Redefining Smart: How Strategic Thinking Shapes Better Packaging Design

In an age obsessed with technology, people often equate ‘smart’ design with anything digital or high-tech.

But the best design is human centred focusing on human purpose and customer experience. Great human centred design creates a complete user experience, and technology is only one part of the equation. Industrial designers must also focus on what is beautiful, useful, engaging, and sustainable. In other words, ‘smart’ must also be wise.

The addition of smart technology creates another dimension. The physical can now also be digital. Smart packaging solutions allow consumers to interact with the product, and for the pack to communicate with them. And digital transformation makes big promises. The data it gathers offers businesses the opportunity to optimise supply chains, ensure product integrity, connect more deeply consumer relationships, and more.

But technology is merely a tool. Without clear design thinking and strategic insight guiding its use, it can create as many problems as it solves. It is only when applied thoughtfully and purposefully that technology can enable real change.

Evaluating the Value of Smart

Designers know that the lure of a shiny new toy can be deceptive. Just because something is interesting, it doesn't automatically make it a good option for our client or the problem we are trying to solve. We must keep a cool head and balance the potential of new developments against other considerations. We need to be more interested in whether our innovation offers something better than the status quo, rather than adding bells and whistles.

So, if slapping a QR code or an RFID chip on a product doesn’t make it actually ‘smart’, what does?

When we embark on a new project, our priority is defining the problem we’re designing for, not what is technologically possible. This is the essence of Design Thinking. Our multi-disciplinary, human-centred design process requires that we lead with curiosity and ask smart questions to get to the heart of the problem.

This process starts with the consumer. Our aim is to discover what really matters to them - their underlying motivations, unexpressed needs, and aspirations. We observe how people genuinely think, feel, and interact with products and packaging, in the real contexts of their lives. Our aim is to identify what would make the customer’s experience satisfying, functionally, physically, and emotionally.

This process is a critical navigational tool and a core part of our values. It helps us cut through complex problems and guides us towards delivering clear and effective solutions. Gaining a deeper understanding allows us to frame our thinking more accurately. By clearly defining the problem we need to solve we can tackle an issue at its roots. Technology can then be employed to serve a clear purpose and help to deliver an innovative, informed, and rounded solution.

In other words, the industrial design process ensures we are designing the right product. Then we go on to design the product right.

"Slapping a QR code or an RFID chip on a product doesn’t make it actually smart."

The Opportunities of Smart Innovation

True ‘Smart’ design, then, isn't about superimposing a digital layer on the physical. It's about leveraging innovation thoughtfully to create a positive impact and solve complex problems.

We see three key opportunities for smarter packaging design. The first is digital transformation that fosters business innovation and deeper consumer connections. The second is through human-centred designs that seek to improve lives through the experiences they create. And finally, by designing sustainable solutions that actively seek to reduce environmental harm throughout the product lifecycle.

Here's how we are leveraging these opportunities to advance smarter packaging design.

Digital Innovation

It’s undeniable. Digital transformation is reshaping industries, including FMCG and consumer healthcare. And the implications are far-reaching. It influences the way products are packaged and presented, how they are experienced by consumers, and how they reach and perform in the market.

Data derived from smart packaging and products is the catalyst transforming traditional product offerings into comprehensive systems solutions. Machine learning and AI mine this resource, unlocking hidden value. They sift through the data to discover patterns and make accurate predictions, enabling operational efficiencies, new business models and strategies, and offering the consumer experiences that are deeply personal and capable of evolving.

Take intelligent packaging as an example. Sensors allow for real-time insights that create more agile operations, enhancing efficiency across the product lifecycle, reducing waste, and increasing transparency. For buyers who value quality and authenticity, being able to trace a product's journey through the supply chain could significantly boost a brand's appeal.

Connected products, too, have created a world of opportunities for consumer engagement throughout the purchase journey, and beyond. Consider inviting consumers to scan a QR code, not only for extended product information at shelf, but as part of their unboxing experience as an example. You guide them through product registration and offer them user-specific customer support, improving the customer journey beyond purchase. The same code could then assist them through the minefield of how they can recycle the packaging after use.

Data-Driven Experiences

Understanding consumer behaviour, how they use their products, and their concerns has the potential to unlock additional benefits for the consumer and the brand. It helps the customer make better use of their purchase and have a more satisfying experience. User data also paves the way for the comprehensive and personalised solutions that drive brand loyalty. Done well, it can be a win-win.

Our Sākuru concept offers a case study. Here we imagine a smart, home cosmetics system that marries digital innovation with sustainability. The device uses existing dispensing and curing technologies to build up layers of liquid and powder from a refillable cartridge system on a reusable palette.

The smart system learns from users' habits over time. With frequent use, the device can predict the user's needs and the app can suggest new looks for them to try.

Data also offers businesses the opportunity to completely reimagine their offerings, with AI and IoT at the heart of an anticipatory logistics model. For example, when the Sākuru device detects a low cartridge, a replacement can be automatically sent to the user's door. The empty cartridge is collected, cleaned, and refilled, incorporating circular economy principles.

Human Innovation

As impressive as these technological capabilities are, design cannot truly be considered 'smart' if it is not also deeply human and functional. The most sophisticated sensors or algorithms can only take us so far if physical design fails to meet its user requirements.

If we want the data that can further refine the design process and inform more intelligent solutions, design needs to leave a lasting impression. The user must want to use the product. Its look, feel, ease of use, or emotional appeal must draw people in.

Without a fully considered design encouraging them to engage, the technology inside risks becoming a silent feature. It's the user's frequent interaction, spurred on by a well-crafted and valued design, that makes the technology come alive. When it lies dormant, we learn nothing.

Technology, therefore, can only become meaningful and fulfil its potential when it is part of a product that people don't just need, but genuinely enjoy using.

Form and Function

Today, the lines between product and packaging are blurring. Whether it includes a technological component or not, structural packaging plays a key role in delivering distinctive, engaging, and functional customer experiences.

By designing packaging that helps people to dispense, dose, prepare, apply, and store their products, we can enhance the interaction between the user and the brand. As such, the packaging becomes part of the brand’s value proposition and experience.

When collaborating with Sensodyne to redesign the brand’s mouthwash bottle, we had to address an array of complex needs and challenges. The new bottle had to have impact on the shelf while also improving manufacturing for the brand and usability for the consumer.

The design solutions here were simple but elegant. A co-moulded child-resistant cap with an easy-to-see measure delivered product safety with easier and more accurate dosing for the customer. Using the brand’s visually distinctive lozenge shape we created a form with a strong ‘concave racetrack shape’ helping to embody Sensodyne visual brand language. It also enabled the use of high-quality pressure-sensitive labels to replace the shrink sleeve used on the previous bottle, thereby reducing manufacturing cost and complexity.

"Design cannot truly be considered 'smart' if it is not also deeply human and functional."

Inclusive Design

Smarter packaging design, therefore, is design that improves people’s lives by transforming everyday experiences. But when we speak about customer experience design, it is essential to recognise and address the diversity of those users. Human-centred design needs to include everyone and cannot just be about minimum compliance. It’s an opportunity for brands and designers to aim higher.

Our award-winning packaging design for Voltarol pain relief gel is a case in point. We worked in partnership with joint-pain sufferers throughout the industrial design process to fully understand their needs and challenges. This collaborative approach ensured the new cap would go beyond just being usable, to being specifically designed to improve the consumer experience for those who need it most.

The result is an innovative and inclusive solution that is easier and more comfortable for a wide range of people to open, especially those with joint issues who often find this type of packaging difficult and painful to use. To improve the user experience, we designed a pack that was easier and more comfortable to use, using ‘soft touch’ material to ensure the cap could be opened one handed, either with a finger, the palm, or the edge of a tabletop.

This is more than just good ethical practice. Meeting people's fundamental needs while respecting their dignity and right to participate fully in society makes good business sense. By proactively designing for diversity of experience from the start, companies can expand their potential customer base and tap into under-served markets.

Sustainable Innovation

Finally, can we ever consider a design 'smart' if it does not consider its environmental impact? Today, more than ever, there's a growing understanding that 'smart' is not solely about technology or convenience or usability. It must be sustainable.

To deliver on consumer expectations, ‘eco-friendly’ is no longer just a commendable add-on. It’s an essential part of modern, responsible business operations. More than just a nod to green practices, it forms a core part of corporate strategies, shaping product development, supply chain management, and even customer engagement. Demonstrating commitment to sustainability is a vital factor for competitive differentiation and long-term success.

As designers, we cannot just create for the now. While aligning with our clients’ immediate business and brand objectives is vital, we also have a core responsibility to design with the future in mind. Sustainability might help sell, but our design decisions are also instrumental in encouraging better consumption and production patterns.

Of course, defining what is sustainable is a complex and contentious task, but we can consider some key factors.

Sustainable design considers not only material choice but the efficiency of a design, its manufacture, and its disposal. Packaging that is designed to be simple, compact, and lightweight requires fewer resources in production and transport. Opting for renewable, recycled, or recyclable materials reduces demand on virgin resources. Durable, repairable, and upgradable solutions increase product longevity and reduces waste.

Ultimately, these factors don't just benefit the environment - they make good business sense by reducing costs and creating shared value for companies and consumers.

"Smart is not solely about technology or convenience or usability. It must be sustainable."

Sustainability in Action

A perfect illustration of these sustainability principles in action is our redesign of the Huel nutrition shaker. The shaker exemplifies how considerations of durability and reusability can be integral to design, resulting in products that are not only practical but also environmentally conscious.

To encourage re-use and longevity we focused on selecting materials that added value. The shaker's base was crafted from Tritan, a food-safe and durable copolymer, known for its resilience against impact and resistance to staining, even in a dishwasher. The outcome was a shaker bottle that customers would want to keep—a product truly aligned with Huel's sustainable ethos.

Refills and consumables offer brands another avenue for creating a more sustainable future. Reckitt’s 2030 Sustainability Ambitions sit at the centre of their business, and we are proud to have partnered with them to deliver the award winning Air Wick Active Fresh.

Active Fresh is an aerosol-free Automatic Spray System infused with Natural Essential Oils and 95% Naturally Derived Ingredients. The water-based formula eliminates the need for the petrochemical solvents and propellants found in most aerosol diffusers. This new proposition broadens the brand’s appeal to attract new consumers who were put off by the chemical perception of aerosols.

Compared to other auto sprays, the new Active Fresh refill sees a 69% reduction of CO2, representing a saving of around 2600 tonnes of CO2 in its first year. The refill bottles are also made with 50% post-consumer recycled material and are recyclable.

Designing a Smarter Future

In short, smart needs a rethink, and it needs to be bigger than bytes. The innovation of a design should be measured not by its use of technology or the data it produces, but by first principles - its ability to engage humanely, functionally, inclusively, and sustainably.

As product designers, we are uniquely positioned to make a difference. By redefining 'smart' in this light, we can continue to push the boundaries of what is possible, create designs that people genuinely enjoy using and, in the process, hopefully forge a better future for us all.

Reflecting on our work, our most impactful designs result from a combination of strategic insight, intellectual curiosity, creativity, empathy towards human needs, and - yes - technical expertise. In attempting to understand and answer complex questions in a way that makes everyday experiences better, we create successful products and packaging solutions that are underpinned and enhanced by the latest technology, not driven by it.

Throughout this article, we've seen how this approach creates highly effective, empathetic, and sustainable award-winning designs. We work with some of the world's biggest FMCG and Consumer Healthcare brands and are always looking to collaborate with teams who share our vision. If you’ve got a product in the pipeline and want a new perspective, reach out to explore partnership opportunities with us.

Written by Dai Sanders and Peter Kay

Smart Packaging

Published on: 7th September 2023