So much is being written about clean packaging but I find that for the most part there is a significant amount of confusion about what is clean. Is clean packaging about the content, manufacture or sustainability of the products? Or, is it about the visual design system used on the packaging that conveys the product to the consumer? In reality, it is both things but each has its own set of considerations that impact successful packaging implementation.
Clean Packaging and Product Content
Clean packaging as it references product content, manufacture or sustainability is the effort made to openly declare what exactly goes into a product being sold (think organic, gluten-free, Kosher, non-GMO). Most consumers have established the belief that clean means less. Additionally, they are increasingly demanding the humane treatment of animals as a consideration for defining a clean product.
While all of this is important in defining clean, a major issue in creating and delivering a universal statement of clean is that based on a wide variety of criteria, clean consumers are to some degree impossible to typify – therefore satisfy. While it would be a challenge, it might help to establish a uniform standard to communicate a clean product much in the same way uniform standards have been established to communicate validated nutrition information – perhaps similar to the way companies have added Facts Up Front to their packaging.
Clean Packaging and Visual Design
In light of this, what then makes clean visual design? Clean visual design is not that different from clean product content. It is grounded in design concepts that are direct, not muddled – that create impact and are easy for the consumer to break down, react to and recall. It means eliminating those things that distract from the design goals of the brand. People often create elegant, complex or elaborate design systems but if they don’t deliver a visceral impact in the mental gut of the consumer, they are ineffective.
Clean design can be anything from balancing white or unoccupied space with minimalism of design elements or the complete elimination of extraneous design content. Clean design focuses on a priority of messaging that is necessary and essential. It doesn’t mean less or boring, rather it goes directly back to the old axiom that a picture is worth a thousand words. The same holds true in copy; the right word is better than too many words. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry stated it best when he said “You know you have reached perfection of design not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing more to take away”.
Creating a Clean Balance
So, we come to the gut of the issue. The consumer wants clean products. The designer wants clean design. But the communication of clean products puts heavy pressure on design teams to balance design systems with an ever-expanding iconography for product attributes. Balancing the appropriate symbology with the mandatory requirements to disclose ingredients and nutrition, and the compression of packaging structure and size for cost savings make it more and more difficult for design teams to create impactful clean designs with less and less space. Adding to the space limitations is the increasing demand for on-package promotions of all kinds – it gets to the point where one might actually think there is less concern for brand communication as there is for product content communication.
Considering the population in total, how much information needs to reasonably be on packaging, and at what point are individual consumers responsible to source information on the foods they consume? The obvious solution is to apply technology that allows consumers that want more detailed information to access it independent of printing it on the physical package. Using technology to communicate on a deeper level allows for increased freedom of designers to use the full package as their design canvas.
There are no direct “solutions” that can be applied to clean packaging, except increasing the demand for marketing teams to:
- Work harder to clearly and cleanly define the profile of their typical and desired consumer
- Determine what is the most critical information that needs to be on the package for a product the consumer needs and/or wants
- Determine how to best lead those consumers to the appropriate information resource for the depth of information desired
A package alone cannot do it all. Clean is here to stay as consumers increasingly expect uniform transparency of information on the foods they consume and from the designers that create the packaging for those products.
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