People judge books by their covers. They judge products by their covers, too. It’s no secret that packaging affects whether people will purchase your small business’s products. That’s why we’ll be talking about how to design packaging for your small business’s products.

Basics of Branding for Small Business

Before we can talk meaningfully about packaging design, we need to talk about branding. We talk about that at length in How to Brand Your Small Business, but here are the high points:

  • A brand is a what people think of when they think of your small business.
  • You can express your brand through a variety of tools, including advertisements, formal statements, web design, and, of course, product and packaging design.
  • To build a successful brand, you need to understand and be able to clearly articulate your business’s purpose.
  • Consistency is key to good branding.

With all this in mind, when you have an idea of what your business brand is like, you need to make sure your packaging is consistent with your brand. Before you start designing packaging, we strongly recommend creating a brand style guide document. That way, you can make sure you have consistent colors, fonts, and a logo.

Think About Your Audience & Their Consumer Behavior Before You Design Packaging

When you design packaging, you need to consider a number of different factors. First and foremost, you need to think about the type of product for which you are creating a package. This is obvious because it will immediately narrow down packaging that will not work. You can’t sell thumbtacks in plastic bags!

Beyond simple logical considerations, though, the most important part of packaging design is your target audience. Think about who is buying your product, why they are buying it, and how they are buying it. Why are they choosing your product over a competitor?

If your customer, for example, is image-conscious, then your packaging will need to look luxurious. If they are frugal, your packaging will need to look no-nonsense.

Similarly, distribution matters as well. Items sold online need to look great in product photos against white backgrounds. Items sold offline need to stand out among other similar items adjacent on the shelves.

Determine What You Need to Include on the Packaging

The specific content you need to include on your packaging will vary significantly between different kinds of products. However, 99 Designs does a good job of classifying the content that may go onto packaging into the following categories:

  • Copy: or, more simply, text.
  • Imagery: photos and illustrations.
  • Required labelling: bar codes, nutrition facts, legalese.
  • Temporary content: expiration dates or spaces for stickers/stamps.

Find What You Like

Any time you want to start a design, it’s important to do market research first. With packaging, the easiest way to get started is by going to either Pinterest or Google Images and look for inspiration. We recommend Pinterest because it’s easy-to-use, fun, and surprisingly powerful.

When you go to Pinterest, create a separate board for packaging design inspiration. Search for the type of product you are interested in selling followed by the word “packaging.” Every time you see packaging you like, add a pin.

When you’re done, review the packaging ideas and see if there is anything you want to imitate. Bear in mind, you need to think in terms of your audience’s interests and not necessarily your own.

Create a Budget

Packaging design and manufacturing is not free. Costs can be broken into two categories: one-time costs and per-item costs. To explain the difference, we will once more from 99 Designs’ packaging design article.

One-time costs include things like paying for the original design work, purchasing a stamp (if you’re going the DIY route), print plate setup (for large, offset print runs.) You pay for these up front, and usually only once (unless you change your design).

Per-item costs are generally for materials and labor. Each box will cost a certain amount, as will the tissue paper you stuff it with and the tape you use to seal it. And you either have to pay someone to put your product into the box, or do it yourself.

You’ll want to have a ballpark idea of how much you’d like to spend before you start the design process. Keep in mind that cheaper isn’t always better; paying a little bit more for your materials could up your presentation (and your selling price) by making you stand out from the competition.

The ultimate guide to product packaging design, 99 Designs

Steps in the Packaging Design Process

1. Think about the entire package

It’s tempting to think of packaging design in terms of the outer packaging that you see when shopping online or looking at items on store shelves. This doesn’t capture the whole truth, though. Packaging has multiple layers to it, including: outer packaging, inner packaging, and product packaging.

Outer packaging is the first thing a customer is going to see. It’s what protects your product from the elements. This could include the box that the product is shipped in or the shopping bag the item is placed in at the store.

Inner packaging is what keeps your product nestled safely in the outer packaging. This might be packing peanuts or tissue paper that stops something from getting jostled or scuffed. Or it might be a sealed bag that acts to preserve freshness.

Product packaging is what most people think of when they think of packaging: it’s the box the toy comes in, the bottle with a label, the tag on a garment, the wrapper of a candy bar.

Each one of these layers of packaging gives you a chance to tell a part of your story.

The ultimate guide to product packaging design, 99 Designs
2. Choose the right type of packaging

Items can be wrapped in all sorts of containers, ranging from boxes to bottles to bags. The right kind of container for your product depends entirely on the nature of the item you are selling. Beverages go in bottles, coffee beans go in bags, and so on.

For the most part, you will want to choose the type of packaging that is most obvious for your product. The exception to this rule is when you want to make an impression for one of these two reasons:

  1. Having strange packaging that makes people look twice such as Neuro drinks.
  2. You want to change the way people use the product, such as how Tide Pods eliminated the need for pouring liquid detergent.
3. Find a printer

Early on in the packaging design process, you will need to find a printer. This is for a few different reasons. First, you can do cost and feasibility research before committing to a specific style of packaging. It’s much better to find out that your packaging ideas are not feasible early in the process than it is to find that out late.

Next, you can ask for file templates that you will fill in later with your design. Most printers will then provide vector file templates with dielines. This is important because vector files can be scaled up infinitely without losing image quality. The dielines on the templates will show you where files are cut so that all required information displays on the packaging and none is accidentally cut off.

4. Figure out what message you want to come through

At this point, you have figured out what kind of packaging you need, vetted your ideas for cost and feasibility, and received templates. With all this information available, take a moment to think about what is most important to your design. What really needs to stand out?

Our advice is this: prioritize one thing. It might be your brand name, a photo, or a word or two. Make sure that is the most prominent part of the packaging. You may then include two or three other small, less-important messages to prioritize as well.

Take the Colgate packaging above as an example. The most important thing they want you to remember is the brand name, which is why it is most prominent. On the right, less prominent, you see a picture of a tooth and the words “Cavity Protection.” This reemphasizes that this is a dental product intended to reduce cavities.

5. Test and tweak your design

Before you release your design to the public, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is it obvious what we’re selling?
  • Does the core message come through?
  • Is it accurate?
  • Will it stand out online or on shelves?
  • How will the packaging look when actually printed?

If the answers to those questions are all positive, then you can proceed to show your design to others. Start by running your design by others in the company, then eventually test with customers. You may have to iterate multiple times before settling on a final design.

6. Create the files

After finally settling on a design, the last step is filling out the files and sending them to the printer. Make sure you save the packaging in a vector format, which you can do by using Adobe Illustrator.

Also be careful to use CMYK colors instead of RGB colors in your final design. RGB colors are used on the computer, but many of them cannot be reproduced in print, which is CMYK. If you design in RGB instead of CMYK, your colors risk looking muddy, dark, or desaturated when finally printed.

You Can Outsource Packaging Design

At this point, you might have noticed that packaging design is pretty complex. While your company is ultimately responsible for coming up with a consistent and clear brand, the actual process of creating packaging is not something you have to do in-house.

Packaging design projects often cost well over $1,000, but there are tons of qualified design agencies out who can help. You can find a list of those agencies here.

More Resources

Packaging design is complex, but thankfully, this particular discipline has been written about more than most other parts of marketing. That means there is no shortage of fantastic resources online which you can use to learn more. Among them, we recommend: