The Package Design to Print Process
This is a comprehensive guide to the 6 steps of the packaging design to print process.
It covers all the fundamental knowledge marketers need for better packaging. We've also included tips for success along the way, and a glossary of terms at the end.
The 6 steps of the packaging process we will be covering in this guide:
1. Master Design
It’s so important to get things right from the beginning.
Step 1 is
You may think, hey, easy! I’ll just tell my design agency what I need, and they’ll come back to me with some beautiful packaging designs to choose from.
Unfortunately, there’s more to the master packaging design than the fun design part. Step 1 has three essential actions, and each has a serious stake in the success of your project.
THE THREE ACTIONS WE’LL GO OVER ARE:
Action 1_ Writing the design brief
Action 2_ Reviewing and approving the packaging concepts
Action 3_ Creating a project plan
Writing the design brief
Great packaging is critical to the success of your brand, and all great packaging starts with a great design brief. All design decisions will stem from this document, so it’s essential that you know what you need and get all the details right. Here's what you need to include in the brief for your agency:
1) Add the relevant strategic details for your new packaging project.
- Are you trying to increase sales or increase awareness?
- Are you updating an existing packaging range, launching new products, or applying a complete brand redesign to the product range?
Target audience – Include any customer research that you have conducted:
- What are the demographics and psychographics of your target audiences, such as age, income, geographic location, personality traits, interests and
- What is it that motivates the target consumer to purchase this category of product?
What’s the brand or product positioning?
- What’s your unique selling proposition (USP)? What makes your product appealing to your target audience, and why is this unique in the market?
What emotions should it evoke in
- What is the change in behaviour, attitude, or feelings that you need to achieve?
- What are the competitors doing in this category? What is their product positioning? Provide examples of their packaging.
Examples of packaging that you like or don’t like.
- What are the elements or design features that appeal to you and why?
2) Add specific packaging requirements.
If this is a complete brand redesign or new product range, then you may not have some of this information yet. Make sure to work with your design agency and printing production partners to finalise the details.
What are the critical elements of the branding that need to be incorporated into the packaging design?
- Brand colours, Pantone colours, fonts, graphics, imagery, logos
- What are the design elements that need to be consistent across all product variations and why? For example, a woodgrain effect must be in each package design, as this helps to create the perception of a rustic, authentic food product.
- Specifying the design elements that must be the same across all designs is an essential technique to ensure colour and brand consistency across your product range when printed.
- What is the goal of the packaging, e.g. prevent food spoiling, protect from impact etc.
Production and Manufacturing Details
- Where will the packaging be produced?
- What print presses and image carrier will be used?
- What is the substrate or packaging material of the new package?
isthe size, dimensions, and shape?
- What information does the package need to contain? See Step 2 Pack Copy Validation for more detail.
What needs to be delivered and when?
- File type (PDF, Adobe Illustrator)
Specificform, e.g. mounted board, prototypes/ mockups, 3D digital renders
Download our FREE DESIGN BRIEF TEMPLATE to write a clear brief for your creative agency.
Reviewing and approving the packaging design concepts
Once you’ve briefed the branding design agency, they will develop the master packaging concepts, translating your brand goals and vision into the right packaging design.
You’ll need to make sure that the chosen design is a viable option.
Does the design meet your objectives?
It’s a good idea to go back to the initial design brief and make sure that the design meets your initial objectives. Sometimes design components are left out or overlooked.
Can the design be printed?
When you review the packaging design concepts, it’s essential to determine whether the designs can be printed. Some designs look great on screen, but less so in print.
We recommend including your prepress and print partners in preproduction meetings with your design agency.
Here's a list of questions that your print partner can help you answer at this stage:
- Can the design concept be replicated on the press?
- What are the potential issues with printing the design, and what are the recommended solutions
- How will the chosen packaging material (substrate) affect the outcome?
- What is the colour strategy? That is, how many and what type of colours (CMYK vs Pantone) are needed to deliver the design concept?
- Which printing approach will achieve the best result
- What are the projected printing costs for the chosen design?
- How can the existing design-to-print process be streamlined to improve the speed of delivery and reduce costs?
Devising a colour and print strategy at this stage is an essential technique to ensure colour consistency across your product range when printed.
Is the final packaging design concept approved?
Involve the right stakeholders now for master concept sign-off and prevent costly changes downstream.
Finalise the project plan
Now’s the time to complete a design to print
If you don’t already have a plan, then your prepress or print partner can help you pull it together, ensuring the project remains on track, without blowing deadlines and budgets. Here are some key things to include.
General Project Information
- Project scope
- Detailed budget
- Project timeline
- Key internal and external stakeholders
Critical milestones and deadlines for each project phase
- Master design sign off
- Pack copy validation
- Artwork rollout
- Delivery to
If you have the resources, you may wish to assign a dedicated project manager to manage the process for you. Alternatively, your print production partner may even be able to provide a project management resource for the project.
Make sure you don't make these 3 common mistakes during master packaging design.
2. Pack Copy
The time to validate pack copy can seem counterintuitive. Knowing when and how you should collect it, and who should approve it, is key to your project being on time and budget.
THE THREE PARTS WE’LL GO OVER ARE:
Part 1_ When to start the pack copy
Part 2_ Collecting it and putting it in one place
Part 3_ Getting the final approval
When to start the pack copy
Hopefully the development of your pack copy and technical data is well underway.
It can be tempting to want to speed up the process and jump ahead from master design straight to artwork rollout without having all the pack copy finalised.
But when you use placeholders instead of final pack copy, the process slows down and ends up costing more money. We've seen this happen countless times.
Having a designer update packaging text in the artwork rollout phase is really expensive - no matter how small the change is. Each change will require another round of corrections and can postpone artwork approval.
We recommend finalising pack copy during master concept design and before any artwork rollout begins.
Collect the pack copy and put it in one place
You’ll need to coordinate with the relevant people across several departments - including legal, compliance, packaging, NPD and marketing.
Having all your pack copy collated into a single file will speed up the approvals process. You can also use approval workflow software to help you with this process - each stakeholder can log-in and input their piece of information into a single location.
Collect all the necessary information such as:
- Title_ Name of product.
- Product descriptor_ Flavour, variety etc.
- Romance copy_ This short copy describes what the product is, what it does, how the consumer can use it.
- Size_ Net weight.
- Ingredients_ List of ingredients in the correct order.
- Nutritionals_ Information on the average amount of energy, protein, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate, sugars and sodium in the food.
- Cooking and storage instructions
- Contact details and addresses
- Recycling info
- Legal or regulatory information_ Such as country of origin labelling.
- Recipes_ Any recipes to include on the package
- Material or item code_ This is a code specific to your business to identify the packaging
- Claims + Daily Intake Thumbnails
- Translations_ If you need to translate the information above into other languages, then now is the time to finalise this as well.
Get the final approval
Identify the stakeholders that need final sign-off of the pack copy. Uploading the pack copy file to an approvals management software will make collecting and collating comments much simpler.
Once you’ve collected feedback from the stakeholders, you can make the necessary changes and obtain final approval.
Remember: Make sure that the final pack copy is signed off by all relevant stakeholders before moving forward to artwork rollout.
If you follow our advice for pack copy validation, artwork rollout will run smoothly, without delays or budget blowouts.
So you've approved the master design and validated the pack copy.
Now it's time to apply your master packaging design to the SKUs, which are the different packaging formats and product types that make up your product range.
Artwork rollout should be done by a technical designer with an eye for detail and a specialised understanding of applying a design to packaging formats.
THE FIVE PARTS WE’LL GO OVER ARE:
Part 1_ Artwork file setup
Part 2_ Final content and layout
Part 3_ Other technical design tasks
Part 4_ Using 3D designs and mockups
Part 5_ Stakeholder approvals
Artwork file setup.
A technical designer will turn the design concept into packaging reality.
Starting from the packaging specifications, the designer will set up a production file complete with dielines.
The dieline is the template for the package - it shows all the cut lines, panels and folds in flattened form.
Getting the dielines right is key to successful printing. It’s essential that they show:
- Correct scale (100%) with dimensions
- Cut and fold lines
- Print to cut requirements
- Seal and gussets
- Best before / date coding areas
- Optimum barcode positioning
- Eyemarks - the printed rectangular mark that identifies a point where a package needs to be cut and for alignment of the package panels.
Example of packaging dieline.
Example of eyemarks.
The final content goes in, and the layout is finished.
Designing with the final, approved pack copy and master packaging concept prevents costly reworks down the line.
A technical designer takes the master design, the validated pack copy and design assets and lays them out in the file. The artwork layout contains the original copy, fonts, photos and illustrations intended for printing.
The technical designer finishes the artwork by placing the design elements within the dielines on on each panel. They also create the unique design elements for each package or SKU.
The designer should double check the sizing and placement of design elements, making sure that they are correct and consistent across all products in the range.
Example of artwork rollout.
Other technical design tasks.
Technical artwork elements, including correct colour mapping and eye-marks, can also be done at this stage (usually by a specialist artwork rollout agency with the necessary prepress and printing knowledge).
Using the correct colours in the rollout designs can speed up the approvals process, saving time and money down the line.
We recommend that artwork and prepress files are created using the most up-to-date print press profiles. This is an essential technique to ensure colour consistency across your product range when printed.
Ensure your artwork supplier customises all artwork files for each print press being used.
The artwork at this stage includes barcodes. It’s essential that they’re applied in the correct colour to ensure they scan properly.
Barcodes that are incorrectly applied cause costly changes down the line. For more information on creating barcodes, go to the GS1 website.
Using Mockups and 3D Renders.
Sometimes it’s difficult to get a feel for a new packaging design’s shelf appeal. It’s essential to finalise the designs at this stage, before going to print, when changes drive up project costs and delays.
Testing out designs first with colour accurate 3D renders and mockups is a great way to ensure colour and brand consistency across your product range when printed.
If you have some different items in a product range and you want to test out how they look together and see them on a real shelf, colour-accurate mockups are the way to go.
A good print production partner should be able to create mockups that are truly representative, and printed on the actual packaging material with real print effects.
3D rendering is a great way to view your package from all angles and help make design decisions. You can use them to ensure all elements are positioned correctly on the new packaging design and correct the alignment of front and back packet.
They can also give you an idea of how folds in the flexible packaging will alter how the design looks.
Example of 3D renders
Stakeholders approve each SKU before moving forward.
Once each of your SKUs are laid out, it’s time to get them signed off by the stakeholders.
Coordinating and collating comments from a bunch of different people can be challenging. Marketing managers can make this process easier by using an approvals management software that allows stakeholders comments to be automatically collated in a single document.
The approvals process can be managed by the brand manager, or by a dedicated project manager assigned by your print production partner. An outside resource can be helpful to keep things moving and avoid bottlenecks.
Avoid the packaging design rollout and artwork errors that can hurt product sales and profits.
In prepress, don’t be fooled by a lack of visual evolution.
While it might not look like much is happening from the outside, there are lots of processes going on behind the scenes.
Prepress is all about getting a design layout ready for final printing. The approved artwork file is reprocessed and prepared to be printed.
It’s a highly technical and mechanical process, and its correct execution is critical to ensure a good print quality.
It’s essential to have a properly trained person with knowledge of the print presses being used to prepare the prepress file. If the file isn’t set up correctly, your final print quality will be severely impacted.
Prepress mistakes can cost you big down the line. Going back to fix the issues when you’re on press can drive up costs and cause significant delay.
PREPRESS FOCUSSES ON FOUR MAIN AREAS:
Part 1_ Ensuring the colour comes out exactly as expected
Part 2_ Applying press profiles
Part 3_ Preventing registration errors
Part 4_ Flight checks
Ensuring the colour comes out exactly as expected.
On a printing press, each single colour layer gets printed separately, one on top of the other, to give the impression of infinite colours.
A printing press requires a custom plate for each colour used to transfer the design to the packaging material.
Designs therefore need to be separated into the four primary ink colours (CMKY) to be printed using the four-colour process method. This is called colour separation. It’s essential that the colours are divided correctly to ensure that the final packaging looks clean and crisp.
It’s also common to do additional touchups to image files at this stage to ensure the colours come out right on the press.
Example of colour separation
Press profiles are applied
(If this wasn't done during artwork rollout).
Every press prints differently. In fact, you could send the same printing plate to two different presses and get a wildly different result.
Each press has its fingerprint or DNA - this is called the press profile. These specify the printing characteristics of the press. Using the current press profile is the only way to guarantee that the files will print accurately.
A prepress technician collects the current profile from each press. Then they use this information to customise every document to account for each press’s tolerances and deviations.
This process ensures consistency of colours printed on the packaging no matter which press is used.
Preventing registration errors.
Since the offset printing process prints different parts of the same image one on top of the other, it’s essential that the prints overlap in the right place.
In print lingo, we call the correct overlapping “registration”. So when images come out fuzzy or blurred, they are “out of register”.
Small variations and shifts of the packaging material happen. While half a millimetre might seem not seem like a measurement the naked eye can pick up on, when it comes to colour overlaps, it is.
A prepress technician takes the necessary precautions to prevent these registration errors from being noticeable. They do this by adding wiggle room in the form of keylines and trappings.
Example of Trapping and Registration: Misregistration with no trap (left) and with trap (right)
Registration marks are also added to the files to help the printer align the plates for multiple colour print jobs.
To ensure a high-quality print, a technician will make sure the file is ready for press.
Once the file is ready, the technician will perform a comprehensive pre-flight check which identifies any potential issues or errors.
The technician will make all necessary corrections to guarantee a successful print run.
Colour is a tricky thing.
It can look one way when viewed on screen, and quite different when printed at full size on the final packaging material.
During a project, you might provide your proofer with an existing package or a PMS colour swatch as a colour reference. We call this sample the “colour target” - it’s what you expect the colour to look like when printed.
The proofer will make sure the packaging meets the colour target by creating a hard copy proof from the prepress file.
The hardcopy colour proof is the closest visual representation of how the colours will look in the final printed packaging.
This hard copy proof ensures that your final print will come out exactly as planned.
TWO THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THE HARD COPY PROOF:
Thing 1_ It’s the closest possible preview
Thing 2_ The colors are guaranteed on press
The hardcopy proof is the closest possible preview of how your final packaging will look.
Sometimes colour looks different than how we imagined it.
A hard copy proof leaves nothing to the imagination because it’s printed on GMG grade paper or the final packaging material.
It’s a great tool to see exactly how the print will look, and it also gives you a final opportunity to play with colour before going to press.
The colours on the proof are guaranteed on press.
An ISO certified proof is a guarantee that the colour you see will be the colour you get on press. It’s an international standard that can be used by any printer.
Once you approve the ISO proof, it serves as the official colour reference for your printer on all press runs.
Use of ISO certified proofs is a good way to ensure colour consistency across your product range when printed.
Now all your hard work pays off!
Image carrier creation and printing is the final stage in the design to print process.
Image carrier creation is the stage where the plates or cylinders are made from final artwork files. The plates are then attached to the printing press, and the packaging material is run through and printed.
If each previous step has been correctly completed, you should come away with a beautiful, high-quality print.
THREE THINGS HAPPEN AFTER THE HARD COPY PROOF:
Action 1_ A STEP file is created
Action 2_ The production run is set up
Action 3_ The final packaging is printed
Your print partner creates a STEP file and orders plates.
Each printing press has different tolerances and dimensions.
Before creating the printing plates, the approved prepress file is converted to a STEP format, which is a customised file specific to the press and printing plate setup.
The STEP file is sent to the printer for approval. It’s checked over to ensure the dimensions are exactly correct for the printing press.
Once the printer approves the STEP file, a flexo plate or gravure cylinder is made for each printed colour.
Some printers make the plates, but more often they are outsourced to an image carrier manufacturer, such as Kirk Group.
The production run is set up.
The printer works with you to schedule the production run.
Before starting production, the job is set up on the press. The printer runs some samples to get the registration and colour just right.
When the printer is confident with the colour, they get the final sign off for the commercial run.
The sign off can be done two ways. If you’re happy with the hard copy proof, someone from the printer can sign off when it’s a match. Alternately, a brand manager or print production partner can choose to go on-site and sign off personally.
Example of the flexo printing process. A printing method that uses flexible rubber or plastic plates with raised images. Commonly abbreviated to Flexo.
The final packaging gets printed.
Your involvement in the design to print process has come to an end.
The printer will store the plates and keep a copy of the final printed packaging as their “master target”. You can quickly schedule a future packaging run with no additional involvement required.
And there you have it!
You’re well on your journey to mastering the packaging design to print process.
You can start applying this new knowledge to get better packaging that looks great and meets your brand vision. It’ll be delivered on time at the budgeted cost. And the process will run smoothly without added hassle or headache.
You can also download this guide in an easy to read pdf.
The combined layout of original copy, fonts, photos and illustrations, intended for printing. Also called art.
The process of adapting the master design across all SKUs for different product or size variations.
In a print ready file, artwork and background colours often extend into the bleed area. The bleed is an extension of the artwork that gets printed beyond the edges of the design, where the sheet gets trimmed.
Since small shifts during the printing process are inevitable, the bleed gives the printer a small amount of space to accommodate the movements of the paper, as well as design inconsistencies.
Having a bleed gives wiggle room and ensures that the final trimmed document doesn’t have any unprinted edges.
The technique of slightly reducing the size of an image to compensate for misregistration. See trapping.
The abbreviation of the four process colours: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (black).
The entire range of hues that are possible to reproduce using a specific device, such as a computer screen, or method, such as the four-colour process printing.
A function that maps and transforms the colours of the artwork files to the colours of the target master design.
Designs need to be separated into the four primary ink colours (CMYK) to be printed using the four-colour process method.
Colour separation is the process of splitting the colour graphic or design into single colour layers.
On a printing press, each single colour layer gets printed separately, one on top of the other, to give the impression of infinite colours.
Spot colour separation is a different process that’s used to identify and separate colours that don’t get mixed.
A business that manufactures and prints products such as plastic and cardboard packaging, food and beverage cans, cartons, and point of sale displays.
One of the four process CMYK colours. Also known as process blue.
A device for cutting, scoring, stamping, embossing and debossing.
The template of the packaging: the flattened outline of the cutlines and folds.
The phenomenon when halftone dots print larger on paper than they are on films or plates. Dot gain reduces detail and lowers contrast. This is also called dot growth, dot spread and press gain.
Eyemarks are a printed rectangular mark that can be identified by an electric eye.
The mark identifies a point where a package needs to be cut and ensures the alignment of the package panels and the printing.
The final artwork that contains all the correctly positioned design elements that are laid out appropriately within the dielines.
A printing method that uses flexible rubber or plastic plates with raised images. Commonly abbreviated to Flexo.
Flexo is a popular method for printing large volumes rapidly, and with customisation options not possible on other types of presses.
Four-colour Process Printing
The technique of printing that uses cyan, magenta, yellow and black to create full-colour images. Also called colour process printing, full-colour printing and process printing.
A printing method that uses metal cylinders etched with millions of tiny wells that hold ink. Often used to achieve ultra-high quality printing.
The closest visual representation of how the design will look printed. It’s printed on GMG grade paper or the final printing material (substrate) and shows exactly how the colours will appear on the final product.
Any plate, form, cylinder or surface which contains an image, receives ink and transfers it to another surface or substrate. E.g., gravure cylinders, flexo/offset plates.
ISO is the International Organisation for Standardisation.
They promote global standardisation for specifications and requirements for materials, products, procedures, formats, information and quality management. Certification under ISO standards is an assurance that the ISO-required management of processes and documentation is in place.
In CMYK, the K stands for Key. The key colour in today’s printing world is black.
A keyline is a technique used to prevent registration errors in printing. It is a boundary line that separates colour and monochromatic areas or different areas of colour.
The line itself, usually a black or dark coloured border, provides an area in which lighter colours can be printed with slight variation in registration. It keeps type looking “clean” and is usually not even noticeable.
One of the four process CMYK colours.
Brand and advertising agencies work with companies to develop packaging designs for their products.
Master packaging design involves the design and creation of a product’s container and how it looks to consumers who might purchase it.
A mockup is a scale or full-size model of a design often used for design evaluation, promotion, testing or research.
Misregistration, or registration errors, happen when the packaging material (substrate) shifts while moving through the print press.
These shifts can result in colours that are slightly out of alignment, fuzzy looking, blurred or “out of register”. It may also create unsightly white lines around images or text on the package.
Offset printing is a commonly used printing technique in which the inked image is transferred (or “offset”) from a plate to a rubber blanket, then to the printing surface.
Also known as technical label information, product information file, or pack copy brief.
The pack copy is all the information to be included on the packaging such as product title, romance copy, ingredients, nutritional information, address, recycling info, country of origin info, storage, cooking instructions, contact details and addresses.
Pantone Colours / Pantone Matching System (PMS)
A Pantone colour is a standardised colour in the Pantone Matching System (PMS).
Pantone colours are desirable because unlike process printing, they come out exactly the same every time.
The Pantone colour book is a catalogue of colour for printing, a bit like a paint colour swatch book that you use for painting your house. Each colour has a 3, 4 or 5 digit identifier number to identify the exact hue or shade.
Preflight checks can happen at the end of each stage in the design to print process. They include a checklist of activities that need to happen before moving onto the next stage.
Prepress preflight checks happen before printing, and the artwork file is checked to identify any potential issues and make necessary corrections for a successful print run.
The stage where the artwork is prepared for printing. Prepress is the processes and procedures that occur between the creation of a print layout and the final printing.
Each press has its own fingerprint or DNA - this is called the press profile. The profile is used to customise each document to account for a press’s unique tolerances and deviations.
Proof made on the press using the plates, ink and substrate specified for the job. Also called the strike off and trial proof.
Press specifications are instructions for how to set up the image carrier for printing on the press and are supplied by the printer.
They specify plate type and width, thickness, repeats, and application of technologies.
Surface (or plate) carrying the images to be printed. Lithography uses metal plates, flexography uses rubber or soft plastic plates, and gravure uses a cylinder.
Process Colour Separation
See colour separation.
In color printing, registration is the method of correlating overlapping colors on one single image.
Registration marks print outside the trim area of printing.
They can include bulls-eye targets, crop marks, plate information, etc. These marks allow the printer to accurately align separate plates for multiple color print jobs and better align cuts when trimming.
Rendering is the process of adding shade and colour to create a 2D or 3D life-like image on a screen.
The alteration and enhancement of artwork or graphics
Reprographics or reprography is the reproduction of designs by any process such as offset printing.
A Stock Keeping Unit (or SKU) is a number assigned to a product by a retail store to identify the price, product options and manufacturer of the merchandise. A SKU is used to track inventory.
In offset printing, a spot colour is any colour generated by an ink (pure or mixed) that is printed using a single run. Also called special inks.
Spot Colour Separation
See colour separation.
The technique of slightly increasing the size of an image to compensate for misregistration. See trapping.
Any surface or material which gets printed on. E.g. cardboard, plastic, paper.
To print one ink over another. The first liquid traps the second liquid.
Trapping is a way to compensate for movement on the press by making adjacent colours overlap each other.
Without the trap, colours that are intended to touch may print with a gap between them. Trapping involves creating overlaps (spreads) or underlaps (chokes) of objects during prepress to eliminate misregistration on the press.
A workflow management system is a software system for the setup, performance and monitoring of a defined sequence of tasks, arranged as a workflow.
One of the four process CMYK colours.