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Building Better Boxes

By AICC Staff

November 11, 2021


Michigan City Paper Box’s structural design templates are key to creating perfect rigid boxes on every project.

“For me, the critical aspect of getting a package right is understanding that it’s a collaborative effort between the box plant and the customer,” says Jay McMillan, account representative with Utah Paperbox. “Award-winning boxes are the result of the seamless collaboration between art, function, and production techniques.” It’s a collaboration often involving multiple departments, proven processes, keen innovation, and an overarching commitment to customer service. And it all begins with a conversation.

Clarifying the Vision

Whether in person, via email, or virtually over a computer screen, the initial meeting between boxmaker and customer establishes the framework for everything that follows.

“Every box and every customer’s goals are different,” McMillan says. “Our goals when we first discuss a new package are to understand the customer’s marketing and branding plan, how they want that box to be received, and whether they’re going to distribute the box directly to a consumer or if it’s going to be retail display. All of those ideas are discussed at length, setting the expectation of what that box needs to be and how it needs to function to achieve the overall goals.”

“We’re trying to understand the sizing of the package, the artwork, the type of materials we’ll need, and the substrate thickness we’ll need based on the weight of the product,” explains Keith Thomas, director of strategic initiatives and business development for Michigan City Paper Box, which focuses exclusively on rigid boxes. “Customers don’t typically come in requesting a specific weight of chipboard; that’s determined by the needs of their product, budget, and so on. So we need to help guide them to the best solution from a structural standpoint.”

Once a boxmaker understands the dimensions, the weight, and what the customer wants to achieve from a branding perspective, the concept moves to the in-house designers, who will typically produce a computer-based model and physical samples for the customer’s review and approval. “Sometimes you get it right the first time,” McMillan says, “but most of the time there’s a back-and-forth conversation until we get to a structure that works for our manufacturing and works for the customer’s overall branding and concept.”

It Takes a Team

Multiple departments get involved to make sure each new design functions effectively and meets or exceeds the customer’s needs.

At Utah Paperbox, representatives from sales, customer service, design, and prepress are typically involved, along with the in-house team responsible for fabricating the cutting dies and tooling. “Each of these people checks over the designs and artwork to make sure they can be produced, cut, creased, and glued properly,” McMillan explains. “Five people, minimum, to get the box from start to production-ready. However, it’s likely even more than that, because we have meetings where the heads of each department come together and review all new jobs.”

The department-head review is an integral part of the development process. Because of the group’s collected years of experience with the company, McMillan says, “they can look at a project and say, ‘Yeah, that’s a great concept in the design, but maybe it would function better if we changed this one key feature.’ Or, ‘Maybe it would go through our glue line a little quicker if we can change this.’ So, realistically, 10 to 12 people are involved in getting a design from concept to production-ready.”


DS Smith’s proprietary “circular design principles” ensure a design process that maximizes efficiency and sustainability.

To ensure that all of those contributors are staying on track, the company has developed a list of safety checkpoints requiring customer signoffs throughout the process. Says McMillan, “Those checkpoints ensure that, No. 1, we are producing what we say we’re going to produce; and, No. 2, that the customer is going to get what they are expecting, so there are no surprises at the end.”

Inspired to Innovate

It may seem that the combination of budget and production limitations, along with an established approach to new-product development, might lead to cookie-cutter results. Yet the boxmakers gaining recognition are finding there is still room for innovative, out-of-the-box design solutions.

“We are constantly innovating to find new ways to meet customer requests,” Thomas says. “For example, the chipboard substrate we use in rigid boxes is becoming more difficult to acquire. So we’ve begun working with microflute corrugated providers to manufacture our boxes from an F-flute material.” In addition to addressing the material shortages, Thomas notes, “the material we’re using has greater strength than the equivalent thickness of chipboard material, plus it’s lighter in weight.” Not surprisingly, it is an innovation that has proven particularly attractive for e-commerce.

Brian Romankow, design and innovation manager with DS Smith North America, adds, “We believe there’s a better way for every solution. By empowering our designers to always challenge the status quo and design for performance and sustainability, our portfolio of award-winning designs is growing. It’s not just design for design’s sake: It carries over into improved sales and customer service.”

A commitment to innovating in sustainability has led DS Smith to develop its proprietary “circular design principles,” an integral and critical part of its overall design process. “Our circular design principles ensure that we’re optimizing sustainable metrics such as reuse capability, carbon-emission savings, fiber savings, supply-cycle optimizations, or pallet optimizations, to name a few,” says Romankow.

The first principle is to ensure that the box or pack being made is both fully functional and optimized for sustainability. The second is to optimize the materials, having the right paper combination, supply chain information, and performance requirements. “We have access to state-of-the-art design tools to help us determine the right materials and the right balance of materials,” Romankow explains.

“Third,” he says, “we look at maintaining and recovering materials, a key step in designing for a circular economy. We ask, ‘How can I repurpose this packaging?’ and ‘How can I reuse this package?’ Before we even think about recycling, we’re thinking about all of the other ways to get more use out of the box. Can the box be sent back and used over again? Will it be easier to recover or recycle materials if we replace plastics or other materials with something else?

“The fourth principle is to maximize supply-cycle efficiencies. Supply-cycle information is critical to what we do because we need to understand what happens to the box when it leaves our manufacturing sites. If we don’t understand that, we can’t help to optimize the new solution.

“Finally,” Romankow says, “we continue to explore efficiency gains in the manufacturing process through fiber reduction or palletization strategies.”

Although such a comprehensive approach may not be feasible for every boxmaker, everyone can take a close look at their own design-development process and seek ways to move beyond the traditional or the familiar. “It’s easy to get caught up in the cycle of producing similar designs,” notes Stevan Matic, sales manager with Great Little Box Co./Ideon Packaging. “So when an opportunity for structural/print innovation presents itself, take a step back. Start with a clear mind, a fresh perspective, and invite multiple ideas from your team. That’s what allows for innovation.”

Watching the Clock

There is no set schedule when it comes to building a better box. Matic notes that his team works to turn around corrugated and folding-carton designs within 24 to 48 hours. “More intricate designs,” he says, “mostly displays and protective packing, can range from two to five days.” He believes this kind of responsiveness is critical in today’s marketplace. “Speed to market has never been more important,” he says.

At the same time, some steps in the process may be out of the boxmaker’s control. “I’ll have a customer email me six months after we created a design and tell me they’re finally ready to pull the trigger and get it going,” McMillan reports. “Others are trying to rush through all of the work within a week because they need the box a month from today. So it’s part of our customer service and sales teams’ responsibility to manage that expectation with the customer upfront, to make sure everyone understands and agrees to the timeline.”

For Thomas, the step that requires the most time involves meeting the customer’s expectations regarding the branding message. “Determining the structure of a new rigid box is pretty straightforward. But it’s conveying the branding message—through art, print, papers, and graphic treatments—that requires the most iterations to get just right. People come to us and say, ‘I have this product, and I want to make a package for it,’ in which case you are starting at ground zero. Other times, people have a design agency that has already constructed renderings and outlined the branding message. In those cases, you’re able to go right into the quoting phase.” If you’re starting from zero, however, “the process can take a couple of weeks to go through several iterations of samples.”

Award-Winning Insights

When asked what insights these award-winning boxmakers wanted to share with their fellow AICC members, thoughts turned to the importance of broad education and exceptional customer service.

Thomas says, “When it comes to effective and innovative package design—particularly with domestic manufacturing—I think it’s important that designers be given the opportunity to visit factories and understand the equipment that’s making the packages they are designing. Otherwise, you have designers who create things in Illustrator and Photoshop that look great on a computer screen, share them with a client, and raise the client’s expectations—only to find out that, from an implementation or cost perspective, they’re just not feasible designs. It’s easy to mislead a client into thinking that something is manufacturable when, in fact, it’s not. Or the economics are such that it’s not. Understanding machine capability is crucial to package design.”’

Romankow suggests that companies continue striving to go above and beyond—even after the box has left the plant. The final element in DS Smith’s detailed development process is something the company calls “deployment.” “We follow the package throughout its life cycle,” Romankow says, “continuing to work with the customer to make improvements and refinements.”

In other words, a DS Smith box is never truly finished. Even after a box enters the supply chain, the company continues to explore ways to make a great box better.

No One Formula

“I can’t say for sure what makes an ‘award-winning’ package,” says McMillan. However, companies that excel likely share several similarities to what he has experienced at Utah Paperbox.

“We keep our employees for a long period of time, so we know the industry very well. We can see a concept that a customer is going for and come up with an innovative solution. We have excellent, creative designers. And I think we just like to push ourselves. We like to create unique concepts that did not exist before and push the envelope of innovation.”

PortraitRobert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist and a frequent BoxScore contributor.