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Design has been one of the key topics of the sustainability debate within the global packaging community in the last few years. However, much of the discourse has been led by the ‘need’ for smarter use of materials and resources, whilst the softer side of packaging sustainability has been neglected. Well, is there a softer side? Absolutely, there is. At Cambridge Design Partnership we have the privilege of working on projects across the entire packaging supply chain, from the front-end of packaging innovation, to creative design, to engineering and all the way through to manufacturing. Sustainability is often part of the client brief and through the years we have gained tremendous experience on the practical side of how to minimise the environmental impact of packaging. Along the way however we discovered that ‘emotionality’ plays an equally crucial role in delivering a robust packaging sustainability program.   

Let me analyse my thinking.

The aim of sustainable design, by definition, is to entirely eradicate negative environmental impact. But whilst being mindful of environmental issues, sustainable design should also create opportunities for meaningful innovation that can disrupt consumers’ behaviour and create a dynamic balance between economy and society, production and consumption, user and artifact. When it comes to packaging, manufacturers nowadays make efforts to develop sustainable designs via light-weighting, recyclability and the exploitation of compostable and biodegradable materials, for example. However, although such actions help manufacturers deliver against short-term corporate responsibilities, during the process they tend to forget that sustainability is also about longevity. And longevity can only be achieved via creating value propositions through harmonious user-design interfaces. For example, light-weighting the bottle of a premium whiskey brand would never be a fully sustainable solution, when ‘quality’ and ‘premiumness’ are perceptually associated with heavier glass in this context.      
What do users expect packaging to deliver? At Cambridge Design Partnership, we know from our experience in user-centred design, that they demand convenience, superior functionality, a positive consumption experience and good value for money, all ultimately laddering up to emotional reassurance. We also know that it is these expectations which predominantly drive choice and that consumers’ purchase decisions are less influenced by a pack’s green credentials. Consumers’ desire and commitment to buy are mostly driven by their subjective, subconscious emotional bond with brands, at a macro level. At a micro level, packaging design is the vehicle to strengthening that bond. Therefore, designing for targeted emotional responses is key in establishing a sustainable relationship between users and packaging, and consequently between consumers and brands.

The benefits are clear, but how can we actually design emotionally sustainable packaging?

Our experience in design and affective sciences has highlighted that the key design properties of a pack (i.e. form, texture, colour, aroma and sound) transmit certain sensory cues which, when received by consumers, govern how they perceive and make sense of packaging design. In order to be able to verbalise their perceptual responses, consumers tend to subconsciously assign meaning to the individual design properties of packs. For example, just by looking and holding the packaging of a confectionery brand, they might describe the product as ‘luxurious’ and ‘creamy’ without any prior consumption experience. In cognitive psychology those descriptions are called personal constructs and denote each individual’s interpretation of a stimulus, in this case packaging.  It is the personal constructs which manufacturers and pack designers need to address to fully benefit from emotional packaging design when addressing environmental targets.  Indeed, we believe that there are four successive rules to designing emotionally sustainable packaging; firstly, to identify key emotional constructs, secondly to prioritise the identified constructs, thirdly, to link top priority constructs with design properties, and finally, fine-tune design properties for targeted emotional responses.

Designing emotionally sustainable packaging is not simple, but it is feasible. It requires a systematic process and the involvement of consumer research experts to work alongside designers and engineers throughout the packaging design cycle if the potential benefits are to be realised. Inserting creative input is necessary at key touchpoints but a framework for effectively managing creativity and design trade-offs must be in place to get the balance right for consumers in the final packaging structure. 

Many leading global FMCG companies are already investing in adding emotionality to their packaging design process as part of a strategic move to being more sustainable at all levels. At Cambridge Design Partnership we were amongst the first to recognise this industrial trend and we have very swiftly responded by strengthening our packaging research capability though welding smart research tools and techniques into our wider product development process.  As a result, our clients enjoy tremendous benefits in the form of category growth through increased profit margins, consumption increase and consumer loyalty, whilst at the same time meeting their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) goals. We now know that if the sustainability agenda is to move forward and a more sustainable future to be realised, aligning environmental with emotional benefits throughout the packaging design process must be seen as a necessity, and not a luxury.

Blog developed for the Latin American publication specialized in packaging and converting technologies
El Empaque+Conversión B2B Portales, Carvajal Información.

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