We examined our favorite projects from 2021, including a few of our own and a selection from all over the packaging world.

Projects range from cosmetics and skincare to at-home education and food. When we predict packaging trends, we tend to let our optimism take over. One theme continues to run through every one of these trends: design with a purpose. Whether that’s sustainable materials or intelligent structural engineering, we noticed the packaging world really stepping up when it comes to multifaceted design thinking.

  1. Sustainable Design
  2. The Evolution of E-commerce
  3. Every Package Tells a Story
  4. Paperboard Over Plastic
  5. Inclusive Packaging Design
  6. Say Goodbye to Single-Use
  7. Minimal Packaging for Maximum Protection

Sustainable Design

It seems that every year, industry experts list sustainable design as one of the next packaging trends. At a certain point, the trend becomes the standard. Unfortunately, we’re still in a long-term relationship with plastic that doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon. It’s complicated. But year after year, designers continue to come up with innovative packaging solutions that give us hope.

There’s no denying that plastic packaging has in many ways improved our lives. We use it to preserve food, protect people from harmful substances, and deliver life-saving medication. For example, the ubiquitous orange and white pill bottle. It’s hard to imagine this everyday object being made from some material other than plastic. But we use 5 billion bottles per year (that’s just the United States!), and most of them don’t get recycled. If the packaging helps the user but harms our planet, how effective is the overall design?

The Prescription Paper Pill Bottle

A team of designers decided to answer this question with the first ever Prescription Paper Pill Bottle. Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness and Tikkan Olam Makers collaborated to create a bottle and lid made from 100% compostable and biodegradable paper. The design not only meets FDA regulations for child resistance, labeling, water, and light, but the firm has also released their work as a free, open-source design toolkit for pharmacies to use all over the world.

In 2022, design studios, packaging manufacturers, and hopefully brands will continue the slow march to sustainability. They must accept the difficult challenges. They must rethink our old ways to transform previously unsustainable products into quantifiable eco-friendly alternatives.

The Evolution of E-commerce

crown affair cardboard boxes on purple background
Shipping packaging for Crown Affair.

This may feel like old news, but e-commerce continues to evolve, forcing businesses to keep up. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, constrained supply chains and increased demand cause major problems for business of every size. As customers increasingly rely on e-commerce, brands are realizing the power of packaging.

Online shopping increased by about 80% during the pandemic. Companies quickly realized that without the right e-commerce strategy, returns poured in and their brand suffered. Maybe the product was damaged in transit, or perhaps it didn’t live up to the image presented online. Essentially, retailers underestimated the full experience. It doesn’t end when the customer clicks “Complete Order”; instead, it extends all the way to the customer’s home where they get their first interaction with the product.

As brands realize the that the physical experience doesn’t always—and sometimes can’t—take place at the mall, they will use the package as a canvas to tell their brand story. Even a raw cardboard box can serve as the backdrop for layers of rich storytelling. Brand ambassadors, also known as influencers, can help to be your narrators, reaching a whole new online audience. In the end, the unboxing experience lights the way, from the shipper messaging all the way to the squeeze of a bottle dropper. And, if this is something your brand is investing on, we also specialized in influencer packaging.

Every Package Tells a Story

orange boxes and assembled robots for brooklyn robot foundry
Narrative packaging for Brooklyn Robot Foundry.

All sides of the package are printable surfaces. Yes, that includes the inside, under the lid, even the flaps. And there’s a reason to take advantage of modern printing capabilities (other than it’s fun): connecting with consumers through narrative. Just like writers crafting a compelling story, designers pour untold hours and energy into product and packaging design. Through packaging, brands can use materials and the product or service itself as a medium to share their company values and mission. The customer can even become a character in the story.

Brooklyn Robot Foundry took this approach to another level with their recent rebrand. As the name suggests, Brooklyn Robot Foundry started in Brooklyn where they teach kids basic STEAM concepts through hands-on robot-building. They were first an after-school and weekend program, but once the pandemic hit, they shifted to an online platform. Using kits sent from Brooklyn, students learn to build from teachers over Zoom. This new model required better packaging to hold the parts, tools, and activities required for each class.

The new packages are bright orange boxes of fun that tell the story of the Brooklyn Robot Foundry family of robots. Each side of the box tells a chapter in the story, and each layer provides a new activity or directions. The robots are working together—outside on the Brooklyn streets and inside the Foundry—to build a sign with the BRF tagline, “Building fun together.” When it’s time to start class, kids can transform the box into a laptop stand.

Paperboard Over Plastic

When you’re in the grocery store, do you ever wonder why so many fruits and vegetables are packaged in plastic? Tomatoes in clamshells, cucumbers glistening with plastic wrap, apples in a clear plastic bag. The short answer: Plastic is the perfect combination effective and cheap. The more complicated answer: The petroleum and plastics industry has an endless supply of money for marketing and lobbyists to ensure plastic remains king.

We often forget about the everyday packaging of produce, snacks, and beverages, but these categories comprise a large part of the market. As America’s plastic recycling problem comes to light, many produce suppliers are turning to paperboard and cardboard containers. These materials are clearly more sustainable, and they offer more space to print branding and nutritional information. According to the North American Paperboard Packaging Council, they predict that both large manufacturers and small family farms will begin choosing paper-based containers over plastic.

Inclusive Packaging Design

Throughout the past few years, major brands have been focusing long overdue research and energy on inclusive packaging design. Universal design considers all genders and abilities, with the goal of achieving accessibility for all. In the cannabis industry, the law requires CBD and THC products are sealed in child-resistant packaging. These mechanisms protect children, but they cannot be too difficult for people living with disabilities or the elderly who also need to access the products inside.

In spring 2021, Unilever released “the world’s first deodorant designed for people with disabilities.” Degree Inclusive is an adaptive deodorant intended for one-handed usage.  Designed for customers with limited sight or mobility, there’s a magnetic closure and modified grip. The product will officially launch soon after Degree incorporates usability study feedback.

When it comes to inclusiveness, even something as simple as changing packaging color can go a long way. Cosmetics and skincare companies are ditching outdated gender stereotypes, opting for more neutral colors. Since their products are intended for more than just women, Fenty Skin uses earthy green containers rather than pink. This year, expect this trend to continue as brands attempt to reach a wider audience with more inclusive colors, textures, and packaging designs.

Say Goodbye to Single-Use

In response to consumer demands, retail and e-commerce brands are figuring out ways to replace single-use plastic. Many companies are guilty of greenwashing and dubious claims of carbon neutrality, yet there’s a growing trend of refillable products that may result in measurable sustainability.

The direct-to-consumer brand Wild Refill Deodorant sends an aluminum and recycled plastic applicator, and the deodorant refills come wrapped in a biodegradable bamboo paper. Subscribers are sent refills in simple corrugated cardboard packages. Rihanna’s Fenty Skin also uses refillable containers, helping to eliminate single-use plastic in an industry that relies on it.

For an even bigger step to plastic-free living, Loop delivers a wide selection of products—from cosmetics and household goods to baking essentials and ice cream—in refillable zero-waste containers. It’s sort of like buying at the neighborhood grocery co-op using your own glass and metal containers, but Loop picks up, washes, and reuses the empties. In the past few years, this model has resprouted on a local level. In most major US cities, you can find stores—sometimes called “refill stations”—that only offer refillable products.

Minimal Packaging for Maximum Protection

olive oil jones cardboard packaging
All-cardboard packaging for Olive Oil Jones.

We’ve been trained to believe the only way to protect fragile products is styrofoam and packing peanuts. In an increasingly competitive market, every cost-saving measure could be the difference between making a profit, breaking even, or worse. In other words, plastic-based protection can be cheaper. But two factors are challenging this reality.

First, many sustainable packing peanut alternatives are widely available, including some made from corn. An expertly engineered structure is perhaps more sustainable. While it may cost more design money up front, the long-term savings for your company and the planet are worth it. Rather than a large box filled with air cushions, styrofoam, or packing peanuts, packaging engineers can design a much smaller—and significantly stronger—structure using only cardboard.

Olive Oil Jones, purveyors of ultra-fresh, geographically specific olive oil, did just that. Bottle-shaped cardboard layers and strategic cardboard air pockets cradle olive oil and vinegar all over the world. The company now fulfills their orders faster and saves money with more compact shipments with a significant reduction in breakage. As brands continue shifting to e-commerce, they will allocate more resources to efficient and sustainable packaging design.

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