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Product packaging is one of those things most people don’t think about. If it’s done well, they shouldn’t even have to consider it. In my graphic design life, however, it’s very important and I enjoy making things that people find interesting, inspiring and pleasing. For business owners offering products, I can tell you right up front that your package design will make or break your product. For example, water is essentially free, yet consumers spend millions every single year to get it in different forms. And among those different forms, why are some brands successful while others are not? Sure, there are some variations of the product that are simply different and easy for the consumer differentiate, but for the most part, the consumer just associates water with…well…water.

The packaging and branding makes the difference, everything else remaining equal. Do your potential customers identify with your product? Do they like the color of the container? How about the texture. Is it easy to use? These are all questions to ask yourself when considering your packaging. By the way, these considerations aren’t just limited to product packaging. Many of these sam principles apply to packaging (branding) imagery, people and ideas too.

This article is presented to help other designers considering food product packaging, but the process and lessons learned serve as a great example of what designers are faced with during product development. If you’re working with a designer, this might give you some insight into their mindset. If you’re not working with a designer on your packaging, you should be. Call me. Mean it.

Concept Development

For this project, the idea was to develop a line of chocolate (bars) for a notable manufacturer in three new flavors with a brand new package design. I chose to go with a line of chocolates featuring three flavors of chocolate I’ve never seen: ghost, habañero and jalapeño peppers. Kind of a tall order, considering no one in their right mind would ever even bust open the packaging on anything containing ghost peppers.

Chocolate Bar Series Package Design

Chocolate Bar Package DesignPretty much right out of the box, I decided to go with a full package wrap on this one. You have a couple of major choices in wrapping almost any product, either a full or partial wrap. The full wrap is just what it sounds like — a full coverage wrap around the product. Partial wraps, in food package design are wraps that just slip-on over the product or something less than a full coverage wrap. I know that’s basic information, but it’s really important to decide how much coverage you’re going to give it right up front. Partial wraps are much, much easier to design and install, so keep that in mind if you’re short on time. If you can go all the way and your time isn’t that limited, then go all the way. Full wraps are much more difficult to accomplish when you’re talking about wrapper design, simply because each corner, each fold, and each side needs to be spot-on during installation or you won’t end up with a useful design.

Graphic Design Layout

Graphics are what most people think about when you’re talking package design for a new product. In fact, during the client-designer initial meeting, that may be all you talk about and that’s where clients think you’ll really bring a lot to the table. While this is true, the best graphics in the world won’t matter much if you’re hanging them on packaging that isn’t quite measuring up.

I chose to go with a really dark chocolate brown base that was almost black. So black, in fact, that it looks like a deep black until you get it into substantial light. I’m a big fan of interesting packaging that seems to change slightly every single time it’s viewed. It’s like you’re learning more about it with every view. Like it’s alive. This base color lives and breathes. The other colors I chose were a highly saturated red, green and orange. Red and green were obvious choices, since they’re complementary colors. All three accent colors were related directly to common pepper colors. Take a walk through the produce aisle and you’ll see what I mean.

Here’s the swatch information in just about every format aside from Pantone…

I adjusted these several times, primarily due to the difference between RGB viewing on a monitor and the tones that resulted when they actually printed.  There’s a hell of a difference between what you see on screen and the actual printed colorization when it hits paper. Be sure to give yourself enough time for test printing and adjustments.  Perfect colors go a long way toward producing a pleasing design. Give yourself the time to do it justice.

Package Printing

I’ll admit that when I considered the printing process on this one, I gave most of consideration to achieving the right specific colors. Colors are important, but even more important is the paper you’re printing on. This project was a first-stage prototype, so the paper quality was a bit less important, but you may want to give appropriate thought to it. I chose to go with fairly light, bright white paper (to highlight the areas left white) and was actually more appealing than some of the glossy paper choices. This is great for lower-end prototypes, but a higher quality  paper is needed for more advanced applications. Why? Because when you’re creasing the wrapper along the product edges, you’ll actually crack the ink (and paper) along the creases, resulting in white lines along the leading edges of the creases. This affects the appearance of the finished product, producing some unintended color variations. Know your paper.

Package Application

This is where we go back to what kind of packaging we chose in the first place. Had I chosen a less complicated design and done a simple partial wrap, wrapper application would’ve been easy. But we can’t have that can we? What fun would that be? Since I chose to do a full wrap, I had to figure out the exact dimensions of all creases and folds. Keep in mind that you’re designing on one side and marking the folds on the other. Dual-side printing doesn’t solve this problem or make it any easier, as mistakes are commonly made when adjusting paper sides in the printer, so I did it the hard way, as usual, molding each wrapper among all the various angles and corners until I achieved the orientation I needed. When prototyping, you can’t handle the printed, final paper very many times before you start “wearing” it, so you’ll find that a very soft, thin cloth (even a t-shirt) will really help when pressing and creasing the wrapper for application. Something specific for you that are designing for chocolate — if you’re going to use an actual chocolate bar for the interior prototyping, remember that it’s soft and malleable. Take your time.

Shelf Display & Synergy

Chocolate Package DesignDesigning a single package prototype is relatively easy compared to concepting a trio of products that all work together on the shelf. Think of it this way. Your product will almost never be offered as the only product on the shelf.  It will be offered and viewed with others most of the time. To that end, give some thought as to how the multiple variations will appear when sitting next to each other. My assignment was relatively easy, in that I had full control of all three variations and I knew they would be displayed together. Often, you are only working on one version, while completely different designers are working on the others. Adjacent products need to work together to be effective. That’s one of the many differences good design makes. You have to consider the bigger picture. Ever wonder why some product displays look sweeter than Tennessee honey while others just don’t seem to work? Placement and design unity makes that difference. Making things work in unison is a beautiful thing.

Lessons Learned: Chocolate Bar Package Design

I suppose there almost unlimited lessons learned in the undertaking of anything worth doing, but here are some of the key things I’ll remember for a very long time about chocolate packaging. Some of these are obvious. so it helps to laugh…

  • Chocolate melts, plan your workspace accordingly.
  • Chocolate gets eaten. Maybe not by you, but someone’s going to want to eat what you’re working on. Plan accordingly.
  • Chocolate packaging is small, but you still have to include all of the major design elements in the available space. The details matter. In fact, they’ll make your design a success or failure. Plan on spending some time to develop these details before release.
  • Partial package wrapping is much easier to accomplish than total package wrapping.
  • There’s a huge difference between colors you see on the screen and what ends up on paper. Give yourself some time to adjust and test frequently.
  • Text application to bar-type products is a hassle, but worthwhile. Often, the text and imagery won’t line-up just right, so frequently test too.
  • Dimensions matter. They’ll make or break your design.
  • In package design, double-sided tape is your friend. Get a lot of it. Then double what you think you’ll need.
  • Paper quality (for paper designs) is very, very important. Spend some time at your local printer testing some of your choices.
  • Unique paper folds symbolize quality. Anyone can wrap an item in paper. Only an artist and a professional can do it with style. Do it with style. No one likes a right angle.
  • Don’t be afraid to step out to the edge with your design, then base jump off that cliff. Traditional design has it’s place, but that’s not what people are usually paying you for. They want your creativity. That’s what you bring to the table.
  • Choose a high contrast graphic layout, or subdue the colors greatly. Anything in the middle is boring. Well, subdued is boring to me too, but you get the idea. Make a statement and stick with it. Let the client decide what’s best for them, then execute.
  • Print more versions than you need. Most likely, you’re going to damage at least one of the wrappers, so you may want to consider printing about three times the minimum, especially if you work during nontraditional working hours (at night). Or have an on-demand printer.
  • Enjoy the hell out of what you’re doing, or put it down. There comes a time in every design process where what you’re doing isn’t adding anything to the meaning or quality of the project. Know when you’ve hit that culminating point and get back to the fundamentals. If what you’re doing is improving the product, then continue. If it’s not, put it down, remember the fundamentals of your mission and only include the elements that are undeniably adding quality to your project.

Package design can be interesting and rewarding if it’s done correctly. I enjoyed this project and hope you’ve gotten something out of it. Whatever you’re doing, find the joy in it. Live the joy in it. Enjoy what you do.