The Ins and Outs of Holistic Design

Holistic design builds brands by orchestrating every element into a harmonious result.

July 1, 2013

As I’m sure many of you also do in the package design industry, Marcus Hewitt, my chief creative officer, and I spend a part of our day discussing what great design is and how it is best achieved on behalf of our clients. When Marcus joined Product Ventures earlier this year, my long-term goal to unify our industrial design and graphic design teams came to fruition, along with the ability to solve client challenges better by delivering holistic design. I’m an enormous believer in the value that comes from approaching every challenge with 360 degrees of consideration, ensuring that the designs are consumer-informed and business-aligned throughout the creative journey. 
Holistic design extends beyond the collaborative involvement of structure and graphics and is achieved by addressing not only the package, but also the needs of the product, consumer, brand, business, manufacturing and the environment. Conscious decisions are made in holistic design, which are well thought out, creating a purposeful arrangement of elements. The parts make the whole come together in a planned orchestration with each element complementing the other, achieving a harmonious result that is purposeful, meaningful and memorable. 
One of the main reasons we believe that designs fail is that they were not holistically designed. Elements are in conflict with each other, and there is visual chaos. To shed light on our theory, we went to the store to see how the packaging lining the shelves held up. We discovered packaging that is mostly disconnected, not harmonious, and in some cases, downright unappealing. We’ve probably all been involved in projects that were hijacked, so it’s unfair to single out specific packs in this article, but take a look at what we found on the shelves.
We have noticed eight troubling themes. The first we call “camouflage.” This is when the shrink-wrap graphics drape over the structural form, often disregarding or unintentionally obscuring the shape.  
The very common “frankenstein” package consists of an awkward combination of elements and separate efforts that come together in an ad hoc way. There’s also the “kitchen sink” approach where the package tries to say too much, resulting in visual chaos.
“Same old, same old” is where yesterday’s equipment ends up defining tomorrow’s ideas. We are not suggesting that expensive production equipment should be abandoned, but it does often limit the ability to differentiate. Take a look at the cereal aisle to see this example.
The “cheapskate” package, where every possible cost has been taken out of the pack, fails as the consumer experience is often compromised, and one cannot compete on cost alone.  
We also noticed some packs that looked incredibly cool but didn’t perform well. We call this the “design over function” theme: It may look new and different, but it doesn’t actually work.  
There’s the pilfer-resistant packaging that is difficult — if not impossible — to open, resulting in “wrap rage.” Finally, there’s the “crying Indian,” where there is a blatant disregard for the package’s environmental impact.
Luckily, there are also examples of great holistic design. We call the first theme “the power of one.” This is when all elements create a unified look. There is a seamless connection between the graphics and structure in particular. The user experience becomes the product experience, which is ultimately the brand experience.
In “happy families,” a distinctive line of products support each other and create a cohesive brand family block. Axe and Living Proof products do this well.
Honesty is the best policy, and the same holds true in the “honest” packaging theme. Embrace the true nature of the product and leverage it as a design element.
Simplifying the elements can maximize impact. Panasonic’s clever arrangement of earbuds as musical notes speaks volumes, effectively showing the value of the “less is more” package. 
Most packaging fails to engage more than the visual sense. There is a great opportunity to “engage the senses”: to better leverage the possibilities of touch, sound, and possibly even smell or taste. 
Some other packages that stood out just felt “harmonious.” The individual elements are not that exciting separately, but together they make beautiful music.
We all know that a picture speaks a thousand words — a holistic package design can speak ten thousand words. We call this “story time,” where product and package integrate to convey a compelling story. The solution Copenhagen-based design agency Goodmorning Technology created for Scanwood, one of Denmark’s largest manufacturers of wooden kitchen utensils, tells the story of products made through an environmentally friendly process and from all-natural materials.
When everything is considered, and all elements are artfully arranged, we refer to the ultimate theme as “supercharged.” Built on a great idea and fully leveraged, the supercharged package can dominate on shelf!  

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