Design Edge: Avoid These Common Packaging Mistakes

By Matthew Nuccio

While many will go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Guggenheim, or the Louvre to engulf themselves in art and culture, I will simply walk the aisles in retail. Grocery stores, pharmacies, departments stores, sporting goods stores…and of course, my favorite, the toy store. And you may think I’d be there looking to find what packages are new and/or outstanding. But I am also there looking to see what is failing and why. So here are three reasons why I believe packaging can often fail at retail:

Monochromatic Layouts 

When I’m speaking about packaging at trade shows, I’ll mention my far-too-often experience with startup companies who have fun products sitting on retail shelves, contacting me completely confused as to why they have such poor sales. Many times, it’s a case of them having decided on some very thought-out, but not quite aesthetically pleasing monochromatic packaging. My first question is: “From what design discipline does your designer come from?” The answer is often surprising. The designer’s background is almost always from some sort of printing or web design. 

The potential problem with that is, unlike print and web designers, consumers picking up your package at retail locations are not a captured audience. They are far more random! By making your toy packaging monochromatic, what you are essentially doing is making your product camouflage itself on the shelf. It all but disappears. You need to make sure the right elements pop off of the package and capture a potential buyer’s attention. Using 10 shades of the same blue won’t easily achieve this effect, even with an accent color. It’s far too risky and way too few designers can pull this off.

Poorly Spaced Type

All the time, I meet designers who think that just making a font large and bold constitutes a logo. And while I will confess that, on occasion it can work, nothing drives me crazier than a designer who doesn’t know how to properly space letters beside each other! It is a pet peeve — see what I did there? Didn’t that drive you nuts? 

All joking aside, there needs to be a spacial relationship that will balance it out. Certain letters come with space by default: As, Ls, Ts, Is, etc. Default spacing doesn’t always solve this potential space issue — especially where logo design is concerned. In fact it rarely does. This awareness and sense of aesthetic for letter space is a Design Edge staple! We teach our interns to imagine a small ball that needs to travel within the negative space between the letters and in a channel that is a perfect size for that ball. It is then their job, as the designer, to make sure that ball can travel perfectly between the letters without getting stuck or having too much space on either side. Our regular designers are well-experienced in this matter as well.

Overly Attractive Layouts That Tell No Story

I see this a lot when designers over-aim for the specialty market. They make these stunningly gorgeous layouts that don’t tell you diddly-squat about the actual product itself. For the designer, it can be a proud centerpiece for their portfolio, but to the manufacturer it can be a financial disaster with thousands of pieces in dead inventory. It all goes back to the points I stated earlier, that these packages are basically really attractive people with no brains.     

If you’re having a hard time conveying the idea behind your product on its own package, then perhaps you have limited real estate or limited production requirements. In these cases I suggest you roll with the “Steve Buscemi” approach to packaging…you know, the actor who looks like the gangster-version of Don Knotts. You may know him from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos or Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Anyway, he is so odd-looking in a unique way that he becomes attractive. Don’t get so hung up making your package “sexy” — make it “Buscemi.” The odd-looking package that stands out in the store full of conventionally sexy packages.

Matt Nuccio is president of Design Edge, a New York-based graphic design and research development studio. For more information, he can be reached at Matt@DesignEdge.net.

This article appeared in the October 2021 issue of TFE Magazine