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Why now is the time for packaging designers to go plastic-free

Sarah Moffat, Chief Creative Officer at Turner Duckworth, says innovation is easier when the need is pressing

Illustration by Lauren Morsley

“We always joke that we should have a coffee table called ‘Turner Duckworth is rubbish,’” jokes Sarah Moffat, Chief Creative Officer at the design studio that’s made work for brands including Coca-Cola, Campbell’s and Levi’s. “Friends will say that they saw our new packaging and then promptly send me a picture of it crushed in the gutter or sitting as a crown on the top of a pile of trash.”

Moffat, who is D&AD Awards 2023’s Packaging Design Jury President is laughing as she says all this, and emphasises that the reason she got into design in the first place is because she fell in love with packaging. “It’s the thing people bring into their homes,” she explains. “Yes, it ends up in the gutter, but it also ends up in collections.”

While she wholeheartedly believes in its importance, Moffat admits there’s a lot of work to do when it comes to making packaging more planet-friendly, and according to her. it won’t be a “sudden quick fix”. Rather than the perfect solution arriving overnight, she believes it’ll be a series of gradual improvements. Consumers are likely to be “horribly unforgiving” of any packaging that’s not up to scratch, meaning companies will need to carry out months of rigorous testing before they even begin the huge challenge of adapting infrastructure and manufacturing.

“Friends will say that they saw our new packaging and then promptly send me a picture of it crushed in the gutter”

“It’s not black and white,” she explains. “There’s a lot of grey area, and we need to be more comfortable in that grey area. So let’s be the small guys on the inside chipping away, rather than waiting for a giant opportunity to come along that’s going to change everything, because we could wait a very long time.”

The good news is that eco-friendly design has come a long way in the last decade. As Moffat points out, many designers have moved beyond the “pulpy, crusty, crunchy, granola-looking” era, and are creating more sustainable packaging that looks as appealing and beautifully designed as its plastic-containing counterpart. She also believes the sheer challenge of creating more planet-friendly packaging is producing incredible results. “I’ve always held true that the tighter the turning circle, the better the result,” she tells D&AD.

“If you are given a blue sky brief to do whatever you want, it’s crippling because it can be anything. But when the constraints are tight you have to be really ingenious with how you think about things, and how you can turn what is perceived as ugly into something beautiful, that’s the crux of being a designer for me, and that’s when you’re really getting value from design It’s challenging, but that’s the job, and that’s the part we need to get on with and make aesthetically beautiful. The idea that designers could create something so beautiful that people keep it forever, rather than throwing it away — that’s the holy grail.”

"When the constraints are tight you have to be really ingenious with how you think about things”

Moffat says that it can be extremely challenging for designers trying to create more sustainable packaging, with people often expecting a 100% perfect solution, and quick to criticise anything less than that. Her answer? “Come and show us. You’re not going to change anything by criticising everyone else. I think Michelangelo said it: criticise by creating. Don’t just come and complain about something, show me how you can do it better, lead the way, make it incredible and that’s where everyone will go because you’ll set a standard and light a beacon. There’s too much complaining and not enough doing.”

And that’s where D&AD’s new zero-plastic category comes into play. Moffat hopes that it’s an invitation for designers everywhere to show what’s possible, and demonstrate that plastic-free packaging can outwit, outlast, and outplay the competition. More than that, it could be the catalyst for big business to push through the changes the planet so desperately needs. “If other brands are showing plastic-free can be desirable and beautiful, and nipping at their heels, they can’t sit idly by,” says Moffat. “The more we can showcase what people are doing, the better.”

Written by Emma Tucker

D&AD Awards 2023 is now open for entries. Download the entry kit and submit your work here. Read more insights from jurors into their corners of the creative industries here.

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