Design thinking: Make a greater impact with your packaging

Lindsey Gladden

As an insights professional or packaging designer, you have no doubt heard about design thinking. In most cases, you may have even been asked to put it into practice as you are designing new packaging assets or testing a drafted design with consumers.

But to make sure you’re using it to your full advantage, you need to understand the full scope of design thinking.

In this article, we’ll cover where design thinking came from, the five steps it comprises and how you can make the most out of it when it comes to packaging design.

Where it all began (a brief history of design thinking)

To understand where design thinking came from, we have to take it back to the 1960’s, where we first see documentation of attempts to apply scientific thinking to design.

By the late 60’s and early 70’s, the notion of design thinking began to show up in texts — most notably, when the Nobel Prize laureate for economics, Herbert Simon, began contributing ideas that became tenets of today’s design thinking, such as rapid prototyping and continuous testing through observation.

These concepts started to catch on across a variety of fields, but in particular, they began to have a real impact on user design. By the early 2000s, design thinking was common in the top design schools, meriting its own classes, and in some cases, even its own course track.

Which brings us to the present day, where design thinking has become the newest jargon in consumer packaged goods (CPG) boardrooms (or Zoom rooms).

But how does this type of thinking apply to the next round of packaging design for my favorite soft drink?

Let’s dive into the five steps of design thinking, and how to use them to your advantage.

1. Empathize

The first step in design thinking is to Empathize. Ask yourself: What is the consumer who’s most likely to use this product feeling? What are their pain points? What are they missing out on? What brings them delight?

This is often where rich stories or consumer profiles come into play. Every great insights or marketing professional I’ve talked to has some of these in their back pockets — those “AHA!” moments where a consumer story unlocked a key understanding and led them to produce something that stood out in the marketplace and set their brand apart.

💡 Pro tip: Take the time to understand who you’re making this product for and what their wants, needs and gaps are. If you’re able to establish that connection with your target customer and prove that you “get” them, they will begin to view you as a trusted brand and turn to your products to solve their problems.

2. Design

Once you understand what the consumer is experiencing, you can move on to the next step: Design.

In this stage, you should combine that deep consumer understanding with the problems you are trying to solve for (or to any gaps that exist) and design a solution.

In the past, it would have been tempting to stop here. You may think: We’ve solved the problem, great, done! But have you solved the correct problem? And has it been fully solved?

💡 Pro tip: A single brainstorm session in a conference room with your colleagues is unlikely to result in finding a complete solution for your consumers. Do your diligence and take it to the next step to make sure you’re truly delivering on your consumers' needs.

3. Ideate

Now we Ideate.

Keep building on the initial solution you found! Many organizations call this the “yes, and” step. Ask yourself: Can you add onto this idea? Are there other ways for you to take it to the next level? Can this also solve for another pain point?

Keep going until you can’t think of any more ideas — then pour another cup of coffee and dive back in again.

💡 Pro tip: When you’re in the ideation stage, keep in mind that there is no such thing as a bad idea. You never know what a suggestion might end up spitballing into. But when all the ideas are on the table, you will need to prioritize which ones to move forward with first (you may still come back to some of the others as you collect feedback!)

4. Prototype

Now comes the fun part — Prototypes! The idea in this stage of design thinking is to fail as fast as possible, because failure is still a success.

When something doesn’t work at the prototype stage, that means you probably got the right feedback to inform areas that need improving and have a better idea of what actually will work.

But make sure you don’t get too far into the design process to have your prototype reviewed. At this stage, these should be minimum viable products. In packaging, think flat renders of your item, NOT 3D printed, weighted, full line up designs.

💡 Pro tip: Test your innovation prototypes as early in the process as possible, while still ensuring what you’ve put together accurately represents the direction you’re going. The faster in the process you’re able to pivot based on feedback, the faster you’ll be able to optimize a winning design.

5. Test

Now it’s time to actually talk Testing.

When you start getting these designs in front of users for feedback, you may start to feel like you just continue to go backwards in your process.

But as we mentioned above, there’s nothing wrong with that! You just have to Ideate and Prototype some more, incorporating your learnings as you go. (Hint: Optimize Pack gets you answers on these renders quickly, so you can continue to incorporate real user feedback and refine your plans!)

This also means that you’re on the final step! But keep in mind, the process should continue to loop back until you have reached the point of having a successful design that meets the users’ needs.

💡 Pro tip: The more you shift your idea through testing, and implement the feedback you receive from your target consumer, the more spot on your solution is going to be. Why? Because even if it takes several tries, at the end of it all you’ll know you’ve created a true solution for them that they actually need.

Final thoughts

A lot goes into creating a product and packaging that speaks to consumers.

At the end of the day, using design thinking in the CPG packaging process can prove to be exceptionally helpful. If you apply these steps to focus on user stories and experiences, continue to brainstorm past your first few iterations, test ideas quickly and use that feedback to influence your final design, you’re sure to have a winner.

After all, when you keep the consumer at the heart of the design, that’s when you can generate the most impact!

If you’re ready to learn how Zappi can help you smartly (and quickly) design better packaging, click here to learn more about Optimize Pack.

🎙️ For more content like this, check out our Inside Insights podcast episode on how to apply design thinking to insights with William Lunderman, Instructor at the Parsons School of Design.

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