Examples of G.I.JOE packaging from the 80s

The Evolution of Toy Package Design Over the Last 40 Years

Being a toy industry veteran with 38 years under my belt, I’ve witnessed a myriad of shifts in toy packaging design strategy, whether influenced by the advent of brand licensing, the quest for sustainability or the need to appeal to the ever-changing shopping behaviors of consumers. And, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many of the toy industry’s leading manufacturers and countless opportunities to impact the visual appeal and consumer perception of many of the industry’s globally-recognized brands.

When I first started working in the industry as a package designer, many of the best-selling products at that time were inventor items, with no support from an animated TV series or blockbuster film. If the inventor item became a hit, it became a staple brand for the manufacturer. The approach to package design at that time typically involved creating a highly-rendered logo and an illustration of the product based more in fantasy than reality, often over-promising on the play pattern. Think of the battle scenes on the front of any G.I.JOE action figure or playset package from the 80s. Quite a bit of exaggerated firepower going on there!

The shift to brand licensing

Thanks to the success of Star Wars and the franchise’s licensed action figures and playsets, the approach to toy marketing was redefined and brand licensing took over the industry. Toy aisles were eventually filled with licensed brands of all kinds. And, the industry’s approach to toy package design adjusted to accommodate this major shift. Visually-consistent branding became much more important because consumers – including kids, parents and the addition of the “adult collector” audience – were shopping for their favorite licensed brands rather than for specific products. Therefore, package design needed to instantly relate the product line to a particular animated series or film franchise.

The demand for authenticity and transparency

Toy manufacturers today have the challenge of appealing to much more savvy and discerning consumers. There’s a demand for authenticity and transparency in how toy products are marketed. Kids want to be able to try the product at retail and parents want to know that they’re getting the value that the packaging promises – that the product actually performs the way the packaging portrays its play pattern. As a result, we’ve seen fantasy-based illustration evolve into more realistic photo-illustrations or moderately-enhanced photography that more accurately represent the product the packaging contains. We’ve seen closed boxes replaced with open and window box structures so that product is clearly visible at retail. And, we’ve seen marketing communication become more realistic and truthful.

The ever-evolving package structure

Arguably the most dramatic change in package design over the last four decades is in the industry’s approach to package structure, some of which improved the shopping experience, while others reduced packaging waste. In the early to mid-80s, blister packaging would loosely conform to the contours of action figures and their accessories, required only a single blister to trap the product to the card. These structures evolved to an inner blister with chambers to hold the figure and accessories in place, while an outer blister remained flat to reduce the amount of reflections.

At that time, the standard size of an action figure blister card was quite large, providing quite a bit of visual space for branding and illustration. In an effort to be more sustainable, that standard size has reduced dramatically, requiring package designers to find ways to capture the attention of consumers within much smaller dimensions, whether through a unique structural shape or through inserts and blister labels.

Although the standard window box structure itself hasn’t evolved much over the past four decades, many would-be acetate windows have been eliminated in favor of an open box or tray box structure, depending on the category and type of product. And, in some categories, there hasn’t been much change at all. For example, the tray-style structure used for the original Super Soaker packaging that I had designed while at Larami Corporation is still the basis for the packaging for most water gun brands.

Toy package design as a brand experience

The popularity of YouTube “unboxing” videos in the mid-2000s were a catalyst to the advent of blind box packaging, originally hitting toy aisles with brands like Hatchimals ColleGGtibles, Shopkins and L.O.L. Surprise!, which leveraged the anticipation and suspense of opening the package to find out what is inside to drive purchase. But, this trend has evolved since that time from simply hiding the contents of the package to creating an elaborately-layered unboxing experience. And, the trend is still going strong with products like the YuMe Disney 100 Surprise Capsule figurines.

A new era with the same old goals

Although we’ve witnesses quite an evolution in toy package design strategy since the early 1980s, its goals remain the same – generate excitement about the play pattern without overpromising; let consumers know at a glance what they’re purchasing and how it works; minimize the use of materials to eliminate waste; protect the product from damage during shipping and from pilferage; and, most importantly, provide consumers with a positive, enjoyable experience with the brand at retail.

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