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Last week some friends and I took a break from our respective creative pursuits and indulged in a craft beer tasting at the cozy, speak-easy themed craft beer bar Idle Hands in NYC. Naturally, the topic of packaging, specifically wine and beer labels came up. Yes, this is what designers talk about when they “let loose.” So I made mental note when our brewery representative called attention to the awesome label design for 21st Amendment’s Back in Black IPA, and explained how the award-winning design had been done by TBD Agency. Check out a beautiful showcasing of the product here.

In a highly competitive market it’s easy to see how packaging can become a big deal as a brand differentiator. High end and niche market products understand this well. While articles such as this one from the New York Times touch on this in the context of the marketing message they’ve overlooked the fact that the degree of marketing impact heavily these messages inherently depend on good brand strategy paired with strong design.

In response to some of my questions on the topic via e-mail, freelance graphic designer Farzana Razak, responded “Package design has evolved. It used to be an informational tool and a way for the consumer to identify a product. Nowadays, it is not just functional; it has become a very important aspect in the purchasing and decision-making process. A successful branding and packaging model can impact and create brand loyalty, and consequently brand credibility. This also creates competition among producers in the market to create much more distinctive, unique and eye-catching design.”

Add to the mix (no pun intended) consumer concerns about sustainability blended with a desire for convenience on one end and pressure to keep costs down on the manufacturing end and an interesting challenge to innovation emerges, one that appears to be “top of mind” for brand developers and company executives alike. At The Packaging Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada this week H.J. Heinz Company Vice President Global Packaging Innovation and Execution, Dr. Michael Okoroafor spoke on the topic ‘Innovating in a Challenging Economy: The Vital Role of Packaging.’ Okoroafor was quoted in Plastics Today as stating “Packaging is the number one medium to communicate the brand.”

Similarly, in an article by Carol Houghton on Labels and Labeling, Rowland Heming, director at leading European brand development and consulting agency Design Board, “looked at how consumer ‘mega trends’ impact label design, with the key values being ‘convenience, exploration, connection, value, indulgence, authenticity and ethical choices. Packaging provides a way to communicate these values to the consumer.”

So, will increased demand for market differentiation present unique opportunities for graphic designers despite recessionary conditions? How do sustainability and cost concerns play directly into packaging design development? Tune in next week for my second installment featuring Q & A on these and other questions with Canadian Art Director and Designer, Chris Zawada of lovelypackage.com and more.

Read part two of Packaging & Label Design: Opportunities for Design Innovation here.