Improving the Packaging Design Connection
In the package printing process, few things are as frustrating as when a project appears ready to go to press, only to have things come to a screeching halt as the team realizes there are issues. Any number of packaging design problems could lead to this production slowdown, such as the trapping being off, the bleed creating problems, or a brand logo being out of place. But with strong communication practices, there are ways to help mitigate the frustration for everyone involved — and ways to help prevent the problems from occurring as frequently in the first place.
“We do understand that designers and printers are coming from different perspectives,” notes Taylor Getler, business development associate at Works Design Group, a design agency in Pennsauken, N.J. “Designers have a creative vision, and printers are looking at it from a technical perspective of what is doable and cost-effective. But the most important thing to remember is that we’re all on the same team.”
Communication is King in Packaging Design
Perhaps the single biggest action that the supply chain can take to improve the process is to foster better communication. For example, Michael John, lead design operations print quality manager for the consumer business group at 3M Design, says that getting all stakeholders together early on helps create a recipe for success.
“I’ve always felt it’s important to bring printers in as early as possible in the design process,” John says. “Designers hate it when they go to a shelf and see that someone else has made decisions for them, but printers get upset when they’re handed something difficult to work with. It’s important to bring everyone together as early as possible.”
While many designers don’t see the print shop getting a design until it’s been finalized and ready for print, it can be beneficial to have the printer involved from the initial concepts. This is a chance to make sure every designer on the project has the print specifications, and fully understands them. It is also a chance for the printer to look at challenging design ideas and offer suggestions for how something could be accomplished, or alternatives that can achieve the same look or feel while staying within a budget.
“Some printers hesitate to invest that time,” says J. Scott Hosa, associate director, technical graphics for Landor, a global brand consulting and design agency. “It is time consuming. But the smart ones will invest the time and look at designs, and say ‘Hey, design two is challenging, you have print across a window on a carton, and there is some registration tolerance issues, so I might move that seal of approval so you’re not struggling later to register it between the window and the carton.’ That helps us do some research on our own, and [make any necessary changes.]”
The Almighty Print Sample
While being part of the conversation from the start can help avoid many of the problems that arise when going to press, there are more strategies package printers can take when communicating with designers. Print samples might seem like an old-fashioned sales tool, but the reality is that they are still very much an important part of the process.
“I have a robust archive of packaging examples,” says Hosa. “So get those together and get them out there so people know what you can do. Have a hall of fame, best case examples, best-in-class designs. Calendars are helpful too, with different finishes and background textures. Send out a Christmas card with delicate embossed snowflakes and specialty varnishes. Provide pieces with diecuts and really unique construction. I have a stack of examples, and I use them all the time.”
While designers often create sample books that are used for inspiration when the time comes to start a new project, printers can take a similar approach. It not only allows the shop to demonstrate new technologies or finishes, it is a chance to demonstrate how those technologies can be combined in new or interesting ways to help a brand stand out.
“I love getting print samples,” notes John. “I’ll get designers who come to me and say, ‘I want to bling this up, do you have suggestions?’ I can reach into my book and ask who is printing the piece, they have these capabilities, and show examples I have from them. We can start a conversation with the printer to see what’s cost effective, versus achieving that look. So don’t think we get print samples and throw them in the bin — especially if I have a relationship with a printer already, I hold on to those, and I know other designers do the same thing.”
Print samples are also a key part of good communication with designers because they help put often complicated technical processes into terms designers can understand. While there are designers out there with a print background, there are far more that simply don’t have the experience to look at a spec sheet and understand how that should translate into a finished design.
“It is important for printers to supply as much information as they can in a way that is not super technical, and is more universal,” says Getler. “Put it in layman’s terms. You don’t know if the designer has any experience or expertise in the printing process. If you can, from the beginning, explain it in easy-to-understand terms, that will make the process a lot smoother. And what is a better tool to explain what you can do than to provide samples that show ‘this is what we’re capable of, this is what this substrate would cost.’ Samples are one of the most useful tools for interacting with the design team you have.”
Where to Begin?
Beyond establishing strong communication practices, designers and package printers can also benefit by working together on deepening their relationships and familiarity with each other.
For Hosa, in-person meetings (once travel restrictions begin to ease) are always appreciated. Or, in a world of social distancing, taking the time to arrange for video meetings might be a good alternative. The point is to make a personal connection, and take the time to not just extol the print capabilities of the shop, but to take the time to listen.
“I always appreciate it when a printer comes to town to visit,” says Hosa. “We arrange for a lunch or happy hour, and I can stay current with what they’re doing. It’s a huge time investment for printers, and I’m always grateful for that. On the other side, I don’t need the history of their company — sometimes I’m reluctant to take those meetings if it's just going to be background information.”
Instead, he stresses that providing solutions to potential problems — even if they aren’t problems on a current project — is a great way to get more involved. For example, sustainability is always top of mind for brands, so a print shop that comes in with a new product they have developed, or a new idea they have for how to put something together more cost-effectively, will be far better received.
Getler notes that being proactive is also important. While in an ideal world, the designers are reaching out to printers as they begin the process, it doesn’t always happen that way. And shops that take the time to ensure they are involved will be the ones who are top-of-mind when the time comes to choose print vendors. One way to do that, she notes, is facility tours.
“We’ve had instances where our designers go offsite to visit the shops and learn about what’s possible,” Getler says. “We’ve gone to the shop to really understand what they can do for us, including really pie-in-the-sky stuff we didn’t even know was possible. It never hurts to really broaden the knowledge base of the design team, since the more they know what’s able to be done, the more it will open the door for more creative concepts down the road.”
When a situation does arise in which a design file makes it to the pressroom, but cannot be properly produced, John explains that it is typically a good practice to inform the design team and offer suggestions, rather than the printer taking it upon themselves to alter the file.
“Don’t take it upon yourself to know what the intent of that design was and makes changes to the art based on what you think is in the best interest of the brand,” he says. “If you go back and say we can’t produce it this way, but we can do it another way, the designer might say yes, or they might ask for something different to tie into the rest of the design better. Remember, you’re part of a bigger picture, and are not the only fish in the ocean.”
He stresses that whether the brand is large or small, the odds are very good the piece any one printer is producing is just one element that will need to seamlessly blend with everything else. So a change to a shrink sleeve might throw off the carton design. Or moving a window might completely obscure a label.
“It sounds so simple,” John says, “but you’ve really got to have a great line of communication. We already know you know how to print — please don’t think you also know how to design. It’s not a negative thing, just that there are a lot of things to be aware of before making changes to a file.”
Finally, don’t be discouraged if a meeting, or a sample, doesn’t produce immediate results. There are always new projects starting, and designers remember the printers who are proactive, helpful, and bring inspiration to the table.
“I consider myself fortunate that I have relationships with printers who make the time to keep me up-to-date with what they’re doing, and I see a lot of things they’re testing ahead of time,” notes Hosa. “So when a designer comes to me, I can say ‘hey, here is something in development that is looking for the right project.’ Often, it might not be right for that project, but chances are — and this has happened quite a few times — it will happen for the next one. This is why it’s really important to keep in touch and don’t quit, even when you don’t score that first gig.”