The truth is, packaging can make or break a product, despite all its goodness. So unlike in a book, the cover is most crucial for a product
IT WAS STEVE JOBS who said: “Packaging can be theater, it can create a story.” Jobs, surely knew it well. All Apple products have dramatic packaging: pristine white boxes, elegant typography, vivid product pictures and minimalistic design. The sheer poetry in design of the iconic Apple products was extended to the design of their packaging.
Since Apple has always been design savvy, it comes as no surprise that its packaging design adds to the aura of its products. Good design, after all, comes in great packaging. That’s Apple’s story.
Compare this to the recent snafu by Whole Foods Market Inc., a health food supermarket chain headquartered in Austin, Texas. The company introduced pre-peeled oranges packed in plastic containers that drew flak from everyone after one irate consumer tweeted photos of the product with sarcastic remarks. It could have been an attractive story: convenience food for the health conscious or the differently abled. Packaging that saves time and effort. A healthy alternative to the food junkies.
Whole Foods Market obviously did not think this through and hastily withdrew the product from the market after heavy criticism. While providing convenience food packaged attractively, businesses tend to overlook obvious issues. Whole Food Markets also showed scant regard to the environment. In a bid to project the story of convenience, it forgot the planet.
What about the story of user-experience that businesses often underestimate? If you have ever had a child requesting you to open a toffee pack and look at the pack being opened with a mixed emotion of anxiety and expectation, coupled with the frustration of having to ask a grown-up to do so, you will understand the angst of bad user experience.
Have you ever struggled with a shampoo sachet in the confines of a hotel’s shower? Or, wrestled with the cellophane wrapper of a soap? Ever wondered why arthritic medicines are so tightly packaged that they often prove completely useless for patients with arthritis? And, why childproof bottles can be easily opened by children? Have you struggled with a large gift box only to realise that the contents are tiny or sparse? Seen someone burst open a packet of chips? Have you struggled with milk creamer sachets on a moving train, while making a cup of tea? Has a juice box squirted involuntarily? If your answer was yes to any of the above questions, then you understand the problem. Businesses could do well to focus on empathising with customers, while packaging is designed. Now that’s a story that has an audience.
The role of the packaging designer is split into two components: the structure of the pack and the graphics. The first component — hardware of the pack — includes material and process selection, container design, user convenience, safe transportation of the contents, elegant dispensing and planet friendly disposal. The graphics contribute to brand image, quality, attraction and aesthetic presentation. Together, these components contribute in projecting the brand to consumers and making the product attractive to buy. They enhance the value of the contents and help communicate this value to the buyer. Although, both are equally important, we tend to put more emphasis on presentation and graphics, instead of ease of use or safety.
The premium quality story is hard to miss. Matte finish, bling graphics, elegant use of images and fonts, contribute towards enhancing the image of the product and often help in promoting its premium quality as the story. There are dramatic stories of business turnarounds attributed to packaging graphics.
Packaging often comes to the rescue, when a product is repositioned. For instance, MTR became a household name for quality food, after a serious redesign of its packaging by professional designers. Designers have helped re-position Britannia’s Tiger biscuits and other confectionary products by changing the aesthetics.
Brand Frooti now appeals to different demographics with the bright new design of its tetra pack drink.
But often the enhanced image, the new positioning or the soaring business come at a cost to the environment. Cellophane wrappers of soap and pan masala are increasingly choking our drains. Tetra packs, unless recycled, are filling up landfills. Redundant layers of packing materials are adding to the product cost and the planet cost.
Businesses that have realised this are taking help of designers to create a green impact with their product packaging. The simple shoe-bag by Puma is a clever example of reducing materials and creating a planet friendly packaging.
Although the objective is to be eco-friendly, there is another story that needs to be told. The elegant eco-friendly packaging that uses natural materials in Japan, to pack everything from eggs to incense sticks. Hay, hemp, jute, thread, bamboo, cotton and fabric are combined to produce packaging, which is both attractive and eco-friendly.
I had the opportunity to do a similar assignment, commissioned by the J&K government through it’s Craft Design Institute in Srinagar. I was assigned with the task of designing packaging with natural materials for the regular craft and food products of the state so as to make local crafts and materials more sustainable. Local craftsmen were trained to make packaging for products that are produced locally. Cane baskets for carpets, papier-mâché containers for saffron, etc., The project was completed with elegant prototypes made of cane, cloth and papier-mâché to contain and transport stuff such as saffron, carpets and shawls. This can easily be the beginning of a new ethos in packaging design.
This can also become another new dramatic story. One that is responsible and sustainable. But that will happen only when businesses revisit their priorities. They need to focus on usability. They need to match the package to the product. They need to worry about the environmental impact of their products and packages. They need to source locally. Designers can help businesses get there, provided they are given an opportunity.
When that happens, it will be the India story.
This piece was originally authored by Prof A. Balasubramaniam, Dean, Institute of Design, and published in the May issue of Business World magazine.