December 23, 2013

The Seven Cardinal Sins of Package Design

The Seven Cardinal Sins of Package Design

It’s no secret that many industries don’t exactly steer their ships according to the moral compass. Perhaps those that experiment on animals, pollute the environment, or employ child labor come to mind. While we in the product design and branding field stay away from these unquestionably despicable practices, we don’t all have untarnished halos.

Package designers are fallible too; even the new, way cooler Pope would concur. And while we generally stick to the venial sins for which we can atone with a couple Hail Marys and an extra fiver in the collection plate, we’ve also been known to commit the occasional big kahuna of wickedness. Let’s look at the seven cardinal sins of package design.


Did you know that pride is generally considered to be the original cardinal sin and also the source of all the others? For package designers, pride is unforgivable when it lets you rest on your laurels. In the ever-changing field of package design, it’s definitely a cardinal sin to think it’s not your responsibility to stay up on the latest trends and developments in the industry. You don’t want to see your clients’ products staying on retailers’ shelves while watching better-packaged goods making their way to the checkout. It’s your charge to stay up on the latest advances. If you don’t, it’s going to take more than a Hail Mary to save your bottom line.


While pride prevents you from acknowledging others’ worth because you’re so fixated on your own superiority, lust may make you a little too engrossed in your competitors. Acknowledging another brand’s seriously sexy design is no sin; we’d be lying if we said Apple’s packaging doesn’t sometimes give us the tingles. But you can take it too far if you convince yourself that what works for a competitor is right for you. Smart design requires investing in what makes products unique. Acknowledge the accomplishments of others without lusting after someone else’s work, and your own designs will have the chance to shine.


Oh man, this one’s a doozie. Sloth is laziness, plain and simple. It’s not only a deadly sin in the package design sphere; this one is an equal opportunity offense. Lazy package designers recycle the same tired themes over and over, slowly amassing a pile of vaguely similar but oddly uninteresting products with no distinguishing features. Get your butt in gear and be bold with branding and design. Your clients – and your coffers – will thank you!


Hey, Ebenezer, let the other kids play with the Monopoly money! If you’re guilty of thinking that your firm can handle ALL THE CLIENTS, you’re wrong. The best package designers know that not every brand is a good match for their skillsets. It’s not important that you have the maximum number of clients possible; that’s not only greedy but also unwise. We think excellent packaging design is a partnership between the product or line and the design firm. We’re discerning about the brands we develop because package design is not an exact science. We want to give all our clients our fullest attention so that the design process results in the most dynamic packaging possible.


When we see covet-worthy product packaging, it makes us want to sing the Hallelujah chorus. In a field crowded with awkward, overly complicated, or just plain ugly packaging, we’re happy to acknowledge the achievements of skilled package designers – even our competitors – when they hit a home run. Don’t hate the player, hate the fact that you didn’t come up with something better — and then go do it. We don’t let envy bring us down, we eat it for breakfast, get motivated, and come out swinging (but not like a bad Rocky knockoff, sorry “Grudge Match”).


Too much of a good thing is actually a bad thing, if you haven’t guessed. Gluttonous designers of packaging are unfamiliar with the concept of simplicity. We design for the client and the public, not to tickle our own graphical fancy. So don’t over-design packaging to the detriment of the product. Or else, you may spend eternity gorging on humble pie.


The final cardinal sin of package design (that we’ll admit to) is actually committed not by the designers themselves but by frustrated consumers who become borderline homicidal when attempting to open overly complicated packaging. If you’ve created such a design, you’re pretty much an accessory to the sin of wrath. Excellence in design walks the line between beauty and functionality. Repeat offenders of overly complicated packaging design are doomed to an afterlife of opening clamshell packages with no scissors. No mercy.


by Kevin Smith
SmashBrand helps brands create, optimize, and launch successful products, services, and customer experiences. Our data-driven process is the key to accelerating sales and minimizing risks.

We use a strategic combination of market research, design, and consumer testing to solve complex brand problems more effectively, create differentiation, and forge more meaningful connections with customers.

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