How to get the most out of colour in packaging design

Posted

Inspired by the powerful impact colour can have on its audience, we chose Colourful as our business name. For us, it’s a metaphor for the whole brand experience, not just the visual. But just for a moment I do want to dwell on surface colour because it is such an important tool in the branding arsenal – especially when it comes to food.

We eat with our eyes, colour being a subliminal indicator of freshness and taste. But there are practical considerations and conventions for packaging design too. So, what do you need to think about, and how can you use colour as an effective tool in branding?

Complementing the product

For food brands, one consideration will be the colour of the product. Packaging can reinforce this to identify what’s inside, and get the taste buds going before it’s even on the plate. Black will always be relevant for coffee. Brown for chocolate. Orange for, er, orange. Product colour can be used as an active part of the palette, and by introducing complementary colours you can accentuate the look of the food. Natural brown and grey foods make for wonderful backdrops for highly coloured elements which in turn can invigourate what might otherwise be a bland-looking product.

Honestly Healthy branding and packaging by & Smith: low colour product with high colour labels.
Honestly Healthy branding and packaging by & Smith: low colour product with high colour labels.
Student project XX Via Settembre packaging design by Marius Wathne: enhancing product appearance with a complementary colour scheme.
Student project XX Via Settembre packaging design by Marius Wathne: enhancing product appearance with a complementary colour scheme.

Knowing the category convention

Within baked goods, unsurprisingly you see lots of brown and yellow. But on the supermarket shelves, blue is quite a dominant colour in this category: think of McVities, Kingsmill, and Oreos. There are established colour conventions across all categories, not just food, and understanding these can involve tapping into the culture of that category. Blue has a heritage feel, associated with dairy and vintage packaging. Green symbolises eco-friendly. And while white is often used to mean ‘light’, primary colours are often found at the value end of the market, and black is used to signify ‘premium’. Colour can also indicate a country of origin. Sometimes the branding of a category leader, like Coca Cola, will set the convention for a whole category of look-a-likes, creating a norm from which it’s hard to deviate.

Waitrose Seriously premium own brand range: black signifies premium, a strategy used by Tesco Finest too.
Waitrose Seriously premium own brand range: black signifies premium, a strategy used by Tesco Finest too.

Designing for variety

There’s added complexity when products are conceived as ranges and offered in a variety of flavours or types. Flavours will of course be signified by the colour most closely aligned to the important ingredient, but a global colour palette is required to ensure that the whole scheme is harmonised. The variant colour might only be a flash or a detail but should be exactly the right tone, tint and hue for the brand.

Tate & Lyle branding and packaging design by Design Bridge: a heritage palette with scope for extension.
Tate & Lyle branding and packaging design by Design Bridge: a heritage palette with scope for extension.

Colour and merchandising

For me, packaging design is interesting because it must work at all stages through the customer journey: from marketing, through to sitting on the shelf, held in the customer’s hand, and finally at home. Packaging needs to be appropriate to the retail channel: boutique, supermarket, or online. Pretty packaging that might work on a table in a boutique and make a perfect gift can be almost invisible in a crowded fluoro-lit supermarket.

Penny Supermarkets’ antipasta packaging design by Williams Murray Hamm: packaging for display at home.
Penny Supermarkets’ antipasta packaging design by Williams Murray Hamm: packaging for display at home.

Wherever the product is merchandised, packaging relies on tonal contrast to catch the eye. It’s the variation in light and dark, more than colour saturation, that customers see from a distance. With this in mind, it is important to have a ‘hero’ element that can be picked out. Whether this is an image, a shape or type, it should ideally be visible across a room. Conversely, once the pack has caught the customer’s attention, it’s the information that becomes important: what are the product benefits and what is the USP? Packaging design is always a carefully considered exercise in hierarchy; the hero, selling points, and detail must all be present.

Food Doctor branding and packaging designed by Pearlfisher: a recogniseable hero shape picked out in two tones.
Food Doctor branding and packaging designed by Pearlfisher: a recogniseable hero shape picked out in two tones.

Using colour in branding

With so many practical considerations, where does this leave branding? It’s not enough to produce generic packaging that ‘works’ in a practical sense. Building a brand and developing loyalty comes from marking out your product as different and telling a story. While it will be beneficial to think about all of the above, the precise selection and combination of colours you choose can and should still look unique.

PG Tips branding and packaging design by JKR: green and red as the hero elements.
PG Tips branding and packaging design by JKR: green and red as the hero elements.

Some brands will adopt a singular brand colour to aid recognition. Alternatively, it might be a distinctive palette that carries with it a mood: warm, cool, soft, or bright. Bear snacks’ colour palette, designed by B&B Studio, identifies it as natural set against the highly saturated colours on the snack food shelves.

Part of the value in knowing the conventions is understanding how you choose to break them. Independent and artisan brands will often reject the norm, adopting a bold strategy focused on standing out as something completely new and disruptive.

BEAR branding and packaging design by B&B Studio: a colour palette that stands out in the snack food category.
BEAR branding and packaging design by B&B Studio: a colour palette that stands out in the snack food category.

Colour is hugely powerful: both functionally and emotionally. It’s raw and direct. And with infinite nuances of colours and possible combinations, there’s lots to think about. It’s not always easy, but choosing the right palette and using it as a tool will give you a huge advantage in the marketplace.