7 Strategies for Powerful Packaging Design (Part 2)

by David and Nancy Deal, Deal Design Group, San Diego, CA.

The retail environment is like a battleground where brands compete for shopper’s attention. Your product packaging has two seconds stake a claim, connect with the customer and earn closer examination. Packaging that fails the two-second test gets passed over in favor of a competitor that knew the 7 Strategies and how to use them. This article is the second of a two-part series that describes the top packaging design strategies developed by packaging design experts, David and Nancy Deal of Deal Design Group in San Diego, CA. Check out part 1 here.

5. The Element of Surprise

Many people don’t realize that, in the past eight years, one marketing industry has risen to be the number two largest spend by today’s brands: Experiential marketing. Of course, digital is still number one and growing by 16% annually. But, experiential marketing is now number two with 6 percent growth from 2014 to 2015 (Study by EventMarketer).

The reason for this is simple: people crave memorable experiences more than they crave things. It’s now a well-known fact that millennials value experience more than they value owning houses, fancy cars or expensive items. This shift in consumer behavior from desiring things to desiring experiences has a direct effect on packaging design.

How, you may ask, can a package design be like a live event? The thing that makes live events so memorable is that moment where something happened that was unexpected, and blew your mind. Packaging designers can take a lesson from live events by delivering a similar element of surprise to the shopping experience.

For example, the moment when a package lid is lifted, and the inside of the carton is flooded with a bright color that says “this secret experience was designed just for you.” Or when the customer realizes the package was designed to have a second life after you unpacked the product, and doubles as gift box or storage box for other things. The packaging design’s face panels may create a larger image when viewed next to each other on the shelf. Or, when the packaging unveils a bonus gift item that wasn’t even advertised on the carton—that coupon code, window sticker or keychain that declares “I’m a real brand loyalist, and only loyalists get these.” The possibilities for elements of surprise are vast so be sure to challenge your packaging designer, or your client, to develop an element of surprise into your next packaging design.


This stunningly detailed packaging for Don Papa 10 Year Old by Stranger & Stranger earned a win in the 2016 International Design Awards.


6. Customers Know Best

Anyone with experience in the creative process can relate with the primal experience of the packaging design’s concept review. Here’s the scene. Multiple packaging design concepts are set on the conference room table, or shared among a Skype call with the stakeholders. The packaging designer has spent over a hundred hours laboring over these concepts. And any one of them could be a retail winner. But then, the opinions start flying. Everyone reaches into their bag of well-rehearsed designer lingo, beats their chest louder than the last type-A personality did, and eventually, the opinion of the highest ranking person in the room dictates the design selection (or his wife does).

The reality is, no one in the review process, not even the packaging designer, is in a position to make the best decision for the product packaging. Everyone is too close to the product to see it as the customer would see it; fresh, without hundreds of hours of biased work, and without prejudice. So what’s a smart packaging designer to do? The answer is: Ask the customers. After all, who better to say “that one” than the person who is actually going to buy it. But how do I do that? Focus groups? Well sure, if you have a huge market budget. But many brands can’t afford that and group dynamics can sway the results.

Today, the best tool a smart marketer and his or her packaging designer can use is crowdsourcing. There are many survey web sites and online communities full of people who match your target customer demographic. For a fraction of what old-school focus groups use to cost, you can put your packaging designs in front of a thousand people who perfectly match your demographic profile and have them vote on the best packaging design. With survey results from 1000 target customers in your hands 48 hours later, you are armed with real data and the data makes the decision. If 78 percent of customers surveyed say “design number 3 is the best”, the primal chest-beating ritual never even begins. No one can argue with hard data like that.

Put simply, numbers don’t lie. And after all, everyone wants the packaging to sell the most product possible. And, the customer-knows-best approach puts everyone into alignment. Yes, even the CEO’s wife.


This eye-catching, illustrative packaging for Spike Treats by Subplot Design Inc. appeals to pet owners looking for a unique, healthy product with a whimsical flair. This project earned a win in the 2016 International Design Awards.

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7. Spot Color Rules, Process is for Fools

Well-trained packaging designers know the visual power spot color wields when compared to its lesser-endowed challenger, process color. But, It never ceases to amaze us how often we’ll interact with a new product marketing director that isn’t aware of the chromatic effect spot color has on a packaging design when compared to process color’s attempt to render the Pantone equivalent. First, we have to establish what the difference is.

In simple terms, Spot color is like buying a gallon of exciting and eye-popping paint for your home media room. It’s that perfect peacock blue that just spoke to you, felt soothing, calming and inviting. Process color is like hiring artist George Seurat to use a tiny little brush and make millions of little dots of blue, magenta, yellow and black in just such a density and configuration that, when you stand back far enough, your eye blends the tiny dos together to attempt the same effect as the that eye-popping canary yellow, but it just falls short and looks, well, kind of grainy and dull. Spot color is a pure ink or paint hue made from actual pigments. Process color uses a certain cyan, magenta, yellow and black in tiny dot patterns to simulate (as best it can) all the colors of the rainbow. The problem is, process color never matches the visual intensity of Spot colors, no matter how hard it tries.

So why even use process color? The answer is two-fold:

  1. It’s the only way to reproduce continuous-tone photographs and illustrations.
  2. It costs less than adding spot colors to a packaging print-run that already has photographs or illustrations present.

So, why add more cost? Fifteen years ago, the case for avoiding the added cost of spot color on top of process color was compelling. For a 20,000 unit run, adding spot color may increase the unit cost by $.05. There would also be additional artwork negatives that had be be generated, metal plates burned by hand and the need for printing presses that could support six or more colors in-line.

However, the same technology revolution that catapulted semiconductors into the processing speeds of supercomputers in everyone’s pocket has had a similar effect on the printing industry. Now, most every printing press running is computer assisted, burns printing plates faster with digital-driven lasers, and setup times are much quicker. This means that the cost of adding two spot colors for key brand panel punch to your four-color process packaging design may only be two cents per unit, an insignificant increase when factored into a full production run. While this still raises the cost of the package by a couple pennies, if the resulting packaging design is so visually stunning that it drives just one percent more sell-through, the investment in spot color is usually well worth it.


This vivid, colorful packaging for KETTLE Vegetable and Sweet Potato Chips by design firm Turner Duckworth earned a win in the 2016 International Design Awards.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: David and Nancy Deal are husband and wife packaging designers. Their agency, Deal Design Group, has been serving packaged goods brands around the World with creative, practical and effective packaging design since 1999. David and Nancy consult with other creative directors, packaging designers and brands to bring new and innovative solutions to the marketplace.

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5 thoughts on “7 Strategies for Powerful Packaging Design (Part 2)

  1. dealdesign

    One of the Great things about the HOW Design community is the sharing of best practices, tips and tricks that other designers can learn from. Share your “Strategy” for packaging design success here!

  2. LukaBex

    You missed the third reason for using process; plate limitations in conventional printing (typically 6-8 inks)
    And digital printing presses prints process only