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A Day in the Design Life

By AICC Staff

August 7, 2017

Client tours often highlight the biggest and fastest presses, the most eye-catching inks and foils, digital capabilities, turnaround speed, and environmentally responsible practices. But one of the most critical elements in any packager’s list of client-focused features is likely overlooked: the structural and graphic designers who make client-pleasing packaging possible in the first place. These are the skilled professionals who combine creativity with cost-effectiveness in unique designs that define, to an extent, what it means

to work with one company versus the competition. When any machine and virtually any process can be bought or acquired by any packager, designers are part of the secret sauce that makes a company’s range of services stand out.

Learning to Juggle

If any one word describes these creatives, it is multitaskers.

“I’m spread across multiple areas all the time,” says Keith Rae, graphic designer at Moore Packaging in Ontario, Canada. “In a typical week, I’m doing everything from designing boxes to putting clients’ ideas onto a package, and handling prepress and production. I also produce some original art, but it’s one of many, many tasks.”

Designers are part of the secret sauce that makes a company’s range of services stand out.

For Lori Person, senior graphic designer at Mid-Atlantic Packaging in Pennsylvania, the responsibilities are even more comprehensive. “I consult with the salesperson regularly for the duration of a job. By that I mean maybe I’ll determine how many plates would be needed to run a job so they can pass along a price quote. Or they pass artwork along to me, and I evaluate that. If something comes along further along in a job, like not getting feedback from a customer on a mockup or ink approval, I’d consult with the salesperson. I liaise with the salesperson/customer and our production team and often transfer information between plate makers and our production team.” This is far from the typical image of a package designer. “Within the independent corrugators community, I’d be considered something closer to an art director, which I don’t think you see that often in our industry. I’m more like a creative director for the art.”

At Cardinal Container in Ohio, designer Pat Moreland says, “On a daily basis, I’m working on four or five different things that have to do with some aspect of design. Anything produced in the plant requires a drawing. Most of my time is in providing those drawings, making sure specs are available for everything that goes through the plant.” In addition to being the company’s sole designer, he is also responsible for ordering some of the raw materials for the plant, including the paper used in Cardinal’s corrugated.

The work these designers do day to day is just as varied as their backgrounds.

“I came to Mid-Atlantic with only a year of corrugated packaging/POP display experience,” admits Person. “Before that, I spent a couple of years at a label manufacturing company. The job I had in corrugated/POP was through RockTenn. We’d create and render 3-D models, but that was the extent of my knowledge of how a display comes together. I knew about design and had done packaging in school, but knowing the technicalities of it, thinking about things in a 3-D way, understanding how graphics wrap around a display—I didn’t really have a good understanding of those things” until she joined Mid-Atlantic.

Moreland came to design with an understanding of 3-D, but it was knowledge gained from starting his career as an architect. “Although I’ve been with Cardinal for 20 years, I’ve only been an official designer here for five. I started out in sales. Before that, I sold building materials. My background really was in architecture. In architecture, I had been designing buildings to contain space; now I’m designing boxes to contain material.”

Creating Solutions

width=300None of these designers is creating original art or client logos on a daily basis. Their focus is on finding fresh ways to serve the client and the product through functional and sometimes innovative design.

“I usually start with a creative platform,” Rae notes. “I look at the client’s marketing goals, who the customer is. Then I write up guidelines for what I think will work, based on the client’s budget. These steps are really all for me. They’re just to help me work through the process, to keep my mind focused on the goals. Often, I’m working with the salesperson, who relays the client’s goals to me. But I’ve met with clients, and sometimes they reach out to me directly with changes or new ideas.

“Typically, the first concept for a simple carton is approved with a few minor revisions. For more complex projects, it usually takes a few concepts to discover the ‘big idea’ they are looking for. We usually will send the concept to the salesperson to pitch to the client. With larger projects, the client may be invited here to meet with the designer(s). Seeing the smile crack on the client’s face—or the salesperson’s—when I know I’ve hit the mark is one of the most rewarding experiences as a designer.

“The biggest challenge is simply staying on top of everything. That’s been a daily challenge for 17 years. We’re always looking to see what’s new and what can be done to improve our concepts. And our suppliers frequently update us with their capabilities as well as offer tours of their facilities to share their technology. Even though the same have been there since day one”—how to serve clients with packaging that protects and, if needed, promotes the product—“our industry is constantly changing.”

Their focus is on finding fresh ways to serve the client and the product through functional and sometimes innovative design.

Moreland’s approach draws on his own background and focuses on maximizing his resources. “When I design, I try to draw on my time in sales and what I saw there. I go in the big-box stores—like Walmart, Sam’s Club—and see what’s being done there. When I’ve noticed that something’s being phased out, I’ve even gone so far as to ask the manager if I can have their floor display, take the example that’s on the floor, and bring it here and pull it apart to see how we can do it better. For a large percentage of what we’re doing, you can’t cookie-cutter a design because there are a lot of hands-on things being done to make the product harder to duplicate or be taken from you by the competition. And then it has to be practical to produce. There are plenty of things I can design, but if we can’t run it here or effectively service it here, then it becomes a conflict.”

Fine-Tuning the Tools

Person and Moreland both rely on PC hardware, while Rae uses a top-of-the-line Mac Pro. And while Person notes that some people in her department occasionally use Wacom tablets—which accept stylus input for hand-drawing—she, Moreland, and Rae do all of their work with keyboard and mouse. The real power comes from the programs that run on their machines.

“We use ArtiosCAD and have the 3-D design builder,” says Person. “We’re also looking at some more graphically pleasing 3-D programs, things that would be nicer to show customers. Artios keeps everything very rigid, and you can’t build organic models very easily. For that, we would look to something like Strata or Blender. There’s also a subset of employees in our department that use SketchUp. I have a good working knowledge of Strata 3D, Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, and the whole Adobe Creative Suite. I also go into PowerPoint from time to time; we have a marketing team dedicated to customers, so we’re sourcing the files to them, roughing out and sizing for their presentations. I also work off of my Mac laptop at home.”

Rae and Moreland also spend the bulk of their time in ArtiosCAD, but Moreland is working exclusively with their 2-D software. “We understand the benefit of 3-D, but staying with 2-D is a financial decision for us,” he explains. “CAD can cost $5,000 to $7,000 a year. For an individually held company like ours, that’s an expense that’s hard to swallow.” He admits that it is not an ideal situation. “The biggest challenge we have [working in 2-D] is trying to fold something together or see how it’s going to fit together on the computer screen. Sometimes clients are sending us images in 3-D that we need to incorporate.” To make sure everything comes together smoothly, he relies on his home Mac, which is equipped with 3-D software.

The Best Part of the Job

For Moreland, the best part of his job is “doing the design and working with design concepts. I enjoy the challenge of every day being presented with a problem and trying to create a solution in corrugated as a medium.”

When it comes to less-favorite parts of the job, he says, “It’s a personal hang-up, but I’m not one who deals well with criticism or when you go through a design process and then don’t have the idea accepted. That’s a minor personal quirk. Most of the rest, I find very interesting. There’s always something new. I’m 57 now, and I’m still getting to do something I enjoy.”

For designers who are just starting out, my advice is to dive in and try to immerse yourself in anything you can. – Lori Person, senior graphic designer, Mid-Atlantic Packaging

Rae echoes some of that when he points out that his favorite part of the job is the constant challenge. “No two days ever look alike. It’s never boring. For me, there’s not really a least-favorite part of the job. It’s a great career, and this is a great place to work. I look forward to coming in and doing great work. And the people here are just awesome.”

Person has enjoyed being able to really hone in on her talents and interests, which have, surprisingly, taken her away from basic graphic design. “I’ve been able to discover that out of all the things I could possibly do here, the project management and production end of things is something I’m good at. Being in this company and in this industry—and being with the people I work with, who are great—has definitely brought me a lot further in my character development than I would have expected straight out of school.” For example, “I’m finally comfortable with having to confront and address tough situations diplomatically and respectfully.”

For Designers-in-Training

“For designers who are just starting out, my advice is to dive in and try to immerse yourself in anything you can,” Person says. “I really enjoyed learning about the production end of things, being on press, doing press runs, having a better understanding of where what you’re designing ends up, and all of the steps needed to get you there. In order to stay current and to serve the customer best, I really think it’s essential to keep an eye on what’s out there on the shelves.”

Moreland agrees, encouraging new designers to broaden their experience as much as possible. “I was involved in a different field from design,” he says, “and my years on the road dealing with customers and design on a daily basis gave me a different perspective. The other designers we once had here understood the software but didn’t understand the board and the quality of the boards, and what they can and can’t do, how the caliper of the board will be affected going through a die cutter or a flexo. You have to tweak some things in the software to account for that, and only experience will tell you that. I’ve been in a lot of classrooms related to the corrugated industry, but I don’t think I’ve learned as much in them as I did being out in the field.”

“It’s definitely a slow build when you get into this industry,” Rae sums up. “Keep your expectations in check. I thought I knew it all coming out of college. But you start at the bottom and work your way through the ranks. You never know it all. It’s a great career to have, and it lets your creative side out. But you’re constantly learning in this job.”

RobertRobert Bittner is a Michigan-based journalist and author and a frequent BoxScore contributor.