September 21, 2021

How Subjectivity is Subverting Your Package Design Process

Design will always invite opinions. Design-driven brand growth, however, requires a more objective approach.

“The greatest delusion men suffer from is their own opinions.”
— Leonardo da Vinci

While this quote from the great Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci may be a bit dramatic, it does get to a fundamental truth: Our opinions can often obscure a clear view of a situation. This is certainly true in package design. 

According to “The Business Value of Design,” published by McKinsey, design-led companies increase their revenues and shareholder returns at nearly twice the rate of their industry counterparts. Yet just over 50% of companies surveyed admitted that they have no objective way to assess or set targets for the output of their design teams. This means that a powerful lever of brand success is largely being left to something as inherently flawed as opinion.

So why is subjectivity so common in this context?  

It starts with our psychology. For example: Consider the false consensus effect, which is the tendency to overestimate how much others agree with our opinions. Essentially, when we see something a certain way, we assume others will see it that way, too. 

There’s also groupthink, a phenomenon that spurs us to conform to prevailing opinions—which in the case of design decisions, will generally be those of senior management. In fact, Nielsen reported that 53% of those surveyed believe the top driver of design decisions is the “senior executive favorite.” And that’s just the beginning of the biases and psychological factors people (often unwittingly) bring to the design process. 

On one hand, this is understandable. Absent quality data and awash in qualitative feedback, it’s natural to default to the latter. But in the context of package design, it can lead to poor decisions, missed opportunities for brand growth, and even a significant hit to your company’s bottom line.

When considering how this subverts the design process, it’s helpful to consider the two types of subjectivity at play. 

From internal stakeholders

“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” 
— Jim Barksdale

The stakeholders in any design process will likely have an opinion on proposed designs. After all, the team is invested in creating a great new (or renewed) design and all would like to be a part of its eventual success. But it’s important to remember that there are both politics and power dynamics at play. 

For example: Lacking any objective measurement of design, new brand managers may initiate a package redesign without knowing if one is warranted. Plus, some members of the team will naturally be more forceful in their opinions on designs than others, while others may decide to yield to the opinion of a manager. In a group dynamic like this, participants each have their own interests and biases in addition to wanting to further the overall team goal. This was reflected in the Nielsen study referenced above, in which 44% of respondents said the design process was “too political” and 51% felt it was “too subjective.”

From qualitative research

“I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say.”
— Marshall McLuhan

Biases and human quirks also find their way into focus groups and other qualitative research methods. There’s a tendency for the louder and more vehement personalities in the room to drive the conversation, and less motivation for participants to make themselves heard (compensation is generally standardized, and there’s no corner office waiting for the “best answer.”) 

Plus, in a room full of strangers, some people are likely to respond more agreeably, but in ways that don’t reflect their true opinions. “Sponsor bias,” for example, makes it more likely that consumers will say nice things about whomever is conducting the research. And as we all know, some of the most important insights come from unconscious reactions, which are in short supply in forced social (read: self-conscious) settings like focus groups. 

Here are a few of the ways brands torpedo their design efforts by eschewing or misusing design data and instead letting subjectivity drive the process. 

Fixing what isn’t broken 

“We do not make changes for the sake of making them, but we never fail to make a change when once it is demonstrated that the new way is better than the old way.” 
— Henry Ford

Occasionally, brands (like people) get the urge to change their look. It’s not a bad instinct, but sometimes it may actually harm more than it helps. Getting quality data early can help your brand decide whether you need a change in the first place.

And if a change is called for, the right data helps ensure you change the right things in the right way. In many instances, a complete overhaul will likely tank, but a minor change to improve certain metrics (like communication) can give your brand a boost. 

Smart brands spend less time, money, and energy for more bottom-line impact simply by valuing data over instinct.

Waiting until the end of the design process  

“With data collection, ‘the sooner the better’ is always the best answer.” 
– Marissa Mayer

Many of the world’s most disciplined and discerning brands conduct design research at the final stage of the process. This approach is supposed to be a form of due diligence–it introduces some objective measurement, however flawed–but in fact it’s merely a final, fingers-crossed “disaster check.” 

At that stage, it’s too late to inform a strategic creative brief or make significant changes to the design you are testing. If design testing were done earlier in the process, it would give brands the opportunity to test multiple designs or get data-driven feedback to help refine one that’s chosen. 

Late-stage validation testing may “pass” a design, but as we all know, passing grades simply tow the line of the acceptable— they are never exceptional. The best time for data is at the start, when it can make the difference between a successful design and one that’s simply “meh.”

Not paying attention to metrics… or overemphasizing the wrong ones

“Little things make big things happen.”
– John Wooden

Metrics drive so much of a company’s marketing efforts, and yet for package design—the one component of the mix that reaches 100% of category buyers—they are woefully underutilized. 

Yet even when they are, subjectivity drives the prioritization of them. For example: Likeability. It would stand to reason that package design consumers actually like would excel, right? 

Believe it or not…. No. According to our meta-analysis of hundreds of redesigns across scores of categories, improvement on likeability scores correlated with highly-predictive purchase preference results only 46% of the time. (That’s less predictive than a coin toss.) Choosing a design based solely on likeability would be a mistake.

Communication, however, does correlate with increased revenue. We’ve found that effectively communicating important product attributes on your package contributes heavily to sales performance, with a nearly 90% correlation to directional in-market outcomes.

Limit subjectivity. Leverage data. Reap the rewards. 

“Where there is data smoke, there is business fire.”
— Thomas Redman

Companies are now realizing how package design can help grow their brands, yet subjectivity remains a significant (and entrenched) hurdle in maximizing design performance. Perhaps just as importantly, they’re recognizing that using data early and often (which is easy with faster, more cost-effective tools) nips that subjectivity in the proverbial bud, and replaces opinion with consistent, high-quality, and actionable data throughout the process. 

More than ever, savvy brands are seeing that data can help unleash design-driven growth and that subjectivity stands in their way. Will your brand be one of them? 


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