The Kinesthetics of Packaging:
Its Connotative Domain

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Faculty at IDC
by Ravi Poovaiah, Professor, Industrial Design Centre, IIT Bombay

1.0   Packaging: Nature as a model
Packaging: as an extension of locally available materials
Packaging: technology offers possibilities:
4.0   Bamboo-the natural material
5.0   Paper - the versatile material
6.0   Plastic - the synthetic option
7.0   Packaging - User Interaction Process
8.0   Attributes of Packaging
   8.1   The act of carrying a package
   8.2   The act of unwrapping
   8.3   The violence in packaging
   8.4   A feel for respect and gratitude
   8.5   Extension of personal space
   8.6   Aesthetics of packaging
   8.7   Reflection of nature/ tradition/ craftsmanship
   8.8   The consumption of packaging
   8.9   The architecture of enclosed space
9.0    The life after

This paper is concerned with extolling the virtues of appropriate packaging, which is normally just seen as an utilitarian interface between the product and the user. In addition to serving its primary function of protecting, communicating, transporting and marketing a product, the package in the context of this paper, is also being seen as an extension of one's cultural and emotional requirements, with emphasis on its connotative qualities. This paper tries to find pointers that are felt to be of considerable importance towards the design of packaging.

Packaging: nature as a model:
Nature's innumerable examples of packaging exist out there, visibly or invisibly for us to adopt, modify and make use of. We packages ourselves against modulations of the environment by means of our clothing. In fact, our skin itself functions as a living, breathing, regenerating package. Sea shells, seeds, the walnut, tortoise coconuts, the promegrenate, etc., are all examples of nature's ways of packaging. An egg is a veritable wonder of nature by the way it is packaged. Its protective shell is very tough along its vertical axis. But while the shell remains strong as a unit, it remains fragile for the new born chick to just peck and break it from inside. Additionally the shell is not spherical but elliptical so that, instead of rolling off if disturbed, it merely rolls back to the same place.

The implications of adopting examples of packaging from nature cannot be underestimated. In the process of using such examples, one is typically attempting to modify a concept or principle already inherent in nature to suit a different situation or application. The advantage of such a methodology of simulating nature's examples lies in the similarities of construction allow easier and intuitive acceptance of an idea through a sense of familiarity.

2.0 Packaging: as an extension of locally available materials:
Packaging as an extension of locally available materials used to be the norm until we started using technology to process raw materials, and transforming these into mass producable packages. Although primarily meant to store and transport food according to local needs, packaging has also served the function of containing artifacts related to religious, cultural and social needs. In this context, the factors that have influenced and shaped packaging have been the available skills and tradition, as well as the environment. The underlying approach being rooted in an innate concern for the ecology, and this getting translated in the use of bio-degradable materials for packaging. The traditional use of locally available materials is still very much in vogue in our country: banana leaves for eating, leaves for packing sweets, a cup of tea in an earthen pot and special dishes steamed in wrappings of leaves. The distinct advantage of such tradition lies in the pragmatic fact that natural materials are being reused and recycled rather than being wasted; and an extended advantage of this lies in the possibility of such materials imparting a natural feel about them, consequently allowing a closeness with nature.

Packaging: technology offers possibilities:
Technology offers new possibilities. It finds ingenious, appropriate answers to many practical difficulties. The concept of mass produced, uniform, quality-conscious packaging has an advantage in terms of predictability, dependibilty, convenience, etc. Regularity and standardization definitely help to impart a sense of confidence in a product. New technologies for extruding, forming, shaping, casting, decorating, printing offer alluring opportunities for developing packaging of products with distinct personalities. And yet, often, factors contributing towards the ease of manufacturing packaging have veritably overshadowed those factors that go to make for user-friendly packaging. Basically, this is a situation where technology has dedicated the from rather than the convenience of the user. Advances in technology has facilitated in integrating packaging with the product itself. The instant camera, spray knives are examples where packaging is actually the product, or almost the product.

We relate to different materials from considerations of our familiarity drawn from our past experiences, traditional conventions and their pragmatic implications. Based on these factors we form opinions and attitudes about the meaning of materials. Some of the semantic suggestions that the materials connote are its value in terms of durability, costliness, sacredness, dependability, beauty, etc. For instance, the material gold denotes security because of its lasting economic value, earthen pot represents life as its created from earth, copper connotes the feeling of being sacred from its use in religion ceremonies. Choosing a proper material decides the characteristics of packaging. Below are outlined three commonly used materials for packaging.

4.0  Bamboo- the natural material:
Bamboo has been used in many innovative ways as a packaging material in almost all places where this material is available. Bamboo offers its hollow pipe structure to serve as a container, its wide long leaves as a wrapping material and its cut strips to be woven into a variety of carrying cases. Many a times bamboo has been used in such a way as to add on to the flavour and taste of the eatable that it has packaged. In Japan, for example, jam is traditionally wrapped on different sides of bamboo leaves so as to impart two different flavours. Bamboo as packaging material can be used in a way to highlight its properties of freshness, emphasize its natural textures, make use of its structure and explore its form.

5.0  Paper- the versatile material:
Factors that easily make paper a favourite material for packaging are its ability to fold, its adaptability in terms of forming cardboard or corrugated sheets, its versatility to print images, text and graphics on it, and its suitability for mass manufacturing. Paper board, cartons, wrapping sheets, envelopes, corrugated containers are all variations available in paper. Additionally, paper presents for itself a certain merit of naturalness in the manner, for example, in which it can be held and felt. In the context of our culture, paper is treated with respect and reverence, as it represents a vehicle for diffusion of knowledge. Incidentally, although paper is derived form bamboo and other organic materials, it reflects none of the natural properties that are inherent in these original materials.

6.0  Plastic wrapping - the synthetic option:
This flexible material seems increasingly to be replacing paper apart from pervading many other forms of packaging. Its ability to be speedily mass manufactured, its properties of being sterile and clean, its capability for transparency and its ability to be air and water proof seem to be some of the reasons for which this material is preferred. Many ingenious ways of wrapping up a product are being discovered with respect to plastics. Plastics can be formed into varied shapes to impart distinct identities towards packaging. However, plastic is essentially synthetic to the sense of touch and has a feel about it of being artificial. Pragmatic aspects of its short usable life span and it being used in the context of a throw-away consumer culture make the relationship of the user to this material uncaring, frivolous and negligent. The factor of its non-bio-degradability and the fact that it makes use of scarce natural resources, are questions that need to be seriously considered while designing a package with this material.

7.0  Packaging: User-interaction process:
Formation Stages

Communication Stages

Consumption Stages

We have been concerned till now about the connotative aspects of packaging from the viewpoint of the materials that go to make the package. We shall change our viewpoint and look at packaging from its relationship with the consumer. Its being submitted here that there is an entire world within the contexts of sensory, visual, communicative and psychological factors that give packaging a dimension worth researching, outside its definitive domain of serving an utilitarian function alone. In our opinion, these sets of factors seem to communicate the meaning of what the package stands for through their connotative associations. Essentially the interaction between the packaging and the user here is being seen at an emotive and behavioural pane. Some of the main interaction points along the packaging-user interaction matrix have been identified below and their respective emphasis underlined.

8.0  Attributes of packaging
- Protection
- Transportation
- Storage

- tactile - textural
- olefactory - fragrance
- Visual - attractive

- Expressive / passive
- Traditional / modern
- Aesthetic / formal

- To identify
- To instruct -To persuade

-Value addition
- Personality
- Emotive

8.1  The act of carrying a package:
A user interacts with a package by holding it with or without the means of a handle, by strapping it on to his back or by just carrying it with his hands or on his shoulders or in some instances by carrying it on the head. Questions that need to be addressed here are whether a package is to be carried, held, worn on, strapped on, pushed on or pulled at and consequently whether to include handles, straps, wheels, and such other devices on to a package. The physical manifestations of the package in terms of its dimensions, its form and weight could determine the way it is to be handled. The way a user interacts with the package in terms of its portability is normally seen from the viewpoint of convenience. If protability is considered from a behavioural point of view, it might be contended here that social habits, convention, cultural factors and traditional factors influence the way things are to be carried. For example, it is quite common to see women folk carrying quite a bit of load on their back in hilly terrains, such as in the mountains of Bengal or Uttar Pradesh or in Nepal. A plastic shopping bag would seem terribly incongruous when carried alongside a formal dress. A backpack simply refuses to fit in with the conventions of the office space and yet look quite adequate and natural in a campus atmosphere. The behavioural patterns that dictate the carrying of a package in a certain manner by users must, therefore, be considered as a significant pre-requisite in the design of packaging.

To carry
- Portability
- Transport
- Hold, grip, lift
- Strap, tie, push, pull

8.2  The act of unwrapping:
The process of opening a package can be an exciting, memorable and beautiful experience. By concealing the product, the package creates enough curiosity of mystery to evoke a desire to open, uncover and discover the object that is inside the package; the need to satiate one's curiosity is an inevitable concomitant of the act of unwrapping a package. There is also a certain sensuality involved in this act of unwrapping. A package could end up revealing a surprise or continue to remain a puzzle until one has accessed the inner object. Packaging can also be thought of in layers that are made up of different materials, with surprises vested at each level. So when opened, the package reveals its inner layers, each with a different kind of material or surface, with attendant discoveries at each level making it a wonderful experience that cumulatively progresses on with unwrapping until the actual object which it has housed has been revealed. Even simple concepts like packaging in paper that has varied patterns or textures on the inner and outer sides could create considerable interest in the act of opening up a package.

To unwrap
- Reveal
- Discover
- Create interest
- Open, unfold
- Break, tear
- Unscrew, untie.

8.3   The violence of packaging:

By shifting emphasis to the process of manufacture rather than the 'convenience of use' by the consumer, many modern packages have violence inherently imbedded in the act of opening them up. There are entire type of plastic packaging that endorse violent behaviour. In the instances of these packages more often than not one has to tear off a packet to open it, and this could require force. Plastic wrappings usually have a propensity for being crushed at. Unconsciously this might be a reflection of the society in which we live, perhaps this could be reflection of the pace of modern living, undoubtedly, however, reinforcing certain behavioural patterns that take an indifferent or aggressive attitude towards materials. Further, many of the technology - oriented packaging have a certain violence attached to them - for example, one cuts open a tin, one pierces a can, all of which could be quite different from the act of turning on a lid or removing a cap. There definitely are gentle ways of unpacking.

8.4  A feel for respect and gratitude:
A feel for respect and gratitude towards a product could get reflected in the way it is wrapped. Package design must be addressed not at the narrow act of merely covering a piece of physical matter with some material but must be conceived with a broader view to 'house' the 'being' present therein. How much importance and care one fixes to the object inside can be gauged by the care gone into packaging. The package can even take on a symbolic value. For example, the package could be envisaged as layers of envelopes one inside another so as to express different aspects and to create levels of importance, in terms of values. Some of these factors become quite relevant and significant if the product is meant to be a gift. An emotional extension of one's feelings is then translated into the intrinsic value of the product and in this, the packaging as the initial interface plays an important role.

8.5  Extension of personal space:
When one touches a package, it is the texture, the surface, the feel of the material and such factors that are being experienced by the user. Touch is also the most personally experienced of all the sensations. A packaging meant for containing items such as cosmetics or jewellary is essentially housing a set of artifacts that eventually comes in physical contact with the user's body. Hence the need to be concerned with parameters that are tactile sensitive. The desire to express ones personality within this space is very strong. The design of packaging meant for personal use in a personal space can also be made to be visually expressive so as to reflect the identity and the personality of the user. With the exception of packaging meant for big industrial products which are primarily packaged for the purpose of transportation, most other packaging needs to be physically handled by the user and interacts mainly within the domain of one's personal space.

To give importance
- Care and detail
- Dominance
- Prominence

To feel
- Tactile
- Touch, feel
- Textural
- Hold, lift.

8.6  Aesthetics of packaging:
Packaging needs to be designed with a feel for the natural material as well as for the consumer who intends to use it. Visual features like the form, the shape, the colour and the texture of the package has to be designed so as to be honest and appropriate to the product it contains. Attention to these details could help to playfully excite one's sense of touch, sight and even smell. One regrets having to throw a good work of packaging. If we consider the principle that everything could and should be aesthetic, then even packaging can be conceived of as an art form by itself. For example, there are certain perfume bottles that are supposed to appeal to a sense of beauty; this has been achieved by exploiting the visual potentials of glass, which veritably adds on to the charm of the bottle. Nina Ricci's perfume bottle with a glass cork that appears in the shape of a winged bird definitely makes the whole thing ethereal - the bottle, the perfume, as well as the final getup.

To visualize
- Harmony, Contrast

- Balance, Proportion

- Structure, Symmetry
- Shape, colour

8.7  Reflection of nature/ tradition/ craftsmanship:
In the context of a mechanical, mass produced, consumer oriented, urban society one never fails to appreciate the soft chord that touches one's senses to be able to be near nature, or to be able to value tradition and appreciate craftsmanship. Hence objects of rituals, social functions, etc., have these aspects built into them. For example, there are products such as wines and pearls that enhance in value with age. Packaging of such products can take on a dimension of its own. Also packaging of products with strong associations with tradition, culture and history, would perforce require the above factors to be taken into account. The package for a bottle of saki uses natural materials to announce its freshness. Beedi packaging still remains quite traditional, and it almost feels as if the beedies would loose their flavour if packed in a cardboard case. It could come as a relief to be able to use natural materials for packaging meant for occasions such as a get-together, because a get-together evokes a sense of cosiness, just as materials like bamboo help transmute a sense of warmth and naturalness into the given environment.

To enhance value :

craftsmanship, history

8.8  The consumption of packaging :
Packaging has a language that sets moods, triggers impulses, satisfies hungers and can emotionally move a person. Marketability is sometimes the prime mover and motivation in the design of a package. Packages are meant to entice and persuade the consumers to consume it. Communications help to advertise about the product and draw the attention of the user towards the product. The graphics on the packaging would aid in its responsibility and create an identity of its own. To be able to differentiate a product from the others it is essential to create a distinct personality for the given product. The consumer has to discriminate, identity and select from among many the appropriate product to suit his own requirement. Once the confidence of the consumer is built-up for the product, it mostly leads to a loyalty towards that particular brand. This is a very important criteria in the context of the busy consumer oriented society, because this loyalty to a particular brand relives him from the burden of having to make decisions from innumerable possible alternatives. Conformity in the user develops because of repeated habit and the added security it connotes. These aspects have to be considered as essential in the design of packaging.

To Personify
social symbols.

8.9  The architecture of enclosed space:

The construction of the package is primarily meant to protect and transport an object in transit; but outside the utilitarian mechanistic confines of packaging must serve the function of a wider hyper-bole, for example, one of sheltering and housing an object in such a way that the house itself reflects the character has been packaged. The construction of the packaging can incorporate the detailed intricacies of form that make the package formally exciting and appropriately functional. The package must attempt to reflect the intrinsic value of the product, the personality of it. In the extreme case, the package could even serve the function of value addition, that ends up enhancing the original value of the given product. In other words, the package must speak a language of its own that makes the whole of the package greater than the sum of its parts. It is also important to consider packaging design from an architectural viewpoint as referring to the design in totality and not merely treatment of the outer surface.

To construct
support, hold

9.0 The life after
The life of a package is entended when it allows other functional uses after its primary function as packaging has been served. Examples of such extension are cardboard boxes that can be converted into toys for children. Or the use of visually interesting bottles that could end up as show pieces, or empty bottles as jars in the kitchen to store other things. This concern towards packaging design also helps in developing an attitude against the throw-away culture. Conservation, reuse and preservation instead of wastage existing in economies characterized by conspicuous consumption could then contribute towards an ecologically sound goal.

To Reuse
Life after
find another use

It is hoped that many of the concerns expressed above in this paper can bee seen as pointers towards design of user-friendly packaging. Comtemporary design has to recognize these semantic factors as offering opportunities for further design explorations. Packaging conceived in this direction is expected to further enrich the kinesthetic interaction between the user and the packaging.

Acknowledgements The author would like to thank Dr. Ajanta Sen for her suggestions and other assistance with this paper.

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- The above paper is published in
published as Proceedings of the 'workshop on Bamboo', an IDC publication, 1993

Contact Details:
Industrial design Centre,
Indian Institute of Technology,
Powai, Mumbai 400076