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The First Thing They See: The Unexpected Career of the Retail Package Designer

“Packaging is an expression of brand identity, which has always been my core passion,” says Kerri Konik, founder and senior package designer at Brandscape Atelier. She launched the company to bring big agency services to small businesses, startups and boutique brands. With three decades of retail package design experience, Konik has worked on branding and packaging design projects for companies ranging from top consumer packaged goods to luxury brands to music.

“Packaging needs to convey everything the brand stands for. It has lots of panels and real estate to do that. For example, a box has six sides – at least on the outside. Now we consider everything, including the inside, the outside, the label, the texture, the entire experience. We design experiences via packaging,” explains Konik.

Today’s packaging is moving beyond simply holding products and sharing basic information. Newer techniques such as wrapping plastics around physical packaging are creating what Konik calls 360-degree design opportunities. “We’re seeing a trend of a much stronger brand personality and voice being expressed in the packaging. A box isn’t just a box. The trend is to create an exceptional experience or surprise and delight the customer.”

Packaging is evolving into a more personalized experience. “You’re seeing with brands like Coca-Cola that they’re putting names on the sides of cans and trying to create a richer, more personalized emotional connection than ever before – especially in packaging,” says Konik.

Managing the day-to-day responsibilities of package design is a very hands-on creative role, involving everything from label design to evaluating containers. “One day we might be getting physical bottle samples shipped in from Italy and wrapping those bottles by hand. We’re measuring and looking at the visual appeal, where are the curves in the bottle, where does it fall off. We are doing the packaging architecture and line of sight. We would be looking at the kinesthetic aspects. What does this packaging feel like? What’s the weight?”

New technology is changing the way that prototyping is done. “We’re starting to get a lot of 3D printing where we can design primary packaging very easily and inexpensively, so we can get much more innovative and creative before the client company goes into production.”

To succeed in package design, creatives need to be willing to develop a wide skillset. “If you’re thinking about having a career in this space, all of our roles are very blended. It’s no longer just saying I’m a package designer, I love photography and I love food, so that’s what I’m going to do. You need to learn a broader understanding of different categories and industries. Be flexible.”

There are three particular skillsets and approaches that can help you be successful as a retail package designer. “The number one strength is a conceptual designer who understands branding, consumer behavior and neuroscience. It’s about elevating a package design from something that’s attractive to something that communicates the value of the brand.”

Being a great graphic designer is important, but it’s not enough on its own. “Having a great aesthetic, understanding typography, understanding proportion. Good design principles goes a long way toward making you a strong package designer.”

Finally, there are practical skills needed in package design including photography and comping. Navigating digital design tools is essential, as global design teams use products like Adobe Creative Cloud to collaborate. Beyond that, succeeding in today’s retail package landscape is about the right mindset.  “You should have a mindset of exploration, of being curious, of having the ability to go into any environment or experience and see what’s happening experientially to you and how you could apply that to the package design. The more you can understand creating a story, journey, and experience a customer will take part in, the stronger designer you will be. To succeed, you have to be able to cut through the noise, understand what works, why it works, and try to create that in packaging.