Package Deal: How Apple made unpacking the iPhone a ritual rather than a chore

The latest iPhone has half the packaging of the original, but still makes a big impression.
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4 min read

A package protects, promotes, and sets a product apart. This series looks at how iconic packages took shape.

iPhone box

  • Introduced: 2007
  • Design concept: Apple’s internal design team

The thing about iPhone packaging nowadays is that there’s less of it. The iPhone 12, released in 2020, the first without earbuds and a wall adapter, reduced packaging by half. The iPhone 14, released in September, boasts using fiber from what Apple calls “recycled and responsible sources,” with plastic making up just 5% of the packaging, down from 7% for the iPhone 12.

Then again, iPhone boxes may be less apt to clutter up landfills because many never throw them away, with 28.3% of purchasers keeping the boxes forever, according to a 2021 9to5Mac poll. Only 8.4% dispose of or recycle them, while 59.5% keep them until they replace the phone.

Why it works: The iPhone has always been linked to anticipation. After Steve Jobs announced it on stage in 2007, it didn’t come out for six months, and when it did, long lines formed outside stores, as they have for new versions.

Designed to be opened slowly, the packaging in a way mimics that post-announcement wait. Many open an iPhone by lifting it by the box top, which fully encompasses the bottom. Then there’s a long moment until gravity overcomes a slight vacuum and surface tension and the bottom slowly descends.

Greta Dirsel, executive creative director at branding and design agency Landor & Fitch, noted in an interview with us that there’s even the slightest sound when top and bottom separate.

“We’re not popping Pringles here,” she told us. “But to me, it’s just creating anticipation and suspense.”

Time may seem to be suspended as layers of the box are revealed, with some elements wrapped like origami.

“The experience has been engineered so that you have to wait a certain amount of time to reveal the phone,” Dirsel said. “There is a suspense created in the time that it takes—time, the most precious commodity, we’re just used to ripping into things. It’s like, ‘Slow down. Calm down. You’re about to be transported. You’re about to be amazed.’”

Opening an iPhone is “a multi-sensory experience,” Trung Phan wrote in a 2021 Twitter thread. “You *see* the box. You *feel* the opening as you pull against friction. You *hear* the whoosh of air rushing out.”

Lots to unpack here: “Steve and I spend a lot of time on the packaging,” Jonathan Ive, design leader at Apple from 1992 to 2019, said of Apple packaging in Walter Isaacson’s eponymous Steve Jobs biography. “I love the process of unpacking something.”

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“You design a ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special,” Ive said. “Packaging can be theater, it can create a story.”

The notion of removing a product from packaging being theatrical is, naturally, why unboxing videos are so popular. What is believed to be the first unboxing video was posted in 2006—just a year before the iPhone debuted—and was for another phone, the Nokia E61.

Perhaps the most elaborate iPhone unboxing video was uploaded to YouTube in 2019 by @Mrwhosetheboss, who opened 14 versions of the phone that had been released up to that point. Except for the 2007 original, all were in packaging that had never been opened.

If you’re someone who’s owned several of the phones he opens, so much is familiar: those neatly coiled 30-pin connectors that in subsequent versions became 8-pin lightning cables, disc-shaped earbuds in plastic wrap that evolve into AirPods in a rigid plastic case, and that sound of the glimmering plastic protective film being pulled away from screens, unwrapping them like slices of American cheese.

Watching the video, which has been viewed 16 million times, you get the last thing you’d expect from packaging: a sense of nostalgia.

Open to persuasion: At a shoe store, salespeople who emerge from the backroom with sneakers don’t typically hand you the boxes; they take them out, lace them up if needed, and hand them over to try on.

But Minesh Parikh, vice president at Kearney’s industrial redesign practice, PERLab, said that’s never what happens to him when he picks up an iPhone from an Apple Store.

“What they do is they bring you the box and then they actually have you open it up,” Parikh told us. “They don’t open it for you; they don’t give you the physical product.”

Notably, this happens even when the Apple employee is going to set up the phone for you, meaning you’ll just hand it back over after you open it.
“This whole unboxing generation that we’re in—they’re trying to evoke that excitement in you,” Parikh said. “It is just brilliant and…it’s tied into the experience that they’re trying to create.

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Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.