There’s an old saying that people shop with their hands, specifically when it comes to clothing.
The same is true when it comes to packaged goods. The tactile quality of a product is an essential part of a designer’s toolbox—the key to eliciting a visceral emotion. Perhaps it's something that reminds you of how your grandmother's scarf felt or how an unbleached tortilla chip bag somehow feels humble and true.
This kind of packaging solution used to be solely judged by simple metrics. Does it compel the consumer to pick up the product and ultimately purchase it? But things have changed because of online retail and social media. Without the clutter of competing goods on retail shelves, and with transparency being so critical for today's consumers, people now see everything online—the packaging, product, and ingredients—before it arrives at their door. This higher level of access has made things easier for customers, but it’s also influenced packaging trends, leading to e-commerce formatted, Instagram-ready visual adaptations. Today’s brick-and-mortar stores must compete with online retail, so they need to capitalize on their in-person audience through the physicality of the product and its packaging.
It’s essential for brands that live in traditional retail environments to incorporate moments of discovery, surprise, and delight into the packaging to future-proof their products in a world where there are endless opportunities to define and redefine the brand experience.
There are many ways of creating packaging that stands out, but one of the first steps should be to focus on design, color, and materiality. These are significant considerations and the best way to differentiate any brand or product, especially when dealing with an in-store audience.
Even small details designed to be enjoyed in person instead of on a screen can make all the difference. When designing the labels for a line of sauces, marinades, dressings, and vinaigrettes for chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Seaport marketplace and food hall called Tin Building, we decided that all 46 products and flavors should share the same green color palette. That way, we could solidify their relation to the core parent brand. However, to elevate the line, we also chose to convey the idea of “premium,” not by using the more predictable gold embellishments, fancy embossings, or varnishes, but rather green foil.
This green-on-green, reflective-on-matte effect offers a unique and unexpected visual detail that remains uncommon in food packaging. And while it may be less striking when viewed digitally, it’s sure to turn some heads when viewed in person on store shelves.
The instinct with most packaging is to go big—but there’s a cost to designing something that outshines the product.
Recently I scoured the web in search of a super thin iPhone case. I came across a brand that seemed to be at the forefront of a niche market. Their price, well above their competitors, reflected that. I was sold. When the package arrived on my doorstep, I was treated to an elegant package that resembled a small, hard-cover book—clean, minimal, adorned with some clever copywriting, and a magnetic closure that would make any ASMR fanatic melt.
But, inside that great packaging was an incredibly cheap, barely protective, injection-molded, plastic iPhone case that could not have cost more than 5¢ to make. The packaging, on the other hand, had to have cost closer to $5.
It’s possible for packaging to outshine what it’s selling. When that happens, it risks setting expectations that lead to costly disappointment for brands relying on in-store success. Instead, packaging should use design to tell a story that is true to the brand and the product, well-designed but forthright about whether it’s a premium product or an everyday item.
In-store package design comes with a lot of visual competition from all sorts of products. That doesn’t have to be a hurdle—it's an opportunity to analyze the landscape. It’s imperative to look at competitors—whether they be direct or indirect—to know if you’re doing something truly unique.
When you have a brand with hundreds of SKUs displayed together, there's an opportunity to create a hugely impactful shelf presence through the design choices you make. Take any opportunity to visually group brand products together with the idea that, when you’re designing many products that live side-by-side, it’s easier to make a visual impact on the shelf.
Commonly, brands and designers do this with color. Again, for the Tin Building, we used this color-centered approach for not only the branded teas, olive oils, vinegars, and sauces, but the gradient-based confectionery packaging for Spoiled Parrot, Tin Building's private-label candy brand. After all, what better way to convey a joyous and nostalgic candy emporium than a whole section boasting a rainbow's worth of colors?
Just because the purchasing process has evolved to include e-commerce doesn’t mean packaging should be an afterthought. In fact, for traditional retail brands, it’s quite the opposite. Packaging is one of the strongest assets brands have to stand out on a shelf display, whether through copy, color, composition, or other means of communicating the qualities that make the product unique.