Five fundamentals of great design: Perception

Effective packaging is a crucial part of the marketing mix for consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands, and it is only becoming more so. Your package is one of the most fundamental aspects of your brand, second only to the product and product experience itself. So if package design is so important, then it must be important to leverage the best design for your brand. But where do you start? As with all things, you start with the fundamentals.

This is the second post in a five-part series that identifies and details the five fundamentals of great package design.

In the first post, I wrote about the fundamental importance of insight. All great design is insight based. Great designers seek to know and understand for whom they are designing, and powerful insights drive great work.

Perception is key to interpreting and understanding 

The second fundamental of great design is perception. Perception is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression.” Why is perception so important to the business of design? Because great design requires creativity and imagination, and creativity and imagination begin with perception. Edward Prince said, “Perception lies at the root of all creativity, learning how to see is the start of creativity.”

But it’s important for designers and marketers to know that what you perceive is more than what your eyes and ears carry to your brain. It’s a product of your brain itself. Vision is not the same as perception. Vision is concrete. It observes. Perception is more abstract. Perception leaps beyond observation to judgment. We see what we see, but what we perceive is a combination of what we see, our past experience, and our particular point of view on a situation.

Perception and imagination are linked

According to Gregory Berns who wrote Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently, perception and imagination are linked because the brain uses the same neural circuits for both functions. Not only that, but experience modifies perception because it modifies neural connections. The more experience we have with something, the more efficient our brains become at processing the information or stimulus. According to Berns:

Neuroscientists have observed that while an entire network 
of neurons might process a stimulus initially, by about the sixth presentation, the heavy lifting is performed by only a subset of neurons. Because fewer neurons are being used, the network becomes more efficient at carrying out its function.

And from the standpoint of the brain, efficiency is a good thing. We are bombarded with so much information, so many stimuli, there is so much competing for our attention, we have to be able to decide what to efficiently process and what to pay a bit more attention to. Our brains naturally decide this for us, and it makes these decisions based on the frequency with which we’ve experienced the same thing before. It is why we are able to form whole perceptions from partial images.

Look at this picture. What do you see?


Most of you undoubtedly see a horse. And you are right.

But did anybody look at this image and say, “Wow, that’s a two-legged horse!” I doubt it. Did anybody think, “Why doesn’t that horse have hooves?” or “That is a horse without a mouth!” Again, doubtful. You have seen so many horses and pictures of horses that your brain filled in (perceived) what you did not actually see in the photo. Your brain quickly went to past experience, filled in the hooves and nose and mouth and then determined, “This is a horse.”

This mental extrapolation is an important asset in life. Again, we are over served with information. We simply cannot ponder each and every thing. But designers and brand stewards must realize that our brains are constantly and efficiently working to fill in missing information. We need to realize that this filled-in information is a product of our mind, not necessarily a product of reality.

Habit is the enemy of creativity

So if our brains are incredibly efficient, and they become more efficient the more often they see the same thing, what effect does this have on marketers, designers, and innovators who must create new things, ideas, designs, and opportunities for a brand they may have been working on for the past year, two years, or 10 years? Our brains move into autopilot, we naturally fall into habitual thinking. And this is dangerous because habit is the enemy of creativity.

To achieve great design, we must constantly challenge our perceptions. Yes, we may be looking at the same brand we’ve been working with for a period of time, but we must be able to see new things. As Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

When trying to come up with new ideas for an existing problem or opportunity, one with which we are very familiar, we must jolt our attentional systems and fight habit or efficiency with conscious inefficiency, a neural pause button if you will. Designers and marketers must be able to fight habit by consciously pausing and reflecting and considering new ways of thinking about something. In our business, we simply have to be able to see new things in existing landscapes, because most of the problems we face are not new. The challenge is to look at them in new ways. As Einstein said, “Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen, and thinking what no one else has thought.”

Fresh perspective helps shift the category norm

This notion undoubtedly fueled our Landor team during the creative development and design of Dead Bolt from Pernod Ricard Winemakers. Dead Bolt was entering a crowded category of brands known for appealing to consumers with sophistication, often through associations with certain food tastes. We knew it had to be different and we made it so by challenging perceptions of what a fine wine can be. Dead Bolt established itself as a brand that pushes boundaries and breaks all the rules. It did just that with its name, identity, and packaging—complete with a deep matte-black label with a striking high-gloss, foil-stamped tattoo-inspired logo.


Challenging perception leads to game-changing results

The Landor team that designed the award-winning cans for the Central Park Conservancy also challenged themselves to think differently as they approached this important project.


Of course the team looked at the current state of trash and recycling receptacles, but they also considered the project as an audit, not phase one of a design project. To break themselves out of the conventional way of thinking about trash containers, the team got to know the park itself: the grounds, landscape, elevations, structures, and more. Doing this helped the team not only create receptacles that respected and fit into the space, but also helped them create unique and highly-functioning receptacles, inspired by the slats and handrails of a typical Central Park bench.


These new cans have resulted in fewer collection vehicles on park paths—they are nearly impervious to pest infestation. Recycling in the park is up by 35 percent. And, the cans also won one of the first Product Design Lions at Cannes this year. Looking at other things in the park, not just the cans, helped our team gain a new perspective by viewing the project from a different angle.

And that is what designers and creators must do. Fight habit. Efficiency is the enemy of creativity. Help inspire original thought by challenging your perceptions, your closely held beliefs and opinions, your standard way of looking at things. Before you look at something and allow your brain to make the same old snap judgment, pause and reflect and consider at least one alternative way of viewing it. You will jump-start your imagination and find yourself with more original thoughts, more often.

In my next post, I will touch on the third fundamental of great design: ideas. Ideas are crucial to not only the development of great packaging for your brand, but are also pivotal in terms of your ability to sell that great package solution. Idea-based design is great design. Design without ideas? We call that graphic exploratory.

Until next time.