You may not notice them every day, but the packaged products that you buy usually come in more than just simple wrapping. From all the graphics, images, and text they contain to the actual materials that the packaging is made from, your goods have been carefully crafted and designed by skilled packaging designers.
If you’re thinking about a career in graphic design and would love to see your work on shelves all over the world, packaging design could be the right path for you. We’re here to give you the details on what the job actually involves, the education and experience you need to break into the industry, and what the world of work for package designers really looks like.
What Is a Packaging Designer?
We all buy products that come in packages, from everyday groceries, toiletries, and personal care products to luxury goods like clothing, tech, and furniture. Just about everything arrives on our doorsteps in a box or wrapping that highlights the brand we’ve bought it from and sometimes, even the product itself.
But who comes up with the final look of the materials that our new purchase is housed in? That’s the job of a package designer.
Most people who work in this field follow the graphic design route. That means that they work on the package design in terms of colors, graphics, images, and brand logos. They collaborate with marketing and branding teams to think about how the packaging can attract attention and encourage someone to buy, make sure that the product fits well in the final packaging design for placement on shelves or for transportation, and that everything is consistent with the overall company brand.
Packaging design doesn’t just have to be about the visuals, though. In certain industries, like medicine or food and beverage, the materials that the packaging is made from is just as important as how it looks. This is usually to help stabilize the product inside and make sure that it arrives to a customer in the exact condition that it needs to be in. If this is the type of work you’re interested in, you may find packaging designer jobs listed as a packaging engineer or packaging technologist.
So what do these types of designers do? For the food industry, a packaging designer may need to find materials that keep the product at a certain temperature or keep it from being crushed during transportation. In the medical field, equipment may need to be encased in a certain way to prevent damage. Medications themselves should be easy for customers to open (think pill blister packs), while keeping the product inside safe from damage or tampering.
What Does a Packaging Designer Do?
As you can imagine, working on package design every day involves plenty of creative work. But there’s also plenty of collaborative teamwork that happens too.
A typical packaging designer job description will usually include tasks like:
- Working with a client or internal team to review a project brief when a new product is being launched or packaging is being redesigned.
- Collaborating with copywriters, marketers, and graphic designers to design samples of packaging for the product.
- Researching consumer trends for the product’s industry to understand what types of packaging customers are most attracted to.
- Keeping up-to-date with the laws and regulations that govern certain industries (for example, updates to the legal requirements for the ingredients included on food packaging).
If you’re working on the package engineering side, you’ll also be working on testing materials to find the right one for the product—ensuring that it meets quality standards for the industry and is as environmentally friendly as possible. There’s often plenty of experimenting, testing, and revising that happens in this particular job, which makes it the perfect blend of art and science.
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Degrees and Education Requirements
As with most graphic design-based careers, packaging designer jobs are typically filled by individuals with an art degree or design degree behind them.
In these programs, you’ll learn everything you need to know to get you started as a professional in the field. That includes learning the basics of design like color theory, composition, and typography, and how to use key software like Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, Corel Draw, ArtiosCAD, and 3D modeling tools such as SolidWorks or Autodesk Inventor.
For those of you more interested in the science-angle of package design, your best route will be an engineering or science-based degree, with a dual degree or minor in art or design. This helps you to cover both sides of packaging design, with skills in material development and testing, alongside the more creative work you’ll be doing.
Rutgers University currently offers the only packaging design degree in the US within its Department of Engineering. This is a great option at the undergraduate level or as a graduate degree or certification for students with a strong mathematics and science background who are looking to work in this field.
Experience vs. Degree
Working as a packaging designer without a degree is tricky, but it’s certainly possible. Having an experience-only background lends itself better to a graphic design position, rather than materials engineering, as it’s unlikely that you would have the necessary level of scientific experience and knowledge to secure an entry-level position.
You can certainly teach yourself how to use the professional software and tools that packaging designers all over the world are familiar with. If you can put together 3D digital prototypes, you’re off to a great start.
Just as it would if you have a degree, your work portfolio is going to be crucial in helping you land a job, and this is even more important when you’re relying on experience alone. Work on as many projects as you can using different materials and in a range of industries to show prospective employers exactly what you can do. If you’re a solid designer and really know your stuff, some hiring managers might be willing to overlook your lack of formal training.
Typical Packaging Designer Salary
According to Glassdoor, the average packaging designer salary is $58,784 per year. As a packaging engineer, you could earn up to $92,806 a year depending on your level of experience.
For freelance packaging designers, typical hourly rates start around $30 per hour and can quickly move up to $70-90 per hour for established designers with extensive portfolios.
Packaging Designer Jobs
In-House or Agency Jobs
Most packaging designers find work within a product-based company or a creative agency setting. For larger corporations (think your big players like Apple or Nike), there will likely be several or a whole team of package designers on staff to keep up with the number of new products being produced and manufactured.
Similarly, for packaging engineers, in-house positions within a particular company are common. You’ll spend your days testing out various materials, usually in an internally housed lab or workspace, to find something that’s suitable for the brand’s product.
If you decide that variety is ideal for you, an advertising agency can be an excellent way to build your skills quickly and work with a wider range of clients in different industries. You’ll be working closely with your client’s internal team to make sure that branding is consistent with their current product range or to help them build out a whole new suite of packaging for everything that they offer.
Going freelance can also be a great career move. Working for yourself as a graphic designer can earn you significantly more money than a traditional corporate role, and that’s no different for those who specialize in packaging design.
Not every company will have the budget to hire a permanent team member if they only roll out a new product once or twice a year, so these businesses will often hire freelancers to plug those gaps when needed.
You’ll be responsible for finding your own clients, so it can be helpful to start looking for projects to work on while you’re still studying for your design degree, or to pick up a few clients on the side of a corporate job. Then, when you’re ready to make the leap into freelancing full time, you’ll have a great network to pull from as you look for your first projects.
This Design Career Could Be the Whole Package
With so many products on the market today, there’s no shortage of work for talented people looking to break into the world of packaging design.
It’s an exciting and challenging career that will test your creative (and possibly engineering) skills to the limit, but it’ll all be worth it when you see your designs out in the world.
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Featured image from Jon Contino’s Skillshare Original, “Lettering for Package Design: From Sketch to Label“