A few years ago my colleagues and I were working on some designs for a line of tortilla chip packages. We’d each spent over a week on our designs and each of us felt really confident in our work.
We’d done competitive analysis by viewing other brands’ websites and product images online, we’d spend huge amounts of time developing colour palettes and refining our font choices. And lastly, we even made life-size mock-ups including chips in the bags for client presentation.
Each of us was convinced we’d nailed it.
The client was impressed too. Our new designs were a far cry from the schlock they’d had before. But the client, who had recently bought the company, asked us to take the packages to some local stores and try the designs in actual retail environments. — The wild.
We looked at each other and agreed that we would, but each of us rolled our eyes as soon as the client left the room. “What are we going to learn from standing in the grocery snack aisle?” we wondered. Turns out, quite a bit.
Lighting (and shadows)
You know that store lighting is different than your home and office lighting. But you may not know how much. We discovered that in some stores, our client’s chips sat in the deep, murky shadows of the 3rd and 4th shelves down. Some of the subtleties we’d built into our designs disappeared entirely in those shadows.
We discovered that in some stores, snack foods like ours were kept from falling from the shelves by short 2-inch high “fences” attached to the fronts of shelves. Critical package information like Non-GMO and Certified Organic seals was lost behind these little fences.
We knew the product wouldn’t always have full-width shelf space, but we didn’t expect to see our bags folded over height-wise to fit the shelves. In a few stores, the top 4–6 inches of bags were folded back to scrunch the bags into a previously set up shelf. There goes more space for design and information.
We’d made our new bags out of kraft paper so we were fine. But we did spot some competitor’s bags that were amazingly unreadable. The bright fluorescent store lighting created huge white areas of glare on a number of well-known brands. Not a huge deal until you realize that from some positions in the aisle, half the bag was a flash of white. Nobody’s going to choose what they can’t see.
When we see one design, we can judge it on its merits. We like it or we don’t. Bring that same design and its associated varieties into the store, however, and you get a different feeling for it. In context with the other brands and their varieties, we learned what other brands were doing to differentiate their varieties, their use of colour, the various sizes of type for the brand, variety, and flavours. The context showed us where we were doing things right, and where things that had gotten too small, too large or need more contrast. The context also showed us how innovative our look was in a sea of other chips and tortilla chips. (we were pretty different).
The Net Takeaway?
- We learned that we had a “sweet spot” for critical information. (In our case it was a couple of inches from the bottom and about 4 from the top.)
- We learned that we made a good choice with our reflection-less packaging. (Matte finishes on plastics may have been good too.)
- We learned that we had to increase the contrast in some of our designs and colour choices. (bright things a little brighter, darks a little darker)
- We saw that our flavour-related colours needed to stay quite distinctive. (An orange had to be significantly yellower than a red for example).
Setting our designs in the real-world context helped us see where we were on the mark and where we were weak. We saw a range of design motifs from sombreros to cacti and Dias de la Muertos (Day of the Dead) imagery. We took note of the typical and were inspired by the variants.