Initial thoughts on packaging design brief

16Oct07

At this stage I am a little unsure as to how to go forward with this project. I always find it a little difficult to choose a starting point when the initial brief (packaging) is so broadly defined. I guess I’ll just have to put a stake in the ground somewhere, and go from there.

But while I pace around with the stake in my hand, looking for an appropriate spot, I am doing background research until I find something that sparks my interest.

My initial direction (or interest) was to explore biodegradable packaging materials. I have a major issue with single use items like meat packaging, coffee cups, food-court trays and so forth. Stuff that gets used once, for less than a week, and then tossed. (And I have a problem with dog poo too. Where do all those beautifully sealed little plastic bag turd packages end up? But that I suspect is the topic of another investigation…)

Anyhow, meat packaging doesn’t offer much from a design perspective. All that really needs to happen is that the material needs to change from styrene-based foam to a biodegradable plastic such as PLA (more on that later) or to a more durable container that can be re-used for other purposes after its meat packaging duty.

On the topic of PLA (Poly Lactic Acid), I went to a company in East Tamaki today to get hold of samples of PLA to use for vacuumforming. The samples are being couriered to me, and should arrive in the next week. Hopefully there will be enough for a few people in the class to experiment with it.

The PLA is Natureworks PLA, imported from the U.S. The material is imported as granules and made into sheets in a range of thicknesses on site. It ends up being around double the price of PET for packaging trays like biscuit trays and punnets for sprouts, strawberries etc. So clearly the customer needs to be willing to put their money where their mouth is to use it, or be serving a segment of the market where environmental concerns are a driver of consumer choice, e.g. organic bean sprouts.

When I chatted with the operations manager about biodegradability and yellowing with age, he said they’d had a piece strapped to the fence outside the factory for two years and it hadn’t changed at all. It seems there are some serious misconceptions about the biodegradability of PLA. From what I have read (see later post with PLA articles) it takes 10 days under conditions of very high temperature in specialist industrial composting facilities. Most people seem to be under the impression that you can just toss it onto your compost and it’ll be gone in a few days. Not so.

Where am I going with this? Not sure. To me, it seems there are only two places to be on the spectrum of packaging longevity, and no room in between: either change the material to be biodegradable, or change the material so that it will last longer. If you go with the last longer approach, then you need to think about what it is going to be used for in its second (post-initial use) life and how you can design the object to appeal to consumers. If you go with the former, then perhaps you should hint at its biodegradability through its form or the use of graphics.

 The example that springs to mind for the last longer approach is one that Donald Norman gives in his book on Emotional Design, about three water bottles with different shapes. The one with a beautiful/sexy shape, is the one that people keep, and re-use. (Listen to the Don Norman podcast that Nick put up on blackboard, he mentions it in there. Even better, read the book.)

In short, make it look like what its going to do: succumb to time, or be timeless. More on this line of thinking at a later stage.

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