Printing and Design Tips: January 2021, Issue #234

Packaging: A Growth Engine for Commercial Printing

My fiancee and I were just in Marshalls buying hair products. In the check-out line she saw a big bag of organic apple chips. It was red. The background was both gloss and matte (gloss on the apples; dull on everything else). It contained a number of smaller packages (one serving each).

What surprised me was that the big bag containing the single-serving apple chip packets was very expensive: almost $8.00. But my fiancee wanted it, so we bought it.

What intrigued me was her comment that she was willing to pay more than expected because of the packaging. I though about this in the context of what I had been reading about product packaging. As I have noted in prior articles and blogs, packaging is big. In the printing world, where some kinds of printing sales are shrinking (like books, magazines, and newspapers), product packaging is growing in leaps and bounds. And given my fiancee’s response about the sales value of the packaging, I can understand why.

The Packaging

To give you some context, the larger bag is about 12" x 12". The base material is gloss PET, I assume, or some other plastic sheeting. From my reading, it seems that the flexible packaging (as it is called) is composed of a number of layers. It is (presumably) heat welded along the sides. It has an easy-tear notch to open the larger bag and then a glued-on zipper seal to close the bag between servings.

The bottom of the outer packaging is gusseted so it will stand upright. There are also air holes in the bottom of the bag (presumably to maintain freshness, since this is a food product).

Interestingly enough (from my research), bags like these need to be food safe. The larger bag has a clear plastic interior coating, but the interior of the smaller, single-serving bags (which do not reseal) looks like a plasticized version of aluminum foil.

Clearly, the inks used in the process need to be food safe (and FDA approved). That is, not only do they need to be non-toxic, but based on the various plastic "barriers" between any printed material and the apple chips (the clear plastic and the metallicized plastic foil) need to keep any ink away from any food.

If this were a product that needed to be frozen (like breaded chicken cutlets), then the plastic packaging material, the glues and heat welding that keep the plastic base material formed into a resealable bag, and the printed decoration (marketing material and nutritional information) all would need to tolerate sub-freezing temperatures.

If the bag needed to be heated in the microwave (like a popcorn bag), the same functional issues (as opposed to the art/design) would have to be addressed. It would need to be functional as a reusable bag, as well as non-toxic. Plus, it would need to sell the product. All of this information winds up being irrelevant to busy people who just need their apple chips and frozen, breaded chicken.

But how about the artwork, also known as the "creative," or package decoration or adornment? First of all, there’s a clear window in the plastic. According to my research, consumers like to see the product. (They also like to see all of the nutritional information printed on the bag.) The red background? After all, these are apple chips. However, red also stands out in a sea of hundreds or thousands of competing packaged products. Black stands out, too. (I’ve seen apple chips packaged in black pouches with red highlights for the apples: a sexy, sophisticated look for apple chips.)

The Process

How this flexible packaging is made also showed up in my research. Keep in mind that for the plastic sheeting base of the flexible packaging, as for plastic used to make bags for packaging bread, offset printing with its heavy roller pressure can be problematic. In one case, in my research, I read about the use in package printing of rotogravure (an intaglio printing process in which both the type and art are printed with small wells cut into the press rollers, which take up ink from reservoirs and then deposit it on the plastic substrate. Screen printing is another option, and flexography (a relief process, with type and art raised above the surface of the rubber printing plates) is a third. Now, digital printing is also an option.

Presumably digital printing is good for short runs or versioned copies, since each printed product can be totally different. And going completely in the opposite direction, rotogravure is ideal for ultra-long press runs. Depending on what technology you’re using, you’ll also get various levels of color fidelity and image resolution (usually quite high these days).

Interestingly enough (to go back to the coating medium), unlike paper the plastic used in flexible packaging starts out clear and glossy. So in the case of the apple chips my fiancee bought, the glossy apples were the natural state of the plastic substrate material, and the spot matte coating over much of the background (but not the apples) was applied over this glossy plastic.

But what makes the gloss on the apples "pop" is the contrast between the matte background and the gloss apples. This makes it unique. It makes the apples jump out of the background. And in Marshalls, when you’re standing in a long line waiting to pay, the apple chips in the impulse buy section are way cool. Just ask my fiancee. She’s an artist and art therapist, as I’ve noted before.

What Can We Learn?

So what can we learn from this packaging?

1. Packaging is big business. It’s growing in leaps and bounds. If you’re a designer or any other print professional, take note. Your skills are needed here. Read everything you can on the subject of product packaging.

2. Packaging is functional: in some cases more than others. A cereal box with a plastic liner bag seems to be rather simple. But a product package that has to tolerate the cold of the freezer—or the heat generated by a microwave—has to be durable in specific ways.

3. Food product packaging has to pass stringent FDA requirements, not just for all ink (non-toxic) but also for all materials comprising the (often) layered plastic bag.

4. Packaging has to take into consideration the user’s habits. The big apple bag was resealable. The small, single-serving bags it contained were not.

5. First and foremost, the packaging must be attractive. We see hundreds or thousands of images each day, and if a product seller wants to capture our interest, the packaging must be more compelling than any of the surrounding bags or boxes.

6. One way to make your product packaging stand out is to play gloss and dull textures off one another. In accordance with my research, gloss is the norm. So if you’re a designer, consider a spot matte surface for a portion of the design. Since gloss reflects light and catches the eye first, the apple-chip package designer made the apples gloss (the original background) and everything else matte (the additional spot coating).

7. Although I didn’t mention this before, in my research on product packaging I also found that flexible packaging is often preferable for the following reasons. It is light--lighter, perhaps, than a box of the same product. It also can stand upright--or be laid down--on the grocer’s shelf (for product presentation). In your refrigerator, as you consume the food, you can make the package smaller by squeezing out the air. As well as saving space, this also maintains the product’s freshness.

So, overall, the purpose of product packaging falls squarely between marketing (selling a brand) and functionality. It has a utilitarian purpose. But before you bring it home, take out some of the product, and roll it up and put the package in the freezer, you first have to want to buy it--as my fiancee did with the apple chips. So, again, marketing/promotion design leads the way. If you’re a designer, I think you’ll see the vast sea of opportunity ahead of you.

[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]