The anatomy of packaging design

First in a two-part series examining the role of graphic regulations 

Graphic design plays a major role in packaging across the packaging spectrum, but it also has a series of constraints that must always be considered before executing any project. Grasping the key concepts early will save time and, ultimately, money. The first design element in all packaging is coming to terms with what the package is intended to do for the product in the box.

The common myth surrounding packaging is that it’s all bad and ends up in a landfill. That’s a debate for another day and another article. Instead, let’s focus on what the packaging is: a vehicle for the product. It gets the product from A to Z through an entire distribution network, protecting the product and informing every stakeholder along the way about it.

The design work is governed by the package itself – be it a flexible package, rigid container or folding carton – which is called the die-line. This can vary from a simple label where its boundary is defined, to a folded carton with many panels, to a three-dimensional structure, such as a bottle decorated with a shrink sleeve. The mission of the designer is to decorate and inform within the parameters of the package itself, and within the prescribed die-line. It’s at this juncture that packaging design comes into being. The package must contain certain information that follows strict regulatory guidelines, and the aesthetic design must be built around that.

One extreme example is a tobacco package where the health regulatory copy must legally take up to 70% of the face panel, leaving the remainder for brand identity, quantity information and aesthetic design. New legislation that designates this space as plain packaging will restrict design elements to a single colour and a single font.

The majority of packaging in the consumer market is for food in the grocery store. Again, regulatory copy such as ingredients lists, nutritional data, domicile copy, and weight statements all claim real estate before the aesthetic can be developed. These regulations are very strict, and failure to comply could result in a product recall – hence the importance of awareness at the design stage.

Proposed federal regulations both north and south of the border are changing the nutritional requirements and labeling criteria.  This is a boon to the graphics industry, but a headache for everyone else, as every single SKU (Stock Keeping Unit) needs to be updated and retooled with new plates.

The design also has to encompass another series of marks and mechanics that help the package along the distribution route. These include control marks for colour and registration, die-marks for cutting and/or aligning the packaging as it goes through the filling line, identification codes (not just the UPC – Universal Product Code) that identify the product in the supply chain, as well as batch codes and date codes.

All of these have to be incorporated into the design and they take up real estate on the package. The challenge for graphic designers is to see how these requirements can be incorporated into the design. Technologies exist where some of these codes can be hidden in the image itself, such as QR Codes that can direct a smartphone to a website for more product information.

At this stage we’ve established everything that needs to be part of the packaging design, but isn’t actually the design itself. The design needs to describe the product, brand it and decorate it to make it appealing to the consumer so it leaves the shelf quickly. We also must remember that the package is the vehicle for the product, designed first and foremost to protect the goods inside. That typically means that the material qualities and demands for material performance still outweigh how it’s decorated.

In part two, we’ll review the construction of the package, the materials used, the print processes required, and how all these can impact the package design process.