Good design comes in great packaging. Or does it?
Designers, qualified designers, are supposed to be designing the packaging of products to enhance the product experience, attract the customer towards itself, keep the contents safe and be kind to the environment in the bargain. If you analyse the Indian packaging design scenario, you would realise that almost all of this untrue.
If you have ever had a child requesting you to open a toffee pack and looks at the pack being opened with a mixed emotion of anxiety and expectation, coupled with the frustration of having to ask a grown-up to do so, you will understand what this essay is about. Is user convenience a factor for the packaging designer or not? Or, has packaging design been reduced to making the ‘Logo’ bigger and the graphics colourful?
Businesses can do well to try opening a prototypical package themselves to empathise with the whole process of user-experience. Have you ever struggled opening a shampoo sachet in the shower? Or a cellophane wrapper off a soap? Ever wondered why arthritic medicines are tightly packaged that is completely useless for the patient who is arthritic? Have you opened a large gift of a toy only to realize that the contents are tiny? Has your packet of chips ever burst on you and your friends? Have you struggled with milk powder sachets in a moving train? Have you ever wondered where to store or dispose any of these packs? If you said yes to any of these, then you understand the problem.
Several years ago, the Design Council in UK had conducted a survey on what people thought was bad design. The small milk pack in plastic, shaped like a drop with a tough metal foil top was unanimously chosen as the most frustrating example of bad design. If a similar study was done in India, we would find several examples.
A few years ago Carrier, the then largest manufacturer of air-conditioners called upon me for re-doing their AC packaging. The reason was that the ACs then, were mounted on wooden crates and covered with a corrugated board cover. By the time the product reached the customer, the packaging was coming apart. When the company wanted to make it better, all their advertising agency had done was to change the colour scheme of the pack! But my design intervention was to get entire package was re-designed. Which meant understanding safety requirements, understanding available materials and processes and design both the structural and the visual parts of the packaging. The wooden crate was replaced with laminated paper structural elements and the corrugated carton was designed to withstand the rigours of a road journey from Manesar to Pondichery and still remain intact. Today the design is being used by all the AC manufacturers as the generic mode of packing window air conditioners.
Packaging does contribute in enhancing the image of the product. But it is only as good as the product it contains. No good packaging design can substitute the experience of a good product design. Ask a child who gets big toy packs that contain few frivolous elements and you get the picture. And often the image comes at a cost to the environment.
Packaging is also a large contributor to the landfills. It took a court order for pan masala manufacturers to change over to a more eco-friendly packaging. But a lot of your cellophane wrappers of soaps and condom and shampoo packs are finding their way into your own domestic sewerage systems, choking everything on the way. Compare this with the elegant baskets that Japanese pack their stuff, in and you would understand how design could beautifully contributes in saving the environment.
We need to get there and the sooner the better. Designers must engage their clients in the whole design process. Systemic thinking need to be applied to packaging design assignments. A strong lobby for keeping the whole process sustainable needs to be in place.
Till then the struggle with the daily soap will continue.
A Balasubramaniam is a trained product designer who founded January Design. He is an early graduate of NID, Ahmedabad in Industrial Design. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org