parts must work together to get it right

Like an engine all parts must work together to get it right

This does suggest that a collaborative approach is often a very good option – but to be truly successful this will depend on mutual respect and good communication between the parties. This includes the removal of demarcation zones. A good creative idea can come from any source, not just from an agency; technical issues need to be taken into consideration in the manufacture of the pack but manufacturers should try to incorporate creative intent wherever possible – while keeping an eye on costs!

Certainly at RPC we have worked on a huge number of successful collaborations with design agencies, and we have also created many designs from scratch for customers.

As I said, the most important thing for any brand owner is to end up with a really good – and cost-effective – piece of packaging. Whichever route is selected, whichever parties are finally involved in the process, a close-working partnership approach is the best chance of making great design work – for everyone.


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