There’s an automatic sense of excitement upon spying a new cardboard box by your doorstep. That’s part of why subscription boxes have exploded in popularity within the past few years. Subscribers sign up to receive a box delivered to their home on a quarterly, monthly or sometimes weekly basis, and inside that box is a treasure trove of goods selected by experts or personalized to the subscriber’s taste. Also known as curation subscription services, some of the most successful companies include Blue Apron, the meal-kit delivery box; Birchbox, the provider of beauty products; Stitch Fix, a personal shopping service; and NatureBox, which feeds the masses with healthy snacks. Major retailers have entered this digital marketplace as well, including Sephora, Target and Walmart.
Before subscription boxes, there were similar product-of-the-month clubs, but those weren’t so tailored to specific desires. The recent wave of curated boxes is indicative of the preference for bespoke experiences. And the market is huge: a 2018 study by marketing analytics company Hitwise estimates that 18.5 million people in the United States are subscription box shoppers, who could be subscribing to anything from niche boxes full of nerdy figurines to survivalist products to housewares imported from Japan. According to that same study, the market has grown by a whopping 890 percent since 2014.
So, how are designers approaching this space?
“What I think is particular about the subscription service model is the limited interactions,” says Min Lew, creative director at Base Design in New York. “Retentions with the brand season after season become really important. The onboarding process, the unboxing experience and what the brand allows you to do have to be especially more gratifying and engaging.”
By their nature, curation subscription services thrive off of the element of surprise. Subscribers often have no idea what they’re going to get, so the experience is wrapped up in anticipation and a grand unveiling. Designers are capitalizing on that idea as they work with these businesses.
One company with a particularly elaborate and interactive so-called “unboxing experience” is Kidbox, a subscription service that provides a personalized selection of kids’ clothing. Lew handled the design and identity work for Kidbox, including the unboxing plans. “We intuitively and instinctively knew that was an emotional moment,” she says. “Of course it needs to come in a box, but how do we own that experience so that it’s memorable for the kid and also the parent? … We wanted [the box] to have a second life beyond [being] the vessel that carries the clothing.”
The boxes are decked out with black-and-white outlined words and images, and when kids open the boxes, they find an explosion of bright colors and patterns, as well as stickers and crayons. It’s immediately clear that the box is meant to be personalized and colored. “That box becomes your box,” Lew says. “You start to create this emotional engagement and anticipation for the next box. It’s never only about the clothing. We’re building multiple layers of engagement points.”
And, while not every single box is unique, Lew designed multiple themes and patterns so kids can look forward to a fresh experience next time. Beyond the box, Lew focused on the idea of Kidbox as a fun activity and opportunity for familial bonding. It starts with the child filling out a personal style quiz and ends with the family picking out a charity to donate a new clothing item to if the kid loves the clothes enough to keep the whole box. “It relies heavily on the emotional engagement between the parent and the child,” she says.
With coffee subscription service Modern Recreation, Vanessa Eckstein, principal at Toronto-based studio Blok Design, landed on the notion of the subscription as a journey—subscribers are going on an adventure with the company to find the most unique roasters around the world. “You basically trust their judgement and expertise and go on this journey of being surprised,” Eckstein says. “Most of our design played on these elements—the joyfulness, their passion.”
Eckstein created one basic design and structure for the packaging and then used unique stickers to playfully express where the coffee comes from without explicitly naming the location. For example, one sticker shows important cultural destinations from the coffee’s origin. Another outlines the longitude and latitude. Eckstein took inspiration from old bus tickets from Argentina—another example of a journey—for the stickers’ design, which features multiple fonts to signify the company’s irreverent nature. The photography echoes this thought process. The website features large, black-and-white images of seemingly random people living life. There’s a neorealist, documentary feel to them, and indeed, the scenes were very much real: the couples were real-life couples, wearing their own clothing and no makeup. “This is not just a shot but a narrative; every image had to document real people in real situations,” Eckstein says.
With subscription boxes, designers need to create a rich visual vocabulary due to the different ways people experience them: the website, including an online store, and in person through the physical packaging. But the branding and identity work involved isn’t any different than with other companies, designers say. “Our task was to create an identity and packaging system that’d stand out from the crowded market. The purchase model didn’t really matter,” says Natasha Jen, a partner at Pentagram’s New York office, via email. Jen recently rebranded Teabox, a company that offers subscriptions for monthly curated boxes of teas.
If there are common challenges across subscription boxes, they are technical or logistical. Jen points to the user experience of the website needing to be easy to navigate, with a simple check-out process. Plus, the consistent shipping means that the packaging needs to be more careful and considered so the prized goods don’t accidentally get crushed.
Eli Horn, creative partner at Montréal-based studio Fivethousand Fingers, thoroughly considered packaging when designing for specialty coffee subscription service Collected Coffee. The key issue was scale. Collected Coffee started out very small, but the company wanted high-quality paper and packaging to signify the quality of the coffee. “Because they’re doing small runs every month, it’s quite a challenge to take it to the printer and get them to print something typically reserved for large-run printing,” Horn says. He researched whether buying a label printer would be a wise move but found them to be prohibitively expensive and limiting when it comes to paper choices. It took a lot of time to find the right printer and paper at the right price.
Another wrinkle: The coffee and roaster change every month, so ideally, the design and packaging would change each time, too. This wasn’t feasible with the printing process, so instead, Fivethousand Fingers created a single design and focused on enabling Collected Coffee to share a lot of specific information about each coffee to create differentiation. That emphasis on information also played into the design. Horn took inspiration from literary journals and financial journal typography—“things that people read and trust as sources of information,” he says—and used textured, matte paper that “felt serious.” He used a simple color palette of blue and white at a time when most coffee companies were using warm colors and earth tones, as well as an elegant serif font. “We wanted it to feel investigated, like this was a source of expertise,” he says. “White and blue block was a way to make it feel intelligent and almost literary in a sense.”
Otherwise, designers ran into challenges that were specific to the companies. For Lew, it was appealing to Kidbox’s wide audience—parents, and children aged two to fourteen—and she addressed it through a diverse range of colors and patterns. For Horn, it was figuring out how to convince people to subscribe to Collected Coffee as opposed to picking up a more affordable bag of beans from a local café—in other words, “how to make it special enough that they wanted to receive it,” he says. The answer was through high-end packaging and relaying the stories of the coffee producers.
Designers emphasize that design alone can’t create trust with consumers—the subscription box has to be strong on its own. But carefully considered design and art elements can enhance trust. “We don’t build [trust]; we reflect it,” Eckstein says. “We try to reflect these people and these values and the philosophy behind the company with the photography and the story we are telling.” ca