Behind the Scenes

Posted May 6, 2015, under Gosh, That's Handy!

While companies will often trumpet “new and improved” product and packaging designs, or their rebranding complete with eco-friendly logo — there’s a hidden world behind every package on every shelf.

We’re not even talking about the fancy-schmancy boutique packages with the artisanal twine rolled on the thighs of virgins. Even the most prosaic of potato chip bags is the result of careful work by a designer to make sure everything works.

An example was recently highlighted in a Mental Floss article, which pointed out that the colored circles on a bag are actually used to quality check the color of the print run.

Right Under Your Nose

Let’s take perhaps the most banal example of all: Breakfast cereal boxes. They’re all pretty standard, right? Everyone’s seen a billion of the things; not very impressive. Except let’s take a deeper look.

For starters, most food packaging has to have a lot of data in sometimes not a lot of space. Children’s cereals have the added challenge of sufficiently prominent display of their sugar-stuffed product, as well as something on the back to entertain the kids. So they lose a lot of real estate.

Yes, we used this one because May the Fourth Be With You, even if we’re a little late.

Look at that magnificent thing. It’s got it all! On the front alone, there’s a snipe on the top right; your branding, title, blurb, hero image, not one but two starbursts (not classy, but it was the ’80s), weight/volume, and the product shot. The back, of course, gave kids the opportunity to exhaust their sugar highs by running around as everyone’s favorite moisture farmer.

But the real design genius goes to the places the kids don’t care to look. Packed into every other possible surface:

  • a coupon;
  • ad copy to try to convince parents they weren’t dooming their children to diabetes;
  • nutrition information and ingredients, to confuse them into believing it;
  • a barcode;
  • two more callouts to the value-add of the coupon (which, it must be noted, is to buy more of the same product).

This isn’t the best design for the sake of design alone. It won’t win any awards — the unnecessary apostrophe in the product name alone would ensure that. But packaging — especially food packaging — is a masterclass in presentation of information.

In Plain Sight

There’s even another level of design genius that goes into packaging. Here’s another cereal box to demonstrate:

This is a box for one of those little single-serving boxes that we are surprised to learn are still on the market. On the upper left, you can see the colored circles that we mentioned for the potato chip bag, as well as the little target (a “registration mark,” used to ensure the four ink colors match up properly).

More importantly, however, is the box itself. Someone had to figure out how to shape this cardboard in such a way that folding it gives you a box. Flaps! Folds! Glue points! They even got extra clever and perforated the thing, so it could be used as a makeshift bowl. This is industrial origami.

The point here is not to rhapsodize over cereal boxes. The point is, it’s easy to take this stuff for granted, because it seems mundane. But tremendous technical skill and knowledge goes into everything you see.


Rigney Graphics is a Pasadena graphic arts company that can help you create an impact with design and marketing solutions for print and web.