Creating packaging doesn’t have to be scary. It’s a lot easier than ever to design custom packaging that looks amazing and won’t break the bank. But as a designer, you know that there’s still a lot of work that goes into the process. The best packaging doesn’t just incorporate a logo or brand colors. It tells a story and creates the overall aesthetic for a brand.
As a designer, you deliver a brand’s message through your work. 2D design skills can carry over to 3D products like product packaging. Even though these skills overlap, you need to be aware of the technical nuances involved in 3D packaging design.
What to Think About When Designing Custom Packaging
So you want to design your own packaging? As you’ll soon discover, there are a lot of choices and a lot of different things to think about beyond merely deciding if your product is in a box or not. It may seem overwhelming but your first step is deciding what type of packaging you’ll be using.
Some things to keep in mind when choosing your packaging:
- Product size
- Presentation value
Remember that just because one option is cheaper that does not mean it will provide your product with the best presentation. Striking a balance between cost-effectiveness and overall presentation is your best option.
Types of Packaging
Mailer Boxes are the go-to option for subscription boxes, new hire kits, promotional influencer mailings and are also great for gift boxes and retail packaging. Mailer boxes are made of corrugated cardboard in E or B flute to help them survive shipping while still arriving in style.
- Price: $$
- Durability: ★★
- Presentation: ★★
Shipping Boxes (RSC – regular slotted carton) are the most common type of box. Shipping boxes use B or C flute corrugated cardboard and are good for shipping heavy or larger items such as food, books, and large electronics. The design of this box reduces waste making it a more affordable option.
- Price: $
- Durability: ★★★
- Presentation: ★
Folding Cartons: One of the most recognizable box styles, folding cartons line many retail shelves. Made of paperboard, folding cartons are slightly more expensive to produce but easy to assemble. They range from 16-24 pt in thickness with 16pt and 18pt being the most common. An excellent choice for packaging tea, candies, beauty products, and luxury goods.
- Price: $$$
- Durability: ★
- Presentation: ★★★
Two-piece Rigid Boxes: Typically the most expensive, rigid boxes are used for luxury goods such as perfume, alcohol, and high-end watches. They’re made from chipboard that is up to four times stronger than the paperboard used in folding cartons so they’re the strongest box style you’ll see on a store shelf. Two-piece rigid boxes are a common style and are great for high-end items like an iPhone or other electronics while trays are better for smaller items like candles or cosmetics.
- Price: $$$
- Durability: ★★
- Presentation: ★★★
If your product needs extra protection, inserts are the way to go. Inserts improve stability and enhance presentation by keeping your product front and center when you open the box.
Foam inserts made from polyurethane, polyethylene, and polystyrene are durable, lightweight and provide excellent cushioning for your product but are more expensive than other types of inserts. Corrugated cardboard inserts are more cost effective and allow for custom printing.
Poly mailers are lightweight plastic bags that are weatherproof and often have sealing strips for mailing. They’re cost effective and help keep shipping costs down. In some cases, poly mailers can even be reused by customers who need to return products.
Poly mailers are often used to ship items such as clothing. However, they’re not good for shipping delicate or fragile items as they offer little to no protection. Because they’re made of polyethylene (plastic), they may rip or tear easily in the mail.
While some boxes don’t require packaging tape, it’s recommended that some form of tape is used to keep your product safe in transit.
Water-activated kraft tape doesn’t stick on its own and must be activated with water. It’s more expensive than acrylic tape (standard clear packaging tape) because you need a special dispenser in order to use it. Acrylic tape is a general purpose tape that can be used straight off the roll. You can apply custom printing to both.
Other accessories like custom tissue paper and crinkle filler are inexpensive ways to not only help protect your protect but enhance your packaging’s presentation.
Choosing the right material for your product is important because it not only enhances your design, it can help protect your product.
Paperboard SBS (Solid bleached sulfate)
Paperboard is a solid white chipboard that comes both coated and uncoated. It is lightweight and because the surface is flat when printed on, it produces excellent print quality. It comes in three weights, 16 pt, 18 pt, and 24 pt.
Paperboard is commonly used for folding cartons, trays, and sleeves. It’s great for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and retail packaging.
Corrugated board is composed of paperboard with fluted paper laminated to it. You’re probably most familiar with it as cardboard. You can choose single or double wall construction for your boxes. Single wall cardboard consists of one layer of fluted paper and works well for general purposes or shipping. Double wall cardboard consists of two layers of fluted paper and is better for when you need extra security during shipping. Single wall is cheaper than double walled construction but offers less protection.
Corrugated boxes are commonly used for produce, subscription boxes, e-commerce packaging, and shipping cartons.
Caliper is the primary consideration for how much protection a material provides. It refers to the weight or thickness of the material. For corrugated packaging, the caliper is known as the flute.
B flute is 1/8″ thick. This is good for stacking and crushing resistance. Boxes with B flute are primarily used for shipping and produce boxes.
C flute is 11/64” thick. This is good for stacking and provides cushioning. Boxes with C flute are primarily used for shipping and produce boxes.
E flute is 1/16” thick. The board is very thin which provides good crushing resistance and reduces storage space. Often used with subscription or gift boxes, this flute is good for products that are not fragile or heavy. It’s a great balance between durability and presentation.
Overview of the Standard Production Process
You’ve picked your box style and now it’s time to get your boxes made. This is a big step and will require some basic understanding of the standard production process.
Prepare your artwork
When creating your design, you’ll be using either a 3D box designer or laying your artwork out on a dieline template. 3D box designers are great if you don’t have expensive design tools or knowledge in how to use them. Dieline templates allow you precise control over layout, fonts, colors, and alignment.
It’s important to follow industry-standard recommendations for typography, text, and line art. While your artwork may look fine on-screen, not following these recommendations can result in your design not printing properly.
Check your artwork to ensure there are no cut or crop lines, all transparencies have been flattened, fonts are outlined (saved as shapes or vectors), and all graphic elements from other files are embedded and not linked.
At Packlane, we recommend saving non-photogenic content (including graphics and text) as an Adobe Illustrator (.ai) file or vector based PDF. This ensures your design prints as clearly as possible and there are no hold ups during Prepress with low-resolution artwork.
Typography and Text
Using a thicker or bolder font means that your text will print legibly and subtle font design, such as serifs, isn’t lost during printing. When using light or white fonts on a dark background, embolden your font. Inks tend to bleed and dark backgrounds can create an optical illusion in which the text appears smaller and in some cases make it “disappear.”
For corrugated material, ensure your type size is a minimum of 10 pt. For paperboard material, your type should be a minimum of 6 pt. Text that is too small can be fuzzy or unreadable.
Text prints better on packaging when you use bold weights and colors especially when using italics or script fonts in your design.
For corrugated material, your line art and strokes should be a minimum of 2 pt. For paperboard material, make sure your strokes are at least 1pt in thickness.
When designing your box, take into consideration closures, cutouts, hidden box panels, shipping labels, and cutting tolerances. Keep all important design elements at least 1/8” (.125”) away from all edges and folds. You don’t want any important design elements covered by a shipping label or cut off during production.
Colors in your artwork – RGB vs CMYK
It’s important to understand the difference between RGB and CMYK when creating and proofing your design. The colors on your computer screen are a combination of red, green, and blue lights (RGB). No matter what settings you use, your screen will ALWAYS display RGB colors. Whereas, CMYK refers to the ink colors Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (Black). These colors combine to create a gamut of colors seen on a printed page. Files submitted for printing should always be in CMYK and not RGB.
These inks on a cardboard surface don’t have the intensity of light based color displays like your computer monitor. RGB colors can appear duller or less saturated when printed in CMYK and, in some cases, there is not a clear, single equivalent of an RGB color in CMYK, so color shifting can also occur.
If you’re trying to replicate screen colors on a printed product, you may be disappointed in the final result so it’s important to plan for this color shift ahead of time. When prepping files for printing onto corrugated materials, areas of black should have the CMYK value of 0-0-0-100 not a combined or “rich” black value. Shades of gray are best specified as CMYK.
It’s always a good idea to purchase samples before a larger order to get an idea of how colors will turn out.
A dieline is a 2D representation of 3D packaging that can help show your design on a flat and unassembled box.
It is essentially a guide for both the designer and printer to determine the correct layout and positioning of artwork. It also acts as a blueprint for equipment operators to know where to make cuts, creases, and glue the box together.
How the Dieline Uses Color
- Green lines are bleed lines. Any art (including background color) that needs to extend to the edge should reach the bleed lines. Nothing beyond the green line will print if lines extend beyond them.
- Red lines are fold or crease lines. Important artwork components should be kept at least 1/8” (0.125”) from these lines so it isn’t accidentally affected when the box is folded for assembly.
- Black lines are cut lines. Important artwork should remain at least 1/8” (0.125”) from all cut lines as boxes can shift during the cutting process. Keep artwork away from these edges so they won’t accidentally be cropped during production.
It’s always a good idea to double check your files before placing your order. You’ll save time by sticking to these tips:
- Save all files in .AI or layered .PDF formats
- Expand all fonts and text to shapes (vector)
- Avoid using live text in your document
- Embed all images in your document or provide links to the artwork source files
- Include at least a 0.25-inch bleed for areas where graphics extend past the dieline
Double and Triple Check Your Artwork
You’ll want to check your artwork’s placement, color settings, box size, the quantity of your order, and any and all text to be included on your design (for spelling and grammar).
For interior printing, carefully consider artwork orientation and contact your printer with any questions you may have.
Once approved for production, your printer will create any printing plates or cutting dies necessary to produce your boxes.
If you decide to go with flexographic or lithographic printing, you’ll need to have printing plates made. Printing plates are made from metal, plastic, rubber, paper, and other materials. Metal plates are the most expensive but they last longer and produce higher quality images. If your design has more than one color, you’ll need to have more than one plate made and this can increase your cost. You’ll be charged to have plates created but if you ever need a reprint of the same design, you won’t be charged because the plates already exist. Printing plates are recommended if you have large, repeat quantities printed and your design doesn’t need to be changed.
When produced in high volume, boxes are cut using a cutting die. This is a precise tool that looks a bit like a large cookie cutter. Each die is an arrangement of steel blades that stamp out a particular box shape. These dies commonly have wooden bases but for higher volumes they can be mounted on a cylinder which is also called a rotary or roller die.
For low quantities, these same box styles can be printed on a cutting table using a robotic X-Acto Knife. If you’re ordering stock sizes for your boxes, you’ll save money because the cutting die already exists.
Print-ready files are fit onto large sheets of corrugated cardboard to be fed through the printer and may be printed using one of the three most common types of printing:
- Flexographic/Direct – good for high quantity printing that involves simple colors (1-3 colors). This type of printing involves having a flexographic plate for each color created before printing begins. Think of flexographic plates in the same way you’d think of a rubber stamp at a stationery store. This type of printing works best when your design is relatively simple and your artwork doesn’t change frequently. There are some setup costs up front however, it is cheaper on future reprints.
- Lithographic – is used for more detailed artwork or if your design includes photographs. A plate is created and your image is burned into it forming shallow grooves. This type of printing provides the highest quality and is good if you’re printing large quantities but can be the most expensive. There are some initial costs involved in creating the plate.
- Digital – digital printing is rather common and many of us have even done it at home. But how does it work? Digital printers transfer four ink colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) to paper. This can produce a full-color print after only one pass. Digital printing is the most cost-effective because there are no printing plates involved. It’s great if you need to print low quantities, multiple colors, or have artwork that changes frequently.
Now that you’re at the finish line, your boxes are almost home! There are just a few steps left before your design comes to life.
For custom boxes, the artwork is laid flat on a sheet by the manufacturer. This large sheet will contain many nested dielines, each with a complete design to optimize printing and reduce waste. The sheets are cut after each sheet has been run through the presses and finishing equipment.
Some boxes, like shipping and folding cartons, are glued to join panels. This helps make both assembly and loading your product a lot easier.
Many boxes are shipped flat to save on shipping costs but need to be assembled once you receive them. If you order a large quantity of boxes, be sure to get a team of coworkers or friends to help you assemble and fold your boxes.
Designing physical packaging does require some “thinking outside the box.” Remember, designing custom packaging is more than simply deciding what goes on your packaging. You’re telling a story with your brand’s message and communicating it on a physical product. Materials, shapes, and finishes will all add extra flair to your final product.
We’ve covered the fundamentals of designing custom packaging to help you better understand everything involved in the process. Here’s a brief outline of the main stages you’ll need to remember:
- Choose your box style
- Types of packaging
- Choose the right material
- Outline of the standard production process
- Prepare your artwork
- Prepress and Tooling
- Different methods of printing
- Finishing your packaging
We’re happy to help and guide you through the process at Packlane so your design comes out perfect every single time 🙂
Bio: Mark Wilson is Creative Writer at Packlane, an online printing company that offers low minimums, fast turnaround, customization options, and free online proofs in 3D. Packlane makes the process of ordering custom boxes and packaging easy and affordable for brands of any size.