From Concept to Creation
The road from a packaging concept to a finished product can be a long one, with numerous twists and turns. Before a package can be completed, it goes through an extensive design process prior to being run on a press. And ensuring the desired package is what ends up coming off the press can entail extensive collaboration between designers, production staff and press operators.
Where designs come from
According to J. Scott Hosa, associate director of graphic technology at Landor Associates, it all begins with a need. A brand owner wants his or her product to fill a gap in a consumer’s life, and most of the time it’s up to the packaging to communicate how that is going to happen.
For instance, Hosa explains, if a product’s packaging is too over the top and overwhelms consumers, or is missing a key flavor cue that could attract buyers, a packaging fix could be in order.
“You can make a wonderful product that works well,” he says. “You just need to get it into [the consumer’s] house for them to realize that.”
Hosa says one of the first steps Landor Associates takes in solving these potential hiccups, before any concrete designs actually take shape, is establishing a theme for the packaging. For example, a design could seek to engage a specific sense, such as sight or touch, or the theme could center on the target demographic.
After establishing a theme, some initial drawings and sketches of what a finished product could look like are generated. Hosa explains that these sketches are still preliminary and exploratory, and commonly go through multiple rounds of revisions. But if these early stages go well, these initial sketches sometimes end up not being too far off from the final product’s appearance.
“It’s pleasantly surprising to me that a lot of early sketches end up being close,” he says.
Bruce Storton, the vice president of packaging for Schawk!, explained in an email interview that his preference, after receiving initial approval, is that further product releases will be packaged using the original design as a metric.
“Ideally, the initial design is approved and additional pieces then match as closely as possible,” he says.
Talk early, talk often
No matter the initial input, producing a great package is far from simply receiving a file from the designers, firing up the press, and watching the magic happen. The production side is essential in ensuring the finished product looks as intended, and can often keep designs in check.
Craig Bradley, vice president of manufacturing at Bennett Packaging and Displays, says that ensuring designers fully understand the capabilities of the presses and converting equipment helps make sure the designs are not outside of what the machinery can handle.
Bennett does have the benefit of an in-house design staff in its main Lee’s Summit, MO facility, but Bradley says these conversations—and even demonstrations—are still essential.
“We have a pretty open relationship between the designers and production,” Bradley explains. “They’re not afraid to ask and we’re not afraid to give answers. We have four sample tables where we can cut 20 samples of an idea, then try running it on the machine to show what modifications may need to be made. It’s trial and error.”
At Landor, which specializes in branding and design, Hosa explains that the way a supply chain is established can vary. When designing for a large-scale brand, it’s likely that a printer whom the brand has used in the past will be called on again. But even with a smaller brand, he says the pool to choose from can still be limited.
“The qualification process of getting vendors and suppliers together is pretty intense,” he explains. “You can’t just call a printer and say, ‘Hey, print something for me.’ It can take months, if not years, to become a validated vendor.”
Still, knowing the printing process ahead of time can help designers craft the product. Storton explains that designers can leverage higher quality printing processes to inform their designs.
“Digital is higher quality,” he states. “Halftone and dot minimums can be greatly improved. Designers can take advantage of this improvement to achieve a more polished or cleaner look.”
Going to press
Because every package printer has different equipment and skillsets, each has different areas where they shine. This is why Bradley says it’s important that designers know the strengths of the production team and take those into consideration when designing a package.
For example, Bradley says Bennett Packaging is one of only a few locations nationwide with a Bahmuller Turbox + Topmatcher, a machine that can combine up to three boards at once. Because of this advantage, Bradley says the production team likes to have the designers work with this machine in mind.
“You have to work with them to try to figure out what can be done and what can’t be done,” he says.
For design and production teams that are not part of the same company, additional conversations with the printer are usually needed to make the concept a reality, even after a packaging design has been subjected to substantial revisions. Hosa says this is where collaboration and the power of negotiation come into play.
“There’s a lot of collaboration and negotiation there,” Hosa says. “It’s up to us to say what our priorities are.”
For example, if a printer is unaware of the priorities for the package, and runs into an issue while on press, they could make a change that unknowingly removes an important element of the package.
Hosa points to a limited edition release from the Captain Morgan brand of spiced rum, a situation where the desired packaging was quite challenging and elaborate. But Hosa says if the product’s “story” is compelling enough, all the players in the supply chain buy in and go the extra mile to make it happen.
The story for this particular package is that in 1671, Henry Morgan, the rum’s namesake, was aboard his favorite ship, The Satisfaction, when it sank. The limited edition “1671” rum the brand produces purports to be the rum that was uncovered from the shipwreck of The Satisfaction.
The goal was to package it in a hand-blown bottle in a distressed-looking crate. The label was a deep black with gold leaf to further enhance the look.
“The storytelling sets a tone and a mood for the product. And if it works you also get the people on the supply chain and our clients engaged. It’s such an engaging and compelling story that those concepts make it work,” Hosa says.
Packaging can make or break a brand’s image. But even if a product has a stunning design, if it’s not produced properly, all that effort will be for naught. Bradley says getting all sides on the same page throughout the process is the best way to ensure the customer receives the packaging they desire.
“All the conversations need to take place,” he says. “A lot of times, depending on the company, that open communication may not exist, but they need to find a way to make it exist.” pP
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