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Creating Package Design for Your Product with Paul Hebron

On today’s show, we dive into the world of product package design. And although the overall concepts of design  carry through all mediums, product design does have its unique challenges. To help us explore this more, I’ve asked Paul Hebron, Senior Creative of Product Development and Packaging Design to join us.

Paul has a ton of experience in this area, and I was just fascinated with what he shared with me on the show. From design to placement, to labeling. All great stuff. So let’s get into product design and chat with my friend Paul.

We chatted about:

  • What should your first step be when thinking about your product package design
  • Some of the mistakes people make when going through the process of package design
  • The challenges in creating package design for virtual products vs. physical products
  • Tips on how to design for both virtual and physical products
  • Any products that are more challenging to design packaging for compared to others
  • What has been Paul’s favorite project (hint: it has something to do with Star Wars)

Thanks to Our Podcast Sponsor: Bluehost


Bob Dunn: Hey everyone, Bob Dunn here, known as BobWP on the the web. On today’s show we are going to dive into the world of product package design. And although design concepts carry through all mediums, product design does have its unique challenges. To help us explore this more, I’ve asked Paul Hebron, at Senior Creative of Product Development and Packaging Design to join us. Paul Hebron has a ton of experience in this area, and I was fascinated with what he shared with me on the show. From design to placement, to labeling—all great stuff. So let’s get into product design and chat with my friend Paul.

Hey, Paul. Welcome to the show.

Paul Hebron: Thanks, Bob. Thanks for letting me be a part of this.

Bob: Yeah. I’m really excited. I know that was a very long title I gave you. I admit I pulled it from LinkedIn, we all have our LinkedIn titles, but why don’t you tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself, and what you’re involved with, and what you’ve done as far as product design?

Paul: Okay, sure. My LinkedIn titles can be a little bit ambiguous, at most, because we always like to narrow the focus on them. I call myself a creative something. My career started as a graphic designer, and I say graphic design primarily in print, and then I went to motion graphics, animation. Then the tools changed. This is back in the day when Macromedia Director was one of the things that you had to learn, and that has changed. In the digital world, tools are always changing. Likewise, let’s see, I’ve been an information architect, visual designer. Oh God, how I hated the term “desktop publisher.”

Bob: Oh yeah.

Paul: Without going through the titles, I’ve worked as an art director. I’ve designed products, I’ve designed product packaging. I had my own design studio in Los Angeles, so in that case, I was everything from the janitor, to the creative director, to the production guy. I’ve had a career where I’ve worked on titles for Paramount, Warner Brothers, Fox, primarily packaging. I noticed that everything kept coming back to packaging. Then, when I moved to Seattle in 2003, I went to work for Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of Hasbro.

While I was there, I worked on Star Wars miniatures. I worked on some of the D20 modern publications, the books. I worked on a girl’s game called Star Sisters. I worked on a trading card game called Kids Next Door. I left there in 2009 and went back to school for motion graphics and animation as Bellevue College. Since then, I’ve been doing freelance work and consulting. I think more than anything, I’ve been called in to work on toy and game packaging, or either consumer packaged goods. I’ve done some illustration and visual design. I’ve been keeping busy, Bob.

Bob: Yeah, no kidding. That’s amazing. Wow, that’s a lot of stuff, but it seems, like you said, you kept coming back to the packaging design. I think that whole concept is fascinating. I’m even thinking, probably after this discussion, sometime I’ll have to have you back again to dive into it even more, because I’m sure we will just be touching the surface of it today. Anyway, let’s go ahead and dive into this.

Let’s say you’ve just created your first product. You know you’re going to have to package it. What is the very first thing a person should wrap their brain around before even thinking about doing the package design, or having somebody do it? Is there any specific thing you’d want to touch on?

What’s the first thing someone who is thinking about package design should do?

Paul: Packaging usually serves as a container, to protect whatever is inside. That’s the structural part, it’s going to be something that’s going to protect it. When you start looking at it from the marketing side, yes, you have to ask the questions like who, what, where, why, when and how.

Basic questions, before you start designing. It’s kind of like, who is this going to? Where is it going to go, and why is it going there? When is it going to go, and how are we going to get it there? So, for example, if it’s going to be shipped out in a shipping container, if it’s going to be in a case and the case is going to have 8, 24, or whatever, you’re going to need to know, how is it going to go into that case?

Structurally, how is it going to fit? If it’s going to end up in retail, and this is going to be the where, then that retail space will have some parameters that people will need to wrap their heads around in terms of, is it going to sit on the shelf somewhere? Is it going to be on the end cap? Is it going to be in a frozen foods section? Looking at where it’s going to go will help determine what type of package it needs to be, how it sits on the shelf, the type of lighting that it’s going to be under, and any type of constraints that the retail location will have on what they want in terms of their planograms, and so on.

There are a number of different questions. Typically, they’re considered marketing questions, but you can’t define without that feedback. It’s good for anyone who’s thinking about packaging to have those answers upfront.

Bob: Yeah, that’s fascinating because there are so many details to think about. I think a lot of people will probably focus on, okay, we wanted to make it look nice, and pretty, and attractive for people to buy it, but you don’t always think right away of, “Where is this thing going to sit?” Even the idea of the lighting, and which way the package will be sitting on the shelf or in some kind of freezer, all that stuff is amazing to me, because it really is a lot to think about.

Paul: Taking it further, you even have to look at the aftermarket of the package. Is it going to end up in the landfill? Will it be kept on a shelf? If you’re doing collectible items, like when I was working on Star Wars miniatures game packaging, we have an entire audience that buy two. They would buy one so they could open it up, and then they would buy the second one to put on a shelf as a display. We wanted to make sure that the package could be seen, the contents of the package could be seen from the outside without opening it.

We built it like a little diorama, so that if you kept it as a collapsible piece, it would still look cool on the shelf, at home, as well as it would in retail. Those were things that we took into consideration. A lot of times when you are making something that will have the brand equity to become collectable, you have to think about, “Okay, what can we do to make this thing still look good before they take it out and have that kind of added value?” That’s where you might come into something that has a clear window, or give you an immersive experience without opening the package.

Bob: Interesting, wow. When people are starting to go through this process, I’m sure you’ve seen more than your share of mistakes that people made. Can you just give us the top three, two or three that you’re seeing over and over again? Even if you want to add on to it any kind of a solution, or what people may think about that would be welcome as well.

What are the top mistakes people make when they are going through the packaging process?

Paul: Okay. On mistake people make is not asking enough questions about their brand, and where their brand will live. A lot of times people will see something and say, “Oh, I like this. Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do something like this?” They want to mimic another brand or another product without really doing a deep dive into understanding enough about why the product did what they did, and not really knowing whether it was successful or not.

I’d say usually they’re not asking enough questions about the particular brand and their products. They’re making assumptions about the consumer without observing, doing any focus groups or asking questions, and then forgetting that it’s a marketing piece that consumers take home. It’s one of the few marketing pieces that consumers actually purchase, and bring home. Then not viewing their package, or their mock-ups, or their design on the shelf in a real retail environment, wherever that retail place may be.

And if the brand’s not performing well then they think, “We just need a new design.” But a new design may not be the answer. It’s easy to take shortcuts. WQhen you look at something in retail, you want to make sure that the visual hierarchy is there. I’ll give you an example, Bob. We were working on a kids brand  and the product was going to be put on the very bottom shelf. That meant that anyone standing over two feet tall would be looking down at our product as opposed to looking at it at eye level.

So, looking at it and saying, “Okay, if it’s going to be here, and this is where it’s going to be on the shelf, we are going to have to make sure that our visual hierarchy, whatever we’re trying to say, can be seen when they’re looking down at it from a three quarter view.” And so, that was something that we took into consideration. That could have easily been overlooked while we considered the top not to be valuable real estate, but based on where it was going to be placed in retail, we wanted to make sure that wherever this package lived, you could see it from straight on, but if it were below you, it still is going to do what we wanted the package to do.

Bob: Now, when you’re looking at physical products versus virtual products, there’s obviously a difference there in creating that design package, and I’m sure they have their own challenges. Could you share a couple of them with us, as far as how those are so different, and what those challenges can be? You may have covered already some in the previous two questions, but something specifically virtual versus physical.

What are the challenges in creating packaging for a virtual product?

Paul: If it’s going to be virtual and never actually going to live in the physical space, I think you have some flexibility there. I think your readability, a lot of times people want to say too much on a package. They want to put the entire message, brand message on a package. In the virtual space, I don’t think you can afford to do that. I prefer not to do it in a physical space, either. Your visual hierarchy might need to be a lot larger. Then if you’re dealing with, I’d say you’ve got tablets, you’ve got cell phones, and fewer people using the desktop, so they might not be able to blow the image up really large.

Anything that needs to be told about that product should be visible very quickly. That means that the messaging size, or the name of the product, or the benefits of the product should be very readable in a very quick way.

Bob: One of the things, because it got me thinking about, one of the benefits over virtual versus physical. The fact that, I’m going back to the days of, we both did print. You’d do a print annual report, and you run it, you spent thousands of dollars, tens of thousands, whatever, on printing. There’s a typo. You do it virtual, and there’s a typo, and you go on your website and you change it. I’m thinking that’s probably the same for a package design for virtual versus physical, too.

One benefit is it’s easier and less costly to fix mistakes in a virtual product, right?

Paul: Certainly. I mean, you can go back and you can correct mistakes a lot easier. You don’t have full production runs where you’ve got something printed, and if you got it printed offshore and you’ve got to pay for shipping. Then you had the assembly of putting the product into the packaging, and then you deliver it to the retail outlet. Then you find out, “Oh no, there’s a major typo here.” So yeah, certainly you can save on cost. You don’t have to worry about protecting the contents when you’re dealing with virtual.

Your delivery, you don’t have to worry about that, and your shipping, kind of like what we hinted at. You’re being able to revise anything in a virtual world, and it can happen very quickly, and I think even in terms of finding out whether your consumer likes the package or not like the look of the package, you can change that fairly quickly. You can put out multiple packages there, with very little cost, in the virtual world. There are some definite cost savings that you can take a look at, and you have a bit more flexibility toward experimenting.

Even if you wanted to do focus groups, and find out which one resonates with consumers, you can do that in the virtual space a lot easier than in the physical space.

Bob: Yeah, and to expand on that question, how about when you’re actually creating a product that is both virtual and physical? Any tips for creating the package design, or does it pretty much follow the same kind of rules because one may be easier to change, the other one not so much? It just fascinates me, and do people ever deviate in the design, in what it looks virtually versus what it looks physically? Any thoughts on that?

Is it necessary to deviate in the design of a virtual product versus a physical one?

Paul: I’m sure people have deviated. I can’t think of any products right now that have a different package in the virtual space versus the real the physical space, but I would say keeping it simple would still be my message. Try to keep the messaging simple, keep the hierarchy very simple and very readable. Realize that your package, whether it’s physical or virtual, is only one part of your branding message. Don’t try to tell your entire story in the packaging.

If you take a look at, historically, what has been Apple’s packaging, it’s very clean, very simple. Typically, what you might see is an image of what you’re going to get in the content, in the package, and maybe the name of what the package holds. Then versus that, you go to a competitor’s brand, and they have everything listed on the package. The experience, is a t clean, simplistic design in Apple products and their packaging, and on their website, the messaging is consistent, it reinforces their brand experience, so the package doesn’t clutter and deliver a different experience than the product does.

So looking at your brand holistically, understanding that your package is only one part of your brand message. You want it to look like what you have, and that would be the same in the virtual space. Apple is a very good example of this. I’ve noticed that Samsung packaging has been kind of mimicking some of that, what we used to call it Swiss design, where you would have things follow along a grid format.

On the virtual space, on the web, they call it UI versus UX, which is user interface and user experience. In the packaging world, it’s the same thing. Books have a user experience component. How you flip the page, how the page feels in your hand, the packaging has some similar aspects. It’s just a matter of, what is that experience? How do people experience this?Whether it’s virtual, whether it’s physical, is it consistent with our brand message?

Bob: When you’re talking about simplicity, it makes me think of picking up a  a package in the store. They have so much stuff on it, and some print is in two-point font. You’re trying to read it, and you don’t have your glasses with you, and it says something about, “Don’t ever use this in …” In what? I’m sure some of that information, maybe it’s not as critical or as important because it’s not the real sales part of it, but it’s also sometimes information you feel like you need to know before you buy it, and you can’t even read it.

Paul: Right. Even trying to market to two different audiences, especially when working on kids’ products. You have a parent that’s going to be making the purchasing decision. Sure, you have persuasive kids that might be able to fool their parent into buying something, but the bottom line is the kid is going to be caught up in the emotional experience of the, “Ooh, wow,” and you have to have that component in your package, so that when the kid looked at it and they said, “Mommy, daddy, oh my gosh, I really want to get this.”

Now, the other part is that you needed to have something there that the parent could look at, and it would give them a sense of security and say, “Hmm, okay. This is going to be good. This is going to be safe for my kid. It’s not going to cut off one of your fingers or anything like that. And there’s an education component to it. Oh, I can see. Oh, cool.” And so, that’s all part of that message, but it can be done in a way that would give the wow factor for the kid, and it also gives that security or reinforcement that yes, this is going to be beneficial, to the parent that’s reading the package.

And so, I think that both of those components would need to be there in the virtual and the physical space, but it still needs to be kept simple.

Bob: There’s so much to it that one doesn’t even think, I know next time I want to pick up some package right now, and start evaluating it.

Paul: Bob, sometimes I go to the store just to take a look at packaging. Especially if I’m in the process of designing something, whether it’s for coffee, or toys or games. I want to walk through and take a look at what’s going on in that space, and whether they’re using foil, whether they’re using any type of special treatment. Is it readable? I can take that package, can I move it up higher on the shelf, take that same package, move it lower on the shelf? What does it look like? Those are the questions that I’m looking at even from a competitor’s brand, and even if it’s not, when I was working on toy and games, I remember going just to take a look at what was cool and what was going to wow me.

I have made purchases just because the package was cool. Not because I wanted the content, but because the package said, “Now this is a cool package. I’m going to buy this.”

Bob: Okay, now I want to know if there are any certain products that are more challenging as far as packaging. You know, all those package designers, when they hear, “Oh no, we have a client that has this particular product, or a kind of product,” and they know this is going to be a pain, because over and over there’s some specific challenge. Or, is it just really dependent all over?

Are certain products more challenging than others when it comes to packaging?

Paul: It’s going to be dependent all over. I would say a lot of times when people come and they want new packaging, there is a pain point. There is something that they’re experiencing, unless they’re really transparent about what the brand is doing and not doing, they might be looking for a package to solve all of their problems. I would say that’s not going to happen. I can address maybe a couple of pain points by redesigning the package, and by redesigning I mean redesigning it structurally, redesigning the visual hierarchy on a package, but yeah, often that means that there’s a problem. There’s some trouble going on.

So, typically it’s not necessarily the product that would be the challenge. It’s the people who have the product, and whether or not they’re really looking at their brand holistically. The other thing that I think is a challenge is, I’ve worked on things where they were bragging about being sustainable and green, but yet the package wasn’t sustainable and green. I mean, you can have an organic product, and then you put the organic product in something that was not created with soy inks, or inks that were biodegradable, and now you’re polluting the environment. It’s kind of like, “Okay, that’s a problem.”

We’ve done things for kids products where you wanted to make sure it’s safe and secure, and so you put it in the blister pack, but typically my experience is when you try to open one of those sealed blisters, you can easily cut yourself, and that’s a negative experience because of the sharp corners. You’ve got to get a pair of scissors, cut it out. There’s so many different ways that products can have a challenge that might be, whether it’s the brand part, or whether the type of materials that you’re using. It’s kind of hard just to peg one.

Bob: Okay, that makes sense. Well, for the last question, I want you to tell us about a project that that you considered the most fun, and why that project was the most fun project you’ve ever had.

What was the most fun packaging project you ever had?

Paul: The Star Wars miniatures game, number one, because as a geek and a kid at heart, Star Wars is so cool. I mean, how many people can say, “Oh yeah, I worked on Star Wars”?

So the cool factor there, being able to work with iconic images, and package those in sci-fi scenarios. That was really fun. From a packaging, artistic, and creative standpoint, one of our challenges was to take what was a closed-box product and redesign the box structurally. We made it smaller and created an open-faced package so that we built a diorama in it. In some of them, we use foil, and we printed on the foil so that in retail it would reflect light back.

That was just really cool, from a packaging standpoint, to work on, to try to create the entire packaging line so that it evoked Star Wars, but it looked different than any of the other Star Wars products that were out there because they had all been licensed to different companies. Ours stood out because it had a unique look to it, but yet it still tied into the Star Wars brand. That was cool.

Bob: Okay, I’m going to throw in one question that’s bugged me for years. What is up with flimsy lightbulb packaging?

Okay. What’s up with the flimsy lightbulb packaging?

Paul: Oh, gosh. I can’t answer that. I think what they’re trying to do is just be lightweight, pack it and get it into a larger container. Most of the lightbulb packaging, if you drop it, you break the bulb while it’s still in the package, so it’s not really safe and secure, but I have seen some that were more experimental, they kind of look like egg cartons where the lightbulbs were in this type of protected carton, and if you drop it, then the package itself would absorb the hit and the bulbs wouldn’t break. Now you’ve really made me curious, and I’m probably going to go to the local hardware store as soon as I get off of this, just to check out the packaging, to see if there’s anything new.

Bob: I thought maybe you’d have something inspiring to say from the underworld of packaging. I wonder if there are these There’s lightbulb packaging people who are just, “Oh, we’re just rebels and we’re just going to say ‘hey, you run the risk’.”

Paul: You’ve got my identity out there, and they’ve got a picture of me somewhere, so next time you want to find that secret out you’ll have to basically change my voice. I’ll say, “I can’t give you my name, but I will tell you that there’s a conspiracy out there.” We can do something like that, but the reality is, I don’t know. I really don’t know. Now, you’ve made me curious, and I’m going to go, and I’m going to look at a bunch of packaging and take some pictures of it.

Bob: Okay, cool. We’ll have you back on just a light bulb packaging, what do we call it? A case study on it.

Paul: You can say “Shedding the light on lightbulb packaging.” There we go.

Bob: Yeah, right. Alrighty, I just had to throw that one in. Well, this has been great, Paul. I really enjoyed this, and I’m going to have you back again sometime, because there’s so much more that’s going on in my brain. This is a fascinating topic, and I know we could definitely talk about it more, and find some unique elements to pull out of it. Until then, where can people find you on the web?

Where can we find Paul on the web?

Paul: They can find me on LinkedIn. I think it’s, I don’t remember, let’s see. They can Google search Paul, and there are a couple of other Pauls. One is an actor, and even though I act like I know what I’m talking about, I’m not the actor. And is my personal website.

Bob: Excellent. Well, I’m going to let you get off to the hardware store. I know you’re just antsy to get there, so thanks again for taking the time today to come on the show.

Paul: All right, Bob. Thank you so much.

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