Design is limitless. If you are a designer it is important you understand this. I personally have always had mixed feelings about this, excitement on one end, overwhelm in the other. It is also important not to forget this limitlessness when you design, time and experience can do that to you, but you have to make sure you are always aware when you’re creating something new, even if it fills you up with anxiety. This is how, in my opinion, you make good design, or at least one of the things that help making good design. It’s about pushing the limits, to do something that hasn’t been done before, something that will make people buy, and hopefully buy again. That’s the ultimate goal of the service we provide.
This concept of limitlessness becomes extra challenged with packaging design. The buying experience on shelf it’s delicate, it’s unconscious, it’s personal, and, most importantly, it happens fast. Very fast. You only have a few seconds to seal the deal, so you can’t rely on a long story full of details to convince your customer. Actually, you can’t really “tell” much, you have to “show”. And the way to show is with design.
Have you ever wondered why milk packaging looks like milk packaging? Imagine you’re in a new store, different state or even country, looking for milk. You suddenly see actual cheese and suspect you’re in the dairy section, you look around a bit more and all of the sudden, there it is: 10 feet away, you recognize the milk shelf. If you were in France, for example, you probably wouldn’t know any of the brands there, but without reading a single word (because it’s French, of course) you would just know it’s milk. Even if you were in Japan, wouldn't you buy the example on the right without any doubt that what you were buying was milk? But why? How do we know this?
You know because the packaging design fits within the category, which means it meets your expectations of what milk packaging should look like. It’s probably contained inside a carton or milk bottle, have a picture of pouring milk with a nice splash, clean big logo at the top, probably a cow somewhere, different SKUs in red, blue and green… It’s very unconscious, but this expectations almost form like a whole new language in our brains. You might even correctly guess that red is whole, blue is 1% and green 2% without having to read a single word.
From a design point of view, it isn't hard to make a design that fits in, you just need a good packaging designer to make it happen. But to stand out... well, that's a different story. If you were in Japan, you would probably choose the milk that fits in the most, that is the milk that looks more like milk. This would be an instinctive process, because you don't want to risk to, for example, buy cream instead of milk.
Now picture yourself in your store, the one you always go to, the one where you already know where the milk shelf is. Let's imagine also that you're feeling a little adventurous that day and feel like trying something new like, for example, Almond Milk. Your friend told you that it's healthier than dairy milk so you decided to give it a try and all of the sudden you see this beautiful packaging... You have no idea why, but it just looks healthier than all the others. You are also convinced that, although you have never tasted almond milk before, this one is just delicious... Absolutely thrilled, you decide to buy it and can't wait to try it! But why? why would you feel that way about something you have never tried before?
You feel this way because this particular packaging told you a story and you made a connection with it. It became personal. It stood out to you surrounded by all the other unexciting, uninteresting almond milk packaging. Good packaging should stand out. It should get your customer's attention and speak directly to them. Because is this type of connection what makes packaging sell.
The Limits and The Risks
If a packaging fits in "too much" it starts blending so well that it begins to disappear. It becomes invisible or even worse, mainstream. Unless a product is intended to be the cheapest option on the shelf, being mainstream isn't a good thing. In the other end of the spectrum, if a packaging stands out too much it could be mistakenly recognized as part of a different category. So in a way, just like fitting in too much, it also disappears. Customers simply won't consider it an option, because they will assume it's something else, too different to even be what I'm looking for.
Studying and understanding the different categories is key, finding out where your product needs to fit in to compete, and give it the impact to really stand out. Standing out in the right category is what's going to make a product sell. That is if the product is really good, of course, but that's a conversation for some other day. In the meantime, we need to focus on the balance between these two. Because packaging design success lives somewhere between them. Not too close, not to far. Balance is key, and to find the sweet spot between fitting in and standing out isn't easy, but it's what it takes to create great packaging that sells.