Spotlight - 02/06/23

A Q&A with Packaging Design Expert Milja Bannwart

10 min

By Meghan Day

“A great packaging design is one that you want to keep.”

A Q&A with Packaging Design Expert Milja Bannwart

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Milja Bannwart, a package design maven who started her own creative consulting company last year. 

Milja worked for years as a designer for Estée Lauder, working with brands like Tory Burch, Michael Kors, Coach, Marni, and most recently La Mer, where she was the executive director of global packaging design. We asked Milja about her design process, corporate versus personal design, and what makes for a great packaging design.

Photo courtesy of Milja Bannwart

Q: What are you working on that’s interesting to you at the moment?

A: Lately I’ve been returning to my work with ceramics. I’m working right now in my studio, here in Industry City. I’m working on these free form shapes and sculptures, and just being inspired by the material, by clay, and letting that lead the design process. And this is such a welcome departure from my work in packaging, which is by nature much more structured.

Q: What else is inspiring you?

A: Right now what I’m really inspired by is the days getting longer again. I was thinking about how every day now, it’s a little bit lighter towards the end of the day. There is something so beautiful about the time of the day just before sunset, and the light at that time to me is so inspiring. There’s a sense of renewal and new beginnings that to me is inspiring, and that’s motivating me right now in my work.

Q: What is packaging design?

A: Packaging design is the first touchpoint the consumer has with the product. 

It’s the first thing you hold in your hands, and aside from the main function of protecting the product, packaging also speaks to what’s inside the package and is a reflection of the brand. The role of packaging design is to evoke emotions and to be meaningful and beautiful. So a packaging designer can also tell a story, which is so important, and create this unique and beautiful unboxing experience. There is so much to packaging aside from protecting the item inside. There’s the actual piece that you know is inside the box, primary and secondary packaging. But there’s so much more to that: the storytelling and the brand piece and the textures and the colors and the forms that come into play. It’s many things coming together.

Q: How did you get into packaging design?

A: It’s an interesting story. Kind of by coincidence I had a freelance gig in 2004 that I took for designing cosmetic display units. As a person coming from ID, this was completely new to me and as an industrial designer I figured, Oh yeah, sure, I can do cosmetic display units, great, point of purchase. And then immediately when I started that job, I was not drawn so much to the display units, but much more to the packages that were sitting in the display, the actual product packages. They were just beautiful; full of texture, absolutely stunning. That’s what I wanted to do. I begged and begged until I got to design the packaging. Eventually they gave in and I never looked back.

Q: What do you enjoy most about packaging design?

A: After all these years in beauty packaging design, what I love the most is the collaboration that happens between cross-functional partners, and manufacturing as well. The initial design turnover is just a kickoff for a highly collaborative effort and process to bring up the product into production. There are so many different people that touch or are involved in that process. 

The most exciting piece is when you go, let’s say, to a glass production run for a perfume bottle, and you’re there, working with these craftsmen making that bottle. These have been such rewarding experiences; where you are working from the initial design sketching through to the final product. Seeing that all come together is absolutely rewarding and wonderful.

Q: What does design research look like in your practice?

A: It sort of depends on what I’m working on. If I’m working on a package design for a specific brand, really understanding the brand, the brand DNA, and the brand story, is crucial. That’s key. You have to design through the lens of that brand. That’s the first step. You have to dive deep into the history of the brand, what the brand means, and really understand what the design language is. 

Depending on the brief, the initial work phase may include concepting, it could be mood boards. Definitely a lot of concept boards, concepting, and ideation sketches. So the first step is determining where you want to go and inviting the client into that process. Saying, Hey, let’s look at this together. Where are we? Where do we want to go with this? Are we good with this step? And then going forward from there. 

The initial mood boards can outline different avenues for the project that you may want to take. So you may have like a couple different options for, you know, what’s the story, what are we doing, what are we trying to do? And then, further down the road, a mood board could go into materiality and more specific textures. Even color ways; what kind of color world are we thinking about? What kind of finishes are we thinking about? Maybe being more specific, but I think that’s a little bit further down the road.

Q: What are some of your favorite design research tools and strategies?

A: One of them is sharing this type of concept board. There can be great collaboration in that. Is it online, is it on Pinterest? Then really sharing some of these ideas and molding that shared idea. That’s one of my favorite tools to use for sure. And then, everybody gets stuck sometimes, sometimes you have no idea.

Another of my favorite research tools is to go outside, take a walk, get some fresh air, go for a run…just start over again. I feel like that’s like a great tool when you get stuck or you don’t know where to go.

Q: Could you talk about how you approach designing for a corporate client and compare that with how you design for personal projects?

A: I really work in the same patterns. Regardless of whether I work on my own project or for a client, my process is very similar. There’s always concepting, mood boarding…the difference is that I allow myself more time when I work on my own. I can be a bit more free. Also, I write my own informal brief, which is like a guideline for your own personal work: where do you want to go, what are your goals and dreams, where are you headed? I’m kind of old school. I still have a sketchbook where I write and sketch and put my notes. Typically what I like to do is I have some ideas and sketches in my notebook and then I expand on that on the wall. If I want to try an idea out, I start ideating on the wall with images and swatches.

Designing for a corporate client or corporate brand, there are obviously timelines, there are budgets associated, there are often process guidelines in place. When I work on my own projects, right now at least I’m trying to be playful. I’m trying not to have too many rules and trying to let myself grow with the flow a little bit more. Almost doing a little bit of the opposite, if you will, to open up a different area of creativity. 

If you work for a corporation or a client, there are all these stakeholders, all these processes and timelines. Sometimes, in terms of process, it can be easier, but it can also be much harder because you have all these different levels of approval that you have to walk through, not just yourself. Also potentially you have a team to manage. That’s really complex. When you work on something on your own, yes, you can do that for your own project, but it’s harder because you don’t have that structure. You have to be the one to create these boundaries for yourself; what’s your goal and what’s your timeline?

Q: What inspired you to shift from being a corporate design director to having your own consulting business?

A: Wanting to return to my personal projects and pushing myself to try something new was the main idea of leaving that environment and starting my own. It’s completely new, and I’m especially excited to collaborate with others. I’m interested in taking this opportunity to meet and work with other creatives. I’m still very much in the beginning, and it’s an exciting journey. It’s too early to say where we’ll go and so on, but right now I’m just extremely happy to have taken this step, and I feel like it was the right time to do it.

I’m trying to do the opposite of what I’ve done in the corporate world. I want to work with materials, to work with my hands, to collaborate with other people, to get inspired by other things. It’s a different direction, a new day. But I am still obviously interested in what I’ve been doing for so long, and packaging design is a big passion of mine. I’m an industrial designer by trade and by heart, that’s really who I am. 

To me that explains all these different interests, because I feel like as an industrial designer, you’re not one thing. You can work in different media and explore, and I think that’s also where this stems from: the desire to try out different things, not to be stuck in one area for too long, and to expand your horizon and your creativity in other areas. It’s easy to get going on one road, but what else is there? As a product designer, there are so many things you can do. In a way, my passion has come home. It’s coming full circle: I actually had a ceramics studio before I became a packaging designer, and now I’m going back to that.

Q: What makes a great package design?

A: A great packaging design is one that you want to keep. Also, packaging that’s designed in a sustainable way and is still beautiful, which is actually not easy to do. It’s very difficult. I would say those two: it’s either so beautiful, you don’t want to throw it away, or it’s sustainable and well-designed at the same time. Packaging you can repurpose is also really great. Some packaging is so incredibly well-designed that you want to hold on to it.

Q: Could you share examples of packaging designs you have found successful?

A: I’d have to say, I still think that Apple has incredible packaging designs. They’ve also evolved throughout the years. Their packaging has become a little bit smaller. If you look at the iPhone packaging, they’re a bit flatter now; less space, less packaging. I think that the packaging is still really beautiful. It’s simple, it’s minimal. It’s a really beautiful unpacking experience, which they’ve always been really great at. So, I think they are still great

Q: How has the packaging design space changed over the years?

A: Packaging now is moving away from oversized and over packaged designs, and really moving toward sustainability. That’s a big thing right now. It’s a race in the industry, who can be the fastest to implement sustainable packaging alternatives. It’s really all about sustainability.

Q: What do you see in the future of packaging design?

A: Hopefully a shift away from single use plastics and virgin plastics. I think we are moving towards that. It’s going to be a long journey. It’s difficult for the industry to catch up. And just more sustainable practices. I think more refills, more reuse would be great. We need to go there.

Check out the rest of our Insight series to learn more about the design industry. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram and LinkedIn for design news, multi-media recommendations, and to learn more about product design and development!


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