Strategies & Insights

Design Matters Series: Rising to the Challenge

Posted: September 5, 2014 by
Linda Casey

With 28 years at Osram Sylvania Inc., Marrie Luce-Barton, corporate identity and design manager for the company, has seen the effects of the quickening pace of business on the creative process firsthand. “The speed can be pretty daunting,” Luce-Barton says, “In the lighting category, especially, there’s new generation after new generation that comes out very quickly. Also the breadth of the product line has changed so much and there are so many different technologies, each of them needing to be designed in a way that is meaningful for its own technology but yet amongst the whole portfolio of products.”

The effect is seen across packaging verticals, with Andy Kurtts, design manager at The Fresh Market, saying timelines are a top challenge when designing private label packaging. “The volume of projects can be overwhelming,” Kurtts remarks. “I just checked the other day, and we have 108 open projects at one time in certain stages of development.”

Luckily, technology enables designers to work more quickly. “Today, there’s so much at your fingertips and you can do it so easily,” Luce-Barton opines. “There are these plug-ins and filters. There’s just so much out there available: You’ve got stock photography and vector art.”

But there’s a price to pay for these tools. “There’s a loss of understanding of how design really works,” Luce-Barton says. “When you had to create art by hand, you had these beautiful moments in design where every element was created. It saddens me to see that we’ve left some of these moments behind.”

“With so much new technology and innovation at our fingertips, you might think that would be the logical place to look for inspiration,” she adds. “But I like to look back at what was done in the marketplace years ago. Today, designers have so many resources that can be just dialed up, but you lose some of that process and fine execution.”

The design leadership from The Fresh Market also dives back for pearls of inspiration. This influence can be seen in the store’s private label canned vegetable packaging. “We had an antique label collector on the project, running it from the private label side,” Kurtts says. “She brought in actual samples from her collections, so we could study them and view them.”

Using those labels as inspiration, Kurtts and his team handcrafted the major elements of the label. He illustrated each vegetable on each label, and the type was hand lettered. Not only did the project take the carefully considered approach needed to handcraft the art, it also tapped into one of the project stakeholders’ passions outside of work.

Package design has a long history of tapping into people’s outside interests for inspiration. During our video interviews, Craig Niedermaier, associate creative director at Beam Suntory, pulls out this example: “Maker’s Mark is a phenomenal packaging story. The Samuels family had a long-running whiskey recipe that was handed down from generation to generation. When it reached Bill Samuels, he said, ‘I think that’s kind of harsh. Whiskey’s got kind of a bite to it, and I want to take some of that bite out.’ So he worked on the recipe while his wife, Margie, who had never done anything from a creative direction or packaging design standpoint ever in her life, but had an affinity for cognac and collecting cognac bottles. Margie came across a style of bottle that she liked and dipped it in wax. A legend was born, and it’s won more design awards than I’ve ever won and Beth’s ever won, and that was her first and only packaging product.” Beth Positano, associate creative director at Beam Suntory, adds, “She did it in her kitchen!”

All of the creatives we interviewed emphasized the need to get out from behind the computer for a new perspective on the creative process. “It’s taking that time to just enjoy the simple things—walking around London, going to The V&A Museum [The Victoria and Albert Museum, London] to see what other artisans and craftspeoples do,” Christine Mau, design director, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at Kimberly-Clark, says. “It’s going to the markets and just seeing all of those handmade artisan type products. It makes me stop and appreciate the small things—the scents and the textures and the tastes that feed my creative eye.”

“Home remodeling has become an addiction for me,” Niedermaier admits. “It’s kind of a sickness being a creative director, you’re constantly looking to improve everything around you so you buy fixer-uppers, try to craft them into a vision and your poor family gets dragged along with you.”

Luce-Barton shares Niedermaier’s passion for home improvement. “There’s not a part of the process that I’m not at least willing to try,” she says. “I’ve climbed on roofs and carried rocks. My fingernails all have putty and primer underneath them.” Luce-Barton finds it invigorating and adds that the renovating along with another one of her passions, antiquing, pull on her skill with color. “I view things differently than a lot of other people,” she remarks. “I see value in an object someone else might see as a piece of junk. It might not be something I want to buy, but there might be something like the shine or the color that attracts me.” These observations tie her work and personal lives together for the maximum opportunity for inspiration.

Sometimes, insights come from what you can’t see. Mau’s team underwent an experience at Dans le Noir London that truly gave them a new perspective.

Diners at the restaurant are served by blind people, in total darkness. “You can’t see anything, they bring you to the table and you experience a meal together,” she explains. “Being denied one of your senses allowed us to have some very good conversations. We went around the table and talked about what we appreciated from what everyone brought to the team. But we also experienced what it’s like if you are missing someone, some expertise on your team, or if you are not leveraging all of the senses when you create a new innovation because when we couldn’t see our food, we weren’t completely sure if we were eating carrots or potatoes.”

Alex Blake, graphic designer at The Fresh Market, also has had experiences related to food that feed both body and muse. “I’m really into food and it just so happens that our industry also revolves around food, so that’s a pretty nice marriage,” she remarks. “I’m always finding things in a cookbook that help me think through how to design a package, without actually looking at other packaging designs to lead my way.”

Niedermaier and Positano also look outside their industry for inspiration. “What we try to do is look at luxury products such as perfume, gourmet foods and the like,” Niedermaier explains. “We go outside the spirits industry quite a bit because I think there’s a tendency to kind of see what the Joneses are doing and do something similar.”

Echoing the sentiment, Saskia van Gendt, captain planet, Method Products, says, “If you just design within your current parameters, you’re not going to do anything interesting, you’re only going to go with what’s already accepted.” When Method came up with the laundry pump design, most if not all liquid detergents came in large high-density polyethylene jugs. Consumers were accustomed to pouring detergent into a measuring cap that was very large by today’s standards.

“But we had created a very innovative formula using green chemistry that took all of the water out of the formula,” van Gendt recalls. “We needed a completely new format to dispense that, so that people would actually use the right amount. It’s an eight-time concentrated detergent.”

Too much detergent would affect the product’s performance in the home and the consumer’s overall perception of the brand. To ensure the highest efficacy for its product, Method had to develop a new design. It just happened that the new structure was a refreshing design update to the category.

Andrew Gillespie, vice president and global creative director at A.T. Cross, likes to look to other areas as well. He looks to science, medicine and fine art. “I’m trying to bring it all together to make me a better designer and help me be a better manager as well,” he explains.

Gillespie also emphasizes the value of travel. “There’s nothing like being somewhere and experiencing the taste and the smells of Asia, the heat of India, the culture of the Middle East, or how different France is to Spain,” he says. “I’ve lived in Asia, Europe, Africa and America. I can share that experience with my team and guide them when it comes to designing products for different markets, but there’s nothing like being there yourself to experience it. Travel is one of the greatest things any individual can do—experience a different culture and see it for themselves, not to base their perceptions of a culture on what the news told you. I think the experience is critical for people in any country and in any culture.”

Inspiration for one of Gillespie’s proudest projects came during one of his international travels. “I was sitting in the Taipei airport waiting for a flight back to America after a business trip,” he recalls. “I was having a whisky in the lounge, and it just came to me—ninja shoes! This pair of shoes could fit in this very small package that took the space of one shoe, which you could put in your carry-on luggage.

“Business travelers, on a three-day trip, don’t want to check their luggage,” he adds. “They want to get off the plane, get to the hotel and get to the meeting. So the Travel Trainer was designed to accommodate business executives’ sports needs: They could hit a gym at a hotel, but with a very small package that would overcome their resistance to put sneakers inside their business bag. I would say from a design point of view that was one of the best packages [and products] I’ve ever designed.”

These designers are also pulling on experiences outside work for inspiration. “I recently had a little girl,” Deena Keller, design lead, Method Products, says. “She’s one year old now, and I definitely have gained some insight on our consumer by becoming a mom. I think a lot of our consumers are moms who don’t have a lot of time to look at things, but also have a lot of concern about what they put in their homes and how they use it.”

Being a parent further strengthens an existing passion of Keller’s—designing message hierarchies. “I know this sounds boring, but organizing information and making it understandable to a broader audience is a passion of mine,” she explains. “The role design plays a lot of times is that of problem solver, and that’s the part that I really like.”

Sometimes, inspiration simply comes from the need to get something done. Luce-Barton recalls a recent project where she and a colleague knocked out iteration after iteration in one day. “We went hours making version after version, each reflecting feedback from the retail buyer,” she recalls. “At the time, it was frustrating but exciting. Times like this, you realize the value that you bring to the company. As much as I complain about it, I do some of my best work with a gun to my head. It’s a lot of fun doing the impossible.”

Her advice for making the most of these situations is to have teams understand that design is an iterative process. “Learn very early, don’t fall in love with anything, because you’re going to have to ‘give and take’ throughout the entire process,” she remarks.

Inviting others into the process also enables designers to take advantage of insights beyond their own. “Bringing a consumer product to market, there are so many things that come into play, whether it be labeling laws, language laws, the product details, or safety and compliance,” Luce-Barton says. “We work with all of those areas of business and with vendors such as overseas suppliers.” That’s why Mau collaborates so closely with Kimberly-Clark’s research and engineering team. “I sit right next to the head of R&E,” she says. “We sit together on the leadership team and bounce ideas back and forth.”

A strategy endorsed by Gillespie, who remarks, “It’s very important that you have packaging designers, graphic designers, product designers and marketing all in the same meetings and on the same wavelength when developing a product, because it’s not just about developing the product, you’ve got to think about how to communicate to the consumer and what the packaging looks like and if it’s the same mentality.”

Blake and Kurtts adjusted their workspace to facilitate better collaboration within their team. “Instead of having four cubicles that have walls between them, we rearranged them so that it’s a big, open space,” Blake says. “Now, I can easily roll over to Andy’s desk and see what he’s working on and give him some feedback, and vice versa.”

Keller and van Gendt take advantage of their proximity to the rest of Method. “We are extremely collaborative,” Saskia says. “We don’t do a lot of e-mail conversations. It’s very much like, be in there in person and ask the questions directly; it allows for a lot more collaboration and efficiency because you get your answers quickly.”

Deena adds, “It helps you get to a better solution overall, because now you have their thinking and that whole other perspective to incorporate into the solution that you’re working towards.”

“I love breaking down the walls in corporate silos,” Niedermaier says. “You always learn something. I think if everybody had a little bit of cross-curricular knowledge with all the departments that they work with, it would impact their work.

“We get some inspiration from our master distillers,” he continues. “These guys are passionate about the liquids that they make. You really want that story to come through to the consumer.”

Positano adds, “Conceptually, a lot of inspiration can come from where the liquid was sourced from, as well. Our liquids tend to have these great stories about where they’re from. Laphroaig Scotch whisky is from an island in Scotland called Islay. The island gets pounded by the salt and the sea. That product shouldn’t be showy even though it’s expensive. It should look rugged, but simple and down to earth.”

Niedermaier adds, “Storytelling is so big now. It used to be a kind of tangential part of the brand, but as Beth said earlier, it plays a big role in places like global travel retail.”

Positano remarks, “Have shoppers picture Beam in the place where it came from, and you will make consumers a) happy because it makes them think about the place that they’re not necessarily in but also b) think about the authenticity of the product and the fact that it does have a history behind it.”

Heritage and product inform design at Cross. “The visual identity for any of the pen products is based on the DNA, the design language of the brand, which comes from a pen called, Classic Century,” Andrew explains. “Everything is designed to tie into the simplicity of that design. So you won’t find complicated packaging, it’s very simple and easy to understand, and the design language is very clean.”

The product story should take precedence in the package design, says Mau. “Packaging is the purest expression of a brand,” she explains.

When a package design is done right, it can elevate the consumer’s overall perception and experience with your brand. “Quite often, our product is not a highly considered selection, but a nuisance repurchase,” Luce-Barton says. “Something burned out, and the consumer needs to replace it.” When a shopper is navigated up the line of Osram Sylvania offerings, they might discover a way to improve their lives everyday.

“The interesting thing is that people really don’t think about lighting a whole lot, but it’s so important to your life,” she remarks. “How many times do you come in contact with a manufactured lighting source? From the moment you wake up in the morning to the time you turn off the switch at night and crawl into bed, you have experienced lighting in so many ways that you couldn’t even begin to count. With the products coming on the market today, there’s so much that has just never been available to a consumer or a homeowner before.”

Part of a designer’s and a company’s mission, according to Gillespie, is to go beyond consumers’ stated needs. “Some people think consumers want what they get or should get what they want,” he remarks. “I think the designer’s job is to provide a future for consumers who might not really know what they want. You can come up with something unexpected, that’s totally revolutionary.

“All of the designers around the world are looking at the same trend research and the same technologies and the same cultural shifts, and they are designing products for futures that regular consumers don’t understand yet” he adds. “Designers live in a completely different world. A future many consumers can’t yet imagine.” 

Package Design Matters, a multi-media thought leadership series in print and online, where, through the generous support of our sponsors, we speak with some of most innovative minds in the branding, design and marketing of consumer packaged goods.