Food In Canada

Recipe to Retail: Unique challenges of packaging design

By Birgit Blain   

Packaging Editor pick food packaging

Photo © rh2010/Adobe Stock

When surveying food stores, I often see packaging graphic designs that miss the mark. It is important to understand packaging is more than a pretty face. As the primary communication vehicle for brands at the point of purchase, it must convey key information and have visual impact.

Do you assume any graphic designer has the knowhow to design a food package? Here’s why that is not the case.

Food package graphic design demands expertise. Graphic design is a profession with many disciplines and food packaging is one area that demands special expertise. Numerous factors unique to packaging put graphic designers to the test.

Health Canada regulations dictate mandatory information, placement and formatting for food labels. A designer with knowledge of the requirements for presentation of information can prevent costly mistakes. A regulatory specialist should still be consulted to ensure packaging is compliant with regulations.


Space constraints
Real estate on packaging is very limited, yet marketers love to cram in as much information as possible. Regulatory requirements and Canada’s bilingual labelling further complicate the process.

The challenge is to fit in a plethora of text and graphic elements, and clearly present dual language information while creating a legible, impactful package that doesn’t look cluttered. Experienced package designers have the talent and skills to manipulate numerous visual elements and fonts to accommodate an inordinate amount of information without overcrowding.

3D nature of packaging
Graphic designers typically work in two dimensions, but packaging has a third dimension that must be designed around.

Instore display
Brands have no control over instore merchandising, shelf placement and number of facings. Food retailers use various merchandising strategies in planograms that impact how brands present on shelf.
An inexperienced designer may assume brands are blocked within the set. More commonly a product range is split up and merchandised according to category, segment, flavour or size, and with prime eye-level slots are typically allocated to store brands and multinationals, other brands can end up on the top or bottom shelf.

Stores use a variety of fixtures—shelving, wire racks, pegboard, bins, bunkers and coolers with glass doors—that affect how products are displayed. Shelf dimensions and spacing, and lighting also play a part in product visibility.

It’s important to understand instore merchandising and how a product stacks up on shelf. Effective package design takes these variables into consideration.

Variety differentiation
Deciphering a category set can be mind boggling for shoppers. How do you differentiate multiple skus in a way that consumers will grasp quickly? Making it easy for them to find the brand and flavour they want in a sea of competitors will capture sales.

Technical aspects
Packaging requires a variety of substrates and printing processes, each with their own tolerances. Depending on colour specifications, printing processes, equipment, press speed, inks, coatings, laminations and other variables it can lead to undesirable results. This includes poor resolution, inaccurate colour reproduction and registration, inadequate legibility and an inferior end product.

Colour selection can drive up the cost of packaging. A designer who knows how to work with colour and printing systems can specify colours to keep packaging costs in line.

Understanding the limitations of print processes and building artwork accordingly, within dieline limitations and printer specifications, can help to mitigate quality issues and manage costs.

Brand owners don’t always hire the right pro for the job. Perhaps it’s to save money or because they don’t understand the complexities of the work. Hiring an experienced package designer can optimize the quality of packaging and save rework, time and money. In short, it’s a good spend.

As CPG food consultants, Birgit Blain and her team transform food into retail-ready products. Her experience includes 17 years with Loblaw Brands and President’s Choice. Contact her at or learn more at

This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue of Food in Canada

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