Wouldn’t it be great if all of your design ideas and print projects came with a “try-before-you-buy” option? That’s essentially the purpose behind prototyping. Prototyping’s superpower is the ability for designers and brands to effectively explore their ideas from concept to execution in three dimension (3D)—in real life—learning invaluable lessons along the way by iterating and evolving a design.
As a packaging designer, prototyping is essential to exploring and trying out various finishing and sensory marketing techniques. What does a tactile finish feel like on a certain element? Is it more effective on the logo or the product name? How does one substrate print versus another? Will this flat-edge embossing crack or does the packaging need a slight bevel? How can I get a premium look without the use of metallics? The questions are endless, and so are the possibilities.
Prototyping helps brands home in on where to focus the shopper’s engagement and where to get the best “bang for their buck” with the budget they have for printing and converting. It’s vital for packaging to have shelf appeal to attract and engage shoppers and, for e-commerce buyers, to have an unboxing experience that elicits confidence and trust.
I had a lively conversation about prototyping with Lindsey Frimming, partner and Chief Innovation Officer at Cog, LLC, a highly-regarded packaging development and prototyping studio specializing in secondary packaging. Cog is uniquely involved with their clients at every stage of the prototyping process, helping them develop innovative packaging that engages consumers, creates an intended experience, and ultimately drives a purchase.
“Whether it’s a premium fragrance or cat litter, if it doesn’t stand out on the shelf, the consumer is going to just keep moving,” says Lindsey. This is especially important in the age of Covid, where consumers aren’t lingering in the aisles the way they used to.
The top three advantages of prototyping
As a packaging designer, the biggest advantage of prototyping is touch. Experiencing a design in the physical world feels very different than seeing it digitally. With so much of our lives onscreen—PDFs, Zoom, LinkedIn, etc.—it’s easy to forget how different something is when we hold it rather than just look at it. Not only do we experience it differently, but we trust it more because it is a physical object.
My clients are often surprised at how they respond to a prototype; they don’t anticipate the power of that real-world, physical piece because they had been so confident in our onscreen design process. When prototyping with Cog, we often prototype in two stages—first for structure, shape, and substrate; second for finishing—exploring possibilities with tactile, textured, soft touch and smooth varnishes. The second stage might also include looking at the edges of embossings and debossings, or the differences between metallic production techniques. “All you have to do is look on store shelves to see how important touch is. Very rarely do you see a plain paper package or a simple label anymore,” adds Lindsey.
This sensory delight is where prototyping stands out; a brand can’t really get a sense of that tactile feel by looking at a 2D rendering. You can talk about it. You can give them a sample of a premium substrate to feel while they’re looking at the design onscreen. But it’s not the same. “When you’re selling a concept and an element like touch (which is going to add cost to the packaging), it is vitally important to have that product in the third dimension for either the purchasing manager or for a consumer test panel to experience. Every brand wants to make sure that their investment will pay off,” explains Lindsey.
That leads us to another advantage of prototyping: experience. In this age of social media influencers and brand fandom, the most successful packaging provides a unique experience to the shopper as they open it to reveal the product. Is there printing on the inside? Is there a secret drawer? Does the packaging provide a second purpose? (Consider for example how your cats or kids play with Amazon boxes!) Does it feel premium? Does it match what the shopper expected when they ordered online? Would they recommend it? Or does it simply look beautiful and make the viewer think, “Wow, I want to experience that product.” A “knocked it out of the park” consumer experience is really challenging without prototyping as part of the design process. Plus, think of how much more confident brands are with their finishing and substrate choices in the manufacturing environment. With hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, prototyping is a brand’s secret weapon.
And finally, of course, there’s the prototyping advantage of sight. Today’s digital programs do a great job of creating beautiful onscreen graphics for your designs and mock-ups in 2D. But real life is different. “For example, take that gradient on the PDF that’s supposed to represent a foil,” says Lindsey. “Even with the simulating software, where you can put your light source in the substrates, it’s still difficult to determine if the type will actually be readable. Or, what if the foil flashes too dark? There are so many variables. A lot of that work just can’t be replicated onscreen. And again, if it’s worth the extra budgeting for premium finishes, it’s certainly worth the more modest investment to ensure maximum impact and success on shelf.”
When brands choose to prototype, they are typically exploring one or two design concepts with several possible structures, substrates, or finishing techniques. This sort of exploration helps designers and brands break through some of the safer and more expected options to explore unique approaches and techniques. This is evident in an olive oil label exploration that Cog and I partnered on last year. The brand had been using metallics to show a sense of premium-ness. But with a commitment to an environmentally-friendly supply chain, we explored options that do both: exude premium without the use of metallic foils or metallic substrates and films.
Pushing what’s possible
In another example, Cog developed illuminating prototypes for a popular men’s personal care line. “When the brand asked us to explore some different ways of highlighting the brand logo and new ingredient imagery, the original thinking was to apply gloss and matte varnish in a few common areas, which could be replicated on the whole family of SKUs,” says Lindsey. “But they gave us the freedom to explore beyond that. So we showed them a unique tactile varnish effect for each of the seven SKUs being explored – something their design team may not even have considered. Each SKU had this cool, unique tactile pattern. And it worked really well to draw attention to their new product offerings. I also worked with the printer to ensure that the decoration being proposed was accurately representative to the printer’s capabilities. Once you know what the printer can do, that’s when the gears really turn and the ‘what-ifs’ start forming beautiful packaging – resulting in a consistently elevated shelf presence and consumer response.”
Imagine if the brand wasn’t able to see what the pattern was going to look like or feel like, and they went to print trial to determine which specific tactile varnish they wanted across seven SKUs. It would have been very time-consuming and expensive. Instead, because they had prototyped options in hand, Lindsey says, the print trial at the converter took just one day.
“For comparison sake,” adds Lindsey, “it probably would have taken three days in a print trial without it. Prototyping helped save money, time, and also allowed the brand to explore a new technique they had not considered. Prototyping also eliminated the potential frustration and uncertainty of not knowing the end result.”
Lindsey shares another prototyping project for Mixicles, a new brand that offers botanically-infused ice designed to naturally flavor and chill any spirit, wine, or other beverage. When Mixicles needed to create packaging for their commercial launch, they turned to Cog.
“They asked us to develop a unique carton structure that would properly house their product in a retailer’s frozen juice section; that would also work as a great display case, and that would fit nicely in a home freezer. We also thought it would be a missed opportunity not to feature this product in bars and liquor stores, so we also took that detail into consideration when designing.” That’s quite a list of requests!
There were several unique challenges (read: opportunities!) with the Mixicles box. It needed to have enough room for the imagery, the instructions and the regulatory requirements. Plus, shoppers needed to quickly understand what the product was and how the package would let them store the product at home. “The idea is that you pop out a couple of cubes at a time, and then the container goes back in your freezer with the remaining cubes,” says Lindsey.
“David Brown, our structural designer, not only worked with the brand, but also with the print manager to construct an amazing box for local and online sales and pitching to a leading national retailer that does all this and more. The carton also has a perforated panel where the brand can add recipes and the consumer can keep it as a recipe card. This carton basically does everything but serve your drinks,” Lindsey laughs.
What’s the risk if brands don’t prototype?
When it comes to prototyping, it’s not just about what is, it’s also about what if. Without prototyping, so many things can go awry. For example, the print quality may not come out the way the designer and brand envisioned, so it doesn’t show up over the finish (i.e. foil). Or the dieline might fail. But the true gamble, says Lindsey, is that “brands risk not having the opportunity to truly engage the consumer’s senses and ultimately win on the shelf.”
(Prototype label Images courtesy of Guy Welch Photography, Atlanta, GA U.S.A.)