I love the opportunity to design product packages, like I'm doing this month. So do many graphic designers and budding designers, but this highly specialized form of production-based graphic design is a beast that should not be underestimated. To help you from straying into a production nightmare, here are my top three tips to guide you to success.
Build a Moodboard
Dive into visual research. This is actually the fun part of any graphic design project as it is very stimulating and inspiring. Be sure to research your competitors and industry trends for the product type for which you are designing, then save those images. It doesn't matter if you keep a digital moodboard, a printed one, or a combination of both, just make sure you have a wide range of images that give you a good picture of what you need to do to make your designs stand out.
Plot Your Template
If you are just starting in packaging design, templates are a must as they will help you make sure all the tabs and sides properly align to form a functioning package. If you are a seasoned pro, you can consider templates for saving valuable design time. These are often readily available from the vendor who will print and assemble your final packages. Take the time to print and sketch on this template to make sure you have all necessary information, images, logos and other crucial design requirements in the right places and the right orientations. (Depending on your product, you may need to allow room for required information such as food nutrition or other FDA and federally-regulated disclaimers.)
Build a Dummy
Expanding upon the template sketching, build a 3D model of your package (commonly referred to by designers as the dummy) to make sure everything works and aligns properly. This is great for beginners and crucial for anyone who scratch-built their templates to make sure it all works. It's also a great opportunity to better visualize what your package might look like sitting on a shelf. I often print my dummies as reduced-scale models, which is handy if your printer can only print standard-sized paper (not unusual for in-house designers such as myself.
And there you have it! Now go forth and design something awesome.