Featured image for Opinion Series: How to Design Boxes from a Manufacturer's Perspective

Opinion Series: How to Design Boxes from a Manufacturer's Perspective

by Diane Lindquist on 06/09/2014 | 11 Minute Read

Over the next few months, Bert-Co will attempt to cover the basics of how to create innovative folding cartons and rigid boxes from a manufacturer’s POV. As part of their new Opinion Series, Bert-Co is asking our readers to submit your packaging related questions here

Today's Opinion Series will take you behind box making and cover everything about Determining Right Structure to How To Measure A Folding Carton.

You've been asked to design the graphics for a custom box, now what?Don't panic. There's lots of help out there. Personally, I love boxes. This passion revealed itself early. I started making doll houses from corrugated boxes at a young age. By 12 years old, I stayed up late that Christmas Eve transforming the family's Christmas gifts into a castle surrounding the Christmas tree, complete with turret and drawbridge. I went on to college to learn printing and finishing and now I'm lucky enough to work at Bert-Co, with other passionate packaging geeks like me, where I've been for 31 years. We manufacture high-degree-of-difficulty folding cartons and rigid boxes. Over the next several posts, we'll attempt to cover the basics of how to create great folding cartons and rigid boxes from a box manufacturer’s perspective. Several of us will contribute. We're not expecting to cover much about graphic design, but instead the more technical aspects of making successful boxes that a graphic designer or marketing professional might want to know. We've geared this to someone relatively new to designing boxes. For us, a great box starts with a great structure. So before you jump right into thinking about awesome show-stopping graphics, consider first the performance of the box and all of its functions

It's most basic job is to protect the product. Secondly, it needs to communicate. While it's easy to think it's just a lowly box, some rectangular vessel, consider the many masters the package has to answer to.

The box should:

  • Protect the product; transport the product through the entire distribution system
  • Communicate at retail what the brand stands for and its promise to consumers.
  • Embody the environmental message of the brand
  • Educate the consumer; in-store and maybe at home, too
  • Keep the product secure or be "tamper evident" 
  • Potentially be repurposed after purchase
  • Possibly dispense the product

The carton’s retail shelf presence might mean the difference between getting sold or not. Some brands say that the package should stop a shopper in 2 seconds at 10 feet. Yikes.

Oh, and don't forget the ever-present budget. Even when you are told there is no budget, my experience tells me, there is always a budget!

Ready for the challenge?



Determining Right Structure From The Start

If the box structure hasn't been decided, and you are in the lucky position of determining the structure, you've got a lot to think about. If you've considered the most basic performance of the box you intend to create, its time to start thinking about the more advanced details of the structure of the box. Determining the right structure at the start will save time and money down the line. Now, you can give into temptation to start thinking about the graphics, but mostly in relationship to the structure.

  •  Is there a window that shows the product?
  •  Is it a kit or gift set that needs to hold many pieces in a certain way.
  • Is there an "unboxing" experience you would like the consumer to have? (See the video from the Paperboard Packaging Council or read about it at here.)
  • What are the drop testing or ship test requirements?
  • Is it part of a larger product line that needs to carry a uniform look?
  • What does the retailer want? Ultimately, they decide what gets into stores.
  • Is there art that must be on the package front that may affect the size of the box?
  • Do you know how it will be master packed? It needs to get where it’s going safely.
  • How will the product be fulfilled? By hand, semi-automated filling, or a high-speed automated filling line?
  • If you plan on a more complicated structure, that requires more hand labor to assemble and fill, has that been considered in the budget?
  • How much real estate will the package need to do the job of communicating and educating the consumer? Extra fold out panels might be considered if education in-store is required to help sell the product.
  • Are there other quality requirements or performance specifications? Water resistance, grease barrier, outdoor use, child safety, FDA compliance, are some, and the list goes on. 

You should have the product in order to size the box correctly. If this is a secondary package, you should already have a sample or prototype of the primary package. Primary packages include bottles, tubes, jars etc. Or you should have dimensions and weights at the very least.

Lots to consider. Your trusted vendors will help through this. The next step is determining what kind of box you intend to design.

  • A folding carton
  • A rigid box
  • A corrugated box



Folding Cartons

What's a folding carton? It’s a box, most often made of paperboard. In general, if you can unfold it and knock it down flat, without destroying it, it's probably a folding carton. It’s likely made of paperboard from 12 pt. to 24 pt. Think about boxes for cornflakes. While they have been glued shut to keep them tamper evident at the store, once those glue spots are broken it easily knocks down flat. This is a general rule since some folding cartons are glued in their erected form at the point of filling, (like most Kleenex boxes). Folding cartons most often ship to the filling location knocked down flat. This gives them the advantage of being compact to ship and store. As a folding carton manufacturer, every few years we ship a carton flat, to the client, only to find out they expected it would be delivered completely assembled ready to drop in the product, it's an unhappy day for everyone involved. So that's an important point to cover up front if you or your company will also purchase the folding carton.  Below are some examples of folding cartons.

Editorial photographEditorial photographEditorial photograph

Folding cartons made from plastic and paperboard. The boxes on the right are a structure called a Gable Top Box.



Rigid Boxes

If it's not a folding carton, it might be a rigid box you are about to design. "Rigid" boxes are also called "turned edge", and "set-up" boxes or sometimes just called "set boxes". The base structure is generally made of a heavier chip board than a folding carton and is covered (or wrapped) with a thinner material, like paper or fabric, called a label or "wrap". It ships completely set up, so you would need to destroy the box to knock it down flat. Think high-end chocolates, iPhone and iPad boxes. Rigid boxes are often the way to go if the box you are designing is for a luxury product, and needs to give a high perceived value to the shopper. Some structures can be made with automation, some require hand wrapping. They can be bulky to ship and store. There is also a hybrid of a rigid box and a folding carton, called a  "collapsible rigid box". Below are some rigid boxes. 


Editorial photographEditorial photograph

The one on the left is a more typical cigar box style, and this set comes with a matching book. The fragrance boxes on the right are a structure that includes a lid, collar, and base.



Corrugated Boxes

Corrugated boxes have a "fluted" material in the middle, and a flat liner top and bottom. If you have a really heavy product, this might be the way to go. If it needs to have high-end graphics on the outside of the corrugated, printing direct onto the corrugated is one option, but generally has limitations for really high-end treatments. Another option is printing on a thinner material and laminating it to the corrugated. This is often called a litho laminated box, or “litho lam”. A third option might be to put a sleeve made of something other than corrugated, like paperboard, around the corrugated box. Or use the corrugated as an insert to give strength to a folding carton.

Editorial photograph

Above is an example of a litho lam carton. This one has a rigid window. The top has the raw edges turned in so the fluted edges aren’t visible.



Get Your Vendors Involved

Starting with the structure first will insure you get the best result without spending time doing it over. If you and your team have the answers (or at least direction) to all of these questions, it’s time to get your packaging suppliers involved. If standing out at retail is also your goal, vendors can bring lots of capabilities that can help a package get noticed at retail. Shape, extra colors, metallic details, unusual materials, embellishments, and texture are all things that have been proven to increase sales. And who doesn’t want more sales? Not all vendors can offer all these capabilities. So choose a vendor early that gives you the freedom to design the package you dreamed of. Since folding cartons, rigid boxes, and corrugated boxes require different equipment to manufacture each of them, it's important to know which suppliers produce what kinds of boxes. Some box manufacturers make only one kind of box, some make folding cartons and rigid boxes, some make folding cartons and also make corrugated boxes. Some printing companies will print the paperboard or "wrap" and outsource the process of converting it to a box. Feel free to ask your supplier to show you samples of the kind of work you have in mind, and interview them for the details, you'll be able to figure out who's up to the task at hand. If you are going to win a Dieline award with a great package, it’s likely, your vendor will need to help.



Getting The Dieline

If you already know the style of the structure, the exact dimensions, and the exact specification of the material that the box will be made from, great, you are ready to start on the graphic design. You should be supplied a "dieline", in a digital format, of that structure. It will accurately represent all the measurements. It may also give you direction on bleed requirements and tolerances. You will also be able to see where the glue spots are. It may also tell the date it was designed and who the structural designer is. It is likely numbered for future reference. 

If you weren't supplied the die line, you'll need to get one. You could attempt to make your own, but we don't recommend it, at least not for the final art. Unless you are also trained as a structural designer, we are pretty sure somewhere along the line the art will need to be revised if you do. Our structural designers live in a world of tolerances, making boxes that square up nicely, assemble easily, and stay closed when they are supposed to. They know what our equipment can produce. 

But if it's 11 p.m. on Sunday and the first round of comps are due tomorrow morning, then you might need to improvise. You can make a die line in a vector-drawing program like Adobe Illustrator. For the final art you really want to use the die line from the manufacturer who will produce the box. 

While just about any competent carton supplier could make a basic straight tuck end carton, an STE, once the carton starts getting more complicated, there are nuances as to what works best for each supplier. Even really small STE's or really large STE's might present challenges that would change the size of the tuck flaps and glue seams.


Packaging Styles

If you don’t have the dieline, you may be able to ask your supplier for the dieline by calling out the style and size of the carton you are looking for, along with the name and caliper of the material it will be made from. Some standard styles for folding cartons are:

  • STE - Straight Tuck End
  • RTE - Reverse Tuck End
  • TTAB - Tuck Top Auto Bottom
  • FSE - Full Seal End
  • DGSW - Double Glued Sidewall
  • TTSLB - Tuck Top Snap lock Bottom
  • BSSTE - Book style Straight Tuck End

If you don't know the exact structure you have in mind, find a vendor with a great team of structural designers. While you are most likely talking directly to your sales rep or customer service person, you might also talk directly to the structural designer. The structural designer will take all the information supplied along with samples of the product and design a box that fits your needs. They can get you something that works for manufacturing without guessing and mostly likely with an extra bonus of cad cut samples. You can hold it, touch it, feel it, and you’ll have a better idea if it can perform all the jobs as you imagine.



How To Measure A Folding Carton

If you want to get the dieline or prices to produce the carton by calling out the specifications of the box, it’s important the dimensions are in the proper order. Folding carton suppliers want to know the outside dimensions, while the corrugated industry measures from the inside of the box.

See the YouTube video by our Design Manager, Danny Suarez, on how to measure a box:

Download: How to Measure a Box

Next month we'll cover folding carton anatomy and how your vendors can be your design development partners.

Future posts will cover:

  • Texture
  • Unique Shapes
  • Material Selection
  • Design Development
  • Folding Carton Anatomy
  • Foil Stamping & Embossing
  • Embellishments/ Rigid Boxes
  • Printed/ Embossed on Plastic

Feel free to submit questions, click here.

Editorial photograph

About Suzan Kerston

Suzan Kerston is a packaging Geek. She attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, completing her studies in graphic communications. She is Executive Vice President at Bert-Co where she has worked for 31 years. Since 1930. Bert-Co creates and manufactures specialty and innovative packaging to luxury markets including beauty, distilled beverage, fancy food, and entertainment. Bert-Co excels at unusual coatings, unique substrates, sophisticated structures, and high-degree-of-difficulty folding cartons. Domestic manufacturing and global sourcing.