Packaging report reignites research vs intuition debate

Designers should conduct more consumer research than they do – but avoid using ‘largely ineffective’ focus groups, according to a new report by Design Perspectives.

Material Advantage: How Packaging Materials Can be Used to Make Products More Appealing to the Consumer, written by Design Perspectives co-director Stephen Lillford, advises packaging designers to make materials more attractive to the consumer by being aware of their expectations, reducing excess packaging and using sustainable materials.

‘Research aims to take the guesswork out of designing,’ says Lillford, who claims that the study’s findings are based on five years of marketing experience with consumer packaging clients and research with academic institutions.

The report advocates widely used methods such as usability testing and ethnographic research. But it also recommends the Kansei method of research, which attempts to quantify people’s sensual and emotional reactions to objects.

Lillford hopes the report will encourage best practice in the packaging design industry. ‘There will never be only one method for designing packaging, but this report will make it easier for designers to connect with consumers on a more emotional and functional level,’ he says.

Jones Knowles Ritchie creative director of packaging design Silas Amos agrees that designers’ intuition needs to be well-informed, but adds that using the methods advocated in the report could result in less exciting design.

‘If this sort of research offered all the answers, there wouldn’t be any need for designers – it could be all done by robots. There needs to be a spark, otherwise design can feel formulaic,’ says Amos.’It seems intuition is no longer trusted, and yet you can get amazing results based on it.’

Although the report proposes moving away from intuition-led design, Lillford is keen to emphasise the central role that designers play.

‘Designers are the ones who come up with ideas and get the inspiration,’ he says. ‘However, these simple research tools help to refine the ideas, so that they know which ideas to pursue. This will prove beneficial at times when costs are being cut.’

Jon Davies, managing director of Holmes & Marchant, welcomes the report. ‘The more guidelines the better,’ he says. ‘People think and shop differently now, so I think it is great to use academia to discover social trends.’ Davies also agrees with Design Perspective’s observation that focus groups are ‘largely ineffective’.
He observes that ‘focus groups don’t relate to a real situation, because people will just make something up if they are sitting around a table being watched. You need a good moderator, speaking to people in one-on-one situations, to discover what they really think.’

The report attempts to balance the sensual and emotional appeal of packaging against sustainability – both being high on consumer agendas. The two are not mutually exclusive, it suggests.

‘Positive experiences can be designed into packaging – for example, the ability to reseal a packet gives the consumer a sense of satisfaction in being able to easily store and reuse the product,’ says the report.

Charlotte Henderson, retail supply chain manager at Waste & Resources Action Programme, supports the notion of consumer testing. ‘Academia can offer a different level of expertise in the designing process, which is especially important when considering the complex elements of packaging design,’ she says. ‘However, packaging design is about understanding the consumer’s needs, and you must ensure that the results of this research does, in fact, benefit the consumer.’

The full Material Advantage report can be downloaded from

The report’s findings:

  • Ethnographic research which analyses the consumer’s lifestyle is increasingly popular with marketing departments
  • There is rarely a single, perfect material for packaging
  • The environment in which the research is carried out affects the outcome
  • It is vital to involve the consumer throughout the design process, not just at the start

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