A PIECE OF packaging is heavily influenced by the consumer – it’s never really about the client and their own tastes.
When I’m working on a design project, I need to have a clear picture of the person who will ultimately buy the product.
Obviously, in consumer packaging, you could have people from any walk of life – any age, gender, cultural background, any level of affluence. There’s no set standard. You really need to have empathy for that core consumer and understand their lifestyle and needs.
It’s something that makes for a quite interesting challenge in my line of work. You need to create something that will sit comfortably on-shelf alongside competitors, but at the same time you have to find a way to differentiate the design.
That’s why so much time is put into the research phase of a project.
It’s not just purely data-based – it would include ‘creative research’. We would look at the lifestyle of the target consumer and try to understand both the pressures and the joys of their life.
Our audience is out living in the real world, so we might look at things like art or music or other kinds of visual stimulus they might be exposed to or inspired by.
Music and fashion play important roles in inspiring the design. There would be a visual language associated with the artists that the consumer listens to or the fashion brands they wear or aspire to.
It might be very glossy and chic, or it might be very natural and bohemian. It will generally catch the mood of the times.
After two or three days of this deep-dive research, we would start the rough work and start exploring multiple design options. The design would be quite loose and not particularly well-crafted at this stage. That allows us to get the ideas flowing quickly.
There is a lot of craft and finesse involved in packaging design, but we apply that later on and make sure that the idea is very solid before we move to refinement.
After that, I will typically sit down with my account director on the project, and we’ll start scrutinising the rough ideas from a strategic perspective.
We’re always very mindful of the budget in case the design could have implications on the production line of a factory. We have to be mindful that we’re part of a much bigger process. If there is a cost issue, we would try to find a creative way around it.
Say we were designing a drink and we wanted a frosting on the glass – to do that in a premium way, such as etched glass, might be very expensive, but we might be able to achieve it through printing technology such as shrink sleeves.
Once we have a line-up of design ideas, we’ll present them to the client. Once feedback is received and reviewed, we will develop it towards a final solution.
Most packaging has a shelf life of about two to three years. It’s unusual that a design would stick around any longer than that.
I redesigned the packaging for Deep RiverRock bottled water in 2004 for a different company. That design actually didn’t show any signs of fatigue until 2014. Even then, the design elements just needed refocusing for increased impact.
There were a few reasons for that. The brief was very inspiring and interesting. I was tasked with creating something very simple and distinctive.
At the time, rival outfits like Ballygowan and Tipperary were distinctly Irish, but in a more clichéd way. The Deep RiverRock brand was much more youthful. It came out around the millennium, so Ireland was booming and forward-looking – and brands needed to reflect that.
When the brand was relaunched, it created a very big splash that resonated for years after. But that’s unusual. Any number of factors can impact the longevity of a packaging design.
You could have an economic situation whereby a brand suddenly has to become much more value-focused. Or a competitor brand might re-brand and you would have to refresh the design because it could suddenly look outdated.
Sometimes consumer tastes change. Brand need to chime with the times. I think a great piece of packaging design will have a combination of warmth and impact. It will have an element of simplicity as well.
Rory Dowling is head of packaging design at Clickworks. This article was written in conversation with Conor McMahon as part of a series of masterclasses with some of Ireland’s top design professionals ahead of the 2017 IDI Ireland Awards, which features Fora as media partner.