Circular Packaging : Great design begins with an even better story

Recycle icon papercut banner with plant leaf and happy woman. Eco-friendly recycling symbol, Ecology project concept. 3d cutout in recycled paper background for social campaign.
© Cienpies Design -

When looking for an invaluable fountain of knowledge that provides insight into the inner workings of packaging design, you needn't look much further than the Pentawards.

For experienced designers and aspiring creatives, February's Packaging Innovations & Empack is an express train to new ideas and inspiration. Whether it is taking a moment to appreciate exciting new packaging or exploring cutting-edge design trends that will reshape packaging in 2024, the magnetic pull of the two-day, must-attend exhibition continues to strengthen.

While consumers become increasingly confident in buying all kinds of products online, not just groceries or essentials, the role of packaging and its sustainable requirements continues to shift.

Over the last few years, the Pentawards have grown from a competition into a source of inspiration to connect the global packaging community through its annual gala ceremony, international conferences, winner exhibitions, networking events and books.

Ryan, who has overseen the Pentawards’ evolution, suggests we are in the midst of an innovation boom and a shift in how packaging is perceived – both by brands and consumers. In particular, brands and agencies are now looking to fuse environmentalism with something still attractive, aspirational, and meaningful to consumers.

"The packaging industry right now is so exciting, but there are also a lot of things influencing the decisions being made," he told "A few years ago, everybody talked about sustainability, but now more things are coming into play, like accessible and inclusive design.

"I think those are the next big things that everybody should be thinking about in their design process because globally, 1.5 billion people are listed as having a disability and designing not only for them but also a wider range of consumers is important."

The rise of reuse has led to a growing push for circularity in packaging design and has proven to be a rich source of innovation.

"People are still getting to grips with sustainability," he added. "I think more and more people are being pushed towards reuse, and recycling is a bit of an easy win, or easy word to say, and many businesses are doing that. Reuse is important, as is looking at the infrastructure and upscaling that.

"Another thing that is being talked about a lot, which worries people, is AI within design and how that can help packaging. And when you throw the cost-of-living crisis into the mix, there is increased pressure on the different materials. I think the brands and design agencies that are reusing their waste, and the ones that have a real purpose, are the ones that will stand the test of time. Consumers now understand they can't just buy something aesthetically pleasing and that there has to be something that happens with it afterwards."

The debate around material choice in packaging is rightly centred on the environment, but what of the other considerations? Packaging needs to be built with the environment in mind and much more. Increasingly, corporate purposes are affecting profitability.

"Packaging is such an opportunity, and one of the biggest media-owned assets brands have," said Ryan. "It’s one of the first opportunities consumers have to interact with a brand, whether it's sent directly to the home or in-store. Many brands use it to promote the stories behind them and about the business.

“The design agencies working with brands need to be able to stand up for themselves. They might get given a project, but they need to be able to say, ‘Have you looked at it from this particular angle?’ or ‘Have you considered accessible design?’ or ‘Have you thought about reuse?’ because it’s about everyone in that design process coming together with a final goal in view.”

Discerning customers are asking more questions about where their purchases come from and how they are produced. In turn, designers increasingly put them at the equation's centre. So, while consumers might be more interested in how packaging affects their health, convenience, and values, retailers may focus on how it impacts their sales, shelf space, and reputation. And that push and pull of who wants what can quickly leave producers stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Packaging has evolved significantly throughout the years, not only in its shapes and forms but also in its function. As packaging functions continue to change, a more considered and thoughtful approach will be needed to achieve beautiful, function-orientated, durable, and eco-conscious packaging.

“Five or six years ago, we might have been known as a bit of an aesthetically pleasing award,” said Ryan. “But it's not all about that! It’s about depth and purpose; it’s about the special side of the brand. Consumers need more now; they don’t just want to buy something pretty; they want to buy something they can reuse after; they want to buy something where they can share the brand story or feel like there is an actual emotional connection.

“When somebody steps up and does something pioneering, they drive the industry forward. The one thing I’d like to see a bit more of is the reuse of food within the packaging, like packaging made of mushrooms, or there are amazing seaweed companies like Nopla or Sway that use it to create pieces of packaging. I think it's genuinely pioneering and exciting, and this kind of cutting-edge work will push the industry forward.”

The Pentawards have had over 2,000 entries from over 60 countries globally, with their now unmissable trend report due in December. Still, Ryan was happy to share five key threads taken from competition entries and design festivals, among many other things.

“The first trend was all about the numbers,” he said. “We’ve seen a huge number of packs with numbers on them across multiple categories, showcasing elements from nutrition and transparency to sourcing and even portion control. One example is Beast’s 35g cat food, which tackles overfeeding your pets. They’ve highlighted the numerical component of 35 grams and the quality that goes with it, and it stands out on the shelf.

“Design with purpose was another. This is meaningful messages, meaningful purpose or re-purpose. We’re seeing this a lot now where the packaging has real depth; it’s doing more than sell a product; it’s selling a message. O’Mel’s Honeypot is given out to customers by a design agency in Portugal, and once it’s used, the outer packaging is used to protect the ecosystem and biodiversity of bees. Then there’s Bonzai packaging, designed for the Japanese market, which is prone to earthquakes. This gift box has supplies of water, food and batteries, and it can turn into a lantern.

“One of the most exciting trends at the moment is moving parts. Stereoscope Coffee is a custom-designed box shaped like a mountain where the coffee is grown. This is delivered flat, and you can open it up and take slots of information away from the product; the actual finish of this is beautiful. Then you’ve got Soap In Paper, a combination of soap and perfume, which replaces the conventional plastic soap cases with compact paper sleeves. Again, it picks out vibrant colours to portray the various flavours. A beautiful piece of work that is also 100% recyclable.

“Next is making a statement. Packaging has a real voice, one of the most powerful elements brands have. It’s one of the biggest media-owned assets brands have when engaging with consumers. So, if we take Treasury Wines and their 19 Crimes bottles, they got millions of interactions through using the pack to connect, more so than using traditional mediums like television or advertising. Another pack from Nespresso says on it, ‘If you’re not going to recycle, please don’t buy this capsule.’ I think it’s stunning and direct. To some, it might be a bit blunt, but it’s challenging issues around sustainability. And they’re also committed to having 100% capsule recyclability in the next few years.

“And we’re also showcasing art with subtle details. This is all about shaping a narrative that creates an emotional connection. Meow, a beer for the Chinese market, has added two little cat ears pointing upwards on the neck of the bottle. And then underneath, there’s a little paw print. So we’re seeing more of these nice, subtle details that the consumer increasingly appreciates. There’s an amazing design for a neck pillow that comes in outer packaging that works as a storage bag and a functioning air pump. You open it up, and when the neck pillow comes out, you reseal the silicon outer shell and squeeze it to inflate it. It shows that packaging is now becoming more of a product, encouraging consumers not to dispose of it.”

Much like the role of packaging itself, the Pentawards’ contribution to the sector now extends well beyond its original purpose. Now a source of inspiration, an organisation that recognises excellence in design and spots emerging talent, but perhaps most pertinently, it is THE melting pot for the packaging design community.

“It’s an exciting time for packaging,” he said. “And that’s particularly so on the innovation side. Much of that is spurred by the challenge to stand out on the shelf and online. Many consumers do their shopping online now, so you’ve got to make sure it pops in the digital space, too.”

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