How Product Packaging Elevates Gastronomic Experiences

As ideas intersect with one another in this ever-evolving world, what binds them like atoms is the way we connect to them in our own unique ways. Food & Design – a brand new series by Slurrp, highlights the unseen but prominent role design plays in shaping our experiences with food – and all that is associated with it.

If you’re ever caught in a moment where you begin to wonder what good packaging can really do beyond appeasing an Instagram generation, think of the time you or someone you loved moved abroad and found themselves walking down the aisle of an Indian supermarket. If their heart and eyes lit up with joy upon seeing a wall of bright yellow packets stacked on top of each other, promising the nostalgia of eating instant ramen noodles back home, the true purpose of why things are created a certain way can be identified. Think back to the time when you were a child and ice lollies that cost a rupee, wrapped in tubular plastic packs, was your kryptonite in the summer. Or better even, the brooding blue of your favourite potato chip packet that had you licking the residual seasoning off of your fingers!

Over the last decade, the changing face of what’s visually appealing to the eye has evolved more rapidly than one would care to keep up. However, what also makes design – specifically packaging design feel special, is the potential permanency it might have in the minds of the audience it’s created for. While we may not acknowledge it instantaneously, most of us bask in the joy of feeling like we’re a part of something – almost as if the sense of ownership makes you different than those who might not be aware of the glories of what you buy. If translated to reality, a great example of this would be the time when a popular coffee chain made its way to India, and holding cups emblazoned with the green siren, posing for photos became the new ‘cool’.

Image Credits: Unsplash

Speaking to us about the idea behind the importance of creating a narrative through packaging, Sakshi Saigal – the co-founder of the craft gin brand, Stranger & Sons, says that, “Surprising our consumers and presenting them with exciting and experimental choices was key to us. We always aimed to elevate their drinking experience, and our Perry Road Peru & Trading Tides Gins have been testament to that. Brainstorming on innovative ideas that move the needle in the Indian spirits landscape – not just through the liquid we produce but also the narrative, design and drinking experience we create allows us to be cognizant of the modern Indian consumer.”

Sakshi and her team – who have been riding the high wave of design, all thanks to their Sherry Cask Aged Gin bagging gold at the Global Spirits Design Masters in 2023, adds that they wanted to highlight the elusive nature of the signature bottle’s label. The gin – which is rested, aged and then infused, required a story to spotlight the conscious process and care that went into creating each bottle of the limited-edition spirit. “From afar you’d see a busy label but the closer you come, the more there is to see. With a contemporary take on the jungles of India the label would have to have a lot of underlying details and hints of the spirit for the consumer to discover – the more you seek, the more you’ll see!” she adds.

Image Credits: Stranger & Sons

Although creativity takes one places, the spectrum of packaging design for food and drink also involves painstaking labour to highlight the best parts of a product. After all, the beauty of a product’s packaging is in the eye of the beholder! Nikhil Bendre – chef and founder at Mumbai-based Nomad Culinary Studio, points out that the effectiveness of a design is as successful as those it is meant to reach. “How do you boil down all of your ideas to make it simple enough for any person to understand and absorb? We spend a lot of time brainstorming down to the actual crux of what we are trying to present; this system has proved to be successful for us not just in our output but also in its end use. We also observe trends and trendsetters closely to understand what they are doing and why it is working.”

The studio, which works closely with brands like Bombucha, Farm Made Eggs and, specialises in not only styling and photographing products but also in helping create digital content that will communicate to the consumer with maximum impact. The clean symmetry, unapologetic use of colour and just the right amount of detail give his work at Nomad an identity of its own. According to Nikhil, two major factors influence whether the consumer might purchase a certain product – one, differentiation and the second, information.

Image Credits: Mayur Shelke for Nomad Culinary Studio

He says, “When your product’s design is starkly different from the other players in the market, you can create intrigue and mystery. There isn’t one specific design style that can help you look different, since this requires market and competitive analysis to understand the design trend in similar products. Once you identify what a particular trend is, you can aim to break away from the competition through design. In recent years, minimalism has played a huge role in breaking trends in product design with global brands such as Chobani and Burger King opting for leaner and sleeker logo as well as brand language options.”

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He further adds that consumers these days are also hungry for as much information as they can get on any product they might have an interest in – something which ‘relates well with the importance of story-telling,’ affirming further that a balance between all of them is crucial to establishing ground. Steering away from clean lines and closer to hand-drawn ones, Goa-based water colour illustrator, Shawn D’souza associates emotions with the compelling nature of design – especially if it has to do with food. He says that nostalgia, memories and history attached to food have the power to create a connection as long as the audience can associate with it through cultural references.

He shares an example of a mango-flavoured hard candy, saying that if he were to illustrate an imagery of it, that would almost immediately have an effect on kids who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s. “You don’t need words for it, you just need to see it and it will immediately transport you to your childhood, mangoes and the shops you used to buy them from. Like food, visual arts is striking, emotional and immediate – you might not even understand the concept or story behind it, but it will evoke emotions from you. Food – whether you like it or you hate it, it brings out something in you. That’s the same way with visual art.”

Illustration By: Shawn D'souza For Nivaala

Shawn – whose repertoire boasts of beautifully detailed illustrations that found spaces in Vogue, Reader’s Digest and the heirloom recipe journal, Nivaala, believes that in the age of short attention span, looking at a picture explains more about a story – encouraging a person to explore the words further, as a result. “Since the illustration is so vivid, you look at something and build a story in your head. You go to a place where you can draw parallels with it and associate with it better. To get someone to understand and be intrigued by something, a picture is a great foot in the door to start a conversation. A person who might not understand your culture would be intrigued by it when they see a visual since not everyone is a reader. Usually, it’s easier to get eyeballs and build interest with a visual medium.”

Delving further into his work and giving us a glimpse into his process of creation, Shawn’s meticulously painted details are delightfully realistic. Upon looking closer, admirers of his work would be amazed to see the black dots of mustard seeds floating in a ladleful of sambar that teases a fluffy bed of idlis; or the ripe segments inside of a lemon cut in half – details that he thinks are extremely important to those whose lives these dishes and ingredients have always been part of. “It’s the small details that really speak volumes of what I want to get across. Anyone can draw, but if it needs to connect with an audience it’s intended for, you need to understand the cultural references and the smaller bits which make a big difference,” he adds, while attributing his love for detailing to extensive hours spent on research and referencing.

While the effect of a final design is something that one can experience, what really adds to the charm is the fascinating process in which ideas unfold. From a germ, elements come to life – the journey of design unravels much like cooking a meal in the kitchen. Curiously enough, upon wanting to know what the initial brief Sakshi’s team had given designers – Oveja Fresca and Remi Basoalto – was, she says, “We wanted the design language to mirror the inspiration of the product as well as the feeling we aimed to invoke in the consumers when they sip on this spirit. So, it was key for Oveja and Remi to truly understand this. We explained to them that this time, we had gone a step further and looked at techniques of ageing spirits globally and decided to age our Indian spirited gin in casks that were used to make sherry previously.” The designers, whose brainchild, the Argentina-based Oveja & Remi Studio created the award-winning packaging, managed to illustrate beautifully the vision Sakshi's team had in mind.

Illustration By: Shawn D'souza For Enthucutlet

Similarly, Shawn talks about the illustration (see above) he created for Enthucutlet, mentioning that the colloquial elements that are now part of the vibrant imagery came to him during the course of his research – when he saw a lot of idli sellers lining their cane baskets with banana leaves before placing the steamed delicacy in them. He describes how, even the paper plate in which these idlis are served to hungry customers wasn’t just a plain white base to eat from – but in fact had a shiny plastic coating, small ridges and layers of paper pressed down together for thickness. “Drawing on all these little things for me makes it realistic enough for the audience to connect, without pushing it to a point of hyper-realism. Similarly, another piece I worked on for Nivaala was a visual of a woman cooking in her nightie with a safety pin attached to it. There’s a reason why I’m even referring to it as ‘a nightie’ – it’s very particular to the audience, the social structure and also to the region. I put them in from a point of connection or relevance.”

On the flipside of this, Nikhil quips that despite his vast experiences of creatively collaborating with brands at the studio, some principles remain constant. “Whenever I’m thinking about creating a story and presenting my ideas to a brand owner, the one thing that I always consider and include in my pitch is the ‘why’. The question needs to be looked at from multiple angles – why was the brand started, why am I pitching this visual set-up of friends getting together and enjoying the product, why should we be using hard light instead of soft light. Once you can look at the why from different perspectives, weaving a story around the product becomes much simpler.”

Image Credits: Mayur Shelke for Nomad Culinary Studio

However, Nikhil’s job isn’t just a bed of roses, as one of the constant challenges he’s faced with while building narratives begins at the very first step of ideation. “Limiting my natural ideas and concepts to fit the limited perception of the masses is certainly the hardest aspect of my business. But at the same time, I am aware of the importance of simplicity in design and marketing,” he acknowledges. Nikhil adds that technological advancements in cameras and lighting equipment allows him and his team to ideate and execute complicated set-ups with ease. The availability of faster cameras and better lighting has also helped his studio increase the quantity of output that can be processed for a project – allowing the brand’s story to be spread out over a period of time as opposed to bombarding the consumer from the get go.

Meanwhile, the design process for Sakshi’s team worked with a clear vision of what was absolutely imperative to get their message across. She talks about how the label had to be a mirror of the intricacies of Indian jungles and their lush expanse. The ‘Mythical Being,’ which sits right in the centre of the label, was something that Sakshi says was non-negotiable within the final scope of the output. “You see the Mythical Being majestically resting on the cask which is very obvious at the first glance but as you look in closer you see a lot more elements – the honeycomb, the old-fashioned decanter and other beings of the jungle.” While it was important to her that the packaging looked stunning at a first glance, Sakshi says that the larger idea was for the consumer to be at ease while having a drink of the Sherry Cask Aged Gin.

Image Credits: Stranger & Sons

“The spirit demands you to slow down in order to savour it and slowing down is the antithesis of today’s ‘hustle’ lifestyle for most. The visuals on the label and packaging had to depict time in the jungle – which is not bound by clocks from the outside world; that’s the representation we aimed for. So, on the final label you will see the beings of the jungle relaxing on branches, walking around with a drink, playing musical instruments and above all, the Mythical Being rests steadily and calmly on top of a cask, patiently allowing the spirit to age,” she points out.

Shawn, on the other hand, often finds himself at the helm of communicating unfamiliar, and possibly unheard-of concepts through his illustrations. Before he begins working on a piece of visual art, it becomes necessary for him to understand who he is creating for. “If it is for a more generic larger audience, I don’t need to worry about the finer details but I will add them in anyway because they explain a particular story. If a person is new to the idea of what I’m doing, they might not observe these touches but for anyone whom the concept is authentic to or have a cultural reference of, these details will matter to them. At the end of the day, I’m telling a story and I try to be as real to that as possible.”

Illustration By: Shawn D'souza For Isprava

Colour, shapes, textures, placement, fibre and lighting are some of the things that become aspects of his hand-painted pieces that depict his work in the way it is eventually seen. What’s also unique about his style of working is the part-for-a-whole approach he has while placing elements on a canvas. “If I don’t have to show the full utensil, I try to show just the bit of the handle or the lid. My work is not abstract so it might not be technically accurate all the time, but as close to reality as possible. When it comes to a dish or ingredient, I use the same approach so it doesn’t always have to take up the entire space,” Shawn adds. Since his recent work in food illustrations dabbles a lot within the Indian regional cuisine space, Shawn is also mindful of the fact that an audience who follow a vegetarian diet are not alienated by the presence of meats in his work.

Image Credits: Mayur Shelke for Nomad Culinary Studio

Referencing for illustrations of food from lesser-known regions of Kashmir or the North East of India requires him to closely work with his collaborators to understand a culture better. “I want to think about things that still exist in our country that haven’t gotten their due.” Talking about the role a creator plays in delivering what a brand hopes to communicate to their target audience via visuals, Nikhil agrees that customers are bombarded with more information than necessary in today’s age. He believes that aside from simplifying and breaking down necessary details for the consumer, having a brand ethos is crucial.

Nikhil draws inspiration from what he loves doing most – cooking, and translates that into his content creating work, all the while learning the importance of perspectives. “I often bring learnings from my time as a professional chef into the world of content creation as it requires similar principles and an attitude of constant learning and improvement. Ever since I began, I’ve been following food photographers like Joanie Simon, Mumbai’s Assad Dadan, Kutbuddin Patrawala and Vinayak Grover for inspiration and to learn new techniques available in the industry,” he shares.

No matter what the medium or process, packaging will always be integral to the larger emotional string a product tugs at for a consumer. Not only does it reflect what truly must be highlighted, but also the changing landscape of how food and drink continue to evolve in India – with a story at the heart of it. Sakshi signs off by saying, “We build our packaging with the aim of stunning consumers from all over the world, intriguing them to discover the story of India through our lens. Our country is so complex and intriguing where there’s always something new to uncover and where nothing is as it seems. The brand's design identity stems from the roots of India and its rife for storytelling.”

Visit Stranger & Sons on their website here.

You can follow Nikhil's work at Nomad Culinary Studio here.

You can follow Shawn's work on Instagram here.