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Sustainable Packaging For LEDs, Inspired by Pop-Up Books

This redesign of LED packaging is glue-free, plastic-free, and displays info to help consumers easily compare the benefits of LEDs to other bulbs.

We’ve all been there before: standing at the hardware store inspecting an endless display of light bulbs, trying to discern which one is right for us. To be honest, it’s a bit stressful and a bit difficult to understand the lighting jargon. Lumens, watts, volts—what do they mean?

The packaging should clearly display information that will help us select the bulb that best suits our lighting needs. The label should emphasize lumens (which measure brightness), rather than watts (which measure energy use). Currently, reliance on watt measurements alone has made it difficult for us to compare traditional incandescent bulbs to more efficient bulbs, such as compact fluorescents. Labels should also display yearly energy cost, so consumers can understand that though an LED bulb may be more expensive initially, it can save an estimated $108 on electricity bills over a lifetime of use.

In addition to changing the label, we need to redesign LED packaging itself, which is made of plastics. These are primarily manufactured from oil and natural gas, which are both non-renewable resources. Additionally, nearly all of the molecules that plastic factories have produced for decades are still with us and will remain with us for centuries. These microscopic particles of plastic litter the landscape, oceans, and enter the food chain.

With these design problems in mind, I began crafting my undergraduate senior thesis last year. I chose to combine my passion for graphic design and curiosity in paper engineering by creating more socially-responsible LED packaging. My goal was to create a packaging solution that was glue-free, constructed from 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, and was manufactured carbon-neutral. In addition, my design would promote a system where consumers could easily send their used compact fluorescent bulbs to a recycling facility upon the end of their life, as the package also serves as a prepaid return-shipping container.

From an interdisciplinary design approach, it was important for me to address both the graphic design and physical packaging simultaneously. For the next few weeks, I explored the potential of paper by studying and creating pop-ups. The foundation of paper engineering is deeply rooted in the mechanics of pop-up books. At the University of Michigan’s special collections library, I had the opportunity to view more than 3,000 different pop-up and movable books from around the world.

I studied historical packaging techniques and paper sculpture. My main historical reference was Josef Albers, and the work his students produced while he taught at Bauhaus. During my private research, I studied under Matthew Shlian, an internationally recognized paper artist. Whenever I saw something folded that I didn’t understand, I would try to recreate it. As designers, we have to see and experience to understand—it is simply in our nature.

I began creating countless iterations of my design with curiosity as my driving force. I had a desire to test every possibility and from those studies, grew a specific set of challenges.

How few tabs were required to bind the paper together? I developed a series of fastening devices from paper that could hold separate pieces of paper together without any glue. The concept of these ‘rivets’ was inspired by 3D interlocking puzzles, which used consecutive friction-fit parts to keep the puzzle together.

How much force can a given type of paper sustain? Which direction of force would be most threatening to the bulb and what can I do to displace this? By answering my questions, my curiosity only grew. Not only did it drive me as I produced new iterations, but it compelled me to do further explorations. I experimented for durability, flexibility, and memory. I compared and organized several papers until I retained enough knowledge to match the appropriate papers with my vision for the packaging graphics.

To increase utility, while maintaining structural rigidity, the inside of the box holds a unique paper design. This function of the box could quickly transform to fit any bulb placed back inside of it, while protecting it from being crushed during transport. The springy, protective, interior core is made entirely of folded paper. This interior piece cushions the new or old bulb so that it remains in place and can handle disturbances during transport. The resulting combination of a durable outer shell and a flexible inner body created a perfectly balanced box.

Throughout the design process, modern technology was an indispensable resource. I used Adobe Illustrator to map paper-cutting patterns that I could send to my university’s printer and laser cutter. With this tool at my disposal, I could rapidly prototype every idea that came to mind and perform iterative studies. The first of my studies always started by hand, whether it was cutting, scoring, or folding. Although technology allows for efficiencies, it simply can’t compete with the connection your mind has with your hand holding a pen on paper.

Aside from the physical packaging, the second aspect to my thesis was redesigning its corresponding graphics. This would help the consumer more easily distinguish between the different bulb specifications and benefits. The different colors on the packaging reflect the color light the bulb emits, for example, a warm white would be a warmer color opposed to a cool white. The packaging would accommodate three different light appearances: warm white, white, and cool white, and then separate those appearances by their brightness: 450-lumens and 800-lumens.

The back of the packaging was also redesigned to resemble nutritional fact labels found on food. With this familiar format, consumers would easily be able to compare the differences between light bulbs upon closer inspection.

For each color and brightness, a single, double and quadruple pack of light bulbs are available.

The only difference between the multi-pack structures is the sleeve holding the boxes together. For this purpose, the consumer would not have to mail back a quadruple-sized box if they only wished to send one bulb back. This modular container would also save money in manufacturing costs since only one die would be necessary during production.

The distinctive packaging and graphic label contrasts greatly from every light bulb package on the market today and would encourage more innovative packaging from other light bulb companies. In short, the sustainable nature of my design aims to create competition in the packaging world, pressing a green movement in other major companies who continue to use wasteful products in the production of their packaging.


As we move towards a more green future, both through increased awareness and impending resource constraints, designers are playing a larger role in society than ever before. At its core, design is about effecting change. In this constantly evolving world, if we are unhappy with something, we are going to attempt to improve the situation by investing in design. Moreover, designers have the power to influence culture in their decisions as well as their actions through innovative products and services. We have the opportunity to change what design means. We can forge an industry that respects the limits of our planet while promoting and contributing a positive impact on society.
Most importantly, designers have a crucial responsibility in the transformation to sustainable economies. It is important that we change our communication systems to reduce existing and mitigate potential environmental damage. My thesis challenged me to embrace change and use design to help other people. We live in an exciting, creative time of transformation, with very big problems that demand innovative solutions. It’s important that we think about the change we hope to achieve, and create strategies that fulfill our potential. In order to design for good, we must have an open mind to the ever-changing world around us, and the possibilities it offers us to do something special.
Bryant Yee graduated from the University of Michigan's School of Art & Design in 2011, and currently lives in Washington, D.C. working as an environmental graphic designer for the global interdisciplinary design firm RTKL.\n
Photos courtesy Bryant Lee.\n

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