“India visited Japan, then came to the U.S.”
In late November of last year, I had this sentence running in my head as I excitedly tore into the box containing the first print run of our new pouches. Raj and I developed the phrase to capture the uniqueness of our brand and mission, and it had served as the inspiration for the designs I was finally about to see. The process of bringing that concept from abstract to actual had been a fun, emotional, and intricate journey, and I was about to hold the results in my hands.
I grabbed a handful of the Kumaon Black pouches and, as is the pesky habit of all designers, snapped into searching for flaws. When I found everything to be shipshape, I gave a sigh of relief and sunk back into my chair. As I gazed upon the upright pouch, standing proudly on our office's wooden table, I was filled with utter joy.
The pouches had been almost a year in the making. From researching sustainable packaging suppliers and getting hundreds of material samples; to countless email threads and spreadsheets; to roundtable team discussions and focus groups; to approvals from the Oregon Department of Agriculture; everyone on our team (and then some) had been involved. On my end, it took many design and style iterations, and of course those unavoidable glitches that gave me a few sleepless nights. And after all that, the pouches were finally in front of me, the kettle was heating up on the counter, and I was basking in an amazing feeling of satisfaction.
So Why A Refresh?
A Step Towards Sustainable
The whole process of redesigning our packaging was motivated by ensuring our standards for quality and sustainability applied not just to our tea, but to the packaging that holds it. We're certainly not alone in seeking more sustainable packaging, and the manufacturers of packaging materials are responding slowly but surely by creating more eco-friendly possibilities. However, we also learned there's still a long way to go.
Our original goal was to find packaging that was biodegradable. Backyard compostable is the gold standard, but as we dug into it, we learned that there's still a lot of debate about the extent to which any food packaging material, which has to meet FDA standards for safety, can be added to your garden's soils directly without processing. Then we found out about the staggering minimum order quantities that the manufacturers require for backyard compostable materials, which put them out of reach for young businesses like ours. Next we looked into industrial compostable options, and learned that most of the country doesn't have the facilities required. For now, biodegradable wasn't a route we could go down.
So then we explored the other side of the puzzle: what materials the packaging was made out of, and how much material was used. One manufacturer had developed a new technology that made resealable standup pouches out of old milk jugs and water bottles. The technology is rapidly evolving; right now 20% of the pouch is made from recycled plastics, and the company is on the verge of pushing that to 70% in the near future. The lightweight bags required far less material than the heavy, sturdy tubes we've been using. We also realized that if we printed directly onto the bag rather than use labels with adhesives, we would reduce material usage across the board.
Another exciting thing about going to standup pouches is that they are the most common form of food packaging out there, tea and beyond. So as advances in manufacturing technology happen, stand up pouches will be among the first in line for implementation. We decided that if we moved into stand up pouches, we’d be positioning ourselves well for adopting new materials as they become available.
This new packaging hits on all three "R"s of smarter waste: reduce, reuse, and recycle.
Reduce: By choosing a light-weight substrate, we're using significantly less material than when we were in the tubes. For more than half our collection, we're also printing directly on the pouch, which eliminates the labels and adhesives that we previously relied on for differentiating our teas.
Reuse: With strong moisture and oxygen barriers, these new pouches are essentially high-end resealable bags. After the tea is finished, the pouches can be washed and reused to store your car snacks, hiking trail mix, art and craft supplies, quarters for the laundry, and old batteries.
Recycle: The substrate is made from a minimum of 20% recycled water bottles and milk jugs, and our manufacturer is working on improving that to 60-70% as their next step.
A More Aesthetically Representative Design
Our previous packaging was colorful and contemporary, but its labels were restrictive. With the entire surface of the pouch as a canvas, I could reflect the origin and quality of our teas much better. To bring “India visited Japan, then came to the U.S.” to life, I needed a wide space to play with. We were seeking a look and feel that blended the vibrancy of India with the minimalism of the Japanese tea aesthetic, thus making the rich and plentiful nature of Indian motifs more contemporary and clean.
To pull this off, I used geometric patterns and botanical drawings, as well as color choices, all of which evoke a rich simplicity that captures the distinct personality of each tea: calming white teas, invigorating green teas, and bold black teas. And for our reserve line, we chose a warm golden tan, a nod to our original packing - craft paper pouches.
From Abstract to Actual
The mood board was the first step in determining the design direction. It brought together elements that inspired us, emotions we wanted to evoke, and the general look and feel we were after. We wanted to highlight company values and the teas' quality using the juxtaposition of Indian and Japanese aesthetics, which eventually would become a fusion that felt fresh and unique.
Once everyone on the team was on the same page with the direction and I felt sufficiently inspired, I carried all those abstract elements into the digital artboard where I played around for days and weeks, reviewing, refining, then reviewing some more until the designs settled.
After the designs were nearly finalized and the content fact-checked and proof-read multiple times, we ran a condensed focus group to collect additional feedback. Then we sent the designs to the Oregon Department of Agriculture for approval. Due to COVID, they were backed up, so we had to wait for four weeks before any next steps could happen. At long last, we received the confirmation that everything was A-OK (phew!) and we had the green light to move forward.
Then I transferred the approved designs to custom templates (shown on the left in below image) created for us by the manufacturer.
I approved the digital proofs, and we requested a hard proof to see the final material. The proof cost $300 for a single pouch (yikes!), but it was essential because we realized the material we had been planning for was actually more transparent than we wanted. We worked with the manufacturer to find a new material type that would still hit our sustainability goals, and that 11th hour change pushed back things by two weeks. Just the same, it was the right call, and afterwards we felt much, much better about where things were landing.
Following some more edits, email threads and shipping confirmations, the manufacturer went into action. And on a day in late November, at long last, voila!
It was sometime in early 2020 when our team was looking at the first group of samples and voting for the ones we preferred or could see as our blank canvases. Almost a year later, this labor of love is ready to be put out into the world and I can’t wait to see where it takes us as a company.
Mitra Nite, Graphic Designer
Growing up in Persia, tea runs in Mitra's blood. But it was while living and working in the Pacific Northwest that she truly found herself immersed in the beverage and all its delicious forms, and she continues to be delighted by the international and cultural nuances that it represents. Mitra has been active as an artist and designer for most of her adult life, and is very happy to bring her passion for tea and design to Young Mountain Tea.