How to manage a packaging design project

5 years ago by

Written by Sarah Ritchie

Packaging design can be a merciless trap for the unwary. Whether you are the Account Manager facilitating the project, or the designer designing it, there are 101 different things that could go wrong and – potentially – cost your agency thousands of dollars to rectify. The good news is that (like all disciplines) the process can be learned… then rigorously applied to mitigate any mistakes.

Let’s look at the design process and some things to be aware of.

The brief:

As with all design projects, design for product packaging should begin with a robust brief. You’ll then be able to supply your client with an initial contract, costs and timeline. At this stage you will also need to see a physical sample of the product(s) to be packaged to gauge size, weight, etc.

Next you’ll need to know parameters and priorities – without these the design scope is limitless and you’ll end up either wasting time or have endless rounds of amendments trying to get the design right.

Some of these parameters are:

  • Budget.
  • Audience – know who you will be selling to (demographics and psychographics).
  • Brand guidelines – colours, logos, fonts.
  • Physical shape of the packaging.
  • Features and benefits (prominently display the benefits).
  • Information to go on the front, the sides, the back, the base and top, such as: weight/volume, nutritional information, ingredients, manufacturer or distributor address, UPC codes/bar codes, product codes, internal numbers, legal information, stacking codes. Who will supply these things? When?
  • Shelf-life.
  • Where the items will be displayed.
  • Bulk packing in outer boxes (size, fit, elimination of wasted space, transport, protection, logistics).
  • How will the shopper interact with the product? Can they touch it? Is the product completely boxed or sealed? Would a diecut window be appropriate?
  • Regulatory requirements. This could be for the likes of food packaging (e.g. food-safe inks and substrates) or pharmaceutical products (e.g. kid-safe or hygiene closures).
  • Consideration for sustainability, environmental responsibility, recycling.
  • Will any internal fittings be required, such as a tray or divider?
  • Who will print the packaging?

Talk with your printer:

You will need talk with your printer from day one of this project. Your printer (local or offshore) will be able to give you valuable technical advice to ensure that your amazing design will reproduce as you expect it to.

Things to discuss with your printer:

  • Substrate (e.g. card, board, PVC, polypropylene).
  • Colours/inks: Will you require 4-colour, spot colour, number of colours, food-safe inks?
  • Finishing: Will there be lamination, overgloss, foiling, window inserts, gluing?
  • Dieline: Who will create it and the things you need to be aware of?
  • Closure: How will the package close and lock?
  • Printing process: Will the job be printed digitally, offset, screenprinted, gravure? What implication will that have on the design, and image quality?
  • File format they wish to receive.


This is a highly important phase in the packaging design process. It’s super-important to understand the competition and know what “good” looks like. To do this you should both Google and go shopping! Visit the shops where the product might be displayed. Are there any physical difficulties you may encounter instore (e.g. visibility, store placement, lots of competitor products)? Which products stand out best on the shelves, and why?


Once a tight brief is received and you have done your research, you are now ready to start your design.

The packaging brand/message should be consistent with your client’s company brand strategy; and if there are multiple products in a line, the package designs should be consistent with each other. This will make the strongest shelf impact.

As you are designing within a very limited space, it pays to have all copy approved and supplied prior to working on the layout of the packaging, so you have a complete handle on what you’re working with.

It is likely that you will create a few different concepts so you can see which will be more successful, work best on the shelf, hit the target market and sell the product (the ultimate goal!).

You’ll save yourself potential grief if you minimise or eliminate any graduated colour, very small text or fine detail in your design. Of course, the result greatly depends on the printing process that is being used (another great reason to walk closely with your printer).

When supplying proofs it’s a good idea to give your client a 2-D proof (flat layout showing the dieline, so they can check the detail), plus a 3-D mockup (to show what the package will actually look like once printed and folded).

Sign off and print preparation:

When both your design team and client are happy with the result, it’s time to sign off on the agreed design. This means there will be no further amendments and you can move on to the production stage. Creating print-ready artwork for packaging takes a good deal of time, so you want to avoid last-minute changes if at all possible.

The file preparation stage is crucial to ensure the packaging prints correctly. This stage will include outlining all text (so no fonts are involved), checking colour information (especially if using spot colours), flattening all images, checking transparency, creating and/or checking dielines to ensure they overprint correctly, etc.

Before you print a sample, make sure that the UPC code (bar code) is tested. You wouldn’t want your client’s Champagne product rung up as a pack of chewing gum!

Production samples:

Creating a print sample (prior to completing a full print run) is essential to ensure the package will look as expected. This one step could be a bacon-saver of literally thousands to tens of thousands of dollars.

At this stage you should check the following:

  • Essential artwork is away from folds, glued areas and diecut sections.
  • Image resolution.
  • Colours.
  • Package will fold and assemble as expected.
  • All elements are present and accounted for.

 The print run:

Once your sample has been signed off, you can proceed with the full print run. The package will be printed, diecut, then flat packed and dispatched.

The in-store experience:

Once your packaging is in-store, check it out! Take pictures. Does it have the desired impact? Share your findings with your agency team so you can see if the process worked. Then bask in the glory of a very long process, very well done!

Image courtesy of Viktor Forgacs

Sarah Ritchie has been in the design and agency world for 25 years. Originally a graphic designer, Sarah has also worked as a design teacher, agency account manager, and now enjoys a wonderful life in recruitment for agencies. Sarah is also the Founder of AM-Insider — a website full of tips, tricks and resources to build account management superstars!



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