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Food Packaging: It’s Not Your Average Design Project

By Russ Martin

3 factors to consider when designing for food.

Photo by Carina Giacomelli

A highly cluttered retail landscape. A small footprint in which to attract, engage, communicate and sell. A regulatory agency that mandates format and consumer information. A perishable product that has to be kept safe and fresh from source to shopping cart.

Designing packaging for food is not like designing for any other product category. From messaging and visual strategy to labeling to choosing the right structure, food packaging takes know-how.

The first imperative for food packaging, of course, is creating taste appeal. Whether the product is completely encased in a box or prominently displayed in a clear pack, it has to look delicious. And that presents its own challenges. Beyond that, here are three other reasons why designing for food takes experience and expertise:

1. Consumers have specific expectations about food packaging.

Humans have an essential, eternal relationship with food. Long-standing traditions and consumer behaviors influence the ways in which food is packed, processed and prepared.

By its very nature, food gives us cues — through color, aroma, and texture — about whether it’s fresh and safe to eat. We learn early to identify ripe from unripe bananas, to discard wilted lettuce leaves.

Packaging conventions, too, have evolved to help consumers make quick judgments about food products. Categories have taken on color associations — like blue in dairy and green in natural. The shape of a package tells us how something should be eaten. Visual cues tell us a product is meant for breakfast or dinner. In a crowded retail landscape packed with competing products, these cues act as mental shortcuts, helping shoppers choose products quickly.

Those profoundly intrinsic ideas about what food should look like or be, however, can make packaging innovations a challenge. So, when designing for food, there’s a sweet spot that lies between pushing the envelope to break away from the pack and meeting the consumer’s long-held beliefs and expectations. It’s a delicate dance to stay within the needed cues for success yet move beyond boring and typical.

What’s more, trust is a major factor. A package still needs to reassure the buyer that the food is fresh, delicious and safe to consume.

2. Packaging plays a functional role.

Packaging commonly serves a critical function for food: It needs to keep the product safe through shipping, handling and stocking — and then still look great in the retail environment. The goal isn’t just getting the product to the point of sale; after the shopper makes the purchase, the package continues to protect and preserve as the product is packed in lunch boxes or tucked into the freezer.

And, depending on the product, there are further complexities in food packaging. It needs to have just the right ventilation. It needs to make it through the cold chain intact. It has to stack efficiently in transit. When designing for fresh food, packaging architecture is the starting point, not a late-in-the-process consideration.

That’s different than, say, designing for fashion packaging, which is primarily about enticing consumers, offering novelty and communicating status. These are also important factors when designing for food, but if you miss the mark on functionality, the consequences may be dire. Product recalls and reimbursements for damaged goods due to faulty packaging don’t just affect your bottom line; they diminish a brand’s reputation in ways that are difficult to recover from.

Considering the practical aspects of design for food is vital. To ensure your product is seen in its best light at every touchpoint, it’s imperative to think through the entire life cycle of the product.

3. Outside forces influence what you can and can’t do.

Finally, design and packaging for food is heavily regulated, which constrains creative choices and reduces available space for brand messaging. From type size to required labeling, your design options are limited by government standards, requirements in your industry (like alcohol or snacking) and the real estate available on your pack form.

Food packaging design isn’t a creative free-for-all. In many cases, entities like the FDA and USDA dictate type sizes, control language usage in product claims, enforce the size and placement of nutrition labeling, and limit the use of certain materials and inks that can come into contact with the product.

With most design projects, you arrive at a solution by breaking the rules. With package design for food, it’s ok to be disruptive, but you need to be keenly aware of the set boundaries and how far they can be pushed. Nobody wants their package to feel like it came from a template, but even more so, nobody wants to endure a costly update because their packaging is noncompliant.

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