Essential Elements of Smart Packaging Design

Product packaging plays a major role for brands who sell consumer packaged goods (CPG) in retail environments. It’s a necessary tool for identifying these products and helps to protect them during transportation; from production to store shelves, to the consumer. However, packaging is more than a sturdy box or plastic wrapper with a logo and a label.

Packaging is vital to maintaining freshness and reducing spoilage, in the case of food and beverage items for example, both of which contribute to less food waste and the prevention of foodborne illness. Packaging is also being produced with “intelligent” capabilities, like being outfitted with RFID tags for tracking or sensors that can monitor moisture and oxygen levels.

Equally important to what packaging can do is its design; what it’s made of, how it’s made, and how it looks. Because packaging is often the first interaction consumers have with a given brand, it’s become one of the most valuable assets for marketing teams. Due to heavy concentration in the CPG market, companies need to continuously innovate their packaging designs to get the attention of, make connections with, and meet the needs of consumers.

To help consumers take some of the risk out of their decision-making process, smart packaging design should include the essential elements described in detail below.


Retail Requirements

Before starting the design process, it’s important to determine the requirements of retailers. A good place to start is by reviewing shopping data, taking note of what packaging works best for storage and store shelves, in addition to what types of packaging sell the most.

Specifically, design teams need to know:

  • Shelf dimensions
  • Rate of sale
  • Type of automated warehouse system
  • Distance traveled
  • Pallet type, weight, height, material, and signage

Understanding retailers’ specs in advance gives designers guidelines to conform to, decreasing the likelihood of needing to make changes as a result of material or production constraints.


Production Planning

Packaging production equipment should be a major forethought with respect to design. Perforation patterns may create issues if the package design doesn’t account for how the production equipment operates. Perforations in the wrong places will lead to tearing, which affects the strength of the packaging.

Packages should be designed to be unpacked as efficiently as possible, in bulk or when purchased individually off the store shelf. How easy the packaging is to open will depend upon the material it’s made from, along with the quality of opening instructions provided. Conversely, reducing the amount of packaging material or using a material with less durability may make packages easier to open and cost less, but at the expense of structural integrity during shipping and storage.

Develop and test multiple package prototypes to run through the production equipment for damage assessment, and also perform crush and drop tests. Give retailers and consumers even more confidence in your brand by investing in a certification from the International Safe Transit Association, demonstrating that the packaging meets test standard requirements for safe transit.


Consumer Needs

Acquire the necessary target market data based on research and analysis performed by the marketing team. Then, define the overall message the package should communicate to the desired consumers, including the exact product information, text, and/or instructions to be displayed on the packaging. If designed correctly, consumers will be able to determine the product’s purpose at first glance.

The next objective is getting consumers to elicit an emotional response. Toby Wilson, Chief Operating Officer of MW Luxury Packaging, adds, “If the journey is inspired and engaging, you not only get the consumer to purchase the product but they are very likely to also become ambassadors of the brand.”

This is the result of properly identifying a consumer’s pain points or priorities, which evoke the feeling of being understood, thus creating a connection with the brand and increasing the chance of he or she making the purchase.


Design Process

Now that retail requirements, production planning, and consumer needs are outlined, the design work may begin. Start by giving the design team mandatory branding and labeling requirements, and a deadline for their first iteration. Encourage them to create designs as if there are no restrictions and have the designers work independently to reduce design bias.

When the deadline is reached, review each designer’s prototype as a group. Allow each team member to present his or her design, after which other team members have a chance to provide feedback and ask questions. After reviewing each design, decide whether to have the team produce another round of prototypes or choose the best elements from each design to contribute to the final prototype. Then, have the team collaborate to complete one final prototype.

Time should be the only limit to the number of rounds of prototypes allowed.


Design Direction

“I strive for two things in design: simplicity and clarity. Great design is born of those two things.” - Lindon Leader

One of the most important aspects of a package’s design in the saturated CPG market is that it must be distinguishable from surrounding products and grab the consumer’s attention. This can be accomplished by following basic UI/UX design principles in tandem with an approach free of complexity and ambiguity.

A successful package design will create a sensory experience for consumers and, as mentioned before, strengthen their engagement with the product and the brand.


Renowned designer, Lindon Leader, said it best: simplify and clarify. Change the pace from the visual hodgepodge consumers see every day, like in grocery stores, shopping malls, and media ads. A good design doesn’t need to be loud to get noticed.

Base the design elements’ layout on grid alignments. Our brains are familiar with grid-like patterns we see in urban landscapes and nature, so when designs are distributed between 3- and 4-column layouts, they’re easy to look at.

Don’t attempt to fill every available space on the packaging. Instead, use white space to help emphasize certain components and lead viewers to what’s important; clean, minimalist design is timeless.


Colors communicate specific emotions. For example, Blue is associated with trust, loyalty, intelligence, and calmness, whereas Red is associated with energy, strength, power, and danger.

Use color to draw attention to a focal point on the packaging and also to differentiate between individual products in the same line (like different flavors). Select the appropriate color palette based on the desired emotions consumers should feel, but only use colors that interact well together.


Fonts displayed on the packaging should reflect the company brand, product line, or both. They should be clean, simple, and easy to read, which is facilitated by using contrasting font hierarchy (heading, subheading, body, etc.).

The use of Sans-Serif fonts (block/geometric lettering) and varying weights (bold, regular, light, etc.) helps guide the consumer’s eye along the text and interpret the most important information first.

Avoid using more than two different fonts, as well as script lettering.


The packaging material selected will be contingent on the design theme and consumer needs. Just like colors, the texture of a given material will evoke a specific feeling for consumers, so the material needs to be in line with the design theme.

Consumers are very aware of organizations’ environmental and social responsibilities. This means that, depending on the type and reputation of the organization, consumers may expect packaging to be biodegradable or renewable, and to be sustainably produced.

Consumer needs aside, CPG companies should make the reduction of packaging waste, and the packaging’s impact on the planet, a primary goal for every package design.


Consumers should be able to determine what’s inside the packaging almost instantly. One way to achieve this is by summarizing consumers’ pain points or priorities and displaying problem statements (think OTC medications).

Another means would be to use the product itself as part of the packaging design, with cutouts or transparency, essentially designing around the product and getting out of its way, like with light bulbs or food and beverage items.

If the packaging needs to provide instructions, use simple, easy-to-follow graphics with minimal text, assuming they don’t take away from the overall design.


Tailoring the package design to consumer needs by presenting a method to satisfy them is a great way for brands to connect with consumers and establish trust. Highlight the primary reason a consumer should purchase the product. Stay true to the brand’s vision, but don’t be afraid to step outside of the industry’s design norms.

Brand Awareness

Every product package should be used as an opportunity for brands to impress consumers and build a relationship. Because product packaging is typically a consumer’s initial interaction with the brand, he or she needs to remember this first impression as a positive experience.

The packaging material, branding, text, and graphics need to be a clear representation of the organization’s mission and values while not detracting from the overall packaging design.


It’s wise to use similar design concepts across product lines because it makes recognizing the brand and products easier for the consumer. However, if a given brand is big enough, it can create variants of branding elements and product packaging. These variants work well for temporary promotions because they give brands a unique opportunity to connect with consumers on a more intimate level or to connect with new consumers they may not have reached otherwise.



To survive in the highly competitive CPG market, organizations need to exploit every resource possible. Luckily, product packaging can do more than protect a product from the time it’s produced to the time it’s consumed.

Industry-leading companies are using packaging as part of their marketing strategies because it serves as many consumers’ introductions to these brands. Therefore, what the packaging is made of, how it’s made, and how it looks are all just as important as what it does. To produce innovative packaging designs that create connections with consumers is a constant battle, but is critical to attracting them, identifying their needs, and building foundations for lasting relationships.

Good packaging design has a single focal point: the product. Using the essential elements for smart packaging design explained above gives CPG organizations the necessary framework to efficiently communicate a product’s purpose and how it’s beneficial to the consumer, while simultaneously demonstrating empathy and establishing trust, key drivers of increased satisfaction and long-term loyalty.


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