A product is worthless without a package. The packaging is not something extra; it is part of the product and product image. It sets the personality, theme, character, and mood of the brand. One of the most important aspects of packaging design is symbolism; it is a visual language for the brand. Unfortunately, visual language is different in different cultures and it requires a lot of brainstorming to come up with a symbol that is universal and recognized by all cultures.
What are the Symbols in Packaging?
Symbols; visual metaphors, create a relation between two seemingly different objects. Humans have been given five senses to perceive and make decisions but it is the sense of sight that influences our perception the most. Brands use:
- Shapes, and
As visual metaphors to communicate with customers. Symbols should be commonly recognized elements, they must be clear enough for people to understand and mysterious enough to arouse awe and curiosity.
Take an example of all the major global brands that we closely identify with, they all use visual metaphors.
- Nike’s swoosh, and
- Pepsi’s Globe
Both have one thing in common, they use universal symbols recognized by all cultures. Not just recognized but these visual metaphors and perceived positively globally.
Precision is the key:
For any item to be on the package such as symbol or tagline there must be a strategic reason. When it comes to packaging, you must be careful with the use of space, being precise and to the point is key for efficient packaging design. If anything you add on the package doesn’t carry a strategic value behind it, it will be perceived as visual “Clutter”.
As to the point, design grabs the attention of the customer, visually cluttered packaging will do the opposite of it.
Packaging; a visual form of expression:
Some form of the visual form of expression is vital for brands to get a quick response from the customer. Think of visual imagery (graphics, symbols, logos, taglines, ingredients, expiration dates, etc.) on packaging as encrypted information. The human brain decrypts this visual information in ideas, thoughts, and insights.
This is how brands communicate without stating an actual proposition. Take the example of Tarte Cosmetics. The brand is known for its concealers and foundations. It was difficult to establish brand identity when they started their eyelash line. Their efficient use of visual symbolism in Custom printed Eyelash Boxes is what helped them rise to the top ten eyelash brands in the market.
While shopping, customers look for visual cues (on both conscious and subconscious levels). They’re most likely to choose products that communicate to them visually. Think of packaging as a salesperson, facilitating the buying process, and influencing purchase decisions. Your packaging must communicate with such conviction that it gives clarity to customers but still maintains a mystery.
Clarity vs Mystery?
What is the correct ratio of clarity and mystery? Brands must balance these two factors while designing packaging.
Clarity is to the point. Blunt, honest, direct, and sincere while the mystery is Yin to the yang of clarity. The mystery is complicated; it demands to be decoded and piques the interest of the customer.
Useful mystery vs “un-useful” mystery:
While using mystery in your packaging make sure it is a useful mystery invoking curiosity rather than being so complicated that customer ends up losing interest altogether.
Using signs and symbols in packaging is just like the Visual Vernacular (The Visual Vernacular is the art of using symbolism to communicate. It uses symbols to signify different things; the interesting part is that symbols and the objects (or actions) they signify have no objective relation yet the audience are able to understand every single message).
There are times when brands end up mixing mystery and clarity. They fail to draw the line between useful mystery and un-useful mystery. One classic example of this is the diet coke campaign by Coke.
The design of the product is no less than art; the Visual vernacular of Diet Coke the typefaces, the colors, the silver background, reduced to their most essential parts, the use of grey color with sleek symbols and designs. Customer without even reading the label just knows the product is diet. This is a great example of the use of symbolism in packaging. The design being so great was advertised using an un-useful mystery. The campaign featured subway advertisements featuring an MBA graduate, coming to New York in a sleek suit and ready to conquer the world, followed by the tagline, “You’re on, Coke”. The campaign backfired and was soon pulled back.
This is an example of mixing clarity and mystery. Packaging so mysteriously beautiful and perfect, yet the message was explained so clearly wrong.
Visual communication is the key to retaining a customer and when it comes to packaging, you’re never “DONE”. The packaging is continuously evolving; you need to innovate around the base symbol of your brand. The symbol of your brand must be iconic, it should remain the same, and yet packaging must evolve according to the changing mindsets of customers. It should provide food for thought for your customers in every era and time.