Why More Packaging Should Be Black, and Why It’s So Easy to Get Wrong

Designers embracing darkness often fail to plan for the real world

Black packaging design is growing beyond luxury items, but creatives must keep the store environment in mind.
Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Source: Getty Images

When designing a line of products or brands, one strategy is to look for a single color around which to build a visual architectural block. This key design feature helps a brand stand out from the competition as well as on the shelf. Block colors are often neutral in tone – think creams, blues, and, in some cases, white and black are used. These colors (or, in the case of white, lack of any color) do not immediately suggest a flavor and are favored by marketing and design teams for their flexibility and endurance in the marketplace.

As I look across the snack food shelves of digital and storefront marketplaces today, I see a large increase in predominantly white- and black-colored packs across categories. Driven, perhaps, by an increasing awareness of design sophistication among American consumers over the past five years, the message sent by white packaging has shifted. Formerly considered a private label color, or a color used to denote “low in” or “free from” something, or used to denote value to the consumer, the color white on a product package now communicates a starkly different message: simple, clean and modern. White pops from the shelf or cold case and gives a great platform to demonstrate the appetite appeal in a natural way.

In today’s brand packaging environment, however, white is a visual architectural block used by so many products and brands, the color is quickly losing its ability to be distinctive in its’ own right.

The appeal of black

Black, on the other hand, has always had a place in other aisles of the store, areas where food and beverage products connote more luxury, such as chocolate, ice cream, and wine and spirits. Until recently, black has rarely been used as a “snacky” color, seldom used on packages merchandised in the snack aisle or near the register. It’s new. It stands out. Black is sexy and fresh and, honestly, black is eternal. Black is and always will be the new black, but unless it is used carefully, black is also a trap, waiting to snare unsuspecting brands.

"Black is and always will be the new black, but unless it is used carefully, black is also a trap, waiting to snare unsuspecting brands."
-Simon Thorneycroft, CEO, Perspective: Branding

The challenge with black as a “color” is that it contrasts beautifully against white and other light colors. Black looks great on screen or on presentation slides and positively excellent on print-outs during the design process. But before committing to black as a block color, the product, marketing and design teams must be aware that how a product looks on paper or in mock-ups can be an illusion.

Black does not always translate into beauty on the shelf at a store. Why? Because most environments within the supermarket and other retail locations are actually surprisingly dark. Overhead fluorescent light casting down on the shelves creates dark shadows on products lined up eight deep on a shelf. And, in some cases, the shelves themselves are black. The first one or two packages might receive enough light to showcase their appeal to shoppers, but once these beauties move from the shelf, the remainder are in the shadow of the shelf above, adding darkness to the black package and obscuring its good looks. This is obviously not an ideal sales situation.

The solution? Design for the place

To avoid black’s tempting subterfuge, product and marketing teams should make sure that all creative exploration be presented on a color as close as possible to the environment that it will eventually live in. If possible, I would urge any creative to actually design the pack within the context of that color. Design with the background color that matches the color of the store background. If you are not sure, make it dark grey or black. This will ensure that what is created will not only look great on the print out but will stand out and be noticed when it eventually hits the shelf.

That’s not to say that black cannot stand out, of course. Bare Snacks recently launched a predominantly black pack for its baked coconut snacks. In this scenario, the black visual architectural block on the package design works. Why? Because this product is sold in the produce section where it stands out in opposition to everything else in the aisle. Guinness, Ireland’s most famous beer, has always done a great job of really owning black at retail as well as using the color black as a clear product differentiator in the segment.

When used carefully, not simply as a replacement for a brand concept or narrative, black can help your product stand out at retail and from the competition. But then, beyond color and style, the brand must also stand for something that is both visceral and memorable. If it doesn’t, you’ll be changing your package design frequently (which is costly and antithetical to building a strong brand).