How to Design a Shrink Sleeve Label – Shrink Sleeve Packaging Design Tips
Shrink Sleeve Packaging is Super Sexy – Learn How the Shrink Sleeving Process Works with This Shrink Sleeve Tutorial
First Some Good News
You don’t need to add the distortion percentages on a shrink label yourself. You just design it the regular non-distorted way according to the dieline and the printing company will add the distortion to your design to match the curvature of the container. They have special packaging software for doing that. Really, they do. No lie.
I found this out the long way back in 2006 when I received a blank dieline from OSIO. I was working on the new Zola bottles. They were transitioning away from juice boxes at the time and were moving to shrink sleeves. Although my design is not in production anymore, they continue to use shrink sleeve technology to this day.
Along one side of the dieline was a list of millimeter markers and next to each one it specified the percentage of distortion needed. Confused on how I was supposed to do that, especially on a design that contain hundreds of round acai berries near the top of the bottle where it narrows the most, I called up the production department.
“Oh, you don’t have to do the distortion. We do that for you. That’s just for our information. It also let’s you know that it’s best to keep anything that could suffer from the natural effects of shrink sleeving, like tiny text or geometric shapes, away from the part that will shrink the most.”
“Whew, that’s a relief!”
Since then I’ve done a variety of shrink sleeve labels so I’m making this little tutorial that walks you through the process. For this example I’m going to use the shrink sleeved Canna Cola bottles I designed and take you through it from beginning to end.
Decide if Shrink Sleeve Packaging is Right For You
This comes down to cost and appropriateness. Cost depends on your margins. Shrink sleeves are more expensive to print and apply. However the shelf appeal is undeniable. Shrink sleeving is sexy and consumers respond accordingly. If you want to make a big splash, then shrink sleeving may be worth it even at the cost of slimmer margins- especially in the beginning when your print runs are lower.
Next is appropriateness. Would you shrink sleeve pickles? Probably not as people like to see the pickles. Seeing the size, cut, color and shape of the pickle is part of the decision process. However yogurt, fruit drinks, smoothies, supplements, and other foods that are usually in opaque containers are good candidates for shrink sleeving.
Picking The Container
Before you design anything, you need to choose your container. Without that you have know idea what you’ll be designing to. The manufacturer will have spec sheets for their containers whether they are bottles, jars, tubes, or tubs. Sometimes it’s an outline of the container with measurements and sometimes it looks like a CAD drawing. Either way you need this file and some physical samples to test with. Here is an example of glass bottle spec files so you can get a good idea of what you’ll need.
Here’s a few top manufactures of containers:
One of the largest glass container companies in the US
Owens-Illinois Inc. is probably the biggest glass manufacturer in the US and possibly the world.
Huge selection of plastic containers for all product types.
I guess the name says it all.
Send a Sample to The Printer
The printer will want the spec sheets AND a sample of the container. This way they can double check everything. They will also use the container for testing.
Not everyone does shrink sleeving and these days you can get into very short runs with digital printing. You pay a premium per label over flexo or gravure but the set up charges are very low and mixing SKUs is very easy. Plus, with flexo you’re looking at entry level print runs of 25k per SKU just to get in the game. However, with digital you can print a couple of hundred if you like, you just pay a premium price per label. With flexo and gravure, that’s not an option at all.
Here’s a few shrink sleeve printers I’ve worked with:
Fantastic digital labels. Perfect for short runs. They can also do flexo and gravure print runs starting in the 25k per SKU range.
Good choice for gravure printing. You’ll need big print runs in the 50k plus range per SKU to take advantage of their services
Digital and flexo shrink sleeve printing.
I haven’t used this company personally but based one what I know, they look like a top notch company.
Design Your Label According to The Dieline
The printer will provide a dieline. If they didn’t, then ask them for one. For the Canna Cola Bottles I actually made my own just by wrapping a piece of paper around the bottle and then marking the overlap and then measuring it. Not the recommended way of doing it but it was spot on when we ran the tests.
The reason you can get by with an on-the-fly method of dieline creation is that no matter what the shape of the container, you will still be designing to a rectangular space. It’s no different than designing a flat label. Before sleeving, each label is cut off from the master print roll and then rolled into a tube and then seamed. The tube is placed over the top of the container and then sent though the tunnel. It’s the shrinking that creates all the great contours, not your dieline.
On a shrink sleeved label, place the barcode vertically (turned 90 degrees on it’s side).
This ensures that they will be scannable after they are shrunk.
Print Out and Mock Up The Design
It’s not the most pretty method, but print out your sleeve design and then just hand wrap it around the container. This will give you a decent feel of how the design works three dimensionally. Sure, it’s a wrinkled mess, but it’s good enough for judging balance, flow, composition, readability and the placement of key label components.
True, you could do a 3-D mock up in Illustrator but monitors are deceiving. We’re so used to zooming in that we quickly lose touch with how our design will feel in actual size. On the monitor your designs ALWAYS feel bigger than they really are and the text ALWAYS looks bigger and more legible.
However, the customer won’t be zooming in at 600% to read the label. They won’t see it on a brilliant LED display. They will see it on a shelf surrounded by hundreds of other products all trying to get their attention. This is why you need to do full scale hard prototypes. It’s the only thing that will simulate how it will actually be perceived in the marketplace.
Approve the Proofs
The printer will send you some proofs. Either digital or print. If it’s good, then approve it. However, only sign off on the visual part, make sure your client signs off on the text. Even though the labels will ultimately be shrunk around the container, the sleeves themselves will be cut and seamed into straight cylinders, just like a tube. Most likely your first proof will be flat and not cut and seamed. The proofs will look funny because they will already have the distortion factored in. So parts that will have a large amount of shrinkage will be stretched horizontally while low distortion areas will look almost normal.
Run Some Sample Labels and Do a Shrink Test
You may or may not be there for this step. For the Canna Cola labels I went to the packaging plant myself and ran the test. We ran dozens of bottles and tested all the flavors. We tweaked the settings on the shrink tunnel as we dialed in the best speed and heat level. A shrink tunnel is basically a conveyor belt that runs though a metal box that is filled with steam jets. The steam shrinks the label to the container. It’s kind of magical to see it first hand but it needs to be dialed in to your specific label and container.
We had hundreds of sample labels that were pre-seamed (cut from the original roll and seamed together into tubes) but we had a limited number of bottles. So labels that shrunk poorly were cut off the bottle so we could run another label on it.
Some shrink tunnels use steam, and some use a combination of infrared and hot air to shrink the labels. Which method you use depends on application. For full body applications, and when you want high quality, distortion-free graphics, steam tunnels are best. Steam is also best for pressurized containers or products with high flammability. For tamper evident labels, a hot air convection tunnel does an excellent job. If your neckbands are very dark in color, radiant infrared is an excellent choice because dark material absorbs heat.
Rework the Label if Necessary and Repeat
After you run your tests you many notice problem areas. On Canna Cola it was the sunburst THC decal on the neck. This was placed on a very high distortion area so the decal came out more oval then circular. Rather than have a large amount of rejects we opted to drop the circle.
This is why it’s best to keep geometric or highly symmetrical shapes off high distortion areas. Asymmetrical or organic shapes can hide distortion flaws much better.
Run the Final Labels and Bask in the Glory of Your New Designs
Shrink sleeve packaging is hot, hot, hot. Even though it’s increasing in popularity, it’s still a novelty in the general market. And because it’s more complicated and expensive that a paper label, or printing a couple of spots on aluminum cans or plastic tubs, I suspect it will remain a premium look for quite some time.
Nice white paper that explains how shrink sleeving calculations are achieved
Nice layperson’s article on the shrink sleeving proccess
Learn about shrink tunnel technology
This is a steam shrink tunnel in action.
This is most likely an air or infrared shrink tunnel for a tamper evident label application.
Here’s a nice video of shrink machine money shots. If you like manufacturing as much I do you’ll dig this.