The anatomy of packaging design – Part 2

Material function and print processes determine design elements 

In the first part of this series we discussed the graphic design elements for packaging and the considerations that need to be made to develop the canvas. We also must remember that the package is the vehicle for the product, designed first and foremost to protect what’s inside. That typically means that the qualities of the packaging material and the demands for its performance still outweigh how it’s decorated.

For example, let’s consider packaging for a simple bag of shredded cheese:

It has to provide a moisture barrier to protect the cheese

The seams on the bag must not leak or fail

The bag must go through the filling line at high speed

The bag must be strong enough to hang up

The material must be recyclable at end-of-life

These are just some of the criteria – and by no means all of them. With this example alone, the material will be a three-layer laminate with three films that have three sets of material properties. We’ll be decorating one of the layers as the film is assembled. At this stage we’re looking at the various print processes available. And regardless of the merits of each (again, another article would barely cover this), the key processes are gravure, flexo, offset, dry offset, digital and screen printing. The challenge once again for the designer is to be aware of the process being applied, and design with those limitations in mind.

You may be designing a series of products for one brand that goes across many material constructions – from boxes to bags and labels that have to be consistent with the brand. These different packages may be printed using different processes. So again, an awareness of each process and its respective limitations is essential. Most presses on the market today are eight to ten colours. However, typically, a white will be required on the design and perhaps a varnish or effect such as matte varnish, so the window on print stations begins to narrow. If you’re using an image, typically a four-colour process separation, then you have a couple of stations left. These are usually for the brand colour.

Extended gamut (EG) is starting to make an impact in print, where the use of six or more colour separations results in a greater range of colours that can be achieved. However, for EG to be effective, it has to be considered at the design stage or all the savings will be eaten up trying to reverse-engineer the design to make it work with EG. For example, if you have to copy on a special colour panel that requires three colours combined to make that colour, make the copy a positive overprint rather than reversed-out because the press will never hold register. I’m not advocating limiting the design process or creativity required to make a difference in the marketplace. If we all designed to printer’s limitations, the window on creativity would be very small. But an appreciation of the limitations helps manage everyone’s expectations and keeps practical success in sight.

This may sound like we’re choking off the design process, but at this stage close cooperation with the printer and prepress team can have some startling results. Their job is to reproduce, not recreate. The team can take a 27-colour job and reproduce it in eight colours, but there may be some compromises and the designer has to prioritize what the holy grail is, and what can be secondary.

So we’ve established the canvas, the real estate you have available to you, and the real estate that the government is taking from you. Now, we have added the constraints of the manufacturing and printing process. This is the ongoing challenge in packaging graphics. However, there are many talented and creative professionals out there that make some exceptional designs work magnificently each and every day.

The next time you cruise the grocery aisles, pick up an attractive package and strip away all of the above. Only then will you truly appreciate the quality of work and effort that went into that object, once you’ve torn it open and thrown it into the blue box for the next part of its journey.