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RPC's Idea Equilibrium - Retail Packaging

RPC’s Idea Equilibrium

Stuart Pritchard February 27, 2019

Effective design that combines creativity and practicality, and old and new, is crucial to keeping plastic packaging relevant, explains BRIAN LODGE of RPC Design…

Many moons ago when I started out, a very wise designer told me that designing was like juggling three balls – looks, function and cost. To make it even more challenging, the balls were all different sizes and changed depending on the product you were working on.

While this remains true to this day, there are now two new balls that need to be added to this juggling act – sustainability and experience. Sustainability is obvious, especially in the current climate, but experience is equally significant, particularly in today’s constantly changing and developing world where the focus seems to be constantly on ‘embracing the new’. The fact is that knowledge and know-how are both powerful tools in a designer’s toolbox to create better and more practical products.

I don’t want to make designers sound like clowns in a circus sideshow, but I think the juggling analogy is very apt for the skills and expertise we have to apply on a daily basis. Nor am I saying that you have to be a wizened old cynic to be a good designer but there has to be a balance between creativity and practicality to achieve truly outstanding packaging designs.


Design techniques to reduce the weight of a pack while maintaining its functionality deliver important sustainability advantages

Challenging the “way we have always done things” is vital for any industry as technologies, techniques and materials are changing all the time. New technologies like 3D printing, laser scanning and CAD analysis packages open up new, improved approaches that are quicker and allow greater creativity than previously imagined. Techniques such as design thinking and open innovation change the way we approach our projects.

The design industry has always thrived on the injection of young talent bringing new ideas and enthusiasm and it is often these people who are early adopters of the latest thinking or developments. If the advances in AI and generative design continue at the present rate, new ways of approaching our design work will be vital in remaining competitive.

However there always comes a point in a project where creativity has to meet practicality. Many a brilliant design has floundered on the rocks of manufacturability. In the packaging world (with a few exceptions for high-end goods) cost has always been a very big ball to juggle. If a good-looking design is coupled with poor attention to practicality, or if it cannot be manufactured cost-effectively, a brilliant idea can very easily be reduced to mediocre.


Innovative designs that provide enhanced consumer convenience still need to be manufactured cost-effectively

This is where both knowledge and know-how come into play to ensure that a designer isn’t proposing the impossible. Knowing the capabilities of a manufacturing technique, material or even the factory set up allows the designer to frame their creativity within a practical envelope. Having the experience enables them to challenge the perceived norms and push a process to achieve results beyond their previous capabilities.

Plastics packaging is a perfect example. The material’s versatility makes it an ideal choice for countless products; its design flexibility offers maximum opportunities for brand differentiation; but today under a generally mis-informed and inaccurate media spotlight, it is often cited as having a negative environmental impact.

For designers, therefore, the sustainability ball certainly looms large; and we need to embrace new technologies to help us to improve on long-established techniques, such as lightweighting or the use of single materials. One recent example saw us redesign a lawn spreader pack by reducing the number of components in the pack from nine to three. This delivered a weight reduction of some 40% while still maintaining the practicality and effectiveness of the original design.

In the food sector, building in features for portion control, resealability or more efficient product dispense are all ways in which the pack design can support the need to reduce food waste.

Above all, experience can ensure that any such features are introduced without affecting a pack’s overall functionality. Every design has ultimately to be fit for the purpose intended; otherwise sustainability or indeed any other benefits will be of little use.


New technologies like 3D printing, laser scanning and CAD analysis packages open up new, improved approaches that are quicker and allow greater creativity

Plastic remains the most appropriate material solution for so many products. By applying the right combination of new and existing skills and knowledge, it is possible to create packs that fulfil consumer, brand owner and sustainability needs without compromise. As part of this, it will be vital to call on experience and at the same time challenge pre-conceived ideas; and to keep pushing the boundaries with blue-sky thinking while keeping our feet firmly on the ground with practical considerations.

This is the best way to create new, exciting – and sustainable – packaging designs. And it remains a complicated juggling act!