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Thinking inside the box

Package designers use art -- and a little magic -- to make your first glimpse of a new product an unforgettable experience.

The Nook HD+ packaging, designed by California-based Uneka. Josh Miller/CNET

Designers call it The Reveal. It's that single moment when a customer opens up the packaging and sets eyes on a product for the first time. It's over in a flash, and to package designers, it's everything.

Unlike those who engineer or construct the product inside, these designers have only a few seconds to make their only impression to the user. And because The Reveal must aid in cementing everlasting customer loyalty, it needs to be absolutely perfect. The unboxing experience must be seamless, effortless and above all, joyful.

"It looks simple," says Isabelle Olsson, Google's lead industrial designer of Glass and its packaging. "But that's the hardest thing to do."

An art form in its own right, design packaging has long been used to extend the branding of cosmetic, fashion and food companies. The tech industry is filled with its own share of numerous products wrapped up in elegant packaging, with Apple commonly cited by both customers and professionals as setting the gold standard with its first iPhone in 2007. Its box featured smooth matte paper, minimalistic graphics and a peeling-the-onion approach that guided users to slow down and savor each component, layer by layer.

Since then, more and more companies recognize the importance of product packaging, and work hard to elevate the user's "out of box experience." It's paying off -- the popularity of homemade "unboxing" YouTube videos is just one indicator that consumers get as excited about opening beautifully crafted boxes as much as they are about the devices inside.

A shelf removed

When it comes to high-end tech products specifically, customers aren't walking down a store aisle to see what simply catches their eye. By the time a shopper decides to shell out hundreds of dollars or pounds for a premium smartphone or tablet, he or she has most likely handled the product beforehand at a store display. As a result, packages for tech gadgets usually serve a different purpose.

"That idea of screaming brand and product name to help the customer navigate the shelf goes away," says William Morrison, packaging and brand manager at Microsoft.

Uneka's packaging for Google's Nexus Q media player. Josh Miller/CNET

At that stage in the purchasing decision, Morrison says companies can now concentrate on "creating delight about the brand, to be bold, and confident."

Matthew Martin, another industrial designer at Google Glass, agrees. Glass already starts at $1,500, and it won't be found anywhere on a department store shelf. "Once you get past a certain price point," says Martin, "people in stores won't ever experience the box."

Instead, these packages must subtly guide and enhance the user experience, and reassure to customers that their money was well spent. But pulling off this feat takes thorough planning, an eye for aesthetics and a team of collaborators poring over all the details.

Maintaining the thrill

To call packaging designers obsessive is an understatement. They worry about big things of course, obvious things. The cost of packing materials, their ecological impact and the amount of protection the package provides, to name a few. But there are surprisingly small nuances that can land on a designer's list of worries too.

"Everything that we do, needs to deserve to exist," says Olsson.

Apple's minimalistic and multi-layered approach to its iPhone packaging. Josh Miller/CNET

When Barnes & Noble tapped Uneka, a product packaging design firm based in California, to create the Nook HD+ e-reader's box, it asked the company to construct something that would physically raise the device the moment the lid was lifted, as if placing the product on a ramp.

"We scuttled off in the corner and thought about it," says Chris Palmer, Uneka creative director and co-founder. "It was a brain teaser for a while."

After several elaborate concepts involving fulcrums and spinning wheels, the team came up with a small, built-in hinge (made of the same recyclable paper as the rest of the box) that raises the tray -- a simple yet unique solution, Palmer says.

Mary LaPorte, a professor of graphic design at CalPoly and former teacher of Apple's creative director, Hiroki Asai, discussed Apple's already well-documented attention to perfection and detail. LaPorte still keeps in touch with Asai, whom she last saw earlier this year in January.

"After a [black iPod box] is made, assembled and closed up overseas, they go through an assembly line," she says, where workers armed with black marking pens are situated. "If there's a single white crack in the paper, they take a black marker and color it in."

Every little nuance

In addition to sourcing hundreds of types of paper for its Glass box, the Google Glass team also sifted through numerous sheets of vellum, a type of paper with a unique frosted-glass look. Inspired by elegant macaron pastry boxes, the team wanted a vellum seal that sat above the Glass device, which users can then peel off right before they dig through the box's contents.

"It was one of the hardest things to find," says Olsson. The vellum could not be "too transparent that gives it all away, but not too opaque that you couldn't see anything."

"Everything that we do, needs to deserve to exist" -- Google Glass' lead industrial designer, Isabelle Olsson James Martin/CNET

Meanwhile, Matthew Martin became fixated on the time it took the top of the Glass lid to slide down to enclose the bottom lid. From a dead drop, some prototype boxes took too long or closed too quickly. "It has to come between two and three seconds," he says. After many trials, Martin found the exact material and fit that allowed the box to close when it should.

While designers don't have a say as to whether or not a customer ends up tossing their art away in the recycling bin, they hope to craft something so special that users can't help but want to keep. To them, detail is the god of good design -- it's what elevates opening an ordinary box into a mini-ceremony. And it's the divine difference between having a product merely sit there in front of you and seeing it revealed.