4 Emerging Packaging Design Trends of 2016: Essentialism

By looking at the best packaging of the past year, one gets a picture of the world today. And if the design trends are an anecdote, the diagnosis is that the patient is overwhelmed. In economics there is an old idea that "every abundance creates a new scarcity." When one thing becomes popular, there is always a corresponding part that becomes more valuable because it has become rare. A few trendsetters will realize this shift, and start exploiting the scarcity, which grows in popularity until it becomes the new norm, and the cycle repeats. This is "fashion is fickle" read through an economic lens. This is the cycle we are all familiar with: trends coming and going—then coming back. Design is the catalyst driving this cycle. The role of design is to address the woes of the consumer, creating solutions and refreshing ideas. So by reading the design trends we take the pulse of the general public. This is the value in studying trends—and all history: we study the past so we may predict the future.

So what can we see? The message expressed again and again in this year's packaging is that consumers are overwhelmed. This year's designs are all about boiling down and simplifying. Today we have an abundance of information, choice, and messages. We have everything at our fingertips and the ability to be instantly connected to millions of people. This has many benefits—but the flip-side is that it is harder than ever to find what we want. We are divided, distracted, and overwhelmed. Therefore, we place a very high value on those who sift through the madness and abundance to filter out the signal in the noise. We pay a high price for those who curate, clarify, simplify, and discover the few meaningful, quality things that are buried deep in the haystack of the internet. We want simple, clear, digestible messages—because that is all we have time for and all we can handle. This is the antidote this year's designs push us towards.

This is not just minimalism. One might call it new minimalism—but a more apt name is essentialism. Where minimalism says "less is more," essentialism says "enough is enough." Minimalism strips away, essentialism focuses on the essential. There is a richness to essentialism that differentiates it from the philosophy of minimalism, which often comes off as stark and cold. Essentialism focuses on clarity of message and on creating an emotional state in the viewer that is fulfilled and satisfied. Happiness is an essential element.

Today, design's role is as much about discovering and articulating what is important as it is about shape and structure. Packaging designers must now be experience designers, directing the customer through the storm to a singular experience—because experiences are what today's customers are after. Packaging designers are now in charge of directing the experience, which leads to a connection with the product and a brand.

The designs of this year focus on shareability. Packaging is no longer simply about packaging the object—it is about the unboxing experience and art directing. This is where the process starts for designers today: you work backward from the Instagram image to the unboxing moment to the design that serves it. This too explains the shift towards basic design: large text spelling simple and straightforward messages, basic shapes making patterns in primary colors. Designers realize that packages are now billboard-like advertisements to be featured in photos and shared across social platforms. Thus, the benefit of a simple clear message stated in large bold letters gets repeated with every new viewer.

The task of the designer this year was clear: how can you articulate the value of the product in simple, approachable terms and connect with the consumer through the torrent of information? The answer manifested itself in a number of ways but ultimately remained the same: focus on the essential, eliminate the rest.

#1. ASAP - As Simple As Possible

In much of the best packaging of the year, there was clarity of purpose. The designers understood the purpose of the object and the thought process of their audience. In service of this, they simplified the message and stated it clearly and boldly across the face of the packaging. These designs are text-based and say what they are in no uncertain terms. They realize the value of a simple message in today's crowded world. The simplicity does not come off as lazy or incomplete but refreshing and honest. This is the manifestation of the idea: clarify not simplify. These designs identified exactly what the customer was searching for and expressed it simply. It comes off as powerful and trustworthy. As you walk the aisles or sift through your mail—here you see one shining beacon that speaks to you in words you can understand and connect with.


A great example of clear design is Tylenol's Care+ packaging. The face of the package simply proclaims: "I have a Cough,' or 'I have a Fever." They understood the mindset of the customer: stumbling down the aisle, not feeling well, just wanting to get back in bed, repeating to themselves over and over in their head as they search through the undifferentiated products stuffed in the shelves: "Cough medicine... I have a cough... cough." Then they read the label on this simple package and it is as if it read their mind. The shape of the bottle is simplified to look like a giant pill. This too furthers the goal of articulating the essential: pill = medicine, the label explains what kind. This design is particularly refreshing in an industry whose packaging is known for being covered in words no one can pronounce. This jumps off the shelf as the one thing that can diagnose and cure you in terms you can understand. And simple does not mean low-tech. Tylenol Care+ is enhanced with smart technology, such as NFC, E-ink, Flexible OLED, and Bluetooth technology, to provide convenience and assurance to the safety of the user. For products which mean the difference between sickness and health, the stakes are high, and the value of a clear message with only essential elements is of the utmost importance.


Another example of how seemingly simple design can be emotional, exciting, and suspense-building is the Drexel University Online Acceptance Kit. For prospective students frantically checking the mail each day hoping to find the large acceptance letter to the school of their dreams, this design stands out like a beacon. The blank faces of other envelopes fade away at the sight of this. What’s more, this box is specifically for students enrolling in online courses who aren’t even expecting an acceptance package in the mail. This little box fosters excitement and school spirit. In tall, bold, sans-serif letters, the box proclaims: "Your Journey Starts Here." The bold statement on the front of the box lets the receiver celebrate without even opening the box. One can imagine eager young students holding up the box, shaking it, and dancing with it in excitement. The nervousness is converted to joy and anticipation of joining a new university. College applications and acceptances is another field that is mired in complexity, endless forms, nerves, and letters of recommendation. This simple message is a message of relief: the uneasiness is over, let the fun of this new journey begin now.


Catherine Adreani strips down design to its basic and created a line of hygienic products that focus on simplicity. This line of packaging stands out because of it’s subtlety. This is yet another example of how clarity can act as the signal in the noise of crowded shelves. The slogan says, “Un-choose choice, go with straightforward.” This is an overt attempt to appeal to the overwhelmed customer buried under a mountain of choice. Simple is open, open is trustworthy.


Trident Xtra Care pushes the concept of essentialism in design to a new level, eliminating words, using minimal graphics and the product itself to display its purpose. A window in the packaging displays the gum as teeth. Like all good design, the solution is not merely clever, it is relevant. Trident Xtra Care is a sugar-free gum that helps protect teeth and gums in between meals and gives a whiter brighter smile. The packaging design expresses this through the structure of the packet. It states the mission with no words, yet still communicates humor, fun, and quality.


#2. GEOMETRY 101

Extending the theme of simple means of communication, this next trend applies the philosophy to graphic design. While the first trend focuses on clarity of message through font and copywriting, this theme is centered around expressing simplicity, approachability, and honesty through patterns and shapes. The patterns that have been repeated in much of this year's best packaging feature the most basic shapes in limited color palettes. Circles, triangles, and squares, oh my! The color palettes are often monochromatic or high contrast, black and white. Again, this is an attempt to treat the mindset of a weary, overwhelmed consumer. Particularly in industries with over-the-top design, these reduced approaches standout. Familiar shapes, colors, and patterns communicate an awareness of the world and a sensitivity to the consumer.


Corinne Cosmetics demonstrates the power of elementary geometric patterns on a reduced color palette. Designs must be conceived in the context of their category—only then can they have the desired effects of being differentiated. The simplicity of the shapes and color palette communicate the values of the brand. Cosmetics is another category that is extremely competitive. The industry is populated with frilly, over-glamorized brands seeking glitter and polish to attract customers from their crowded shelves. Corinne Cosmetics differentiates itself by not playing this game. This seeming inward focus translates into the mind of the customer as a focus on quality, lack of desperation, and a coolness that is hard to find—yet exactly what each consumer of cosmetics wants to feel. The customer thinks: "All of these other brands look desperate compared to Corinne—I don't want to be desperate, I'll buy Corinne."


Kindo is a “Shop for little ones” in San Pedro Garza Garcia, Mexico. It uses a pop-style palette of colorful though not too vibrant hues and basic shapes to create an inviting mood. Instantly you are in a good mood, at ease, and curious to learn more. If you were wandering the streets San Pedro Garza Garcia and came upon this friendly design you would surely wander inside. And if you do wander in, you would be treated to a physical manifestation of the graphic design. A designer’s jungle-gym awaits. Full of simple colors and shapes, Kindo’s brand and interior design creates a connection built on trust and fun with both adults and children.


Meld answers the question, “How can innovative brand and packaging solutions be a catalyst for busy people to improve their eating?” Meld creates a solution by building a graphic and packaging language that helps consumers navigate the grocery store to create balanced meals. The simple geometric shapes of both the graphic design and the structure of the packaging communicate Meld’s values: honesty, openness, and natural approachable goodness. They are working to make eating healthy simpler—and their design truly expresses this. Meld offers the best of two worlds: fast-moving consumer good convenience and healthy whole foods. It seeks to improve both consumer health and minimize environmental waste by reducing the quantity of food consumed and excess food disposed of. Meld promotes a healthy lifestyle inside and out.


Don & Brook is a Cairo-based menswear brand that built a brand identity and packaging solution around a simple graphic pattern. The style is clean, simple and bold. The pattern is cleverly translated on all the brand assets, from the die-cut hang tag to the pattern on the on garment labels. The elementary shapes in the graphic design are also extended to the shape of the packaging. A basic craft tube carries t-shirts; rectangular boxes carry other items. 



Another trend manifesting itself this year is the idealization of the past—a longing for simpler times when things were cared for, made by hand, and detail-oriented. But these designs are not simply regurgitating old forms and techniques, they are modernizing them and combining them in new ways. This new take on what is old is refreshing because it selects the best parts of different periods of our history and juxtaposes them. These designers realize the increasing rareness of endangered techniques like calligraphy, letterpress, and foiling. These artisanal practices grow more and more desired each year. In the mind of the consumer, they are increasingly novel and related to greater value. But far from merely being historical, these techniques are being re-imagined in the context of mid-century layouts and applied to a 21st Century, cutting-edge materials.


Don Papa is a premium small batch rum from the isle of Negros Occidental, the Philippines. Stranger & Stranger recently designed the packaging for Don Papa's 10-year edition, which features the brand's namesake among local flora and fauna as it undulates around, wrapping the bottle. Combining a vintage bottle shape, a rustic cork, and ornate illustration, this product stands out for its bold old-fashioned style. This design solution understands what customers are looking for as they shop for alcohol: quality, history, and personal touch.


Shadow beer is inspired by “black magic,” which symbolizes the supernatural powers that cannot be seen with naked eyes. The eye logo is the portal to that spiritual essence. The design accentuates the natural qualities of the product: it is a dark beer, the graphic elements draw on mystical elements. In the six pack of Shadow, each bottle has a different taste indicating a “different personality,” and they are represented on the labels as witches hands, scales, swords, the moon, the sun, and fire.


This trend is not just limited to alcohol brands. In many categories there is a desire in the customer to return to a simpler version. Ice cream and frozen pops is another category that stokes the flames of nostalgia. Dr. Feelgood’s brand is built to be reminiscent of a 1950’s style ice cream brand. Ornate lettering in a minimal retro color palette screen printed onto craft boxes creates a vintage feel. But this too is a fusion of old and new. This isn’t your grandpa’s popsicle: Dr. Feelgood makes popsicles that are all-natural, dairy-free with no refined sugar. With that in mind, there is no reason to feel guilty if you decide to go in for seconds.


Applying this aesthetic to the brand identity and packaging family for a bakery created something familiar but novel. Keeping tradition in mind, Scandinavian Design Group designed Bakehuset, a Norwegian bread company that wanted to keep homemade, unique characteristics in mind. The design incorporates breadboards and utilizes kraft paper to keep the homey feel. The color palette is limited to mainly black. The graphics in the background of the label are drawn in the style of an old woodcut print. The use of high contrast and vintage graphics create a novel feeling that is at the same time refreshing and old-fashioned.



Another bright spot of designs this year is a focus on making products that live on the shelf in your home more beautifully. Designing objects this way creates a shift in the mind of the customer from disposability to keepability and from a tendency to hide the objects to a pride in sharing them. Objects that once were shoved away in the bathroom or closed in kitchen cabinets can now be proudly left in the open. Not only does this increase the joy of the end-user but the object itself remains in sight, increasing the number of eyeballs and potential customers. Whether it is chocolate bar packaging, jars of food, or boxes for tampons, design makes these objects human. This is a focus on the longevity of the product, giving it new life, not only through material selection but with branding and graphic design too.


Chocolate bar packaging has exploded in the last few years due to the success of Mast Brothers and a few other well-designed chocolate brands. The Adventurous Blends of William Whistle takes up this trend with gusto. Including a well-developed story element and personality, the designs of these bars are a fun element to keep on the coffee table or around the office. This is a new requirement of chocolate packaging to act almost as high-end art objects. They add to whatever surface they are on by being attractive (and delicious).


Handwritten type and wiggly illustrations wrap around the little Don Matias jars. In a style that is reminiscent of your grandma’s pantry, these designs add style to your shelf and flavor to your food. Another product that is all of a sudden ready to be proudly displayed, the design adds value to the brand and to the customer. It makes the customer cool for finding a small batch food, and it makes the brand more visible. This style conveys an artisanal spirit, rustic heritage, and honest ingredients. Because of the humanness to these designs, one imagines an Italian nonna making these little delights from an old family recipe. A whole story is built in the customer’s head from the simple hand-drawn illustrations and lettering.


The Honest Company released a new line of feminine care packaging following the trend of a focus on display-ability on the customer’s shelf. Delicate hand-drawn patterns wrap around each box. Different boxes are clean and open but highlighted with a pop of a few pastel colors. Fun quotes within each box create a mood of conviviality and lightness. As Honest Company says, "We believe feminine care packaging should be stylish and approachable. Not something to hide away in your bathroom cabinet—a box you can comfortably display on your counter. Each absorbency option has its own unique pattern and color. These help guide our customers towards their individual needs. We can’t get rid of your cramps, headaches, bloating, back pain, or mood swings (we would if we could!), but we can do feminine care differently."


Nutrilinx is a brand and packaging solution for a fictional dietary supplement company. The physical bottle of the package is inspired by vintage potion and medicine bottles added with a modern humanistic touch to differentiate itself from the other brand on the shelves. The information on the package is also kept to a minimal first and second read of what's inside the bottle and how does it help your body. The front label is simplified as much as possible and the friendly color palette creates a much nicer feel than standard pill bottles. This design is something that adds rather than detracts to the customers shelf.



Written by Grant Wenzlau

Grant is a founding partner of the Los Angeles based design studio, Osso. He is also the managing editor of HOW magazine, and a co-founder of Tinker Watches. When he is not doing these super fun and exciting thinks he is most likely driving in his Jeep.