The world of business is competitive and unrelenting ! Brands spend millions on R&D and take years to develop, market and sell their products. But customers, on the other hand, make split second decisions to buy a product from the shelf !

Prachi Shah, our next pathbreaker, Product & Packaging Designer, works with various brands to come up with creative, logical and sustainable product packaging solutions to increase their sale and market value, revamp the entire outlook of the brand, improve customer experience and help their products stand out from competition.

Prachi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being curious about the role of packaging in the journey of a product which led her to a 6 month exchange program in Paris, and being convinced about taking up a career in Product Packaging design.

For students, the first impression is the best impression. If you believe you have it in you to tap into the consumer’s subconscious desires to create a powerful perception, then packaging design is the career for you !

Prachi, tell us about Your background?

I was born in Mumbai, but later moved to Pune at the tender age of 4 and did my entire schooling and college there. My dad is an Automobile Engineer and my mom is an English Professor. You can thus say that I am an amalgamation of arts and science! I spent most of my childhood with colours and paints and would draw and scribble for hours. Craft activities like beadwork, needle work, origami or making something new from materials always caught my attention and formed an integral part of my extra curricular activities even at school. Being someone who excelled both at studies and sports, Art was something that always connected with me the most. I am a trained Bharatnatyam dancer, again a form of art, which not only helped in moulding my personality, but also made me a sharp listener and a focused student.           

I always enjoyed the idea of putting my imagination into creating something new that not just looked beautiful but was also meaningful and useful. It was probably in the 8th grade when I realised that I wanted to convert my hobby into my career and started my research on various career options under art and architecture. Design is a field that requires both creativity as well as logic and reasoning, so it fit perfectly under my list of career options. In order to get better guidance for this career option, I happened to join Silica after 10th std, where we were trained for various design modules as well as design entrance exams. I took up Science in 11th and 12th only to support my back up plan of Architecture (which wasn’t needed but i wanted to play it safe) and I am glad I did so as it helped me a lot when I took up Product Design as my discipline under graduation. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I completed my graduation in Product Design from the MIT Institute of Design in Pune. It was a 4.5 year course then, which included a 6 month compulsory internship upon completion of 4 years of the curriculum. It is amongst the most renowned design colleges of India and I was thrilled when I got my admission here. The first year in design is common for every student, and one gets to choose their discipline in their second year. I was already sure of taking product design as it was more consumer centric and would help me understand and resolve problems that each one of us faces with thousands of products that we use in our daily life.

Alongside this, I also completed my Bachelor’s Degree in Literature from the University of Pune.

During my 4 year course at MIT, I got an opportunity to go for a 6 months exchange program at Strate Ecole De Design in Paris. We had the option of choosing Product Design, Packaging Design or User Experience Design for these 6 months. Since I was already pursuing product design at MIT, I wanted to learn something new and chose Packaging Design. Those 6 months of hands-on experience with packaging for live projects as well as interesting classroom projects gave me a completely new outlook towards design, and thereafter I decided to focus on Packaging design as my niche under Product Design.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Firstly, Product Packaging is extremely important as it protects what’s inside, allows for easy storage, displays information about the product, catches the attention of customers when displayed on a shelf and also helps brands to differentiate their products from their competitors.  As product design students, we always focused on the aesthetics and functions of the product that consumers would buy but never understood the role of packaging in the product journey. It was in the 3rd year of college that we had a course on packaging design and that was the starting point of my journey as a packaging designer. During my early years I instantly recognised the value of packaging as a crucial marketing tool. The 6 months exchange program at Paris was a turning point and the fact that we learnt so much about packaging in depth, convinced me to take this forward. During my stay, we attended some exhibitions where students and firms from all over Europe displayed and showcased their extensive and innovative projects under packaging design. It was very inspiring to see some extraordinary work in this field. I also happened to design some packaging solutions for live projects, as well as participated in a sustainable Packaging competition at Strate.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

My first internship as a packaging designer was at DYWorks in Mumbai for two months. I not only got to work on some great projects but also built a good set of contacts through constant interactions and market studies. I worked on packaging solutions for brands like D’Decor, Titan Skinn, soap brands, Astra adhesives, food packaging for Haldiram’s, Bustaan, Foodhall etc. Working on a plethora of Indian brands helped me understand the Indian consumer and the market for packaging in depth and detail.

During my Exchange program in Paris, I had the opportunity to be a part of global design expos, which exposed me and allowed me to network with the best stakeholders in the packaging industry worldwide. I also spent my weekends travelling to the interiors of the city and explored the perfume industry in Paris and personal care markets, the exquisite food outlets especially for desserts and confectionary products. The approach towards design in India and Europe is completely different as the European markets are aesthetics driven and mostly cater to premium quality and categories of products. Indian markets are more inclined towards affordability and accessibility of goods.

My second internship after completion of 4 years at MIT, was at StudioKD in Mumbai (now Kanchize Design Studio). This internship is compulsory as the graduation project for design is worked upon and completed at an industry level during this period. I primarily worked on the structure and packaging of beauty and personal care brands. My graduation project revolved around creating a new range of packaging for Lotus Herbals. This included the new form and structure of lotion bottles with and without a pump system, tube formats and the primary display panel details. 

It was during this period that I got some amazing insights about the beauty and personal care industry in India, interviewed users, explored the niche markets as well as retail stores to understand the high levels of competition in this category. I also worked for some brands under Hindustan Unilever, like Ponds, Axe, Dove, Liril, Camay. Getting hands on experience in this market really inspired me to explore my horizons in the beauty industry, and this transformed into reality when I got accepted as a full time Innovation Packaging designer at L’Oreal, my very first job, in Mumbai.

How did you get your first break?

When we were applying for our 6 month internships, L’Oreal had approached our college to hire interns. Although, I missed that opportunity i had decided that I wanted to work there someday. 

After graduating in March 2018, I took a short break to rejuvenate and get back all the energies to start afresh in the industry. I had planned a month long vacation in May, hence I decided to start applying for a job so as to begin by June end at-least. As I already knew about L’Oreal approaching the college previously, I contacted the placement cell and they connected me with the right person and that’s how I got to know that there was a requirement and they wanted someone to join the team from the 1st week of July. After this, there was no looking back. I sent my portfolio and CV and got shortlisted for the next round. I was also given a short project to work on for a week, post which I got a call for an interview. I had to give it online as I was already on my trip and 12 hours behind IST. It was my very first interview and to my surprise, it went extremely well. I was hoping to hear from them soon. So in the first week of June, while I was cruising and had no network, I was already chosen for the HR interview, which I later got to know upon coming back on the network. The HR interview was scheduled on the same morning of the day when I was flying back to India. After returning, I didn’t hear from them for a good 10 days. As I had to keep my options open, I started to look for other companies, and the very same day I got a call from my college, congratulating me for getting the job at L’Oreal and thereafter, I also received a call from the HR as well as my would-be team members. It was exciting and my happiness knew no bounds since I got accepted at the very first company I applied to. Determination and hard work always take you where you want to be. 

I began working at L’Oreal in the first week of July 2018. It was just me and my colleague who were a part of the design team in the whole of India, which was challenging but enthralling. We worked together on innovative packaging solutions for makeup, skincare, hair color and hair care, for brands like Maybelline, Garnier and L’Oreal Paris, specifically catering to the Indian and south east Asian markets. 

I have also been a freelancer for specific healthcare based projects, mainly catering to secondary packaging solutions of kits and equipment. For healthcare, there are some set guidelines that have to be followed in terms of the information displayed on the outer boxes, particular colors that communicate certain messages, symbols and icons about health, safety, usage and hazards. Color coding is an important aspect of packaging when it comes to healthcare and pharmaceutical products. These color codes help druggists and chemists identify the correct medicine before handing it out to the consumer. Another crucial factor is to not only to keep the secondary packaging very simple in its form and structure but also to ensure that it is durable and sturdy as products are stocked and stacked for a longer period of time. So it is important to ensure the safety of the products kept inside it. Detailed labelling on containers and boxes is imperative. As compared to the packaging in the beauty industry which tends to attract and appeal to the consumers due to its colors and premium qualities, the packaging in healthcare revolves more around ensuring protection, preventing contamination, storing and stability and displaying the right information. 

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

I spent the first few months at L’Oreal trying to understand the market, the consumer and their needs and also got trained to operate and interact with all the key counterparts for the various projects. Since I worked under innovation, we sometimes had to come up with design solutions that were not the need of the market at that point, but could be pitched to brands in the event of a sudden change in scope and requirement in the years to come. I faced a varied number of challenges as a designer.

Challenge 1: Formulation-Driven Packaging: 

My team worked out of the R&D centre of L’Oreal in Mumbai, for the sole reason that we could constantly be in touch with the innovations that came from the formulation teams and scientists, to study and understand the way their formulations performed with our packaging solutions and designs. A lot of research went into identifying the correct materials as well as the type of dispensing systems which could sustain and suit the product that would go inside it, without losing the functionality as well as maintaining its purpose. Trial and errors were a daily routine, whether it was 3D modelling, 3D printing, creating rendered images or putting the idea from a concept stage to reality. Being a people’s person, I started interacting a lot with the formulators and was blown away by the knowledge they possessed and incorporated into the lovely products that we use everyday; creams, lotions, hair colors, lipsticks, foundation, shampoos etc. These interactions helped me understand their targets and goals better, which indirectly helped me to set and work upon mine. With every new packaging solution that was worked upon for a particular formula, it had to be tested with consumers in an elaborate manner and these insights were the key factors behind the improvisations and developments on the design structure and its performance.

Challenge 2: Sustainability

With the entire world moving forward on the path of sustainability, global retail brands like L’Oreal have to be at the forefront. A lot of products which had single use plastics were relaunched into the market with alternative recyclable materials, eg, Face wash tubes  that were earlier sold in a plastic flow wrap, are now sold as it is  by completely eradicating the need of a secondary packaging.  Certain types of plastics which are specifically used in the beauty industry, like ABS, were banned by the company and so it became mandatory for us to find alternative solutions. With a drastic change in material the desired results weren’t achieved in the very first go, but after months and months of explorations and manufacturing expertise, I did see myself and the team meet the requirements. I also worked on a lot of projects that focused on the shift of materials from plastic to recycled paper. Refillable solutions, Dual and multi packs were some of the ways by which the overall consumption of plastic could be reduced. It’s just not about replacing plastic with a sustainable material, but it’s also about replacing it with a material that leaves a lesser carbon footprint on the planet, and has the necessary technologies for manufacturing and disposal.

Challenge 3: cost-effective packaging

The Indian as well as South Asian markets are price-sensitive and thus coming up with affordable packaging solutions formed the core of all the other challenges that I faced. Despite coming up with some brilliant innovative ideas and solutions, a lot of times these only remained till the conceptual phase as they turned out to be extremely expensive after the cost analysis was done.Transforming complex mechanisms to simple ones, changing the thickness of materials, adding refillable and stackable options to combine multiple products into 1 product were some of the ways by which we could achieve the desired price range of the packaging solutions. Coming up with a completely different format of packaging for an existing product also brought about a vast difference in the costs, making the overall product affordable in the market. Pricing is also necessary to compete with the other brands in these markets, because a slight reduction in price without altering the performance of the product brought about great sales for the brand. This can be achieved by exploring various angles of packaging for that particular product. eg: The Maybelline Foundation that cost 500 Rs in a glass jar, cost much lesser when it was launched in the tube format, and now it also comes in a sachet which is affordable for occasional users and first time users. 

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do currently?

I left L’Oreal after working for 2.5 years and then decided to start on my own, firstly as a full time freelancer, and eventually have my own design studio. I was already working as a freelancer alongside my internships and job for a good 3 years and built an impressive set of contacts and clients, but was never able to take up more work due to the time crunch and lack of resources. 

I have been freelancing full time now and have a good and continuous flow of projects and work for various brands and companies and cater to all their packaging and product design needs. I wanted to work independently so that I am not focused on only one segment of the market, and get to explore various packaging innovations in different areas. The goal is to come up with creative and logical product and packaging design solutions to increase the sale and market value, revamp the entire outlook of the brands, improve customer experience and journey and also launch something new and promising.

Skills: As a designer, a good and elaborate set of skills will always prove to be beneficial. Loads of sketching and rendering techniques, a good sense of aesthetics, market study and research, consumer interaction and feedback, 3d modelling and CAD are some of the basic skill sets that one needs to function well as a designer. The most common software applications that are required are Solidworks, Rhino or Fusion 360 for the 3d modelling and Keyshot or Blender for rendering. Knowledge of Photo editing software like Photoshop and graphic software like Illustrator is a must. One also needs to have a good understanding of manufacturing and printing processes as it’s a prerequisite for creating feasible designs for product and packaging.

Given the fact that I am the whole and sole person responsible for the entire project, time management, spontaneity and finesse are also crucial and important to build a good business and grow it. Before starting out as a full time freelancer, I did a few courses on business, marketing and time management on Udemy and it indeed helped me a lot with my work. No matter how effective your design is, if you cannot translate the design through good communication, then you probably won’t get the project. There’s as much sales in design as anywhere else. 

Typical Day : A typical day in the life of a freelancer starts with attending client calls, taking feedback and understanding new briefs, discussing materials and processes involved ,working on design concepts and improvisations. Referencing and ideating is mandatory! I also reach out and connect with more people in the industry, write emails, work on the entire accounting and billing process upon completion of projects, and also take some good breaks in between to maintain a balance between work and life! Since we are in the post Covid-19 period, a face-to face meeting is sometimes impossible, so attending Skype and Zoom calls has become a part of my routine. Some clients are not in India, so adjusting work hours with the time difference can be tough.

I now work on Saturdays too, which was not the case earlier as it was a holiday. Taking leaves and breaks can sometimes be challenging as a lot of work piles up and deadlines get pushed forward. 

What I love about this way of working: The entire process of design starting from brainstorming with clients, understanding each and every perspective and then coming up with a solution is a challenging yet rewarding task. Each new project is exciting and varied. So is the freedom of choosing what project I want to work on! This gives me the liberty to take up less work when I’m looking for a break or vacation and then come back afresh to challenge myself with multiple projects. I also love the fact that I get to interact with so many people in the industry who reach out to me with some amazing and unique projects which not only help me to build my skills in that direction but also add to my portfolio of capabilities and accomplishments. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Design as a field is the need of the hour. It helps us engage, it keeps us connected to the world, it helps us navigate our way through physical and digital spaces.

Packaging Design can be a powerful marketing tool right from  tapping into the consumer’s subconscious desires to offering value added functionality. You may not realise, but we consumers take around 5-7 seconds to make a purchase decision in-store. And on the average supermarket trip, we can be exposed to over 40,000 different products all vying for our attention. That’s a lot of messaging.

To help their products stand out on the shelf, packaging designers can help brands use attention-grabbing colours, an array of convenience features and also play with motivational triggers. Why?   Because packaging can be the difference between a sale or no sale. 

Some key factors that prove why packaging design is crucial to the success of a product are:

  • Almost a third of product decision-making is based on packaging alone.
  • More than 70% of purchasing decisions are made in-store.
  • It’s not just important to capture the consumer’s attention but to provide functional and protective packaging that serves its purpose. 
  • Not only does quality packaging impact consumer opinion but efficient packaging can deliver tangible cost savings. 
  • According to research packaging drives purchase more than other forms of marketing such as TV, Radio and online reviews
  • Most consumers say they have tried a new product only because of its packaging. Online shoppers say they would shop again from a business if it included premium packaging.
  • Businesses have reported a 30% increase in consumer interest when those businesses show a strong attention to a packaging
  • The new generations always share an image of product packaging through social media. This can influence peers and increase brand exposure in the millennial markets.

Thus a packaging designer can play an essential role not just for creativity but also bring about a major difference in the marketing and sales of a product because of its packaging design. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

As a part of my freelancing project, I recently worked on the packaging solutions for a food brand in Pune. This included dry food snacks, powders and masalas as well as ready to cook food packs. Since it is a startup, creating something distinguishing yet attractive was challenging. Hours were spent only on designing the form and shape of the packs as they had to look completely different on retail shelves as compared to their competitor brand products. After finalising the structure, coming up with subtle and minimalistic graphics was necessary in order to make it look premium despite being a new brand in the market. A lot of thought was put into the materials of the pack as I wanted to come up with designs that didn’t have much use of plastics and containers, but yet had a good functionality for dispensing and pouring. I am also working on a new set of packaging solutions for the same company where the focus is to explore various opening and closing gestures of certain food packages. Creating unique packaging for common products is what I love the most about my work.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Give yourself time! Take as much time as you need to explore what you’re good at and then decide how you wish to take it forward. Do not let others influence your decision on how you want to plan your career. Listening to your intuition will always lead you in the right direction, even though it may have hurdles and difficulties. Never stop learning! Remain a learner all your life as it always keeps you grounded, a trait that each one of us should have in order to become successful in all our endeavours. 

Future Plans?

I look forward to transforming my freelancing career into building my own design studio, expanding it by having a good team of designers and interns and thereafter taking up more challenging work and long term projects and creating something lasting in the field of packaging. I