Ava Abbott understands the first critical role of packaging.
"My job is to make people pick up things off the shelf," says Ms. Abbott, founder of Slingshot Communication, a Toronto design company that specializes in innovative packaging for products. "Once they've purchased and tasted it, you'll have a repeat buyer based on what's in the package."
Basically, the product can be great, but if the packaging is a dud, it can be a major factor in its failure. While Ms. Abbott designs packaging for new products from the ground up - she has helped develop packaging systems for Mead Johnson, IBM and Umbra, to name a few - often her mission is to redesign a product's presentation to make it more appealing to consumers. George Telegadis, managing partner of Ah Goo Baby in Princeton, N.J., credits Ms. Abbott for the rescue of his product, the Plush Pad, a multi-purpose memory foam pad for babies.
Mr. Telegadis originally packaged his product like a Tootsie Roll, tightly packed into a cylinder to show off how neatly the pad rolled up, but he found customers gave it a pass because they couldn't see or feel it. Slingshot's redesign put the product in an appealing box with a messenger bag-like flap that allowed the customer to see and interact with the memory foam. Boutique sales took off, but more importantly to Ah Goo Baby, a mass retailer picked up the product, something Mr. Telegadis attributes to the new packaging.
"Your product only has a few seconds to make an impression on someone who knows nothing about you or your product," says Ms. Abbott. "Quite often, companies haven't really honed in yet to who they are and what they want to say, or they try to do too much. They might do a package based on trends or their own personal taste, but packaging has nothing to do with that. Mistakes happen if you don't know precisely where you want to take that product."
When Slingshot Communication starts a packaging design, they look at two things: the visual, or the physical structure of the product - how that product sits on the shelf in relation to other products within the same category - and the personality that they want to develop for this product.
"Every product has its own personality, its own story," says Ms. Abbott. "Every company has its own mandate of who they are. I think about how we can bring that company's personality onto that package."
Ms. Abbott sees her work as a collaboration between the client and her design team. After several meetings to figure out the strategy and visual direction, they'll put together a briefing and make sure that they've interpreted in words what the client is looking for. Then they start the design process.
"We'll go back with two, three, sometimes six concepts, from far right to far left to spot on; then we'll narrow it down," says Ms. Abbott. "We'll do some informal focus groups to get an idea of which concept is getting the most attention, keep a scorecard and analyze the comments to see which one is the leader. Once we get down to two concepts, we'll do refinements, and by then, we pretty much have a clear winner. Then we'll work out all the logistical stuff."
Colour and typography are really important to get the customer's attention on the retail shelf, according to Ms. Abbott.
"Colour attracts people's attention, and clear and concise typography speaks to the personality of the product, " says Ms. Abbott. "The relationship between colour, the physical package, tactility and being able to see what's in the package very quickly, is what attracts people to pick it up."
Where do the designer's ideas come from?
"We look at paintings and fine art, sometimes we'll listen to music from a region," says Ms. Abbott. "As you're developing the product, ideas just pop into your head. It could be a flower or a piece of fruit. Sometimes a thought will come as you're walking down the street."
Her advice to companies starting out with a product is to really consider the branding right out of the gate.
"I know a lot of companies think 'we don't have the money, so we'll just start off with something to make do', but once that product is in the marketplace and you haven't presented it the way you want to present it, it's not going to be successful. I also strongly advise consistency. Always present your product in a consistent way and build upon it. You need to think it out ahead of time."