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How to Create Cosmetic Package Design That Can Compete on the Store Shelf

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Despite how light and approachable cosmetic packaging design tends to be, it’s a niche with substantial competition at the retail level. 

We’ve all seen it; your typical cosmetics aisle is wall-to-wall options, with big-name brands getting the most play and smaller brands often getting lost in the shuffle. Smaller cosmetics brands hoping to compete need to take a close look at their packaging design strategy from top to bottom, paying special attention to the way other brands have found success—and the essential design principles that they’re leveraging to find success. 

Start With Research – Look Inward and Outward

It’s hard to get customers excited about your design when you don’t know who those customers are! One of the first things you should consider, if you haven’t yet, is your desired audience. 

Are you trying to reach customers who buy those high-end, luxury brands like Dior or Chanel? Or are you more focused on natural ingredients and sustainability, targeting customers who prefer to shop with a smaller carbon footprint? (Not a bad goal, considering that 61% of cosmetics market share comes from plastic packaging.)

These broad questions will shape the overall layout of your cosmetics design from its earliest stages. Clearly, a brand selling fun beauty products to teenagers will have a lot more leeway for fresh, funky designs and bold color swaths than companies aiming at the Estée Lauder crowd.  

Part of these decisions have to do with your brand’s own unique personality. This involves who you’re targeting as much as your own company values. You need to stay consistent here and make sure these ideas are aligned as you begin to design. To put that another way, would your product line fit in better at Sephora or Hot Topic?

And what about your preferred sales channels? Do most of your customers primarily buy online? Or are you trying to compete directly in the makeup aisle? There’s a lot of market research that needs to be done here, so at the very least, make sure you’re aware of these issues as you begin.

A Primer on Key Design Principles

Even after you’ve clearly outlined your market, coming up with standout designs isn’t easy. Every time someone comes up with a “rule” for what constitutes effective design, another company comes in and finds success while subverting it. Indeed, there are few true limits in cosmetics design, which can make ideation a challenge. If anything’s fair game, where do we start?

If you don’t know where to begin, we recommend using the principles of design as your guiding star. (And while there are a lot of different elements worth considering here, we’ll review just a few of the most important.)

  • Contrast – How distinct different elements, colors, or fonts are from one another in a layout.
  • Space – How white space or negative space is used to balance visual elements.
  • Balance – How much “weight” each visual element has for drawing the eye.
  • Movement – The way weighted elements coordinate to guide and draw the eye in a set direction.
  • Emphasis – Certain elements made larger or more prominent to indicate importance. 
  • Repetition – Use of repeating elements or patterns for visual consistency. 

Here’s a design secret – when your design is great, and the above elements are applied correctly, people won’t even notice them. Nobody will sit back and say, “Wow, that lipstick tube has incredible color contrast!” but you can bet that the elements are sticking in their minds—and unconsciously giving them information about your brand’s qualities.

Simple research on this topic shows that consumers pick up unconscious cues from cosmetic packaging designs. And when the packaging makes them believe the product is higher-end, they were more willing to believe the product was superior overall. 

Develop a Unique Style

So, armed with the above visual guidelines, it’s time to start coming up with a cosmetics design style that suits your brand. 

Take the above elements and experiment with different designs. Think long-term, here—intense and ostentatious designs are great at grabbing a customer’s attention, but their style tends to burn brightly for a short period and then fade away as the novelty wears off. On the other hand, cosmetics designs that take a more modern, minimal approach (as most of the high-end brands do these days) enjoy a more timeless quality. Keep these ideas in mind as you design for your audience. 

Of course, as we mentioned above, rules were made to be broken—so don’t be afraid to experiment. Common design trends in cosmetics include clean and minimal layouts, designs with intricate lines and patterns, and often, flowery, earthy tones.

But Keep Your Visual Hierarchy in Mind

All of the above elements will help you craft a cosmetic packaging strategy unique to your brand, but always pay attention to the messages you’re sending with your layout. And not just in the “we’re natural, we’re approachable” sort of way. Every design element in your packaging sends a message of some kind, a concept known in the design world as your visual hierarchy.

Broadly, this term describes how much importance each visual element has in your overall layout. The above principles come into play, here—balance, emphasis, contrast, and so on. The most important elements in your design should be the biggest and most visually distinct. For makeup brands, this often means the brand name or logo, as cosmetics packaging tends to be small with little real estate to work with. Particularly if you’re designing for smaller size tubes, clamshells, or bottles, be specific attention to the messages you’re putting forth in your layout. 

Master Your Cosmetic Packaging Design

Feel free to unleash your creativity, but remember, at the end of the day, the customer’s opinion is what matters most. Try to validate your research and mock-ups whenever possible through internal feedback reviews, external focus groups, A/B tests, or other types of product testing. Evaluate each mock-up against the above design principles and your target market’s feedback. Regardless if you’re selling cosmetics, beauty products, or any other type of consumer packaged goods, this approach is the best way forward.