Plan before you pick up a pencil

It’s important to keep packaging design planning
focused and efficient, but that doesn’t need to come
at the expense of creativity, says Andrew Collins

Even before this recession, clients were looking to design groups to help maximise the return on their packaging investment. With TV advertising budgets out of reach for many brands, packaging was being seen as an increasingly important communication medium in its own right. Design therefore needed to deliver more than recognition, differentiation and impact at point of sale. It also had to encapsulate the essential promise of the brand.

With the economy worsening and budgets growing tighter, this more ambitious approach to packaging design needs to be tempered by the need to maintain margins. If these conflicting needs are to be reconciled it’s important for strategic work to provide direction and focus before a pencil is lifted in anger.

Far from being an ‘added value’ extravagance, planning for packaging design is coming into its own as the vital bridge between the brief and the solution that answers it most effectively and most profitably.

The sweep of opportunity is a seductive prospect for an industry founded on the art of the possible. But unfettered creative exploration can be counter-productive. It burns budgets, and rarely helps to build relationships with clients. Developing the confidence to present fewer, more persuasive and more marketable solutions is at the heart of creative planning for design.

As with ad planning, it calls for deep knowledge and understanding of the brand, category and consumer, and the cultural influences acting upon them. At this stage, you can afford to spread the net widely. Meeting the people who represent the brand – that means the sales and production, as well as the marketing, teams – offers a different perspective and brings key stakeholders closer to the process.

Getting the chance to visit the place the product is made can also be a revealing and inspiring exercise. Brands often have a wealth of knowledge tied up in previously commissioned research, so ask for it. Competitor activity, trends and learning from parallel categories are also a potential source of that all-important nugget. This information creates a lens through which the brief can be assessed – and challenged if necessary.

But the planning task is more than an exercise in policing the brief and it is certainly not an invitation to overwhelm it with a mass of extraneous background detail.

Planning’s critical added value is the ability to sift, interpret and translate this knowledge into actionable directions for design development. It is most effective when it uncovers an insight into the space where the worlds of the consumer and the brand overlap. Therein lies the chance to develop ideas that turn that overlap into positive connection.

The peculiar challenge for design here, however, is to express concepts and ideas developed through the spoken and written word via the visual. Get it right and the old adage that a picture paints a thousand words is vindicated. But get it wrong and those words won’t necessarily be the ones envisaged in the brief. Visual planning requires a hybrid set of skills – capable of identifying solutions that are strategically robust, but which have the potential to flower creatively.

This approach should not be seen as restricting the creative process. Effectively, the role of the planner is to identify the message that best unlocks the brief. It is still very much the responsibility of the designer to find the most persuasive way to deliver it. It’s important for the two to work collaboratively and to focus initially on ideas, rather than their execution.

At this early stage in the process, there is no need for these ideas to be shown as full pack design. Far from it – focusing on the idea, rather than all the additional executional elements that go to creating full artworks, means work is not only more easily assessed by the client, but can make for much clearer responses from consumers in qualitative research.

There is nothing worse than inviting consumers to become design critics for an afternoon, asking them to choose between a series of subtle variations on a theme. Far better to offer fewer, more distinct and discrete ideas in order to understand what each says to them, and, in turn, which best answers the brief.

Put simply, the role of the creative planner in design is to ask, ‘Do we have a big idea here? Is it relevant? Can we make it our own?’ If not, it’s time to go back and look again.

As a way of working, it may be new to some, but it’s efficient, effective and produces creative results.

Ultimately, it may just prove to be one of the critical factors in this unfolding struggle for the survival of the fittest.

• As budgets get tighter, it’s important to manage them efficiently. Planning that helps to direct creative pays dividends

• Use planners to explore the challenge and identify the consumer insight that reveals the creative opportunity

• Encourage planners and designers to work collaboratively – it’s not about restricting creativity, but about giving it focus

• Focus on the idea – the execution should look after itself

Andrew Collins is head of creative planning at Vibrandt

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