Package design and the lessons of invasive species

Innovative package design solutions are one of the key transformative tools employed by consumer products companies. These new design solutions often radically change the environment that they inhabit. The tin can in the 19th century, the plastic soda bottle in the mid 20th century, and the retort food pouch in the early 21st century, all transformed the package landscape for marketers, retailers and consumers.

Invasive species also have a habit of radically changing the ecosystems that they invade. As Henry King points out in a piece at businessweek.com “They are the very model of disruptive innovation”. And he claims that there are 6 characteristics used by these invaders that could be interesting lessons for innovation in business.

The characteristics also seem to apply to package design.

1. Start Small. Most package design innovations are tested in small markets or with small brands. They like to stay out of site of predators and competitors until they are strong enough to survive in the new environment. The new method laundry detergent is an example of this type of innovation by a small brand. It seems unlikely that all of the “invasiveness” represented in this new package could (or should) have been initiated by one of the large detergent brands.

2. Speed up your cycles to get to resources earlier. Henry King points out that invasive species often have earlier and shorter reproductive cycles. This allows them to take advantage of certain environmental advantages before their competition. Rapid prototyping and faster design implementation tools are allowing package design companies to dramatically speed up product development times.

3. Embrace disturbed environments and tumultuous times. Invasive species have a tendency to take advantage of environments in flux. Many retailers are taking advantage of consumer’s increased visibility of environmental issues to push for radical new approaches to packaging materials, product size, and life cycle issues. Walmart’s packaging scorecard initiative is an example of this.

4. Think hybrid. Native and non-native species have a tendency to interbreed, helping the viability of both. We have seen an increasing number of product materials that are combining the best characteristics traditional materials, but made with new processes and combinations. The biodegradable Sunchips bag or Burt’s Bees Terraskin carton, with board made from limestone scraps are good examples of this hybridizing.

5. Exploit underutilized resources. Invaders tend to go after the forgotten resources where there is little native competition. Pangea Organics has taken advantage of a growing interest in premium personal care, produced and sold in a sustainable way, by developing packaging that is made almost exclusively from recycled fiber and paper pulp. A material that most major personal care companies would never consider for their premium brands.

6. Be a serial invader. Most invasive species eventually get complacent. The lesson is to continue to innovate. The soft drink industry is one of the best examples of constant package innovation. First in glass bottles, first in aluminum cans, first in plastic bottles, first in multi-packs, etc.

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About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
This entry was posted in Beauty & Personal Care, Beverages, Design Criticism, Design Practice, Environmental Packaging, Food and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Package design and the lessons of invasive species

  1. Henry King says:

    Hi Richard. I apologize that it has only taken me 15 months to find your post on package design and invasive species, but I loved your application of the model and am glad you found it useful. I have recently been thinking about developing the model further and finding your piece has given me additional motivation to do so. Thanks and best regards, Henry King

  2. Thanks Henry, Consumer product marketers and the designers that serve them tend to think of the retail environment as being completely divorced from the natural environment. This was an attempt, through your model, to demonstrate their similarities.

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