The 4th Dimension of Package Design

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If you are a package designer, life has not been very complicated for the last 150 years or so. That’s not to say its been easy, just not complex. But things are about to change, and radically.

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During this period of time, even through the many stages of growth and maturation of the retail culture, the package has historically remained a “read only” medium. Just like books, magazines, newspapers, music CDs, and even TV, packages have done a lot of talking, but not much listening. And while the package has arguably been the most important long-term brand symbol for most CPG brands, it has certainly played only a passive role in the brand’s conversation with its community. 

But books have begun to talk, movies on DVD have become interactive, newspapers and magazines have a live and dynamic online presence, and even our friends in advertising have begun to notice that the world is a conversation not a stand-up routine. 

Because this new conversation is beginning, the responsibilities of a package are changing . . . and fast. The days when a package would sit expectantly on the shelf with a big smile on its face, hoping to be taken home, and once home simply wait anxiously in the cupboard to be consumed, and then quietly disposed of, are almost certainly gone.

Throughout history we only expected three things from a package. First it protected the product during manufacture, distribution, retailing, and storage at point of use. Second it obviously identified the contents. And more recently we began to use the package as the primary long-term vehicle to communicate brand heritage. Some did it well, some not, but these were the 3 dimensions of package design. And this was all we expected of a package for most of the 20th century. 

Let’s be honest, we spent a lot of time perfecting creative processes and research techniques that could identify and assess the most compelling and relevant visual elements of a brand identity as represented on a package. Again that’s not to say it was easy, just not complex. And just like the music, movie and publishing industry, we gave each other awards for the best looking box, bottle or bag and congratulated ourselves, year after year, on work well done. We had it figured out, right? 

But look around. The package is no different from any other form of communication, all of which are being radically transformed. We are entering a period when it will be expected to play a fourth role, and a completely new one . . . being a connected member of the community. This will be the most radical functional transformation of its role, perhaps since the 19th century.  

The retail package is becoming a live, connected, interactive, proactive, customizable, more valuable member of its community. Scanning technology, smart phones, smart refrigerators, retail display innovations, new package materials, and other technologies are all helping this innovation.

The Technology

Obviously the much-discussed capabilities of the smart phone will be one of the most robust enabling technologies. Today using ScanLife with 3D barcodes, SpyderLynk with coded logos, or simply an existing UPC symbol and a technology like Yelp with monocle, you can link the web browser on your phone to any consumer brand site.

This will change the conversation completely. Every brand medium, from traditional advertising, to Internet blogs, to user generated YouTube videos will be available to you at the retail shelf. 

The Consumer

The consumer is getting involved, and technology isn’t limited to the phone. Wikitude-like applications will allow you to browse the store landscape and locate appropriate products. 

And this interactivity will not be limited to the retail experience. Devices like SixthSense, being developed at MIT, will offer a much richer interface for the consumer at all times and in all places. You will select a package and have the device pull all the relevant information you feel is important for an informed lifestyle decision from its Internet browser, live. Do you have a nut allergy, is the product organic, less expensive than a competing brand, made in the USA, any criteria you choose can be searched right then and there. SixthSense can even be preprogrammed to help you select only products that meet your criteria.

The European Hydra project has developed technology linking the Internet of Objects. With this has come smart appliances, combined with RFID tagged packages, which today can do things like help you remotely develop a menu or shopping list based on what is or is not in your refrigerator, or program your oven to cook an entrée precisely. 

The Marketer

For marketers this technology allows them to offer consumer access to information that is far beyond the current ingredient statements and nutrition fact boxes. Brands like Stone Buhr Flour, Dole Organic bananas and Askinosie Chocolate all have tools on their package that allow consumers to trace the ingredients back to the source. And for Patagonia this could be linked with a portion of their site called the Footprint Chronicles, giving a rich understanding of the origin of a piece of clothing and its materials.  

The Retailer

For the retailer this opens up opportunities, like live coupons on cell phones that are already in place. For Walmart it could mean in-store or at-home access to the sustainability tab on their website. Or ideas like the Norma Kamali retail store where a shopper has the ability, with ScanLife, to get information on any piece of clothing on display, and even order an item in the window when the store is closed.

For Lego this technology has allowed them to develop a truly amazing interactive point of sale display. When a shopper holds any Lego package in front of a viewing screen, the screen shows a moving 3D virtual image of the completed toy. The shopper can view all angles of the toy, working and moving in real time, as the package is rotated in their hands. 

The Future

In the past, I have heard a lot of hyperbole about the changing retail environment, and discussions of how holographic packaging, or talking retail displays, or battery operated shelf inserts were going to change the world of retailing. But all of these are one-dimensional “push” technology spewing out information that the manufacturer or retailer think you may want to hear. And certainly not tailored to your specific interests or needs.

But if you feel, as I do, that the next important change for products will be to make them interactive, then you must believe the package will become an integral part of that brand experience. Not just designed for the shelf but for the whole lifecycle of the product. 

We as package designers will need to start working harder for our clients and their brands, by creating a new 4th dimension for the package. This will mean not just engineering an appealing structure that protects the product, and not just creating unique graphics to identify the contents, or even creating a rich brand identity. We must also begin to imagine the role a package can play in the connected, interactive conversation with our customers, and then implement that vision for our clients. 

So for package designers the future holds a couple challenges. 

We must learn to communicate more . . . We will do this by presenting a brand equity on the package that is part of a larger more integrated experience, not just for the shelf.

We must learn to communicate less . . . We will do this by presenting a brand equity on the package using only its most essential elements, because the connected lifestyle using all forms of media will be able to communicate everything else.

In an age when consumer access to product information at the store and in use is instantaneous, the question will not be, what do we need the box to say on shelf, and how loudly do we need to say it, but what role do we want the box to play in the entire lifecycle of the brand, and the lifestyle of the consumer. 

That sounds like fun!

By Richard Shear

Richard Shear graduated from Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and began his career with Lois/Chajet Design Group, a venture of the legendary AIGA Medalist, George Lois and British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next position, at Lippincott & Margulies, he was engaged in the complex skills of global brand identity.

In 1993 he founded The Shear Partnership, and has developed brand identity and package design programs in a wide variety of consumer product industries for clients including Ahold, Coca-Cola, Estée Lauder, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Proctor & Gamble.

Richard is a founding board member of the new AIGA Metro-North chapter, a past President of the AIGA¹s Brand Design Association, and President of the Package Design Council. He is a Faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at The School of Visual Arts, and has written and lectured widely on the vital role of design and the creative process. His work has won numerous awards, most recently a Gold Award at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

As a member of USA Cycling and USA Rowing, Richard is a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of the Saugatuck Rowing Club, the current masters club National Champion.

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