Neurodesign: The new frontier of packaging and product design

Alberto Gallace in Packaging Design on October 27, 2015

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

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