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Collaborating Through the Process

By Jeff Homan

September 13, 2018

width=205I was sitting at my desk finishing up prep work for a flexo plate order when one of our structural designers dropped three cut and scored pieces of corrugated, fresh off the cutting table, on my desk. They looked more like Rorschach test designs cut out of F flute than anything that we might want to eventually show to a customer or potential customer. Once the order was sent off to the plate maker, I busied myself with folding and nesting the pieces together. I wound up holding in my hands the facsimile of a miniature car. When I put the folded unit down on my desk, it burst open like a misshapen flower. It was a product of the dozens of areas where my tolerances were a bit off, where I missed how layers of material would rest one on the other, and where tabs, slots, and folds might add a bit of structure and strength to the assembled unit. Every year, our company has created a self-promotion piece intended to give our sales force talking points to demonstrate the range of capabilities we have in design, printing, die cutting, and assembly of complex corrugated structures. Over the last few years, following a successful series of train cars, our theme has been cars and trucks, each designed to simulate old die-cast toy cars, with a story and history related to our company and its founders. These designs have won several awards over the last few years on local, regional, and even national levels—achievements we are very proud and grateful to have earned. Each successive year I’ve tried to do a bit more of the structural design component of the project. The first train was a loose pencil sketch of a shape I thought it would be possible to make out of folded corrugated. As the years went by, I became more and more ambitious, emboldened by studying the structures that crossed my desk every day and learning enough about the CAD software to design and fold the shapes on screen to get them close to the final shape I could then illustrate and send off to be manufactured. That brings me back to the car-flower-blob sitting on my desk. No matter how much time and effort I put into learning how to create a structure, I will always be a graphic designer first and foremost, and I value the structural designers who allow us to create highest-quality work without compromise. I’ll take the in-progress “car” and show it to our structural design team—holding it together so they can see what it’s supposed to look like—and they’ll refine what I started into something that we can reliably manufacture. Once the structure is finalized and illustration work is done, it’s off to the printer. If you’re a designer and you’ve never been press-side when one of your designs is being printed, that’s a missed opportunity. There are so many variables to putting ink on paper, whether a flexo or litho press, that spending a few hours observing a job being run can save you a lot of time, headaches, and disappointment on that job and all the ones that follow it. After the printing, it’s over to die cutting and assembly. These poor people bear the brunt of my ambition in designing projects like this. Tight tolerances need to be held, and complex assembly procedures need to be repeated over and over again. As a graphic designer, I can’t stress enough the importance of learning everything you can about each process up and down the manufacturing chain. Learn what the sales staff get excited to show to existing and potential customers. Graphic and structural teams need to work closely together and meet often to elevate the quality and appearance of designs. And following projects, especially ambitious ones, through each stage of the manufacturing process will help you develop a real sense of when to push the envelope or dial things back in the design stage. If you see your role as a designer as a collaborative one—part of the overall manufacturing process—you’ll have a much better chance of having more quality finished designs on your desk than misshapen corrugated “flowers.”

Jeff Homan is a senior graphic designer at DS Smith. He can be reached at

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