Opinion: Black Box, White Box

This week's opinion piece comes from Rory Fegan, Brand Strategy Director at Pearlfisher. As consumers continue to favor digital over retail, Rory shares his thoughts on how retailers can redefine their approach to keep up with changing consumer shopping patterns. 

As FMCG retail seems to be going the way of retail elsewhere, favoring digital purchase over physical interaction, what is the future role of design? We believe that brands need to further redefine their approach to match consumer motivation and embrace a more distinct split – and distinct design approach – between online and offline purchases. 

It is looking increasingly likely that online will become the dominant retail force. 


Click and convenience is undoubtedly the new mindset, particularly when it comes to store cupboard basics that we religiously buy weekly. Services like Soap.com now allow us to order these staples from the comfort of our own home. 

Of course we need these products but that doesn’t mean we necessarily think about them or enjoy shopping for them. Competition for market share is aggressive and, as a result, brands need to find new ways to capitalize on this. The products themselves are king in these categories, which results in branded packaging having a far more functional role to play: one of safety, security and delivery. This is what we term “white box thinking” (designing for the online experience) – a place where the product rules and its supporting information can be found online. 

There is a big opportunity here for brand design agencies to design the online experiences for products which are second nature to us, creating seamless product experiences that favour the online environment – moving beyond the functional to create interaction between product and product, product and consumer and even consumer and consumer. In fact, for us, it is the ultimate environment to put our digital skills into practice. 

But offline, there is an equally desirable and important proposition for the physical retail environment. Here it is about focusing attention and maximizing the appeal of the products we want, the kind of things we enjoy shopping for, the kind of things that inspire connoisseurship and engagement. Wine, fine coffee, chocolate - and we are seeing brands respond to this in two ways.

Firstly, brands are looking for new ways to better tell their story through their packaging design. Secondly, brands are looking for new ways to create immersive and memorable experiences.

We believe this type of luxury and indulgent purchase would sit very happily in more specific boutique concepts, retail environments such as the dedicated Nespresso outlets created to enhance the consumer knowledge and experience of the brand. The opportunity lies with creating new places and spaces where brand is king and product plays second fiddle. This is what we are calling “black box thinking” (designing for retail experience), where layers of information seek to support the brand experience turning shopping into a pleasure (destination) rather than a chore. 

It’s about how, with the right approach to brand space and an appreciation of the new black and white roles of brand packaging and design, brands can reinforce their ownership of both the aisles and the Internet. By creating effective, desirable and inspirational design for impact on shelf and online at 20 pixels, brands will better connect with their consumers and consumers will truly connect with a more modal way of shopping in the future.

By Rory Fegan 

Rory combines logic, substance and storytelling to create compelling narratives that bring depth and richness to the brands Pearlfisher work with. Creative, yet analytical, he’s able to translate future insight into pioneering brand strategy, focusing in on a single strong idea and following it through to fruition. With an MA in Design from Central Saint Martins, Rory has an understanding and depth of knowledge about design that remains relatively rare among strategists. For Pearlfisher, it’s a valuable skill that translates into considered, constructive and well-crafted strategy that takes into account their designers’ needs as well as their clients’ aspirations. Imaginative and intuitive, Rory is full of ideas about how brands can use design to communicate – all inspired by his healthy curiosity into what makes people tick.