Everything you need to know about packaging design.

Think about the packaging from your latest purchase at the supermarket or other retailer. There’s probably a reason you took that product off the shelf. Perhaps the box had bright colors and a specific photo. Or maybe it wasn’t a box at all, but a plastic bottle or blister pack with an interesting design. The look and feel of a product’s packaging design has a big impact on whether or not you decide to buy.

Packaging designers are professionals who determine what a product’s packaging looks like, what the container is made of, and how best to communicate features and benefits in a limited amount of real estate.

Whether you’re new to the field or you’re a designer who wants to expand your skill set, read on to learn more about what it takes to build a strong foundation for designing great packaging.

What is packaging design?

Packaging design involves creating visually appealing, functional, and informative product packaging. A well-designed container protects its contents, attracts consumers’ attention, reflects the brand’s identity, and makes it easy to store and display the product.

Good packaging design aids in brand recognition. It’s often distinctive in shape or color, so you can remember it again and again. Think about the shape of a sleeve of chocolate cookies at the grocery store or a cartoon character on a cereal box. Consider the emotional connection from classic brand packaging, like the colors and typography on cans or bottles of your favorite drink.

In addition to the look of the packaging, designers focus on things like function and convenience. For example, they ensure that packaging containers are easy to open and close. Sustainability and accessibility are also important. As shoppers focus more on the environment, brands are prioritizing sustainable and recyclable packaging. Furthermore, top designers know how to create packaging that meets the diverse needs of different audience groups like older adults, children, and people with disabilities

Elements of effective packaging design.

Great packaging combines many elements. Packaging is a visual, tactile, and informational medium. Packaging that hits all those notes is more likely to resonate with its intended audience. Some of the best packaging on the market has the following qualities:

  • Visual presentation. Packaging design that’s visually appealing or exciting stands out. Graphic designers who work in packaging deeply understand visual elements like color theory, typography, appropriate imagery, and the importance of branding.
  • Structure and materials. If packaging is easy to open or hold, there’s a good chance consumers will like it. If they can easily store your product in a convenient spot because of its size or shape, that’s another bonus. Functional packaging that makes a product easy to use, like snack or trash bag boxes with perforated openings, has an advantage.
  • Information effectiveness. Strong packaging design communicates what the product is for or how the customer can use it. Sometimes this means including photos or graphics to illustrate proper use. In many cases, you’ll need to add text to your packaging designs. Balancing all these elements in the limited space available is a valuable skill for packaging designers.
  • Emotional resonance. One of the intangible elements of packaging design is its ability to foster an emotional reaction in your customer. That could involve anything from creating a youthful design that appeals to childhood nostalgia or a minimalistic design that speaks to exclusivity and luxury. Threading that needle well helps you create lasting designs.

Stop and think about some of the most effective packaging you see on store shelves today. How often does it change? Big-brand beverage, technology, and apparel companies (and others) routinely create packaging that resonates with consumers for various reasons. Their packaging is pleasant to look at, easy to open, and branded in such a way that you know at a glance what’s inside the box.

Design process and best practices.

So how can you create the best possible packaging? It’s all about your creative process, which will typically involve collaboration with multiple stakeholders, from creators to customers. The following steps can help you create effective packaging designs:

Research the product, its audience, and your competition.

To make effective packaging, you need deep knowledge of the product. Do the legwork to research the product, its uses, and its target customers. You’ll also want to know about your competition and their strengths and weaknesses. A complete understanding of these elements will make the design process go much more smoothly.

Sketch and ideate to generate concepts.

First drafts are essential for writing. The artistic version of this, the sketch, is just as important for packaging design. But where a writer might have one first draft, artists typically have several sketches and concepts to narrow down. Multiple concepts allow you to look at different options for your packaging designs, from highly utilitarian to whimsical. With these concepts in hand, you can work on developing your rough sketches into polished samples.

Develop the concept with digital tools like Adobe Creative Cloud.

One of the best things about working in a digital space is the ability to adjust a concept in different ways with minimal work. When you transfer your sketch into Creative Cloud apps like Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, or InDesign, you can create several different versions of your concept or make subtle alterations on the fly without having to restart.

Iterate your designs through feedback and revisions.

One of the most essential parts of packaging design is being receptive to feedback. Whether that feedback comes from peers or potential customers and focus groups, it pays to listen closely to what others say about your designs and revise accordingly.

Part of that revision process involves testing for function, often with physical prototypes and a hands-on user experience. 

Design techniques and tips.

When you’re starting your packaging design process, consider using the following techniques to create designs that appeal to your customers:

  • Use hierarchy to organize information and guide the viewer’s attention. A visual hierarchy arranges elements based on their importance. In package design, color, typography, and size influence what a customer sees when looking at a box or container. 
  • Incorporate storytelling and narrative elements into your packaging design. Create a compelling story around your product. For example, include a basic explanation of how the product came to be or use elements like photographs to show the product in use. 
  • Create memorable and unique designs that stay true to the brand. Think about your favorite soda brand or candy bar. Does a color, image, or font immediately come to mind? Strong and consistent package design helps solidify brands in the minds of consumers. 
  • Use white space and simplicity for a clean, modern look. Sometimes less really is  more. Clever and consistent use of uncluttered white space creates a visual language that can unite a suite of products, even when package sizes or shapes differ. 

Using Adobe's powerful apps.

Graphic and packaging designers have more tools than ever, but which ones provide the best results? Creative Cloud includes several apps to help you design and develop packaging. They include:

  • Illustrator: Packaging designers use Illustrator to create vector-based designs that can scale up or down in size without losing quality. You can also use the app to create dielines that guide machines to make cuts and perforations so your printed packaging can be folded.
  • Photoshop: Photoshop is useful for editing the images that appear on packages, such as product photos or promotional graphics. You can also use the app to create mockups of your packaging.
  • InDesign: Use InDesign to create packaging layouts, especially when your design needs to include longer blocks of text that aren’t as well suited for Illustrator. 
  • Adobe Substance 3D Stager: If you want a full 3D modeling environment, Substance 3D Stager lets you build brand visualizations, illustrations, and product mockups. While it isn’t included in the Creative Cloud All Apps plan, you can use it as part of your packaging design workflow to help your partners envision their packaging on the shelf and in customers’ homes.

To learn the basics or refine your skills with the above apps and more, check out Adobe’s complete set of tutorials.

Level up with Adobe certifications.

To demonstrate your design skills and credibility, consider becoming an Adobe Certified Professional. With this industry-recognized certification, you can demonstrate your mastery of Creative Cloud software and show that you have essential knowledge for a design career. Adobe offers a range of certifications in several disciplines, such as Visual Design Using Adobe Photoshop, Graphic Design & Illustration Using Adobe Illustrator, and Print & Media Publication Using Adobe InDesign

Prominently displaying your Adobe certification badge(s) can help you wow clients, tout your experience, and access new job opportunities and promotions.

Frequently asked questions.

Packaging design can be time-intensive, especially since it involves more than basic illustration. Here are answers to some common questions about packaging design: 

What is packaging design?

Packaging design involves creating the exterior appearance, function, and presentation of product packaging. It combines visual elements like colors, graphics, images, and typography along with structural and material choices to protect the product inside and share information about why customers should buy it.

How important is packaging design for branding?

Packaging design is a critical way for brands to develop an identity with logos, typography, and color choices.

What are some popular packaging design trends?

Some current trends in packaging design include:

  • Bright colors and illustrated ingredients
  • Tactile textures and a luxurious feel
  • Patterns
  • Handwritten typography
  • Sustainability, including the reduced use of elements like plastic

How can I create my own packaging design templates?

Check out Adobe’s packaging design templates for inspiration and a head start.  

What design software is used for packaging design?

Packaging designers may use different Adobe apps at varying stages of production. Illustrators might draw logos or vector elements in Illustrator, while photo editors might clean up images with Photoshop. Adobe Dimension allows designers to create 3D mockups of packaging designs, and InDesign is useful for laying out text or visual elements on the flat sides of boxes.

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