Label Design Tutorial – How To Design a Product Package Label
A Behind The Scenes Look at a Typical Product Label Design Project
Most of the time you only see the end result of a package design project. This is fine, but it would be really great to see the process from start to finish as this is where the magic really happens. The design is just the end result.
For this case study I’m going to use Chef Shabazz’s Fish Chili. This project is a good representation of how I design a product package label from the ground up and the typical challenges that pop up as we head towards a finished, print ready design. It covers both the technical side and the philosophical side. Personally, I think the philosophical side is the most important. Technical tips and tricks are a dime a dozen, but without a design credo to guide your way, you’ll be nothing but a hack for hire – rudderless and at the mercy of fickle clients as you just try one design gimmick after another without any real understanding of why.
Most people, including both clients and young designers, tend to think of a product package design as just that – a design. But a package design is really the end result of a branding process. Without understanding the brand, you can’t create an effective package design.
So with my client’s permission, I’ve made a tutorial that takes you through initial client contact to sending finished label file to the printer. I didn’t include all of the emails and comps for every step – to do so would turn into a novel – but I made sure to highlight at least one representative sample of each development milestone.
Step One – Initial Contact
It all starts with a call or an email from a potential client. Of course, the initial contact makes it all sound so simple.
Great website. I have a product that we need packaging design for. It’s a 6″ x 8″ plastic retort pouch. If you’ve ever seen a Capri Sun juice then you know what it looks like except ours is clear.
We want a front and back label that we will simply stick on to the pouch. So we’re looking at a design that’s 4″ x 6″.
I have an example Photoshop file of the front and back with the logo for the product we’ve come up with. All of that is subject to change based on what you think though. If you’re interested, please email me back and I’ll send the files over to you so you can take a look. We have a printer so we would just need the design.
Westport Enterprises, LLC.
I respond back.
Yes, please send me the PSD file.
And now the plot thickens.
Here is the design. Please be gentle. :)
Not one to pussyfoot around I give it to Jon straight.
Hmmm. Well I could definitely improve upon this. It has a pronounced shoestring budget, imported ethnic food vibe about it. Which is fine for the adventurous like myself who regularly purchase odd and semi questionable vegetarian Asian food products in San Jose, but not so good for the general consumer.
So the first question I have is who is the target audience for this? Then we work backwards to create a label that matches the expectations for your market.
Let’s talk this weekend sometime to review your brand and your product.
Jon’s response makes it clear that we will have a great client/designer relation. It’s really important for both parties to be upfront with how they work and how they think. This is how both clients and designers cull the herd. If you’re completely honest as a designer you will attract clients that are best suited to your temperament and world view and will repel the ones that are ill suited. This is best for everyone in the long run.
“…odd and semi questionable vegetarian Asian food products in San Jose…” has got to be one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard about Fish Chili. Man, I love your frankness. I hope I can afford you! I’ll email you “The Story” tomorrow.
We recently debut in the Long Beach Bayou Festival this past June. Our target audience is 18-45 year old’s (men and women) who love the taste of mildly spicy barbecue without the dangers of Mad Cow disease. They earn their money for a living and demand a wholesome meal for their hard earned dollar. The single mother loves it because she can feed all the children in the time it takes to boil an egg. At the festival the main reply was, “This doesn’t taste like fish!”
Thanks and goodnight.
Step Two – Client Consultation
Next I needed to tease out all the details and find out what is really going on. Jon agreed to my quote (not included in this tutorial) so now it’s time to figure out what the package dimensions are, what type of package this is going on, the brand story – basically the foundation onto which the package design will be built. The first thing Jon sends me is the brand story which fortunately is already well thought out.
I’ve attached the story via .pdf. Enjoy.
The brand story is awesome. Turns out there really is a Chef Shabazz and my client really did encounter his locally famous fish chili by accident. Unfortunately, Shabazz closed his doors and moved to Oklahoma. Jon tracked him down and spend five years trying to convince him to license his recipe and name to the product. So unlike Betty Crocker or Uncle Ben, there really is a Chef Shabazz.
Then there is the question on whether Chef Shabazz should be represented as a graphical icon or only in the imaginations of the customer. After weighing several considerations such as brand flexibility, customer appeal across all demographics and available space on the label I eventually opted for textual representation only in the from of a banner. But this decision was actually finalized in the design process, which comes later in this story.
I respond back.
Nice brand story. We should condense this and use it on the package. I’ll call tomorrow.
What are the dimensions of the package again? (I’m referring to the area that could hold a label …no seams)
Jon gets right back
The area that can hold a label is 5″ x 6 1/2″.
I want to keep you updated on some recent developments which may help in the design process. First, some possible tag lines;
No Beans. No Beef. Just Good!
The New Definition of Chili
No Beans. No Beef. Chili Redefined!
I respond back.
As for the commercial slogans:
No Beans. No Beef. Just Good! (fair but not great)
Chili Redefined (intriguing)
The New Definition of Chili (a bit clumsy)
No Beans. No Beef. Chili Redefined! ( I love the first two lines…the last one doesn’t seem to belong)
How about >>>>>>
No Beef! No Beans! No Way!
No Beef. No Beans. No Bull.
No Beef. No Beans. No Kidding.
The World’s Best Chili That Isn’t
Step Three – Setting Up Your Document and Creating the Dieline
So set up your artboard and don’t forget to make it bigger than the final dieline including bleeds and make sure the color space is CMYK. And to make your life easier, make sure under “view” you have chosen “show rulers” , “show guides”, “snap to point” and/or “smart guides”. You can also choose “show grid” and “snap to grid” but sometimes the grid snapping can get annoying. Later you can choose “lock guides” when everything is perfect.
After your artboard is set up it’s time to make your dieline. Here’s how I created the dieline for the Fish Chili label. It’s super basic and even a newbie should have no problem following this tutorial. Originally, I didn’t have the arch at the top, but after going though several comps it became apparent that I needed to break the border at the top to make room for my Chef Shabazz banner. It was a good choice and increased the perceived value of the product because it was so stylish.
Step Four – Research
How much research you do depends on your familiarity with the subject and the marketing landscape. For this project I needed to get up to speed on the main ingredient which is whiting fish. Turns out whiting fish is a species and looks a lot like a cod. They are found all over the world and have a distinct fin shape though their scale patterns vary. They aren’t the most attractive fish, but I know that a product called fish chili had to have a fish on it.
But why does the label need a fish on it? Because this is a shelf stable product – meaning it doesn’t need refrigeration – it could be shelved anywhere. It could be near the canned soups or stocked next to the pasta sauce. It’s anyone’s guess because there is no such thing as a shelf stable ready to eat fish chili isle in a grocery store. So to not make it crystal clear with a simple glance, that yes, this is a fish product of some sort, would be risky.
To find guidance and inspiration for my fish mascot, I visited many sites and saved the best images. Then I reviewed the images and decided it would be best to create a composite whiting fish using the best features from all the varieties. And then taking some artistic liberties, made an idealized whiting fish.
I also knew right away that the sustainable fisheries and wild caught distinctions were a key differentiator. I already knew quite a bit about the sustainable fisheries movement, but after doing research I discovered that, unlike the USDA Organic or the Kosher “U”, there really is no standard graphic to use to identify your product as a sustainable fishery product. There is also no nationally recognized body to go to to have your product certified as sustainable and wild caught. The field is still wide open and there are many small players all trying to establish some kind of standard. So that meant I would have to create my own.
Step Five – Designing the Label
Now that I know the brand story inside and out, and I have created the dieline, and I have done the necessary research, it’s time to start designing. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of doing all these steps first. No brand story – no design. No finalized dieline – no design. No research – no design. You have to earn the right to design. To just think you can wing it without doing your homework is pure hubris and a disservice to your client.
When it comes to designing I have a distinct method to my madness. After I set up the artboard and dielines, I type out the key words of the label’s typography (usually the name, tagline, and body copy) and then cruise through my 5000 plus favorite fonts and test some out. Since I already understand the brand, I have a pretty clear idea of what types of fonts I’m looking for.
For this project it was clear that Chef Shabazz’s Fish Chili needed more organic looking fonts. Something that looked natural and homemade, but not too homemade. Something that was both contemporary, but rooted in the past. I know those sound like contradictions – and they are somewhat – but there really is such a look as contemporary classic. It’s elusive, but when you see it, you know it.
I keep applying the fonts that seem like good choices. If I like the way it looks, I save it, copy it, paste it, and then see if any other fonts work. I don’t bother with any effects at this point – just straight up black lettering. After an hour of so I have a good collection of fonts that are in the ballpark. Then I sort these into groups and see how they look. I may sort them by italic and non italic, or condensed and wide, or even fancy or plain – every project is different. But I always sort them by use which is usually name, tagline and body copy. These three groups need to play well together. So your choice of name font will effect what’s appropriate for the tagline, which then effects what will work for the body copy. Don’t think of these things as separate choices. This is a group decision.
Next I toss the clear losers and keep the winners. Sometime I also make a sub group for “maybes”. Then it’s time to start designing.
I use my artboard the way a painter uses a pallet or an illustrator uses a drafting board. I keep the dieline area clean and free of clutter but spread my stuff all over the place. I want to be able to see all my options at once. Things that I like I set side. Things that are clearly failures, I delete. All the stuff in between I keep around but put it farther off to the side.
This creates a hierarchy of choices. The best stuff is near the top and close to the artboard. The less successful options are farther down or off to the side.
I’m a chronic cut and paste guy. Anything I like I save to the side and then make a copy. I then continue to tweak the copy. This leaves a nice evolutionary trail of choices and options. Anything that will be ruined forever – like expanding the arch effect on a banner – is always copied first and set aside for later editing. I never want to create a situation where I have something that is 99% perfect but I no longer have an edible version to work with.
My client was using whiting fish that was both wild caught and from a sustainable fishery. Now this is a very important differentiator. You can’t go to a quality sushi restaurant or a upscale seafood counter without seeing signs and literature about sustainable fisheries. As our oceans continue to degrade and fisheries continue to collapse, where your fish comes from is going to become central to the decision process for both buyers and end consumers. Now as I mentioned earlier, there is no national or international certification body for identifying and labeling products from sustainable fisheries. But since this was a major differentiator, especially for Whole Foods which was our first customer, this fact needed to be integrated into the package and the brand story. I also thought that the best way to convey this differentiator was in the form a “seal of authenticity”, which is my shorthand for describing any sort of badge, decal, or icon that carries of message of quality. Since there wasn’t a ready-made seal available, I made my own.
I get my first comps to the level that I think are worthy of show and tell with my client, Jon. I don’t waist my time cranking out a bunch of comps just to prove I’m busy. I only show designs that I think are serious contenders – be it one or half a dozen. Not only does this not waste anyone’s time, it also emphasizes my value position. The number of comps is irrelevant and arbitrary. Five designs of crap is of no value, while even one excellent design is priceless. The number of comps that are generated should never be a factor in judging the quality of a designer or on weather a client is getting their “money’s worth”. This is why I never promise a specific number of comps. It’s a meaningless yardstick because the number of comps you generate has nothing to do with finding the prefect solution.
For this project I settled on one layout that was a clear winner and then presented five variations on that theme.
This is typical of how I work. I try a lot of things in the beginning but I’m not going to send crap, so I wait until I’ve narrowed it down to something that I can be proud of. I also don’t sketch out concepts first. I start directly in Illustrator and comp in print ready final form. I know that’s not how you’re “supposed” to do it, but besides the quick doodles I make while I’m hashing out ideas with my client over the phone, sketching would be a waste of time.
I can design this way for two reasons. One, my visualization skills are very strong. I see completed labels in my head and once I see it in my mind it stays there. It’s like a little sketchbook of ideas that’s visible only to myself.
Secondly, there’s the problem of converting hand sketches to the real world. You can pencil out all sorts of stuff that looks awesome in sketch form but falls apart when you actually have to execute it in final print ready form. This is because in a sketch you make all sorts of assumptions and use gestures to imply specific form. So a pencil sketch leaves a lot to the imagination and the dynamics of the strokes can hide some major flaws in your thinking.
Now, DON’T interpret this to mean that you shouldn’t sketch. This is a very designer centric choice. So for me, as someone who’s been working professionally as an illustrator since high school (1984), who’s been a staff political cartoonist for three newspapers, who’s done storyboard work for the Discovery Channel, Intel and Disney, I’ve discovered that investing a lot of time in pencil sketches is not the best use of my time when designing a product package. And since I don’t have an art director hovering over me and no staff meetings I need to prepare for, I can afford that luxury. As long as I can see it my head, that’s all that matters. If you can do that as well, then good for you. Don’t be hindered by the naysayers who says that it’s wrong.
Now back to the initial comps.
I email them to Jon.
Wanted to show you these before I start on the back.
I think they’ll move product, especially in a high end environment like Whole Foods.
On a couple of these I included a “wild caught sustainable harvest” decal I made. I think that’s important for a fish product.
Jon gets back to me a few days later.
We’ve reviewed the comps and have come to like V1 overall. The colors you have chosen certainly “Pop” off the page. One concern is if they will print just as brilliantly? The “Chef Shabazz’s” font and banner are great. The “Original” font and presentation is great. We like the “Fish Chili” font in this version also (Version 1). We like the modern font you have “Chili Redefined” in with the “R” lip hanging down.
The red border around the outside edge works with the brushed, thicker inner border giving it that “fisherman on the docks” feel. Also, everyone loved the “Wild Caught” stamp. Is that trademarked or will we be able to use it? The subtle sunburst in the back is always a nice touch.
Here are our changes and concerns:
Please add the swirls from the other versions that were in back of the fish to this one.
Please make the fish more “Appealing to Eat.” This item was hotly debated so this is what specifically got me…the yellow streaks on top of the fish suggest “spoiled” or “rotten” fish. I know they’re highlights but nobody wants “yellow” in their fish. It’s subtle, but in our eye test we found that the eye goes to “Fish Chili” first and the actual fish second, so making the fish mouth watering is important.
We’re furiously trying to figure out that last punch line in the “No Beef, No Beans” banner. We’re not going to keep “No Kidding” and have a tentative replacement of “No Fishy Taste”. So, could you place “No Fishy Taste!” in there so we can see how that works?
We’ll want to be able to change the “Net WT” amount back and forth from 8 oz to 16 oz depending on how much we put in the package. This will effect the nutrition label as well.
Will you be providing us with all vector fonts, colors, and drawings included in the final design so we can make a cohesive marketing statement throughout our campaign?
All in all, we’re looking forward to seeing the changes and what the back looks like. Let me know when we can expect to see that. Thanks.
I get right back to him.
I’ll make the changes after I eat lunch.
That red border is the dieline. That’s where the die will cut the sticker leaving everything in the middle. Consider the red line the edge of the sticker. It won’t actually be printed.
Oh, and the colors will print very close. Of course, nothing is as vivid as a monitor, but these will really pop when printed.
After lunch I send Jon the updates.
Trademark is not an issue with Wild Caught. There are several trademarks filed for “wild caught” but all are disclaiming the right to the word “wild caught” itself when not used with their specific logo.
There doesn’t seam to be any industry wide certification either. Everyone’s kind of doing their own in-house wild caught/sustainable logo.
So we’re totally clear. In fact, you may want to trademark your Wild Caught logo at some point.
Jon is pleased with the changes.
Well, that was the shortest review we’ve had in a while. It’s funny how the simple removal of some highlights changes ones perception of a thing.
The front is approved. We’re gonna’ have to work on that last catch line. Oh, I don’t think you answered our last question in the “changes and concerns” in a previous email. That will help us be able to simply change that last phrase without disturbing the design.
Please proceed to the back design sir. Thank you.
So now that the front is approved it’s time to do the back. I rewrote his brand story (to make it fit in such a limited space) and I also came up with a clever alternative to the usual “contact us” stuff on the back that capitalized on “the truth” theme in the brand story.
I send his my first attempt.
Here you go.
Jon gets right back to me.
I got my team moving at light speed this morning ahead of schedule. Here’s the revisions. Please…
Change the banner to “What is the Story of”
Change the story to what is below. I applaud you on your attempt, but to play on our theme here…That’s not the Truth. :)
No Beef. No Beans. The Truth.
The problem with regular chili is that it contains animal meat from who knows where and beans that give you gas leaving you feeling uncomfortable. Who wants that?
What’s amazing about Chef Shabazz’s Original Fish Chili is that there is no chicken, beef or beans. This redefines the definition of what you thought Chili was. We took everything out of Chili that was bad and replaced it with Wild Caught Whiting Fish, garden fresh vegetables, herbs and spices…Oh My God!
Never heard of Fish Chili before you say? Neither did I until I walked into Chef Shabazz’s restaurant and decided to try his praised Fish Chili. The only words that came from my mouth were, “The Truth!” Chef Shabazz has closed his doors since that day but the “Truth” still remains.
I couldn’t believe that there was actually fish in there! And that’s what the truth does…It redefines the false definitions you have in life. Redefine your definition of chili today!
3. Play with the “No Beef. No Beans. The Truth” in different fonts than the base text to see how that looks. We’re also considering how that will look if just placed in front of the first paragraph and design the first letter to look fancy, so let us see that as well.
4. Make the “Nutrition Facts” vertical on the left hand side and place the text for the story on the right so we can see how that layout looks. We want to get a feel of both types of layouts. Keep the fish but place it where you think it should go on the vertical layout.
5. We have two ways in which we will package this. One way is as a “Shelf Stable” product and another is as a “Keep Refrigerated” product. Make a spot on the label where we can place these and change them from one to another.
6. We have instructions we wish to include which will allow the customer to boil the product in the package itself. Please make the instructions below fit in with the other text designs as you see fit.
Boil in bag
1. Bring water to boil
2. Place bag in water for 5 minutes
3. Tear off top and Enjoy!
7. Please fade out the background swirls to where they do not compete with the message.
8. Also, I hope the calories from fat on the nutrition label isn’t “850” or we will not be living long as a product. :)
9. We like the “Can’t Find The Truth?” and contact info you placed.
In conclusion, we like this version but would like to see the changes so we can compare this version to the new version and make a decision. Thanks.
I send him the comp with the new updates. I wrestled with the vertical format for a while before I figured out how to make it work.
First version updated plus side panel version. Worked some magic to get it to work.
Ignore the actual grams on the label. Just a quick placeholder.
I don’t hate this vertical version anymore. I think the other one is better though.
Jon gets back to me.
Man I like the way you design. Revision V2 looks much better. Version 3 looks good as well. We debated about the question mark before and I just forgot to tell you not to put it there. The reasoning is that we don’t want a question mark next to Fish Chili because it subtly puts doubts in the customer’s head. We agree with you that it makes it look weak.
Adjustments to V3:
Bump the whole right title banner up to break the top border like you did on V2. This will give an asymmetrical feel to the label which will cause the eye to go there first instead of the nutrition facts.
Once that’s done, you should have enough room to place the fish in the bottom right similar to the way you did on V2 replacing the wild caught stamp. Everybody loves that fish and were quite distraught over it leaving V3.
The bolding of the word “Problem” has been hotly debated too. This type of marketing has a “problem-solution” based theme. People are more attracted to problems than solutions, so I think bolding it works. When we raise the problem before the customer we can control and guide them to the solution…which is…buy Fish Chili. So we’ll keep it for now.
So, let us see those quick changes to V3 and we should have our decision after comparing V2 against it. Thanks
I send Jon some more updates.
How about this?
Heading out now to spend the day with my daughter.
Jon gets right back to me.
We’re going to go with Version 2 for the back. Here are the final revisions:
1. Delete the question mark next to Fish Chili
2. Delete the word “animal” from the first paragraph
3. Bold “Redefine your definition of fish chili today!” in the last paragraph
4. Replace the Shelf Stable section with the words, “Keep Refrigerated”, for now
5. Add bubbles to fish please. Everybody loves those bubbles!
6. Fade the swirls in the background so we can see the “800” number and website better
7. Please place in the proper Nutrition Facts
Additionally, we would like to add those terrific bubbles to the front design and change the “No Fishy Taste” to “The Truth.” We’re getting the 800 number and barcode number this week so please start pricing the printing. We need a label capable of withstanding boiling temperatures (some kind of thermographic film I think). See if you can get quotes for a run of 2000, 5000, and 10,000.
I send him another version with the changes.
Here you go. The nutritionals were already accurate. It was only the vertical panel that was a placeholder.
I think I’m only missing the real UPC.
On Saturday a guy lost control of his longboard and the wave picked it up and threw it full force into my hip while I was riding past him. We all thought it was broken. But X-rays show NO fracture. Yeah!
I had to be towed in by a group of surfers and then they carried me up the cliff. They had to cut me out of my wetsuit and then the paramedics took me to the emergency room in an ambulance. Anyway, I’m going to be ok eventually and I can stand up, shuffle a bit right now. Sitting or laying down is easy.
So I’ll be bit less productive for a while but not out of commission.
I’m 20 feet from my computer but I only work on it in short spurts. Best to call if you need my attention right away.
The accident was really bad. But here’s the deal- as long as you keep your client in the loop they are usually fine with whatever problems pop up. They just need to know what’s going on.
I know he’s a pretty relaxed guy, and we have a very casual client/designer relationship, so I send him my bruise timeline (not for the squeamish). Ouch.
Step Six- Final Proofing, Printing Quotes and Choosing the Best Label Materials
So as you read earlier, my client decided to make the product a ready to eat boiler pouch. This meant we needed a label that could withstand boiling temperatures for five minutes without falling apart. So I called up a few film manufactures and soon discovered that they either didn’t have a material that would work, or they don’t sell their material to printing houses. So then I called a few of my favorite digital printers (Collotype and Labeltronix) and presented them the with the problem. Both of them had several films that they tought would work as they were rated for temperatures that were close to the boiling point. They also both had printed samples on hand from a previous client. So I had them send a sample packet to my client so we could test them out.
My client then attached them to some sample bags and boiled them. They all did fairly well but one cracked and another peeled a little bit. However, there was one standout that didn’t crack or peel at all. And much to our surprise it was a matte finish label. So we went with that.
After a couple weeks of acting as an intermediary between Jon and the printers we get a final quote from Collotype. I’ll always shepherd my client’s projects as far as they need me to, but at this point it made no sense for me to stay in between Jon and Collotype while they work out payments.
So I send Jon and email.
You should just work with Collotype directly now that you’ve been introduced. I’ll handle all the file prep, but it’s much more efficient if you work directly with them on quotes.
So Jon handled payment, shipping and proofing and I just made sure the files were perfect. And yes, they did “pop” as I promised.