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Connecting With Winners of AICC’s Student Design Competition

By M. Diane McCormick

November 13, 2023

The winning entries from AICC’s Student Design Competition combine strategic structural design with artful innovation.
  Edwin Barrera has loved graphic design since his freshman year in high school. Now, as a University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) student, he sees packaging design in his future, especially now that he is a national award winner.   “Everything is going to be delivered now, so it’s an upcoming industry,” he says. “The shipping industry has been exponentially growing. I expect there is a future for us and for each individual colleague of mine who will continue on as a designer.”   For nearly three decades, AICC’s Student Design Packaging Competition has created a forum for the brightest ideas emerging from the next generation of packaging designers. Offered to colleges and universities, the competition challenges student teams to problem-solve packaging dilemmas, hone their collaborative and communication skills, and build ties to the industry that could soon welcome them to their workplaces.  

A Competition Is Born

  In 1985, AICC founded the International Corrugated Packaging Foundation (ICPF) to help colleges and universities intensify corrugated packaging studies in their packaging engineering programs.  
  By the mid-1990s, as the programs took hold, someone had an idea: Why not hold a student design competition? It would be similar to AICC’s design competition, held since 1981.   In those first years, a gap appeared between the goal of challenging students to produce work worthy of the real world and the actual entries submitted, says Steve Young, AICC ambassador-at-large and former president. “We mostly got back corrugated cutouts of flowers and artsy things,” he says. “We weren’t presenting guidance on a packaging problem to be solved.”   By the early 2000s, each competition presented students with such challenges as creating a six-pack holder for jars of taco sauce. As the competition evolved, the winners were required to “sell” their designs at ICPF’s live teleconference, held annually at Michigan State University. “If you’re going to be in the corrugated industry, you can’t just come up with a good idea,” Young says. “You have to get in front of the customer and convince them why this design is better for their product and why my company should produce it.”   Winners are also invited to attend AICC’s annual meeting. “Imagine being 19 or 20 years old, and you are in an industry conference with 600 other professionals,” Young says. “It’s a great opportunity. They can collect a lot of business cards.”   Under Jim Nelson, of Great Lakes Packaging Co., former chair of the AICC Packaging Design Committee, the competition flourished. At many of the schools, faculty champions have shepherded students through the annual competitions. “Their students can get really good jobs either in our industry or for end users,” Young says. “Packaging engineering is a very in-demand field.”   The 2023 competition attracted 20 entries from six schools, which is typical for most years. As it continues, Young is encouraged by the enthusiasm of the students. He believes the competition sets an example of giving back to the industry that young talent will replicate in their careers. “I hope they come into the industry,” he says. “I hope they begin working for one of our members. I hope they remember our involvement and become champions of AICC within their companies.”  

Winning Teams

  For 2023, students faced the challenge of safely packaging a hammer, four lightbulbs, and a box of nails. First-place structure went to Dunwoody College of Technology and team members Xinh Beardmore, Cory Richard Williams, and Kristin Benusa.   First-place graphics was awarded to UTA and team members Barrera, Kit Corney, and Cassidy Victor. To Barrera, the sight of the Student Packaging Design Competition on a class syllabus seemed like an exciting opportunity. He and his teammates devised an inner structure with a box for each item, creating more space to display the branding. That’s where Barrera deployed his strengths, designing graphics to be “interesting but not overwhelming,” he says.   The competition also pushes students to hone their marketing and brand concept skills, not simply designing a workable package but creating a target audience. The UTA team invented Tuff Hardware, catering to typical Ikea shoppers seeking form and function in their home goods.   Receiving the email that his team had won first place in graphics “was amazing,” Barrera says, especially because he got to celebrate with family visiting from Mexico at the time. “They were all excited,” he says.   Benusa is a 2023 graduate of Dunwoody College of Technology, a “pretty cool technical school” in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In her final semester, she formed a team with two classmates who, like her, chose to study graphic design and packaging as a second career path.   As they brainstormed their target customer, they wondered, “Who in the world is going to buy all this stuff in one box?” That led to a DIYer who isn’t terribly knowledgeable about home maintenance. “They’re just clicking online and saying, ‘I need a hammer and lightbulbs, and I need it now,’ ” Benusa says.   For their inner structure, the Dunwoody College team decided on a Z-fold, less materials-intensive than a tray. For sustainability, they steered away from glue and tape. They chose B flute for its buoyancy and strength.   They cut out early iterations at Dunwoody before producing and testing their final designs at The Bernard Group, where Benusa and Williams had been working since graduation. Continuing its practice of supporting Dunwoody College’s packaging studies, The Bernard Group donated the team’s materials. “It’s incredible,” Benusa says. “It’s really great to see that they are so eager to go above and beyond in supporting the very thing they hired us for. That kind of support is exactly what makes me want to work for them.”   Throughout the process, the team kept striving toward Dunwoody College’s tradition of excelling in the competition. “We knew we had to keep this streak going,” Benusa says. “Winning was definitely a welcome surprise.”  

A Winning Experience

  Both first-place teams found themselves deploying the soft skills demanded in the real world, including collaboration, critical thinking, and communications.   “You can’t do it alone in this industry,” Benusa says. “It’s very invaluable to be able to collaborate on projects like this competition because in our department at The Bernard Group, that’s exactly what you’re doing. You have to know how to communicate well with each other.”   Her team’s win justifies the faith her employer showed in hiring her and Williams right out of college, Benusa says. It also represents a happy sendoff for their mentor and professor, the newly semiretired professor Pete Rivard, “who was the only professor who dared to push us to learn ArtiosCAD in order to be multifaceted graduates from a primarily graphic design-oriented degree.”   Barrera thanks “every one of the professors who guided us through,” especially Shaban Al-Refai, who “made packaging interesting for me.” He also appreciates the industry support from AICC member Harris Packaging that sustains UTA’s packaging program.   The packaging field offers a runway to great careers, the winning designers agree. “If you have a creative mind and a little bit of technical expertise, whether you’re a man or woman, you can succeed in this industry,” Benusa says. “From my experience, I don’t think there’s any limitation to what you can do. As long as you’re ambitious, you’re going to take yourself anywhere.”  
  M. Diane McCormick is a freelance journalist based in Pennsylvania.