Neurodesign: The new frontier of packaging and product design

Alberto Gallace

January 18, 2016

11 Min Read
Neurodesign: The new frontier of packaging and product design
This close-up shows how Heineken is using tactile ink to tap into consumers sense of touch, which is one of the most important sensory modality in driving consumer behavior.

What are the most important insights from cognitive neurosciences that a packaging designer should take into consideration to create more effective packages? Here are three tips.

What does make a package really stand out from the crowd? What materials should be used to elicit certain behaviors, perceptions and emotions in the consumer? How can a container affect our evaluation of its contents? How can a package contribute to brand loyalty?

The newborn field of “neurodesign” now tries to provide answers to these and more questions, exploiting our knowledge on the functioning of the human brain for the design of more effective products and packaging.

In the last few decades, cognitive neuroscience has made big progresses in the study of the human mind and of the principles that concur to determine our behavior. Not surprisingly, this knowledge has rapidly spread towards many other study fields, from economics to engineering and marketing, leading to new brand disciplines, such as neuroeconomics and neuromarketing.

The main idea in support of this trend is that, whenever there is a human user who interacts with a product, service or object, it is vital to understand how his/her brain responds to such situations. This helps us create better and more intuitive interactions and experiences.

Neuroscience now shows something that some intuitive designers, product engineers and marketers have sensed a long time ago. That is, asking the user/consumer about his/her opinions or ideas regarding a product is often misleading.

By contrast, as put by Forbes a few years ago: “Brain waves don’t lie.” Classic knowledge acquisition processes—through focus groups and questionnaires alone—often miss the target of providing important information about what is vital for a given design, with potentially deleterious consequences for the human and financial investments involved. People, being designers or not, often do not know why they like a given object and, even when they seem to know, their knowledge is not necessarily relevant for the design of a product.

When consumers say something like: “I believe that this aspect is fundamental for my decision to buy this product” or “I think that this design feature is the one that determines the most my opinion on this product/packaging,” one can be sure that that is necessarily not what really drives their final behavior.

Every neuroscientist can tell that our brain knows more than we do. That is, most of the time, our conscious reports do not correspond to the criteria used by our brain to make decisions. Note in fact that, out of the mass of information that hit our senses, only a small part enters our consciousness, but a relevant part of the rest is still processed and stored!

For long, it has seemed that design remained immune from this “neuro” wave. After all, isn’t design mainly about intuition, creativity and craftsman skills?

Using scientific data to drive the design process might sound to many experts as somehow incompatible with these aspects. However, the fast development and big competition in this field, cries for new solutions to be considered. Pairing brilliant intuitions with scientific data on human behavior can certainly offer some help in that direction. After all, every good designer knows well that design is about objects and about people. Why then should one not work more on the second element of the equation, given that we have the proper technology and knowledge to do so effectively?

Neurodesign is addressed at identifying design aspects of physical or virtual objects/environments that our brains naturally find more appealing. It can be considered part of the “neuroesthetics,” the discipline that studies the neural mechanisms of our aesthetic evaluations.

Research in this field has unveiled for the first time what are the brain areas responsible for the perception of pleasure and beauty. In particular, the activation of brain centers, such as the orbitofrontal cortex, indicates the engagement of the human reward system, the neural system that motivates us to take action to achieve goals or get reinforcements.

Interestingly, the more this system is active, the more we are willing to pay a higher price to buy a product.

Translated into a design language, this means that a successful product or package is likely the one that activates the most such brain network. It is relevant to note here, that packaging should be considered as an important part of the whole product experience, given that content and container are rarely processed independently by the brain. Indeed, cognitive neuroscience clearly shows that our perception is always determined by the whole context where the stimuli occur. Not surprisingly then, packaging design is now getting more attention than ever before.

Successful products are now packaged into containers that have their own beauty (also thanks to the use of new technologies, such as tactile inks); a trend that reached a point where people tend to keep the package instead of dispose of it! 

Looking for the activation of pleasure centers in the brain cannot be the sole goal for successful design, though. The aims of a package are many; sometime a packager simply needs to create a good “grip,”, or an “easy-to-stock” shape. In other cases, the design of a package should also provide information about its contents (especially when access to the contents prior to purchase is not allowed). But how do we elicit the perception of luxury, of solidity, of reliability, of robustness, of trustworthiness, throughout a package?

That is certainly not just about pleasure and/or the activation of the orbitofrontal cortex. However, all of these mentioned aspects are just perceptions and, as such, they are determined by the functioning of certain brain mechanisms.

In this scenario, neurosciences can provide the techniques and knowledge that can help to find the most suitable targets (the features that concur to determine specific behaviors or reactions in the user) for design. This can be achieved, without even the need to ask people about their opinions or beliefs (although a serious approach should also consider these aspects). By knowing the mechanisms involved in human behavior, we can anticipate the consumer reactions and create a successful package or product.

What are then the most important insights from cognitive neurosciences that a packaging designer should take into consideration? Of course, it would be impossible to summarize years of applied neuroscientific research in a few lines, but some key principles may become useful.     

Click "Next" to read the three tips, starting with #1. Perception is always multisensory

1. Perception is always multisensory

One of the most relevant findings provided by cognitive neuroscience is certainly related to the way in which the brain integrates information coming from different sources, for creating the perception of an object or product. That is, the different features of a product, such as its color, shape, odor, tactile feel, sound and so on, are rarely processed in isolation by our neural system. A number of interactions occur among them, and our final perception is much more than a mere sum of these characteristics.

This also means that a certain aspect of a container (such as its color or texture) can affect the perception of a different aspect of its content (weight or odor). For example, in our laboratory at University of Milan-Bicocca, we showed that the color and the weight of a container can affect the taste (and the overall evaluation) of mineral water contained inside.

Similarly, we used emotion-related visual images to change the perception of pleasantness and roughness of everyday materials, when explored by touch. Perception is always a blend of sensory attributes and a packaging designer should never forget that. 

Sometime even the sound of a product’s name can be effective in modulating people’s judgments. For example, we demonstrated that, by sticking labels with meaningless names on water containers—composed of higher rather than lower pitch sounds—people perceived and rated differently the content. Such results are likely to rely on some natural associations (learned or genetically determined) between different classes of stimuli in our brain.

Note that, in the animal kingdom, the pitch of a vocalization sound is often used to estimate the size of a competitor and, in this context, it is relevant for survival. Sometimes design should also capitalize on the fact that our brains (and their working principles) are not so different from those of our animal ancestors.

NEXT: 2. The key role of emotional reactions

2. The key role of emotional reactions

Recent research in cognitive neuroscience has shown that people are often unable to make complex decisions using only cognitive processes (such as reasoning). This is due to our neural systems, which can be overloaded with information. In this case, we may recur to what is known as “somatic markers,” brain associations between stimuli that produce a physiological affective state.

It sounds complex, but the main point here is that whenever we encounter a product, our limbic system within the brain immediately classifies the stimulus as pleasant/unpleasant, and engages in an appropriate physiological reaction. For example, we see a wonderful car and our heart starts beating faster. This emotional reaction is fast and automatic, and is registered in our memory systems together with the stimulus that elicited it. Whenever we encounter again the same product, the same physiological reaction is activated by the brain, even if we are not aware of it.

If we have trouble choosing between two competing products, the choice is made on the basis of the initial physiological reaction to one of them (regardless of the rational interpretations that we might provide for justifying such choice). That is, emotional responses often dominate over reasoning capabilities in driving our behavior.

In fact, we should consider that, from an evolutionary point of view, the limbic system, involved in memory and emotional reactions, is 200 million years old, while the prefrontal cortex—mainly responsible for our reasoning activity—is only about 30,000 years old. It is then not surprising to observe that we still strongly rely on the more ancient systems in our brain under circumstances where rational thinking becomes more complicated (for example, because of the many options available, the constrictions in time or the high level of environmental noise). Whenever we are in trouble, our brain sticks with the most ancient and reliable mechanism.

Considering that our brain stores reactions to a whole experience rather than to a single stimulus, packaging that efficiently elicits specific physiological reactions is likely to be very effective in gaining a consumer’s loyalty to the product!

NEXT: 3. The relevance of tactile information

3. The relevance of tactile information

Touch is certainly one of the most important sensory modality in driving consumer behavior. In fact, touch is the first sensory modality to develop in the womb and our very first interactions in life have an important tactile content.

Our brain certainly does not forget such a relevant value.

Neuroscience strongly supports the important role of touch in our perception and emotional wellbeing. In fact, it has been shown that humans are endowed with a receptive system (known as C tactile fibers) that is specifically dedicated to code for pleasant touch. Moreover, those areas of the brain responsible for the perception of pleasure (see earlier in text), seem to respond specifically to pleasant sensations, such as the feel of velvet on the skin. Not surprisingly then, a number of remarkable effects related to the presentation of tactile content to humans have been reported.

Most marketers now know that people are more likely to buy something if they are allowed to touch it first. As a consequence, a number of packaging companies have started to make holes in their containers, to allow for a direct tactile interaction with the product.

However, the feel of the packaging itself might be very effective (or very deleterious in some cases) to drive a consumer’s behavior.

A study published a few years ago in the prestigious journal Science, has shown that it is sufficient to manipulate a tactile quality of a container to change the evaluation of its content (and the actions based on that evaluation). In that case, a panel of experts rated the exact same curriculum vitae as more solid and appropriate, when contained in a hard as compared to a soft cover.

In our laboratory, we also showed that the direct contact with everyday materials elicit stronger physiological reactions than the mere sight of them (even when participants rate the visual and tactile features of the materials as equally arousing). Considering our previous discussion on the importance of physiological reactions for orienting consumer’s behavior (see point 2 above), every designer should exploit the power of this sensory modality while creating new packaging or products.  

In conclusion, given the fierce competition and the rising challenges in this field, there are no doubts that designers, engineers and cognitive neuroscientists will work side by side, more than ever before, to create the most successful packaging and products of the future.  


Alberto Gallace, Ph.D.,  is a cognitive neuroscientist at University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy. His scientific work on multisensory interactions helps to design products and services that naturally appeal to our senses and emotions (neurally-inspired experience design). Reach him at [email protected].


Passionate about packaging design? Learn about the latest developments in packaging innovation at SouthPack 2015, Nov. 18-19, in Orlando, FL.


Sign up for the Packaging Digest News & Insights newsletter.

You May Also Like