I’ve made a LOT of boxes.

23 Jun

I’ve spent the last few years working as the Lead Designer for TOPICS Entertainment, mostly creating retail packaging. Much of my time went into trying to reinvent the technical bag of tricks that got consumers to pick things up and put them in a cart – foil usage, textured varnishes, glosses, die-cuts, embosses, 3D pop-out gimmicks, you name it. If there were a way for us to have animated the front of a box with basic ink and paper, I’d have found a way and we’d have done it. By now, I estimate that I’d cranked out around 500 boxes in three years, not including the artwork for the various discs, marketing inserts, manuals and sales collateral. Here are a few of my favorites from the pile.

Instant Immersion Levels 1, 2 & 3 language learning packages. Box art ©TOPICS Entertainment.

The Fake Box Trick

This is probably the crown jewel of my packaging collection. Not only was the box an award-winning technical marvel of packaging innovation, the product sells pretty damn well, too. TOPICS recently launched a special sales promotion through Costco stores featuring these boxes, and the end-cap pallets have sold record numbers of the language learning software.

As for the “technical marvel” bit, this was a pretty big jump for our typical packaging methods, and it won us a 2009 IAPHC International Gallery Gold award. See, TOPICS likes to use what is called a “book flap” on the front of many of the packages. It allows the consumer to pick up a box and open the cover up to see a list of features and screenshots from the product. Pretty standard stuff in the digital media packaging world. But what we did took things to a whole new level – literally.

The “double box” trick. Box art ©TOPICS Entertainment

What you see here is something we called “the fake box front”, or “the double box trick”. Basically, what you’re looking at is two standard retail boxes joined at the hip. Instead of a “single page” book flap on the front of the box, we designed our template to actually fold into two completely independent boxes bonded at the left spine. This allowed the box in front to act as a book flap, giving us the back of the first box and the front of the second box as a center spread. But why?

The front of the language boxes, deconstructed. Box art ©TOPICS Entertainment

The back box was for product transport. That corrugate piece you see in the upper image is where all the discs were housed. The front box – the “fake box” — was all about show. We die cut a hole into the front panel around the girl. Then we printed an iconic landscape on a piece of foilboard, using a partially opaque white underprinted layer to control light reflection and help highlight certain elements in the image. The foilboard insert measurements were just slightly wider than the dimensions of the box, meaning that in order for it to properly fit into the box, it would need to be curled into something like a parabolic mirror and hand assembled into the box. To finish off the whole effect, we gave the girls on the front of the box a sculptured emboss treatment, adding even more depth and dimension.

The end result was a box that featured an effect very much resembling a holographic three-dimensional window on the front cover. No matter which angle the consumer approached the box from, the parabolic foilboard was going to catch and reflect light back at them. The landscapes shimmered with illusory depth, and shadows and reflections on the foil seemed to occur behind features of the landscape, since the opaque underprinting prevented items like trees and buildings from reflecting light.

It was daring, but ultimately effective for this product, and the concept was all mine. While 98% of the packaging I’ve designed won’t make people wonder how I did it, it’s that last 2% that really pushes the envelope and redefines what a “box” is actually shaped like, and in the best cases, turns out remarkable. And picking up some print industry awards for innovation along the way didn’t suck either.

Three titles from the Adventures With Purpose product line. Box art ©TOPICS Entertainment.

Adventures with Foil

Other times, my goal was to create a striking visual for a product line while minimizing associated costs. Doing a simple foil strike on a box is one of the most cost-effective ways to add some “look here” factor to a product. The added cost involved in the process comes predominantly from the need for a foil die, the metal strike plate that actually punches out the foil and applies it to the box. Usually a product line will be given a fairly neutral foil strike that creates a banner along the top of the product. This allows the designer to create an infinite number of titles that use the same “brand” foil treatment, thereby mitigating the cost of the foil die over the course of many product print runs.

For the Adventures With Purpose Blu-Ray series, I took a slightly different approach. I wanted a way to make each foil strike feel unique to the title, rather than static across the brand. My solution was to create a foil die that stayed exactly the same from box to box, but simply used different colored foils to give each title a distinct look. The series name was reversed from the foil in white on the front of each box, while the word “adventures” reversed out of the foil on the spines. As a result, the entire line got a more expensive looking brand look, while costs were kept manageable. And, an added bonus visual effect? Lining the entire series up spine out on a shelf produces a fantastically striking foil rainbow. Since some retailers shelve their products spine-out, this extra appeal can go a long way to catch a consumer’s eye.

Other Favorites

Four parts stock photography, one part elbow grease. Box art ©TOPICS Entertainment.

Blue Earth was a DVD collection licensed to us by National Geographic. We wanted to create something that carried the spirit of other, bigger, more well known video productions, but that still had its own unique look. My answer was a minimalist cover that conveyed both a grand view and precise detail. The image comes from four separate iStockphoto downloads blended together for an epic-yet-serene result. For a while, the product was featured in the checkout counter racks at WholeFoods stores around the United States.

Documentaries from Public Television are staples at TOPICS. Box art ©TOPICS Entertainment.

Many of the DVD titles licensed by TOPICS are produced by Public Television stations. Product lines and package templates are often built to reflect the consistent sourcing of the material; nearly all titles we licensed from Public Television stations got the same title and cover treatment. The DVD Excellence line had a consistent clean black Garamond title over a white fade into an image. Usually we’d find grand, colorful images with a panoramic feel through stock photo sources to create our covers, but in the case of Butch Cassidy and the Outlaw Trail, the subject matter was anything but colorful and panoramic, at least in the literal sense. Fortunately, some creative use of muted color tones and subtle texture in the background helped make Butch’s mug shot pop on the shelf just as well as any grand sunset.

The box that put my work in the Smithsonian. Box art ©TOPICS Entertainment.

I make jokes all the time about where my artwork can be seen — The Apple Store, Costco, Sam’s Club, Wal-Mart, Target, etcetera. In this case, I can say my work is on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC… in the gift shop. Featuring historic audio recordings from the United States National Archives, the History in Words series has a classic look that needed only image swaps and slight color-cue variations to create a broad variety of titles.

The documentary that preceded the cable TV series. Box art ©TOPICS Entertainment.

Captain Paul Watson is a larger-than-life personality with a personal mission that verges on insanity. When I was asked to create the cover for Whale Warrior: Pirate for the Sea, the documentary that led to his hit cable TV series, I knew I had to produce something bold and edgy that carried the drama, action and danger of the film into one iconic image. I drew inspiration from Clive Cussler novels and bent my chosen image with dramatic angles and skews. Then I spent more time in Photoshop than I ever had given a single image before, building dramatic light fills, atmosphere and texture. For all the sturm and drang of the final cover, the source photo was actually of a fairly sunny day scene.

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