Enhance your Packaging with Special Finishes

list of carton special finishes

UV varnish image

How to Enhance your Packaging with Special Finishes

Packaging is the “salesperson”  for your product. Your packaging must do the “talking” to the shopper as he/ she walks through the shopping aisles– no matter how good your product, it will sell less to new consumers who have never before seen or tried your product if your product’s packaging performs it’s “job” poorly. This article explains each type of finish available for your carton or sleeve.

Luxury Packaging Creates an Impression of Higher Value

In experiments that tested consumer behaviour when buying the same products packaged in luxury and standard packaging, it was found that consumers were willing to pay more for the products in luxury packaging. You can read more about this experiment here.

Therefore it is always useful for a packaging buyer to be fully aware of all the ways one can enhance their packaging. Packaging can be enhanced in many ways – through the use of special finishes, luxury cartonboard and luxury graphic design styles.

This article deals with ways to enhance cartonboard/cardboard packaging through the use of special finishes only. Packaging design, (by which we mean the creation of the artwork for your packaging which includes the images, shape, colours, fonts, text on your packaging) has been dealt with in a previous blog as a 4 part series, (written by Lorraine Carter of Persona Design) and can be found below.

Packaging Design Guide – Part 1

Packaging Design Guide – Part 2

Packaging Design Guide – Part 3

Packaging Design Guide – Part 4

In this article, we will cover:

Explanation of each type of special finish

Which types of finishes are most appropriate for your product’s packaging?

Important note – if you wish to have special finishes on your packaging, you must discuss this at the start of the packaging production process with your packaging supplier and your graphic designer.  This will allow you to weigh up your options regarding cost, the number of colours and special finishes before any particular design is “set in stone.” Read our useful blog on packaging buying here.

What special finishes are available for cardboard packaging?

Spot or overall UV varnish finish for cartons

UV varnish is a clear varnish that is applied to the cartonboard after printing. It gives the printed sheet a glossier appearance and can help protect the cartonboard from dirt and moisture. It can be applied overall to the printed sheet or it can be applied to specific certain areas only, known as spot UV varnish. The carton shown in Figure 1 below has a UV varnish applied to all areas of the printed carton sheet, except in the “Price” and “Use By” dates. This is to allow for these areas to be overprinted afterwards, as overprinting will not be successful on areas on which there is a UV varnish.

Dollard - Food carton

 spot UV blank area left for date and price

Figure 1 Spot UV varnish with a blank area left for overprinting

Embossing and Debossing finishes for cartons

Embossing and Debossing a printed sheet creates a raised (embossing) or lowered (debossing) area on the cardboard sheet. It is formed using male and female moulds or dies. Under extreme pressure, these two moulds push the sheet into their shape, creating a multi-dimensional impression. When embossed, the image is raised; when debossed, the image is below the sheet surface.  Figure 2 shows an example of debossing. Figure 3 shows an example of embossing.

Both embossing and debossing are known as “blind” when there is no foil of any kind applied to the raised or depressed areas.

There are different types of embossing dies available, each with its own unique appearance.

A flat die creates a three-dimensional image that is raised above the paper surface. A round die creates a curved image curving out from the paper surface. Bevelled embossing gives an image with sloping sides.

 debossing close up

Figure 2 – Blind Debossing

embossing example close up

Figure 3 – Blind Embossing

Gold and Silver Foil Finishes for cartons

Foil stamping is also known as foil application.  In this process, foil stamping machines use heat and a die or mould to transfer metallic foil to the printed cartonboard sheet. The most commonly used types of foils are gold and silver foils.

Examples of items that are foil stamped include annual reports, pocket folders, product packaging, note cards/thank you cards, business cards, envelopes and letterheads.

In many cases, areas that have been embossed or debossed will also be gold or silver foiled.

Figure 4 below shows a close-up example of gold foil shown on the words “Dunnes Stores – Simply Better” on a carton printed by Dollard Packaging

Carton with gold foil

Figure 4 Gold Foil

Die cutting of windows and unusual carton shapes

All cartons need to be die cut, i.e. when the cardboard sheets have been printed, these sheets need to be put through a cutting machine or guillotine to be cut out into the carton shape.  Therefore each new carton needs a die forme produced for this purpose. The die forme is a set of sharp metal blades set into a wooden frame which is used on the cutting machine. You can find out more about this topic on a previous blog here 

While the die forme is used primarily to cut the carton out, the die forme can also incorporate the blades which will cut windows of any shape or size and as a die forme must be produced anyway, this is often a very cost-effective to enhance packaging without incurring excessive additional cost. Small windows can allow consumers to see the product and in some cases, this window may allow the consumer to touch and use the product in some way.  Toy packaging often uses windows to allow a consumer to press a button or feel the texture of the toy.

Figure 5, 6 and 7 shows an example of die cuts and unusual die cutting styles.

cartons with die-cuts

Figure 5 Crescent shaped die cuts

food packaging sleeve

Figure 6 – shaped die cut sleeve


Popcorn box with drinks holder attached

Figure 7 Curved die cut carton edges in two styles

 Which types of finishes are most appropriate for your product’s packaging?

As with any packaging design element, it is most important to decide what the specific objectives of your packaging are before you begin to request and invest in special finishes for your packaging.

It may be helpful to look briefly at what packaging design expert, Lorraine Carter says about what effective packaging design should deliver:

“Effective packaging design should deliver

An immediate sense of your brand story, promise and values

Trigger a positive emotional response in your primary customer through the expression of your brand’s personality in the design created (e.g. simplicity, elegance, a sense of fun, or whatever sensory experience your brand represents)

Your brand’s primary characterisations whether your products offer luxury, security, environmental awareness, corporate social responsibility, reliability, tradition, or pure indulgent pleasure etc.

Impactful brand differentiation that separates your products from competitors on retail shelves or displays, coupled with strong brand design hooks that attract your core target audience.”

It is also very important to note that if you wish your packaging to have any special finishes, this must be discussed and agreed with both your packaging supplier and your graphic designer at the design stage and no later. For example, if your packaging is ready to go onto the printing press, it is too late to request the use of one of the above special finishes at this point because the use of special finishes require artwork and materials preparation well in advance of the printing stage.

Bearing this above advice in mind

  • Embossing and debossing often give a luxury appearance, especially combined with the gold or silver foil. It can evoke feelings or an impression of heritage, history, antique or a classic product. Generally embossing, debossing and foiling are not used on products that use economy or low-cost as their main selling point. Also not every design and cartonboard type will be suitable for embossing and debossing. As a general rule of thumb, the designs with larger typefaces, logos etc. and heavier carton board will be more suitable for embossing and debossing. An embossed image is in three dimensions, therefore it may appear somewhat smaller than the same image produced by two-dimensional means. To compensate for this optical illusion, the artwork may need to be prepared in a larger size. It would be helpful to ask your packaging supplier and graphic designer to show you examples of previous artwork designs that were intended to be embossed/debossed and the printed and finished examples of these designs so you can see the effect of this optical illusion. It is also recommended that proofs for embossing/debossing be viewed at actual size and that care is taken to allow enough room for each letter to form. Asking your graphic designer to provide you and your packaging supplier with a side view of how the finished embossed/debossed packaging will look is also very helpful.
  • Spot UV varnish can be used to cost-effectively to create a luxury appearance with incurring the greater cost of embossing, debossing and foiling as discussed above. Figure 8 below shows how the spot UV varnish used on this Jack Daniels packaging subtly but very effectively conveys a luxury product.



Figure 8 – spot UV varnish

Windows, die-cuts and unusual carton edge shapes can be an effective way to make your packaging looks distinctive or allow the consumer to see or feel your product before purchase. Many consumer behaviour studies have shown that allowing the consumer to see your product (through either an open window or a window, covered in clear plastic) will increase their likelihood of purchasing.

If you have any packaging queries on the above or any aspect of packaging, please contact the Dollard Packaging sales team on 01 847 0044 or sales@dollard-packaging.ie and we will be delighted to help you.

Related Posts

Read about Foiling on Packaging Affect Shoppers’ Attention Span

Read another of our blogs on how Pierre Cardin uses special finishes to enhance their perfume cartons.

Updated February 2019