May 20, 2022

It’s About Time: Design Thinking for Package Design

How has it taken this long to bring this transformative concept to package design?

Chances are, you’re familiar with “design thinking.” Embraced by brands like Nike and Apple and taught to students at Stanford and Harvard, this approach has been pivotal in sparking innovation in everything from engineering to product development. 

On a more fundamental level, though, you’re familiar with it because you do it. It’s essentially a way of solving problems, which is something we all do every day. “Design is everywhere,” said Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO and creator of the term design thinking. “And inevitably everyone is a designer.”

Just because we do it, though, doesn’t necessarily mean we always do it well. That’s why design thinking (DT) has become such a powerful and popular method—its principles are proven to create more impactful results. 

And that’s why it’s all the more surprising that there has been very little of this groundbreaking concept used in package design. These days, though, there are cutting-edge tools available that dovetail perfectly with the DT process and allow CPG brands to benefit from it.

Before we get into that, though, let’s better define what this concept is.

What is design thinking and what are its components?  

Design thinking is a dynamic framework for creative development that questions assumptions, prioritizes empathy, and embraces experimentation. Essentially, it’s a reliable, repeatable way of solving problems.


Let’s look at these stages one by one in the context of package design.

Empathize & Define

Proponents of design thinking often call it a human-centered discipline, because it seeks to solve problems with the user in mind. The idea is to step outside of your perspective with curiosity and a bit of humility. This part of the process also allows for defining the problem more clearly. 

When creating a package design, this means starting with the consumer: Taking steps to understand what motivates them, how they use the product, and what’s really important from their point of view. This isn’t simply a box to check off; it’s an ongoing process of engaging with consumers so you can incorporate their feedback into the creative process.

Ideate & Prototype

“That’s the way we’ve always done it.” That simple phrase has been the death knell for countless innovations that never materialized. 

After all, the status quo may be comfortable—but it’s never catalytic. Design thinking pushes against the orientation toward complacency and questions the assumptions that underpin it. 

Ideation is the stage at which creativity is given free rein. Quality takes a back seat to quantity here: The more ideas that flow, the better. When it makes sense, prototypes are  created to represent the best ideas. 

In the package design world, most agencies actually do create many more design concepts than they present to their clients. The problem is that they often discard ones that seem too bold or adventurous to be considered seriously by the brand team. The culling process begins before some of the bolder (and possibly most profitable) options ever get a chance with consumers, thus leaving potential winners in the proverbial circular file. If it was possible to test these designs with consumers at an early stage (spoiler alert: it is not only possible, but cost-effective and quick), they could gather solid data to support a more adventurous approach. 

Test & Launch

We’re not testing in the pass/fail way here, at least not at first. This is an opportunity to learn, not win. With each new test, you glean more about what works and what doesn’t. Iteration creates innovation. 

Experiments can have hypotheses, but they shouldn’t have expectations. In the traditional CPG design process, though, there is generally only one test at the end of the process. At that point, no one is learning… they’re just crossing their fingers and hoping the design “passes.” 

And since only subjective criteria (”gut instinct,” input from senior stakeholders, focus group feedback, etc.) has likely been used to assess the design to this point, there is little confidence in that result. Not surprisingly, many do not pass… and then it’s back to the drawing board—or onward with a sub-par package design.

Using this iterative approach–test, refine, repeat–brands end up launching a design they are supremely confident in, because they know they’ve created a design that resonates with consumers. While this may sound like it lengthens the process, brands have found that it's actually faster since it helps them hone in on the best solution faster and avoid rework. 

As Jen Giannotti-Genes, global brand design director at Colgate-Palmolive, put it: “If you’re validating your approach continuously throughout the process, there’s no big mystery at the end—you just know whether something is going to be a success in market."

How design thinking can be used in the package design process

Changing established procedures can be daunting. The good news is that incorporating DT into the creative process really just requires a) an openness to trying it, and b) the right tools. It’s possible to save money and time while undergoing a more thorough (and successful) design process. Here are the right tools for each stage: 

Empathy: Syndicated design research & baseline testing 

These tools allow you to gain an understanding of your current design and the competitive landscape from the perspective of the consumer. Discover strengths and weaknesses, spot opportunities, and monitor risks with the confidence that comes from objective data (not subjective feedback). 

Ideation: Early design screening 

Traditionally, quantitative consumer feedback during design development required too much time and budget to be feasible. That’s simply not the case anymore. Now, there are easy-to-use, very affordable tools that can provide speedy, actionable feedback on pre-market design concepts. Not just quick-and-dirty assessments, either (which can actually make things worse)… These tools provide solid, predictive data, including direct feedback on what resonated with consumers and what didn’t.

Experimentation: On-demand testing

Brands and agencies have long noted the frustrations with traditional design testing: It is cost-prohibitive, crunches timelines, often returns inconclusive results and, perhaps most frustrating, comes at the end of the process with little helpful feedback for the creative team. Today’s on-demand testing tools, on the other hand, are far more flexible, responsive, decisive, predictive, and can be used at any stage of the process with faster turnaround times. 

The CPG industry has certainly been hearing about design thinking for a long time. Now it finally has the tools to utilize its power as an engine of innovation