New Book Material Innovation Goes Inside the Surprisingly Clever World of Package Design
A banana peel, if you think about it, is a stellar piece of packaging. It’s thick enough to protect the mushy fruit inside, it encases its content perfectly, and removes easily. Plus, it’s biodegradable.
These days designers are looking for ways to make product packaging more like a banana peel, which is to say, less wasteful and more specific to the product being sold. This tendency stems, in part, from a burgeoning sense of responsibility on the part of corporations to consider their environmental impact. It’s also good business; inventive, low-impact packaging can make brands more interesting and competitive.
Take Veuve Cliquot. The French company has been making champagne since 1772. It’s both a luxury and a heritage brand, owned by LVMH, the same people who own Louis Vuitton and Dior. Two years ago, the champagne house started selling something peculiar for a brand of its refined stature: a portable bottle case made from old potatoes. The white cooler, which keeps a bottle of champagne chilled for up to two hours, is among the many examples cataloged in Material Innovation: Packaging Design from Thames & Hudson ($30, here).
The case checks a lot of boxes for modern package design standards: It is environmentally conscious, because the potato starch and recycled paper that make up the container are compostable. It’s communicative, in that the smooth white look mimics the exterior of portable coolers, and the arced handle evokes a fountain of champagne. You can even drop it, and the bottle within won’t shatter. The packaging is protective, biodegradable, and tailored to its contents—a lot like a banana peel.
Material Innovation, by Andrew H. Dent of consultancy Material ConneXion and design consultant Leslie Sherr, charts the ways people and companies are reimagining packaging. Case studies are organized into schools of thought like “Functional Forms,” “Dispensing Systems,” or “Interactive” that are distinct in technique but united by the mission to stop equating packaging with trash. Sometimes this means imbuing the package with newfound functionality—Grower’s Cup, for example, sells coffee grinds in a packet that doubles as a coffee brewer and pouring pot. The skins on WikiFoods balls of frozen yogurt are edible. Tide sells rip-off detergent packs, the packaging for which dissolves away in the wash.
Clever packaging design can also improve parts of the supply chain that the consumer never sees, like manufacturing and shipping processes. The Sayl office chair by Herman Miller has a Y-shaped spine. It’s made from a glass-filled nylon material and is more delicate than the rest of the chair, so it must be shipped separately. Packaging Sayl spines used to require stuffing ordinary cardboard boxes with extra foam. Now, Herman Miller ships them in custom packaging. The new shipping containers secure the spines safely, and are faster and easier to pack and unpack. They’re also reusable. The new design saves time, energy, and materials.
It used to be that the most important thing about a product was its “shelf stand-out”—marketing speak for how a packaged item looked, felt, and even sounded at the point of sale. But the more we shop online, the less these qualities seems to matter; there are no shelves on the internet, and by the time we see how a product is wrapped, we’ve usually already paid for it.
That’s not to say consumers don’t care about how their products are packaged—it just means they care about different things. The packaging featured in Material Innovation reflects this shift in consumer preference—toward economy over waste, and function over form—and the creative ways designers have responded to it.