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Reframing Your Approach

By Shaban Al-Refai

September 13, 2022

width=109How did you get into the boxmaking industry? Everyone’s always curious, but not everyone sees it as their calling. Growing up, I loved Tetris and origami. Over time, graphic design and technology worked their way into my daily life. Naturally, it makes sense that I would end up working as a designer with a foot in both structure and graphics, and I love every day. Puzzles and problem-solving are my dessert.

In addition to working in packaging for more than seven years, I also teach packaging at night at a local university. Being allowed and encouraged by my management to teach at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) has allowed me to give back to the community while keeping myself sharp. Every semester, I run into new students who have no idea about our industry, and I get to reinforce my own foundations with every class.

width=411Because the class I teach is part of the art department at UTA, it doesn’t follow the traditional packaging science teaching methodologies. Instead, there is a strong focus on fluid intelligence, creativity, and the ability to multitask with what’s expected in the industry. They learn about ArtiosCAD, Adobe, the corrugated industry, and how to design both the structure and art for boxes and displays. Each semester, students are assigned three projects for which they must create the structure and art. Over the course of their projects, they work on both elements simultaneously and have progress checkpoints for each. Rather than getting burnt out on one or the other, switching back and forth lets them process new information at a slower pace and retain it better. Remember, this is all new to them, so in some cases, it’s like taking two classes at once. Their foundations in creativity, art, and the 3D form help them approach design situations in uncommon and unique ways because they aren’t restricted by all the science and manufacturing limitations. People can be taught manufacturing or how to use a program because those are concrete or hard skills, but creativity falls into a weird gap. It’s a soft skill that can be honed over time, like public speaking, and a mindset or viewpoint of a nonlinear approach that’s intrinsic to the individual, like a personal quality.

Those familiar with graphic design coursework know that projects involve the development of 30–50 thumbnails followed by refined sketches. Sketches rarely only have simple linework, though. The students always end up doodling and sketching smaller details into the designs as they visualize their solutions. They begin to work out the details of how it all links together during these brainstorming stages. If each class and each project follow the same requirement of 30–50 thumbnails, the students become extremely proficient at brainstorming and problem-solving, which increases their fluid intelligence over time.

Fluid intelligence is the capacity to think from different points of view quickly to problem-solve without relying on past experiences and accumulated knowledge. It allows us to take independent information and create relationships between the points of reference. This is how abstract problem-solving is performed. Crystallized intelligence, though, is based on your past experiences and knowledge. This type of intelligence increases with age—“Oh, I worked on something like this in the past. I have a solution for you.” When you run into a problem that can’t be solved with the information available to you or based on past experiences, fluid intelligence helps you take that leap. The purpose of 30–50 sketches during the brainstorming phase isn’t to torture the students but to exhaust their initial gut reactions and thoughts about a solution so that they must tap into their creative muscles and grow. Fluid intelligence is thought to decrease as we become adults, but research suggests that this happens only when we stop challenging and allowing ourselves to get creative. Being an efficient multitasker only enhances these skills, because you don’t need to actively sit and think about the solutions. A designer can mentally work on solutions for projects that require more effort while working on more mundane projects that don’t require any effort. Everyone does this to some degree in their day-to-day life, like washing dishes or prepping dinner.

As the industry becomes more diverse, there needs to be a shift in the desired skill sets and aspirations of incoming future designers to include fluid intelligence, creativity, and an ability to multitask. In the field, I run across designers who know only graphics or structure, with no desire to learn the other side, because they feel as if they aren’t creative enough to connect the bridge; I believe this is holding back the industry. By being open to learning a new skill or taking on a project that’s outside of their scope, they can gain insights that will help them in the future. I came from a creative background in which being multifaceted was necessary, and it has only helped me excel. I love being handed the oddball projects that others don’t look forward to and creating a solution where one wasn’t apparent. In the meantime, encourage your team to engage in activities or projects that flex their creative muscles and increase fluid intelligence. It helps make the day-to-day become more exciting, because creativity isn’t just a one-trick pony.

width=67Shaban Al-Refai is a designer in structure and graphics at Harris Packaging Corp. He can be reached at