Food packaging is one of the most dynamic and innovative areas of the design world, and in truth it always has been. Not only does packaging need to be functional and attractive, increasingly it needs to be practical too. Food packaging design is as much about how you use it as it is about storing or protecting the product, so, as opposed to a bag for taking your new t-shirt home from the shops, or a box for getting your new mobile phone delivered safely, food packaging is also integral to how you consume the product.
So the dual purpose of food packaging; ie. to look nice enough to attract you to buy it and to be practical enough to enable you to use it, is pretty unique. But then, this double whammy of food packaging design is nothing new. The humble egg carton has been around for decades and is one of the first examples of a specific design which is nice and attractive, and allows you to transport and store the eggs safely. Furthermore, it is also an early example of a new target; sustainability. So cardboard egg cartons can be made cheaper and can be recycled too, so less waste equals less cost and ticks two boxes on the checklist of the ideal food packaging design. And is there a more perfect form of food packaging than the ice cream cone? Convenient, practical and eatable.
Embracing new technology
New technology has certainly played a role in the development of food packaging, although it is a long time since we considered microwaves to be revolutionary. However, microwave ready meals were one of the best examples of food packaging being designed so that you could utilise the packaging to also consume the product. Now these examples are everywhere; a cardboard sleeve incorporating cooking instructions, ingredients and attractive design, is easily removed and recycled, a plastic film is necessary to protect the food in transit and in cooking, and a tray – which increasingly will be recyclable plastic or cardboard – is used to consume the product, sometimes with separate compartments to separate elements of the meal.
Such design has long since been readily-accepted, and so has the much-maligned Pot Noodle. But boiling the kettle, waiting five minutes and then being able to consume a decent lunchtime meal – honestly, you can’t beat a Pot Noodle – before discarding the pot and having no washing-up, was once a food packaging phenomenon.
The food industry is constantly looking at ways to make packaging cheaper and more sustainable, as well as solving long-standing problems. Again, many youngsters today won’t remember that ring pulls on cans of pop used to come off completely, and were often used as particularly aero-dynamic missiles in school canteens and playgrounds around the world – and much to the scorn of teachers and litter-pickers – until some genius designed a way that the ring pull could serve the same purpose whilst staying attached to the can. Ring pulls on tins of soup or veg, also removed the need for can openers too.
Disposable packaging that serves a purpose
A huge sector of the food packaging industry is geared towards the packaging being disposable, and in that sense, takeaway products are a very prominent part of it. The stand-up cardboard carton that holds fries and allows you to eat them out of it, for example, might well have come from McDonalds or Burger King first, but it has certainly been adopted the world over. Likewise, the flat, cardboard, fold-it-together-yourself pizza box is another example. The little cardboard sleeve for takeaway coffee cups is a more practical example – to prevent you scolding your hands on the cup – whilst a plastic lid helps you avoid spilling it in transit too.
These are all examples of food packaging aimed at a more practical use rather than it simply being attractive. But in a competitive industry, this idea of solving long-standing problems is one that gives brands a competitive advantage, such as Heinz introducing squeezy bottles to extract as much sauce as possible, and remove the nightly ritual of Dad rapidly turning scarlet in the face as he bangs the end of a glass bottle, whilst the family watch a stubborn square inch of ketchup steadfastly refuse to move. And did they also introduce the flat cap, so you can permanently stand the bottle upside down and avoid the precious seconds wasted waiting for the sauce to come out?
In a world that is more and more intent on saving time and resources, we now have rice and pasta in bags that can be microwaved and re-sealable packaging for items such as pasta, ground coffee and breakfast cereal, so that it stays fresh and is not wasted.
The relentless quest for new food packaging ideas goes on. And while attractive and colourful designs and strong and relatable branding is one thing, what will be the next idea to solve a small problem in our lives and very quickly become something we couldn’t live without?