Trending Now in Paperboard Packaging Design


Last month was the judging of our annual North American Paperboard Packaging Competition. We’re thrilled with the winners and can’t wait to reveal them at our upcoming Fall Meeting! For now, though, we’ve distilled the overall trends that the judges observed throughout the competition. 

Use this “snapshot” of a year in carton design to take the pulse of your own recent work. Did your customers ask for some of the below? Did your designers think up similar solutions? And, perhaps most importantly, how can you use the current trends as a springboard to discover what’s next? 

Here’s what we saw:

Disrupter Structures
This year, many converters were asked to create designs that would disrupt the store shelf. Unlike other substrates, paperboard has a sturdy, sculptural quality, and the converters took advantage of this by creating unique structural designs that stand out at retail. For example, many entries this year incorporated “arcuate” or circular scoring to create an additional panel on the front of their packages. This not only provides a unique bow-shaped structural element that interrupts monotony at retail, it also creates additional space for branding and graphics. (See the curved silver panel between the front and top panels on this Milk Bone carton submitted by Hub Folding Box.) Other disrupter designs incorporated sweeping curves and pyramidal shapes. A few packages were also intentionally designed to be taller or wider than the average folding carton.

Sustainability Comes Standard
Paper is renewable and recyclable by its very nature, and because of that, the paperboard packaging industry has always had a great sustainability story to tell. Yet over the years, converters have been working diligently to perfect that story by embracing sustainable manufacturing practices like material reductions, use of clean energy, and sourcing from managed forests.

Today it seems we have reached a tipping point: nearly every entry in the 2017 Carton Competition incorporated sustainability in some way. For instance, many entry forms revealed that the cartons were converted using paperboard that came from FSC and SFI certified responsibly-managed forests. However, in most cases, this environmental accolade was not revealed on the package. This suggests that sustainability has become so integral to paperboard packaging design that no special mention is necessary. Sustainability is business as usual. It comes standard. 

Expanding the Senses
Today, packaging is about experience. Brands don’t only want to engage consumers visually, they want to immerse them in multisensory experiences that elongate and deepen their interactions with the packaging, product, and brand. Many cartons entered into the competition this year really upped the ante when it came to heightened sensory experience. In terms of tactile experience, soft touch coating was king. Nearly 100% of the cosmetics cartons and about 30% of the entries overall were finished with soft touch, which imparts a rich, velvety feel to the package. Five years ago, there were perhaps three or four entries with soft touch—all of which probably merited a special award because of it. Now it has become a go-to choice for adding tactile appeal, especially in the cosmetics segment. 

Tapping into the sense of sight and touch seems fairly straightforward, but what about hearing? This year, some entries did indeed incorporate audible elements into their designs. Several cartons had open and reclosure features that click when the consumer closes the package. The judges were pleased with this unique feature for two reasons: first, because the audible click gives consumers assurance that the package has closed properly; and second, because it allows for smooth and aesthetically pleasing interactions with the carton—the consumer can open and close the pack over and over without tearing it.

(Even) More Digital  
Last year, we reported an increase in the number of digitally printed folding cartons entered into the competition. 2017 saw even more digital converting grace the judges’ table. Many of these cartons were made for smaller customers who desired speed to market and fast turnarounds. As technology becomes more sophisticated and accessible, more and more converters seem to be turning to digital presses to provide customers with speed and flexibility. If digital entries continue to increase at the same rate over the next years, PPC might even introduce a special category for digital.  

Another point of interest, though perhaps not yet a trend, is the use of laser cutting as opposed to traditional die-cutting. This new equipment allowed converters to add extremely detailed and intricate cutting embellishments to their cartons. In many cases, if one doesn’t look carefully, these cuts simply look like printing because they are so fine. Here, technology has expanded what is possible. We’ll most certainly see more. 
While these four trends came from a high-level review of the entire competition, all of the top-winning entries certainly tell powerful stories of their own. Check back in October to learn about them, and for more information on the competition, visit

design trends
North American Paperboard Packaging Competition
package design
paperboard packaging
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