The purpose of packaging design in a world without packaging.
Shifting from linear to circular design practices, what can packaging designers do to stay relevant in a world where perhaps there might not be any packaging?
Most businesses follow a linear economic model, which is pretty straightforward as its name suggests. Resources are used to manufacture products that are sold, consumed and then thrown away. As consumers, we have been conditioned to want and buy more, constantly upgrading to the next new thing in the market because the linear economic system depends on our consumption. This way of life is short-sighted because it does not consider its long term impact on the environment and is self-centred because it encourages us to believe all the resources available are for our consumption only. As a result this is what is happening :
Is there a way out of this?
Yes, by adopting circular practices. A circular economy is that which considers not only one touchpoint of the supply chain that is the point of purchase but also what happens before a product is made and what happens after its consumption. A continuous loop of recognising the potential of an object to do something that it’s not traditionally meant to do, and transforming waste and byproducts of manufacturing into a resource.
Here’s an example of how a regenerative/ circular system could work :
As we can see, it significantly eases the load on natural resources while reducing waste. It’s a win-win situation for businesses, consumers and the environment alike. It’s beneficial for businesses as repurposing waste will cut down production costs and therefore beneficial for consumers as low production costs means a lower selling price and since the waste is repurposed, it is good for the environment too as it reduces the waste and pressure on resources.
So basically, what we need to do is listen to what our mom told us as kids.
In a very ideal world, businesses would adopt circular practices every step of the way of their supply chain and this can be considered as a benchmark. But understand that adopting these methods means changing the entire fabric of a company, which involves convincing various stakeholders the value of this system and that can be a tediously slow process.
What matters is to start somewhere and then keep improving. There might be a packaged water brand that makes bottles out of ocean plastic. It still ends up in the trash. But till a solution to eliminate this waste is found, upcycling this plastic at least removes the waste from the ocean! What’s important is that you do not stop at upcycling but strive for achieving elimination of waste.
Along with restructuring businesses comes the monumental task of changing consumption behaviour and breaking the vicious cycle of mass production and over-consumption and to be completely circular would mean stop buying things which seems next to impossible.
Fortunately, current consumer trends reveal that people are becoming more aware about the impact of linear practices on the environment and are changing their lifestyles to contribute to the cause. They’re making informed purchasing decisions, seeking more information about how the product was made and its source. One of the primary touch points that helps them take these decisions is the product packaging, which is also one of the biggest contributors to the landfills.
Can people who make this packaging aka designers do something about it?
As a person who once designed packaging and understands the process, here are my two cents on how design agencies can adopt circular practices and contribute. Since our clients are the ultimate decision makers, one of the biggest hurdles I see would be convincing them to accept this change. The more frictionless the process to switch to sustainable solutions, the more willing clients will be to accept them. In order to do that, agencies first need to up their game and get their facts straight. They can start by asking the right questions.
What is the purpose of packaging? How might it change with changing trends?
Packaging design is the bridge that connects what a consumer needs and what the product has to offer by giving brands a voice. What consumers have needed so far is
- To trust a brand. When the visual design and story is in harmony with the brand values, and the brand values are in sync with the consumer’s needs, there’s a connect between consumers and the brand. This connect is what drives people to buy something. It’s the designers’ job to make this happen using visual tools like fonts, illustrations, colours, product shot, printing effects and substrates.
- Information about a product. Consumers seek transparency from brands. We’ve seen trends in food packaging rising from people shifting to organic food, veganism, etc. making product claims like ‘cruelty free’, ‘vegan’ , ‘gluten free’ , ‘dairy free’ , ‘no preservatives’ very popular on packaging.
This method of brand communication is very user centric which isn’t what circularity stands for. Remember that being circular is considering not only the needs of the user but also its impact on the planet’s resources and other living beings. Therefore we must strive to make our solutions not just human centred but life centred.
Here are a few upcoming packaging trends that answer to circular needs.
(Have included hyperlinks in case you want to dig deeper)
- Refilling :
A UK based grocery store called Unpacked encourages customers to bring their own containers and fill in as much produce as they need in an effort to promote ‘zero waste stores’. byHumankind is a brand that sells refills for personal care products ranging from deodorants, mouthwash tablets, soap and shampoo.
- Bio-degradable materials :
Tomorrow Machine is a Swedish design house that created ‘This Too Shall Pass’, a series of food packaging that uses natural materials like caramelised sugar, agar-agar seaweed, beeswax to produce bio degradable packaging for food like oil and oil-based foods, fruit juices and rice. They believe that the lifespan of food packaging should be as short as the food that it contains.
- Edible packaging :
The Ooho Water bubble/ball is a membrane-like container made from seaweed. It dissolves in the mouth as you pop it in. These water bubbles substituted plastic water bottles at the London Marathon in 2019 as an effort to reduce plastic waste in sports.
- Dehydrated product concentrates :
Did you know that liquid cleaners are 95% water? Cleaning product brands like Blueland are experimenting with dehydrated formats of cleaning solutions like detergent tablets and concentrated capsules to substitute traditional liquid cleaning solutions. This reduces the volume which cuts down transport costs, fuel used and the amount of packaging required too.
- Modular packaging :
Samsung introduced a new modular packaging for its TVs which transforms the otherwise useless and clunky cardboard box into a cat house, shelves or even a book rack.
All these examples fall under the umbrella of dematerialisation because of which I feel, the purpose of packaging will shift, wherein the primary decision making touchpoint for consumers will be the actual actions taken by the brand and knowledge about the process, conveyed perhaps digitally through social media channels. Making packaging just an extension of this communication. It can also result in some brands considering getting rid of packaging altogether.
So what measures can agencies take internally to be agile and equipped for the future?
Aiming to convert these threats into opportunities, we can
- Learn by experimenting:
Brainstorm ideas that leverage these trends and that will help you upgrade your knowledge and skillset. For example, I can see potential for the Ooho packaging material in the medical industry where they can substitute plastic bottles for syrups with a seaweed cover. When you buy cough syrup, you never end up finishing the whole bottle and it expires and you throw it away. To solve this, ‘syrup bubbles’ can be made as per dosage. This way, people will buy only the number of dosages prescribed. As a results there is no waste and having syrup becomes much more convenient. Try to test these ideas and find out if they’re viable and if they are, then send out proposals! This might help you to think beyond the traditional meaning of packaging that’s limited to print.
- Set an example :
Use your design research expertise to set new standards for the design process. For example what Nike did with its Circularity Workbook. Share these findings to educate clients and consumers. Try to use examples that are relevant to your context. This will help people relate to your solutions / suggestions far better.
- Build a network :
Find out and connect with suppliers that provide sustainable materials. Share and promote these contacts with your clients and other agencies. Collaborate with agencies and universities on design challenges and encourage open innovation practices. Having a fresh point of view can lead to unexpected results (in a good way).
- Be mindful of resources :
This is what I consider the underdog of the process, but something that has always bothered me and can be easily tackled. Rethink before making design mock-ups and choose design options that are absolutely necessary to print. Be conscious about energy, food and other resources spent during products shoots.
Now that we’ve done our homework, what can be done to get our clients on-board?
I see a dual approach to this i.e. a push and pull strategy.
Push Strategy :
Try to get clients that don’t yet follow circular practices on the same page by showing them its value. Keep re-questioning the process and make them look beyond their own brief by including circular solutions in the scope of work. Discourage practices that are irresponsible. For example, if brands have a ridiculously extensive product portfolio that isn’t solving any concrete problem, then give a substitute solution to compress it and let them know. Or, if they have a particular package that uses materials irresponsibly, point it out. Show them that your solutions work by gathering examples of successful circular businesses and make a plan to demonstrate how they could work for their business.
Pull Strategy :
See the bigger picture and encourage circular brands by working with them even if it means that they can’t quite afford your services. You don’t have to do it for free, but at least try to meet halfway. See it as a win win situation as design agencies can benefit by learning about different circular practices and strengthen their network, and brands benefit because their product gets a voice. This will pay off in the long run and will also help the agency earn a good reputation.
To sum things up, I would like to say that we need to learn how to recycle design solutions. We are so focused on coming up with something BRAND NEW, that we forget that there are enough new things in the world. What designers need to do is not make more new things but leverage these existing creations and rethink, redefine and reconnect to innovate. Working with limited resources induces true creativity.
I leave you with this thought, hoping that it sparked something in your mind and heart. Now, go listen to your mom and put your stuff back in its place! 😄