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What future packaging design?

A personal view by Rowland Heming

Looking forward always requires a degree of looking backward… therefore before discussing the future, I look back to the past….and I go way back….I go back to the 1960’s when my career started and when design here in Europe was something advertising agencies did for nothing to gain the media, or was done (by men in white coats), in an in-house design department within a company.

The 70’s and 80’s saw the real growth of independent companies that began to offer design as a ‘paid’ service. These companies were pioneers, building a case for design, and in the process giving design some sort of value – our industry today owes these people a lot!

With the end of the 80’s computers revolutionised design and those unable to adapt were forced to leave the industry. Computers began to both increase the access to design and at the same time devalue it, programs were created, and are still being created, to allow access to DIY design for millions of non-designers.

Computers also devalued design because, clients saw it took a shorter time to create than before (when everything was done by hand), and therefore they reasoned they should pay less. – Let’s not forget that this was also the time of business re-organisation, globalisation and the birth of the ‘Buyer’ – who’s role would lead to an even further devaluation of design, as design became seen not an effective or aesthetic improvement to brand communication, but just a financial cost to be reduced!

Through the 80’s and into the late 90’s and the 00’s many of the pioneering design companies had by now trained and given birth to new creative and international talent who now flooded the market, creating new design group after design group. The internationalisation of the business world, through globalisation and the Internet, had also allowed everyone to compete internationally, and a ‘buyer’s market’ had been created. In a ‘buyers market’ with so many design groups competing for work, it was inevitable that the buyers would ask for free pitching and that some design groups would agree, and consequently further devalue design!

International business & globalisation, demanded and increasing centralisation, for marketers this meant putting design in the hands of companies who could deliver service across the world, a business model that demanded huge investment from design companies and where possible, an existing international infrastructure. With most design groups being small operations, unable to meet this criteria, clients looked to their advertising agencies to fill the gap, and design moved back towards them (or the advertising agencies simply bought up the most effective and profitable parts of the design business). This is why today, just like in society as a whole, we see a minority of ‘haves’ and a majority of ‘have-nots’, in the design community.

So where is design going next?

I believe that clearly, technology will play a huge role here; Recently we have seen the beginnings of the demise of mega stores, as predicted more that 15 years ago by shopper marketing experts, We have seen the continuing growth of the ‘own brand’, or ‘private label’ phenomena (with the disappearance of many small national brands), and importantly, we have we have also seen the continuing growth of on-line shopping. Product is once again becoming important, as we choose the product we want on-line, rather than by just looking at the package as we do in the supermarket. In this new scenario, the product comes to us through the post or on a delivery truck, and we may not really care as much about the box it’s in.

Let’s take an example: I want to buy a grocery product, in future I will most likely go on line to a search engine, that tells me where I can find the best deal is for my groceries (rather like choosing an airline ticket or a hotel), the search engine, will give me a range of choices and I chose either by brand or price. The website allows me to go in detail to find out about the product, this will of course have a key image that makes it recognisable, but ‘on-line’ the product description will include film, moving graphics, 3D spinning images…all that technology can offer.

There has been talk about the future being filled with virtual supermarkets, but I believe that virtual supermarkets are unlikely to happen… it’s accepted now that people don’t want to be in the supermarket and that therefore they get in and out as quickly as possible… so why would you want to wander through a pretend supermarket on-line, when there are search engines that will take you directly to the product you want, and allow you to put it in your virtual basket?

In this new world, it’s inevitable that the package will have a new role to play, as on-line shopping continues to expand, design criteria will most likely have to change, it may not be enough for the package to simply ‘stand out on shelf’ as it did before. Instead the package will need to be more functional, designed to meet the new criteria of shipping and storage, most likely with a smaller ‘facing’ and therefore less need for complicated graphics (or indeed any graphics at all, except a key image/logo and legal necessities etc…) – Graphics that will be effective even as a ‘thumbnail’ image on a retailer’s website!

However, I am not saying that in the coming years, there won’t be the need to develop design for real and local shops, where packaging design continues to act as an ‘impulse activator’. We are all aware that small shops are dying, not just because of the internet, but also, I believe due to the short sightedness of town councils, who make it impossible or too expensive for consumers to access them, by creating parking restrictions and charging extortionate parking fees, not to mention the crippling high business rates imposed on these small businesses. Today, it’s only the small shops which are run by the big distributors, that are on the increase, because they wisely offer parking or take over the local petrol station shop, allowing them to escape the tyranny of the town council and offer easy access to their customers (Aldi, Lidl and M&S and many others are already building this type of infrastructure). This trend will continue as more and more as people buy their bulk commodities on-line and use their local store simply as a ‘larder’ for fresh, luxury and impulse goods. I fear that the large mega-stores and shopping malls are becoming a thing of the past due to this trend.

So what future for the design agency?

Like the high street revolution, where large distributors have taken over small shops, I feel the same will inevitably happen to the design industry. Advertising agencies, the larger ‘more established’ design companies and in-house design departments will inevitably be the winners of the change that is to come. Smaller design companies (like smaller shops), will most likely be swallowed up or only survive if they can offer something different – niche design, outstanding service or stunning creativity, for example.

It seems that the path of the design industry since the 1960’s is about to come full circle!

One way or another, the design industry is changing, just as the way we shop, the way we work and the way we live is changing. There will be winners and losers in the years to come, those willing to embrace the change will ultimately survive, those who don’t will disappear. But there is also hope, that as the larger and more powerful design and advertising groups become established, they may be able to stand up to the ‘buyers’ and the larger corporations and convince them of the value of design, allowing design to regain the recognition it deserves.

Rowland Heming – June 2015©

*If you would like this presentation or any presentation on this site to be made to your company, university or organisation, please contact me on rh.pkga@gmail.com

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