When it comes to teaching package design, one thing there is no shortage of is opinions. Design gurus will share what they believe works, what they think of as best practices, what’s cutting edge as opposed to yesterday’s creative.
But when you get to the marketplace, how much are opinions worth? At the end of the day, it’s the consumer’s opinion that counts. How is the student supposed to get exposure to that kind of knowledge?
Bringing big data to bear on student designs
Tom Newmaster, founder and partner at FORCE in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has been teaching a class in package design for the last 11 years at Pennsylvania College of Art & Design (PCA&D). The College emphasizes hands-on real-world learning to prepare students for creative careers. Each year, students are tasked with a project in which they design their own brand of potato chips—specifically the packaging and all the branding elements.
Tom partnered with research firm Designalytics to incorporate an empirically-proven method of consumer research to the project. Newmaster explains, “I had worked with the team at Designalytics on testing new packaging concepts for brands. I felt that, by including these professional researchers on student work, my class could get exposure to the kind of rigorous consumer studies that they would one day encounter in their design careers. Not only that, but going through the process of data-driven assessment encourages them to be more objective about their work. In other words, design is about more than ‘pretty pictures.’”
The potato chip packaging project is the first major assignment in the class and starts with competitive category reviews, brand/logo designs, and then moves on to creating packaging graphics that emphasize a product’s points of difference.
How the process worked:
- The class was made up of 4th-year students who, up to this point, had not been exposed to packaging and branding focused on specific consumer/shopper behaviors and category trends.
- They were shown examples of previous student work, built a mini-consumer competitive review, then began the logo design process for a brand that could compete in that specific consumer product set.
- For the first time, students had their designs evaluated with real-world research tools that are used by professional brand managers and packaging design firms.
The testing methodology and exercises were evaluated according to:
- Purchase preference
- Communication of decision-driving attributes
- Spontaneous associations
- Mental availability (via distance recognition and distinctive assets)
Measuring consumer response
Designalytics evaluates pre-market package designs for leading consumer brands using its online research technology platform. For students’ projects, the company tested the designs with more than 5,000 consumers, applying industry-level rigor to the process. The research provided an objective view of the designs’ performance across key dimensions, including overall purchase preference, ease of navigation, messaging effectiveness, consumer sentiment toward specific design elements, and more. Students received both quantitative metrics and qualitative consumer feedback to help them understand the “why” behind their designs’ performance and identify opportunities for creative refinement.
Steve Lamoureux, CEO and founder of Designalytics had this to say, “Even the largest brands struggle with subjectivity in design, often choosing creative based on personal opinion rather than objective consumer feedback—a reality that can have very negative business outcomes. It’s essential for the next generation of designers to appreciate, in a very tangible way, that their opinions will sometimes differ from those of their target audiences. Designers tend to shy away from data, so we wanted to give these students an opportunity to learn just how valuable data can be for effective design, and how to use it most strategically.”
Egos checked at the door
Feedback and comments from consumers can be brutal at times. So, students were asked to put aside their personal feelings about their work to help prepare them for the results of the research. The full report was over 190 pages and included open-ended consumer responses for likes and dislikes.
The report was reviewed via Zoom with the students, several members of the Designalytics Team, as well as representatives from PCA&D, including Pam Barby, Chair of the Graphic Design Department.
Newmaster spoke about an add-on experiment they did in conjunction with the study that proved to be interesting.
“Maranda Bressi,” he said, “a current designer at FORCE, who was a student in 2016 also participated in the potato chip research. We didn’t have a research partner 5 years ago, so we wanted to see what would happen if she took her old design and simply added her current touch, based on what she’s learned as a professional designer. She was allowed to revise the package design to work better on the retail shelf, but not allowed to completely redesign it. So, it was more evolutionary adjustments rather than a revolutionary brand redesign.”
Maranda added, “This experience was a great opportunity to evaluate my growth as a designer from college to the professional industry. When I was a student, I tended to design based on personal preferences. As I began working in the real world, I gained a better understanding for what does and doesn’t work in design. Having both my old and new chip bag designs go into testing helped me gain a better idea of my evolution as a designer.”
The research showed a 20%+ improvement in all category drivers, as well as an overall consumer preference improvement from 29% to 71%. What better proof of the pure power of design when matched with consumer research?
Says Newmaster, “I believe the perspective that students gain from this kind of professional study will give them a competitive advantage. It’s not the type of collaboration that you see often, so we’re pleased to be a pioneer in this approach.”
Michael Molla, president of Pennsylvania College of Art & Design, notes that such partnerships between professional working faculty and cutting-edge industry leaders in experiential learning creates opportunities for students to innovate, to think entrepreneurially, and to make an impact as soon as they enter the creative workforce. He says, “It’s artists and designers who can see, and shape, our future.”