10 principles of good (packaging) design

In most of the developed world, it’s impossible to open your eyes without seeing countless examples of design. Good or bad, design is everywhere. It has the power to be inspiring, empowering and enlightening. Executed poorly, it can have the opposite effect.

An impenetrable confusion of forms, colours and noises

Back in the late 1970s, industrial designer Dieter Rams introduced the idea of sustainable development and of obsolescence being a crime in design, becoming increasingly concerned by the state of the world around him: “An impenetrable confusion of forms, colours and noises.” He therefore challenged himself with the question: is my design good design? The answer formed his now celebrated ‘10 Principles of Design’.

Good design:

 1.    Is innovative

2.    Makes a product useful

3.    Is aesthetic

4.    Makes a product understandable

5.    Is unobtrusive

6.    Is honest

7.    Is long-lasting

8.    Is thorough down to the last detail

9.    Is environmentally friendly

10. Involves as little design as possible

Packaging principles

Whilst Dieter was an industrial and product designer, his principles can fit anywhere where good design comes into play. Let's take a look at these in more detail and consider how they relate to packaging design;

·       Good design is innovative. The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

·       Good design makes a product useful. A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasises the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

·       Good design is aesthetic. The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

·       Good design makes a product understandable. It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.

·       Good design is unobtrusive. Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

·       Good design is honest. It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

·       Good design is long-lasting. It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.

·       Good design is thorough down to the last detail. Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the user.

·       Good design is environmental-friendly. Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

·       Good design is as little design as possible. Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

Ahead of the curve

Dieter Rams concluded that good design should be: innovative, useful, aesthetic, understandable, unobtrusive, honest, long-lasting, thorough, environmentally friendly and - last but not least - good design is ‘as little design as possible’. Design should therefore focus on the essential, rather than being burdened by the superfluous.

These considerations were well ahead of the curve. In fact, it would seem that only in more recent years have considerations such as the environmental impact of a product or packaging been scrutinised during the design process.

Framework to inspire

Even though the ‘10 Principles of Good Design’ were originally written about industrial product design, they are just as relevant for the design of packaging. As packaging designers and brand owners it’s worth taking note of these and including them within your design process. Whilst they are by no means a crash course in good design, they’re a solid framework to inspire great packaging. Even to this day, they make a lot of sense. Just because designers before us didn’t have the same technological considerations, they all had to solve very similar design and usability problems; it’s always good to look to the past for inspiration.

Packaging design is often challenging to execute well. There are many pitfalls that designers can encounter. Indeed, attempting design without considering each of the design principles can lead to disengaged consumers, higher complexity, and ultimately an unsuccessful product. Here at 10K60 we stand for the inordinate power of good design in every piece of packaging we develop; designing thoughtfully, responsibly and intelligently for our clients, their brands and consumers. We look to Dieter Ram’s ten principles to inform and instruct our design approach - an approach in which thoroughness, clarity and meaningfulness play an important role.