The Future of Packaging: From Brand Design to Biomimicry

We are now well into another new year when we all inevitably look to the future. But imagine if we were 100 years ahead in 2115, looking back on 2015. 100 years from now just how would the world be and what would we think about how we got there? If we were beings in the future looking back on the current state of society, our packaging and its design would prove a fantastic historic artefact, telling us something fundamental about the state of our world, consumption, peoples' needs and behaviours. Maybe – by being conscious of our wasteful acts of consumption today - we will have designed a better world. Or, maybe we will have starved the world of resources and be paying the price.

Seismic and expedient change is now upon us whether we like or not. But progress cannot be realized unless all the big ideas are brought to life in an impactful and relevant way. And this is where design comes into play. Design is not just one of the most impactful agents of change but it is essential to culture and problem solving. We now, more than ever before, need to harness a future design mindset and use it to feed the human condition, create a world of abundance and to store what we need for future generations to come.

My vision of the world 100 years from now takes us on a journey from brand design to technological integration, materials revolution, biomimicry and beyond.

But to truly imagine the future - and create an inspiring picture of how people, products and brands will interact and behave 100 years from now - we first need to look to the past to understand the continuum we are on.

If we go right back to the earliest form of packaging, some 14,000 years ago, we find cups made from human skulls - fashioned through real skill, pure resourcefulness and inherent sustainability. If we leap forward to as relatively recently as 2-3000 years ago, we start to see intelligence of civilisation reflected in the form of large storage urns – the first portable and mass-produced packaging – with design detail referencing origin and culture, organized living and sustenance. Branding emerged in the last three hundred years as a guarantee of quality in an emerging industrialized world - and has become a fine art in the last 50 years as we turned into first a consumerist and then a totally connected world.

And so, in the present day, we are living in a brand-defining era: with a plethora of brands and products providing an overwhelming, but often confusing, world of choice that fit our inner or outer-directed needs. The skull cups referenced earlier may have sounded grotesque but so now are the overly excessive design cues and material wastefulness used to support brand identity, perceived innovation and differentiation. This is particularly evident in, for example, the celebrity perfume and luxury drinks markets with (ironically) brands like Crystal Skull.

In the future, and more specifically if we look at a timeline for the next 100 years, experts believe that we will start to see unbelievable advancement at a rate normally seen over 1000 years. Rapid progress will mean that ultimately it will become a world of the ‘have’s’ and ‘have not’s’ driven by global technological connectedness for all and population growth specifically focused in our swelling cities around the world.

Technology, automated home delivery and increased personalization will be providing pure product and improved personal service with less focus on the brand. The product will take over from the brand experience as a form of mental and sensorial engagement.

Consumers will buy from service providers rather than sellers of products. This is already beginning to happen with music and entertainment but we will innovate further with companies like Amazon and its drone initiative showing the way. Moving forward, we may buy light rather than light bulbs, an entire personal care experience rather than shampoo and shower gel.

Mass connectedness, mass bespoke and technological delivery and built-in sustainability will be the key drivers and at the point of convergence. We will look to better re-purpose and create home production and natural solutions centred around a person’s lifestyle and eco systems to minimize waste and energy use. Appliances that automatically order, manufacture and cook food when needed; packaging with smart communicative substrates containing products, individually customized to the DNA, mood, chemical, and emotional level of the individual will lead to the home production of everything: from, for example, a return to fresh foods balanced alongside the new creation of synthetically printed foods. All of this will mean that we will totally change our relationship with both brands and products.

Biomimicry and smart material revolutions will mean that packaging will perform functions that can be barely grasped at the moment. New and high-performance materials like Graphene, that are super-strong, conductive and lightweight, will become the smart choice and will signal the dissolution of existing material choices. Nano tech will mean that we will find ways to protect food resulting in live packaging that will reduce along with the consumption and provide innovative ways for us to transport, store and reuse materials.

And as we stretch out from 50 to one hundred years from now our society will be in a very different place and, I hope, so much better as the alternative is not worth thinking about. 

Optimistically, I feel we are at a watershed moment now and I would like to think that people in the next century will look back at the present time as the moment when, with our global connectedness and consciousness, we began to think about our long-term problems and started to design them out. 

Our understanding of ourselves, our place on this fickle planet, and how we consume from it sustainably, is progressing at a pace so fast that change for good has to come. That said, in such a recently connected world of unstoppable progress, we still have to get over some obstacles arising through cultural and religious conflicts.

Maybe 100 years from now we, as a species, will all exist in a state where we are able to produce exactly what we need with zero waste and positive environmental impact - perhaps even mining the landfills of today to repurpose our excessive waste of the last century. Other breakthroughs, that are maybe not so far off, such as the tapping into and free distribution of solar energy (much like the internet has done with knowledge) will help us to produce food and drink in inordinate quantities, with minimal impact on the environment. And, therefore, maybe we will see packaging taking on its former role to become much like the urns of the past: simply for storage and distribution. 

Thus, as we design out the problems that affect and connect us all it will allow this fragile Earth to restore its own levels of biodiversity. And this means, that along with the humans who harvest it, we will have overcome the scourge of society today – starvation, illness and obesity – and returned to a truly symbiotic picture of wellness and health. 


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Jonathan Ford is Founding Partner and CCO at Pearlfisher 

‘The Future of Packaging’ was a keynote speech first presented by Jonathan Ford at the inaugural The Dieline Summit in Paris, November 2014 http://www.thedielinesummit.com/#home