Join us at Device Talks Boston in October

Packing it in

April 19, 2010

One of our designers circulated the following link to some wonderful and inspiring package design work: cool designs.

I have to admit there are some dramatic packages and some really cool, stunning and thoughtful work.

I am not a packaging expert by any means but I did want to share one interesting personal experience I have had. As many of you know I am co-founder of a start-up consumer products company that has introduced a new product to the marketplace: FlameDisk.

When it came time to do the packaging the founders told ourselves we wanted to do something very fresh, clean and artistic. We had some early packaging concepts done by an individual with lots of consumer package design experience and they all looked boring, bland and not very ‘designed’. We were frustrated at their inability to create something that… well frankly something that looked like the packages in the link above. So we re-vamped the project and turned to a different design agency and gave them the instructions that we wanted something bold, sexy, clean, simple and highly designed.

The attributes cause someone to REALLY chose your product are often different than the ones that cause us to say “that’s a stunning package design.”

You can argue about whether they hit the mark but I think they gave us just what we wanted and we were all pretty pleased and excited about the work. To us it looked very different than the ordinary products we saw in the relevant store aisles.


So what happened? Basically this package totally failed in the market. It may have been clean and sexy but people simply did not “get” the product or what it did! Whether or not the package was succeeding as a design was academic because the package was failing in its most basic and important task - get the consumer to buy the product!!!

In retrospect we probably made the mistake of over-valuing the graphic design and under-valuing the "information design" aspect of the package - how important communicating our product's function and unique attributes were.

It took a lot of money and time but we revamped our package to something a LOT less sexy, exotic and designerly…


When we switched to this package the impact and results on sales were dramatic.

What I failed to fully comprehend is that our package was not entering a design contest – it was trying to sell our product. Any package needs to work very hard at doing this and frankly the attributes that effectively cause someone to REALLY chose your product are often very very different than the attributes that cause us to say “that’s a stunning package design”. I'm sure there are some product categories or products where an intriguing and compelling graphic design can compel someone to pick up the product and learn more but most consumer outlets are visually crowded, chaotic arenas and what looks clean, fresh and intriguing by itself often disappears into being just another set of colors or an odd shape on the shelf.

I learned the hard way that the super-market shelf is the most brutal marketplace in the world. You are toe-to-toe with your competitors and your consumers sometimes have a fraction of a second to say “I get it” and buy your product or move on to something else.

I think that’s why so many companies have what many of us would call “boring” packaging. It may be boring but it’s entirely possible that it is much more effective at its actual job than some packaging we consider fresh and exciting.

I don’t want to claim I’ve cracked the code or fully understand this but it was a brutal, real life lesson and one I hope to not forget.

I don’t mean to downplay the power of design but I look at a lot of the packages presented in the link above and wonder how successful they would REALLY be in moving product off shelves. Many of you may be designers but I would ask you to put yourself in the position of a 'typical' consumer in a store. You’re tired, sick of shopping and want to get home. You have a FRACTION of a second to make a snap decision. Which package would you REALLY pick up??? Really????


I would argue that our true reaction to consumer product packaging in the retail environment is so subliminal as to almost defy characterization. It is CLEARLY very very different than the way we react to a product package as a visual element or design exercise.

Most of us never stop to fully think about it but some of the subtle things that make the Glad package appear "boring" are actually probably really effective in actually moving the product.

For starters, Glad has a huge and unfair advantage of a recognizable brand name. Aside from that, in a "fraction of a second" I know that this size bag fits in my large trash can (the picture is my clue) - there are 28 bags in this box and it has two drawstrings (easy to close and drag to the curb) and has three plies.

Which bag would you REALLY pick up if you're tired of shopping and want to get home?

I'm not going to argue against design but I will argue that all design serves a higher purpose that must be fully comprehended by the designer. I personally feel that design for design's sake is an oxymoron