Tips for Designing Great Food Packaging

Balancing Form and Function

Lower-body view of a man holding a basket of groceries at the grocery store, browsing products on cooler shelves
••• Dan Dalton/Caiaimag/Getty Images

While the primary function of food packaging is to protect your product, the principal aim of packaging design is to attract consumers. The packaging, in other words, should sell itself. This means you need to have a strong brand identity and packaging that communicates information about your product clearly, concisely, and in a way that is relevant to your target audience. Your package is your brand ambassador and is a key success factor in pitching the retail buyer.

Know Your Brand Identity

Whether it's watching TV, reading a magazine, or walking the grocery store aisles, your packaging is often a consumer's first point of contact with your brand. It's important to make a clear statement about who you are as a company. When developing your food package design, you have to start with clarity about your brand identity.

First, you need to ask yourself, "What is my product? How is it different from similar products on the market? Who is my primary target customer? What is my company philosophy?" The answers to these questions will ensure your food package design is consistent with your brand identity and guide packaging color, size, shape, and materials. New product launches require that your packaging communicates strongly and clearly what your brand message is through the use of your company name, logo, and design.

Form and Function

A food packaging designer balances the shelf appeal (design and messaging) with the functional aspect of food product safety and protection. On the functional side, it's imperative that when you ship your product to a customer, distributor, or retailer, it arrives in the same condition it was in when it left the factory or warehouse. Grocery retailers will send you an invoice or deduct money from your invoice for the cost of a damaged product in their stores.

Food packaging also has to carry a clear message regarding the features and benefits of the product in a way that is easy to see and understand. You have a fraction of a second to get the consumer's attention amidst all the other products you're competing with.

Finally, the Food and Drug Administration has Food Labeling Guides that dictate numerous aspects of food packaging design—from a functional standpoint to your nutritional fact panel to any health claims you make.

Key Packaging Questions

Ask yourself the following questions the next time you have a new product launch underway.

  • Packaging materials: What materials will allow for maximum product freshness and protection? What fits with our brand aesthetic and environmental commitments?
  • Packaging construction: Will a flexible or rigid container support the product best? How much space do I need for messaging? What will stand up well on the shelf?
  • Ease of secondary packaging: Will the shape and size prevent me from easily shipping my product to retailers?
  • Ease of storage and distribution: What is the cost of secondary packaging and transportation to get the product to the retailer? Will the product be stored for a period of time before going on display?
  • Shelf life: How long might my product sit on the shelf before consumer purchase?
  • Information: What are the ingredients, product benefits, consumer cautions, and brand identity I need to capture?
  • Other design considerations: Colors, shape, size, and more will all impact how your food product pops on the shelf. Look at your competitors and ask how you can stand out next to them.

Materials and Design Drive Costs

Your packaging is one of the most important elements of a successful new product launch. The costs can quickly add up, though. You need to be flexible and consider alternative options that can be equally eye-catching and functional.

Key cost drivers for food packaging include the following:

  • Materials: Traditional packaging materials include plastic, aluminum, glass, and paperboard. However, there have been advancements in innovative and eco-friendly packaging materials. The Greener Package offers help with sustainable packaging materials, or there are associations dedicated to individual packaging materials, such as the National Glass Association, the Flexible Packaging Association, the Plastics Industry Association, and The Aluminum Association. If you go the green route and need help understanding issues regarding sustainability, GreenBlue will prove helpful.
  • Design: Once the development process is complete and specifications are set, 80% of costs are embedded, which means 20% occur in the manufacturing stage. Therefore, the design and development phase represents a significant savings opportunity. Do your due diligence and interview enough designers to secure the best price possible. Sometimes those fresh out of school or small startup firms are hungry (and creative) enough to get the job done. Of course, get samples of their work to ensure the quality will be up to your standards.
  • Printing, production, and labor: It's possible to make trade-offs, such as between labor and production costs, but be sure you understand the implications of possible trade-offs in your time and effort and in the look of your package.
  • Long-term savings: If you move from hand-wrapping to automated wrapping, there will be a significant upfront capital cost to buy a machine, but the labor costs will go down significantly in the long run. Your retailers may purchase more, too, due to the more consistent look of the packages.

Choices about your food packaging design are as significant as decisions about the product itself. Don't rush the process. Be sure you're designing a package that will protect your product and represent it well.