In a perfect world, you’d like to hire a freelance or full-time graphic designer to handle your package design. But perhaps you don’t have the time to vet and onboard a designer, or perhaps, the budget is an issue. This article will serve as a startup guide to package design if you don’t have the ability or capacity to hire a professional graphic designer.

You can expect to understand the best software to use for package design, and some basic best practices for creating a quality finished good. In addition to this the article covers some tips for staying on brand, and creative digital mockups of your package.

Software Choices for Package Design

Software in the design world is a big deal. Programs offered by Adobe (the Creative Cloud), are powerful and loaded with features not typically available on other software options. But what programs are best for package design?

You may think that Photoshop is the best for this. You may also be drawn to it because it’s the cheapest single software plan offered by Adobe. Unfortunately, Photoshop is not an ideal software for things like logo design and package design. If you aren’t going to hire a designer, you need to at least put your best foot forward when it comes to software.

The ideal choice for package design software is Adobe illustrator, with Affinity Designer being in second place (first place if you are on an extreme budget, as Affinity is not a monthly subscription). Both of those software options are vector-based and can export to the same file formats (.ai .pdf .eps .svg).

Photoshop isn’t a great option for final package design because it is raster based, so the graphics can’t be scaled larger than their original size.

Vector, Raster and Resolution

I’ve just thrown around a few key words that may have you scratching your head. I’m going to go over how vector, raster and resolution work. Once you understand that, it will make more sense as to why I said Photoshop doesn’t work for package design.

Vector-based artwork is very powerful in the fact that it can be scaled infinitely without getting pixelated or losing quality. This is because vector artwork relies on key points called anchor points. It fills in colors based on the location of these key points. What that means is if you have 2 points 10 inches apart, and you have the fill color as black, it will fill everywhere between those two points with black. If you then move one of the points 10 feet away from the other point, it will still fill the distance between the two points with black without losing any quality.

Raster-based artwork (Photoshop is a raster based program. You can’t create vector artwork in Photoshop) uses little dots called pixels to fill an area with your image. Let’s imagine you have a 1 inch by 1 inch image. Inside of that image there are 100 of these tiny pixels. In a 1 inch (squared) space, you have 100 of those pixels, all crammed in and nice and small. So small that you can’t see where one pixel ends and another begins. But what happens if we Take that same image and make in 10 inches. Now those pixels have to stretch to 10 times their size to fill the area you specified. This creates the grainy or low-resolution image.

Low Resolution VS High Resolution DPI

Resolution is locked, in a manner of speaking. The ideal resolution is 300 DPI (dots per inch, or PPI for pixels per inch. This is the same thing). Notice how on the right, the image is grainy, and pixelated? I took that half of the photo and blew it up to illustrate the effect of scaling an object beyond 300 DPI. The further you go beyond that point, the worse, and more apparent the issue becomes.

If you take an image that is 5 inches by 5 inches and 300 DPI, you can use it on your package artwork at 5 inch size without worrying about image quality. However, if you stretch that image to 10 inches (double it in size), that same 300 DPI image now becomes 150 DPI. The DPI measurement is just telling you how many pixels or dots are stuffed into a square inch. In the same example, shrinking that 5 inch image down to 2.5 inches (half the size) would make the image 600 DPI. This DPI will always be tied to the image and resolution can’t be added to a photo or image.

So What is Photoshop Good For?

Nothing! Just kidding. Like I said earlier, all Adobe programs are loaded with high end features, and Photoshop is no exception. Photoshop is great for creating raster-based images to use on your package design.

You should be using photoshop to edit photos for the use on your package design file. Some examples of this are color correction, removing the backgrounds and adding special effects.

Understanding Your Dieline, and Bleed Area

So you have illustrator and you have the dieline from your packaging supplier (the vendor printing your boxes or packages). Let’s open that up in Illustrator and see how that looks, and go over some basics.

dieline example

The pink lines represent where the machine will cut the stock into the flat shape of the box. In this example above, the dashed pink lines are clearly folds, however, most dielines use cyan (light blue) colored fold lines. The crossed areas are locations for glue.

If you are having a hard time visualizing how the final product will look, you can make a personal sample of it relatively easily. First, print out two copies. Write a number or letter for each panel. On the second copy, do the same thing with the same letters in the same location.

Next, actually fold one up and tape or glue it together. This will tell you what panels on the dieline go where on the finished box. Also take note of the orientation your markers take. Some of them may now display upside down, so your artwork will need to be upside down in those areas to appear right side up. For example, the top-left-most panel in the dieline above would be an area where the artwork should be upside down.

The next thing to account for is the bleed. The bleed is extra area where designers put color to correct for the printer being slightly misaligned. For this reason, try to keep important information 0.125 inches away from the side of the dieline. To put bleeds on a dieline like this, simply extend any colors or images that touch the dieline beyond the pink line by another 0.125 inches.  

bleed example dieline 

In the image above, notice how the dark gray and pink texture goes slightly beyond the dieline. This is what it will look like if you’ve designed for your bleed area properly.

Understanding Illustrator’s Tools

The best thing you can do to understand Illustrator’s tools better is to practice. You can also look at online tutorials or more inspiration and understanding of how the software works. You should be well versed in the following tools & features before taking on a serious package design project for yourself:

●    Layers
●    Swatches / Color Selection
●    Pen Tool
●    Fill vs Stroke
●    Character / Paragraph
●    Clipping Masks
●    Links

This only scratches the surface, but taking the time to learn about those tools and panels will give you a good jumping off point.

Color Spaces & Printing

When you get your dieline from the printer, you should also find out how they like their files. Also find out if they do spot colors. You will need this information when designing your packaging.

Typically, there are a few options available to you:

1 Color
2 Color
3 Color
CMYK + Spot Colors

One, 2 and 3 color are for when you are only working with that many single Pantone colors. Any use of CYMK color mixing or an image, would require CMYK Printing. CMYK represents the 4 colors of ink that go into printers. All colors that come out of the printer are a mix of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.

Pantone colors are a special mix of inks to create a specific color. These print separate from CMYK. If your logo has PMS 265C, you would want to load that into your artwork’s swatches panel.

In some cases you will use Pantone colors as well as CMYK printing to create big multi-color jobs (could be CMYK plus 3 or 4 Pantone colors for 7 or 8 total colors). This sounds exciting, but keep the cost in mind. The more colors you’re printing, the higher the cost.

Staying on Brand When Designing Your Own Packaging

Once you have your design software down, it’s time to look at the fundamentals. Staying on brand being the most important. This is especially true if you already have a few products on the market.

The best, and easiest way to do this is take a previously created package design form your brand, and copy the elements  (logo, writing, textures etc.) over to your new dieline. Then, place the pasted elements to the same areas where they were previously, and finally resize and retype the new copy to match your new product.

You likely won’t reuse the same imagery, but try to pay attention to the target audience and overall feel of the images between products. Do they feel like the same brand?

If you don’t have previously designed packages: You’re not off the hook. It just means your job got harder. What you create now needs to set the bar for future designs. Try to emulate the look and feel of your logo, and convey the message of your mission statement through your package.

To ensure quality, create 3 different looks for your design. Then take it around to your team and get good feedback. Then, take a VERY hard look yourself and make sure you’re happy with the design. Work that was done by an ameteur usually looks like that. It’s your job to push yourself beyond your limits when designing your own packaging artwork. Go through at least 2 or three rounds of this. You will eventually get to a point where your package looks professional and ready for the market.

Creating Digital Mock-ups

Now that you have your package designed. I’ll show you how to create a digital mockup in photoshop.

Step 1: Save your design as a PDF, and open that PDF in Photoshop.
Step 2: Create a new Document (so you should have 2 windows open. Your design and a blank document).
Step 3: In your opened PDF, take the selection tool and select one panel of your box.

Step 4: Copy that panel over to your blank document. Next, use the distort tool (Edit menu > Transform > Distort). This will let you alter the perspective of your layer.
Step 5: Repeat steps 3 and 4 for each panel until no more panels would be visible in an actual photo.

Perspective tip: Typically vertical lines should stay perfectly straight. Your box can look deformed if you have leaning vertical lines.

Ultimately, choosing to do package design yourself over hiring a professional designer is your call. I recommend hiring a professional designer to help give your brand an amazing head start, and generally speaking their work will be higher quality than what a non-designer could produce. Just like how a sales manager would be a lot better at acquiring new store opportunities than a designer.