Unpacking packaging

The Pentawards aims to showcase the best in packaging worldwide: we asked design strategist Silas Amos to analyse what its winners tell us about food packaging trends

Design trends approach like waves, gathering momentum and shifting shape over several years, before crashing on the beach to make way for the next big thing coming along. The Pentawards Package Design Book 3 features some 400 pages that collectively offer a neat time capsule of what’s happening in some of these packaging trends right now. I don’t mean the stylistic froth – the current fashion for the ‘artisanal’ rendering for example – but rather the deeper currents that are propelling us all forward.

Are things changing? Design appears to be getting taken more seriously ‘at the top table’. Perhaps because we live in a world of media fragmentation, where we all screen out the thousands of adverts, tweets and posts that crowd in on us.

Savvy marketers have woken up to the fact one cannot however ‘turn off’ or ignore packs if we want to get to their contents. One of the first channels of marketing is one of the last that it is impossible to ignore. Meanwhile production technology is enabling greater flexibility and agility in what has always been a relatively lumbering medium. It does feel like we are on the cusp of a shift, where there is both a desire and an ability to ‘work packs harder’. There is abundant evidence in this book that packaging is being employed with more ambition and enterprise than was once the case. It is no longer passive ‘media’. Now it is being used more actively to drive (or make significant contribution to) wider brand campaigns.

Heineken has been using ‘pack as media’ for a while, and its UV bottle is a good example. It’s interesting because I would imagine its reach online has exceeded the visibility such a limited edition might expect ‘in the real world’.

Despite being a physical thing, such packaging is no longer operating purely as ‘the brand in the hand’. Rather it now enjoys a digital life that allows it to punch well above its weight. One might even argue that the physical pack acts as a ‘MacGuffin’ simply to provide ammunition for digital PR. If one is thinking big and acting small then such limited runs have more creative freedom to push the production constraints associated with a project involving larger volumes. And if the online manifestation of such projects has greater reach than the bottle in the bar, how long before this becomes the driver of the design briefs and solutions? The winners here will be work that is truly ‘remarkable’ – as in actually being worth talking about in social media and suchlike.

Other examples of packaging that engage both the eye and imagination are the lovely Ricard Duo designed by Jakob+MacFarlane in their distinctive architectural style, and the Halloween editions of Lyle’s black treacle [see previous spread].

I would note however that I have heard far more people ‘in the business’ talking about such designs than I have ‘regular folk’. I wonder how such projects’ effectiveness is being measured? I would predict that media planners are going to be getting more involved in the design briefs and their implementation in the coming years.

Limited editions are themselves opening up into a new sub-category – ‘limitless editions’. There is a sense that packaging is becoming less standardised and more purposefully fluid in how it dresses itself. This sense of ‘unique versions’ will clearly appeal to that millennial market which Time magazine labelled “the Me generation of entitled narcissists”. After all, what could please a narcissist more than feeling they have a unique version just for them of a brand they like?

Absolut Vodka has led the charge with both its ‘Absolut Unique’ and ‘Absolut Originality’ editions, both of which make the production process part of the story. Kirin mineral water has done something technically simpler, but similar in intention. And we all know about the Coke name bottles that are curiously absent from this annual. I grew up working in a design culture rooted in brand building through faithful reproduction. Now we now see intentionally ‘faithless reproduction’ as a viable alternative. Any colour so long as it isn’t black perhaps? Digital printing and algorithms will continue to further enable this creative approach. The paradox will be that only brands with very solid iconography will be able to be truly flexible with it. Absolut works because the structure ‘holds the line’ allowing for all manner of creative re-interpretation graphically.

Is sustainability still a hot topic? A brace of over-packaged entries would suggest not. Or that we are at least willing to trade sustainability for ‘nice design’. Consider Bzzz honey or the lovely eye candy of Moscow Farmer Eggs. 
However Qian’s Gift rice (handprinted on locally sourced high plant-fibre wrappers) shows that simplicity can also convey quality and authenticity. Truett Hurst Paperboy Wine is also interesting – one wonders if this substrate can please the eye and palate if it becomes more commonly adopted? Overall there is no feeling that reduced packaging is acting as a creative spur to simpler, stronger and ‘better’ work. Given the shift towards simpler less ‘gilded’ graphics on packaging, one might have expected to see this also having a more obvious sustainable angle by now.

Such design simplicity has been a fashionable approach since Coke erased all their droplets and whizz lines a couple of years back. In the awards Evian follow suit with structure (Pure drop) and simpler graphics (Essence). Brands like Beech-Nut and Maly Gazda use simplicity as a way of conveying naturalness. AL Market takes simplicity to a systemised extreme that presumably appeals to ‘smart shoppers’ who actively reject flounce. But simplicity can also have great charm, as shown by the cute Mikanz packaging – one way to get one’s kids to eat their fruit.

So back to the time capsule that is this book; was this year a good vintage overall? When award books hit the studio desks I have worked around, one typically overhears a roughly 80/20 ratio of ‘meh – how did that get in?’ to ‘that’s a nice piece’. It’s very often a case of sour grapes about nice wine bottle designs. I’ve aimed to accent the positive in this overview, but I would observe that one can quickly have one’s fill of ‘on trend’ stylings, and perhaps as the design industry becomes ever more attuned to ‘trends’ it risks losing a little focus on the importance of thinking for itself and having its own ideas. What will endure? I believe the answer is good ideas, well executed (surely it was ever thus). So subjectively I would give two thumbs up to Tanqueray No.Ten [left]. It’s certainly ‘on trend’ in a luxe Gatsby way. But it’s the lemon squeezer ‘hidden’ in the bottle’s base that sticks in my mind. Lovely work that feels timeless as well as timely.

Silas Amos is a founding partner and leads creative strategy at design agency Studio Minerva, studiominerva.co.uk. The Package Design Book 3 (Taschen, $59.99) features Pentawards winners from 2013 and 14. Taschen.com, pentawards.org



More from CR

No hope

With a general election mere months away, the logos of the UK’s political parties will be everywhere. Can we abstain? Michael Evamy looks at the current emblems

Adidas addresses the haters in new spot

A new ad for Adidas, created to promote the brand’s “shiny new boots”, takes a light-hearted swipe at all the haters out there on social media…

World Press Photo 2015

The winners of the World Press Photo 2015 awards have been announced, with love conquering all as the top prize goes to Danish photographer Mads Nissen. Here are some of our picks from the winning images.

Menswear Illustration

Fashion illustrator Richard Kilroy has published a new book on menswear illustration, showcasing over 200 images by 40 leading artists and designers.

Graphic Designer

Fushi Wellbeing

Creative Designer

Monddi Design Agency