Become a boxing champ with this primer on packaging tools
Packaging design is an exciting but often daunting field that can be intimidating to get started with, but it doesn’t have to be—many designers regularly use tools that you are already familiar with to work on basic carton and box packaging. Even when designing more advanced or complicated products, it’s often a matter of having the right combination of tools, plugins and know-how to augment your existing skills.
PLANNING YOUR PROJECT
There is a range of options to draw from when it comes to guiding the construction of the final package. Some designers like to find physical packages similar to what they are working on, and then deconstruct and adapt them for their own purposes. Others utilize various free and paid online repositories of existing packaging dieline files (search “package dieline templates” or similar keywords for a host of options), or tools like www.templatemaker.nl to build custom dielines based on pre-existing templates with variable sizing.
Others work with their print vendors to explore existing and new options, searching for ways to come up with something completely unique and customized. Regardless of whether you follow the form of an existing package or create one from scratch, it’s always a good idea with complicated projects like this to engage your print vendors early, so they can offer advice on any manufacturing concerns.
DIVING INTO DESIGN
When starting out, most designers lean heavily on Adobe Illustrator or similar vector-based graphic programs for the overall assembly of their packaging files. There are two key components of typical package design files, such as those used for cardboard packaging cartons.
Dieline Layers: These are generally separate layers, placed on top of the art layers in your layer stack, that contain information about where the box will be cut and scored (folded).
Use vector strokes for these precise lines using a custom “Colour Type: Spot Color” swatch (typically named “Dieline”) so it is clear these lines are not part of the printed art and should only be used for reference when making the cutting die or applying cuts using a laser or CNC die cutter. The specific colour you select for this swatch is not going to affect the final die, so use something that contrasts with the art and is easily seen. Common choices are bright cyan or bright magenta.
Scored edges are often represented by dotted lines in the same spot colour, which is fine if you are having a traditional steel cutting-die made, but with more and more options available for digital die-cutting tools it is becoming increasingly beneficial to make a second spot-colour swatch named “Scoreline” or “Crease” in an alternate colour so that it is easy to understand visually. Place scorelines on their own layer so they can easily be turned on or off by technicians working with the files.
Art Layers: These contain the text and imagery that will be printed on the surface of the package before it is cut and folded together. You can create these as you would any other design, keeping in mind proper resolution and colour-space for your chosen method of production. One of the most important things about setting up art layers for packaging design is ensuring there is enough bleed at all edges—nothing ruins a nicely designed package like having an unplanned sliver of white paper peeking out along a seam because the design didn’t account for edge bleeds.
MOVING ON TO MOCK-UPS
Unless you have access to specialized software like Esko’s Studio packaging plugin, or the skill (and time) to convert your 2D art and dieline into a 3D rendering using CAD or 3D design software, the next step for a packaging designer that is just starting out is typically to make a physical mockup to test everything for feasibility and structure.
This can be done completely by hand, drafting a copy of your dieline onto a blank sheet of thick paper or card and then cutting, creasing and assembling the physical product to check it for form and fit. If you are not using the actual stock your final product will be printed on, remember that different stocks and substrates have different tolerances for creases and folds. What works in standard office paper may not in corrugated cardboard!
If they have the tools available, many designers will opt instead to print on a colour printer or large format plotter, including the dieline layers for ease of reference when cutting and assembling. For rapidly prototyping multiple copies, as in cases where you need to send physical samples out to various stakeholders, consider using a digital die-cutter (laser or blade varieties are available) or an all-in-one print and cutting device.
It’s important to remind those reviewing and approving the physical mock-ups that they are just that—mock-ups—and final versions may vary in more ways than just substrate, such as spot colours used in the printing instead of the CMYK process inks.
As packaging design grows as part of your service offerings, you’ll be able to save time and cost by incorporating more advanced tools into your studio, including packaging pre-visualization software and even your own package prototyping equipment. It’s not uncommon for designers to fall in love with packaging and industrial design, so taking steps to expand your skills through available courses and making your design process more efficient will lead to smoother projects, happier clients and better results!