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Channeling packaging cues into Creative Thinking

By Niki Esguerra

I can’t pinpoint exactly when my love for packaging began. What I do remember is that the beginning of my relationship with materials and packaging design was anything but joyful.

Photo of a die-cut box from Kiehl's

It was my first year in art school, and we were required to cut out and assemble a cube from a sheet of vellum board. I remember my professor showing us a simple, white box and as he was showing it, I scoffed to myself and said, “This is too easy.”

Indeed, on the outside, the box was plain and unimposing. However, I realized I would eat my own words the moment my professor opened the box: the challenge was to assemble other various three-dimensional pieces that would fit perfectly together inside—sort of like a puzzle in a cube.

As simple as it might sound, there is a lot of thought and precision put into each piece. The night before the deadline, I cried out of frustration for a few hours or so, as I realized that I greatly underestimated the process.

Despite my struggle at the time, I felt a newfound respect for artists, more so for packaging designers. This eventually grew into my current hobby of collecting all sorts of packaging and printed materials.

What does it take to design good packaging?

Throughout the years, I learned that the precision of the die-cut box itself was only one part of the story.

A lot is taken into consideration: designers think about what colors to use and how they would come out when printed. We also think about the type of material the design will be printed on. Will it be on paper? Is the paper coated or uncoated? How thick should it be?

Photo of different packaging from skincare brands

Take for example newsprint paper. In the digital design phase, we have to consider using color values that aren’t too “heavy”. Otherwise, once printed, the ink would appear much darker than it would on screen, or even “bleed” and appear blurry because the paper is too thin to absorb the ink.

Other than design elements like the placement of text and the colors, we also think about how a person will interact with the final packaging. After all, packaging, as with any design, is not just something to look at.

Form and function

Although aesthetically simple, my favorite design is the triangular onigiri wrappers that you get at Japanese convenience stores.

Photo by Samia Liamani on Unsplash

Great design should not only be pleasing to the eyes but also be intuitive and easy to “navigate” even without instructions. Onigiri wrappers capture this best.

Most of the time, onigiri wrappers have little to no actual graphics printed on the plastic, save for a few numbers indicating the steps on how to properly open the wrapper.

The plastic itself is cut in such a way that even without the numbering, you’ll eventually figure out that you have to first pull the tab that’s sticking out from the top.

Local examples

In our own convenience stores here in the Philippines, we can see this even in the most common products.

7-Eleven’s Crunch Carrier visually captures the brand with its use of warm brown and orange colors in the printed design. Even the rounded, pudgy shape of the box indicates the crunchy, scrumptious chicken inside.

Other than the visual cues, you have what you call a “hang tab” showing that the carrier is safe to, well, carry. The two “tab locks” show how it can be sealed, and re-sealed for safekeeping.

As I’m writing this, I’m having trouble putting into words how to open the box, because under normal circumstances, we won’t have to explain it anyway—the design of the box itself is the instruction.

Every design choice matters

Before the pandemic, when my family or friends would go out of town or abroad, I’d always ask for “pasalubong”. These could be maps, postcards, paper shopping bags, and even food wrappers.

On the surface, it might seem like I’m just hoarding “pretty things”, but there’s always something you can learn from the work of other designers. When I find myself stuck with a layout design—even if it’s not for print—sometimes I look through my collection, just to get an idea of how other designers think. How did they fit and lay out the blocks of text? Why did they choose this font? Who is this design or product for?

In hindsight, I believe my love for collecting packaging comes from my appreciation of the work and thought processes put into creative work in general.

I hope that by sharing this, even the rows of canned sardines at the grocery aren’t thought of as just clunky metal containers. I believe that in ordinary things, we can find the most creative stories worth telling. Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, there is a lot of care and thought put into things by designers who aim for both visual appeal and usability in everyday life.


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