One of our editors, Ashley Joyce had the opportunity to speak with Chip Tonkin, Chair of the Graphic Communications Department and also Director of The Sonoco Institute of Packaging Design and Graphics at Clemson University. Prior to being at Clemson, he spent 13 years with International Paper. She also spoke with Jeff Rhodehamel, the Chair of Food, Nutrition and Packaging Sciences and Associate Director of The Sonoco Institute at Clemson University. Prior to Clemson, he worked at Cryovac Sealed Air for 18 years. Combined they both have a total of more than 45 years experience in packaging industry.

With so much knowledge on the industry and within the university settings, both Tonkin and Rodehamel provided a lot of context on the purpose of design within packaging, common pain points in the packaging process and what they feel is the future direction of packaging – including digital print and eye tracking technologies.

Ashley Joyce: What would you say is the purpose of design, especially in relation to packaging?

Jeff Rhodehamel: People tend to think of design as what the product looks like or what the packaging looks like. What we try to do in packaging science at Clemson University is take a holistic approach from A to Z with the packaging process. 

And so package design starts in choosing the structure and the basic packaging material, which most people don’t think of as design. A packaging material may be a glossy finish versus a matte finish, and that’s still part of design…

Chip Tonkin: Yes, it’s not a design if all you’ve got is a pretty picture on a screen. You still need to think through materials and end-use requirements and how are you going the design will be made. Is this design possible within constraints, such as dollars or time frame or volume or any number of things? Both Jeff and myself both approach design much more holistically.

Ashley Joyce: I agree with you, all of those things are important to consider. Do you think that designers have always thought that way? Or do you think something has been a catalyst for this change?

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Chip Tonkin: I think the pressure of the business cycle has changed a bit. Back in the day, designers could throw out blue-sky ideas because you had eight weeks or twelve weeks to put something together.

Tonkin, Chair of the Graphic Communications Department and also Director of The Sonoco Institute of Packaging Design and Graphics at Clemson University
Tonkin, Chair of the Graphic Communications Department and also Director of The Sonoco Institute of Packaging Design and Graphics at Clemson University

Now you’ve only got three or four weeks to make something a reality, and that has forced people to start addressing it holistically, which always made sense, but I think back in the day it just didn’t seem as necessary. 

Ashley Joyce: Yes, with consumer’s rapid changing tastes, brands are pressured to produce new products quickly. With that knowledge, teams need to think more practically because they just don’t have time to implement blue sky ideas. 

Chip Tonkin: It’s a little more efficient too. If you do everything at once, it saves on dollars.

Jeff Rhodehamel: And I think after a few packaging pitfalls, everybody says, “Well, we never talked to the people who actually had to put it in a package until the end, and maybe we should have been talking to them upfront.” Over time you learn to include all departments into the packaging development stage earlier, and now you’re walking in step in a coordinated effort towards total product and packaging design.   

Ashley Joyce:  So do you think technology has helped ease that burden with communication?  

Rhodehamel, Chair of Food, Nutrition and Packaging Sciences and Associate Director of The Sonoco Institute at Clemson University
Rhodehamel, Chair of Food, Nutrition and Packaging Sciences and Associate Director of The Sonoco Institute at Clemson University

Jeff Rhodehamel:  I think that has helped. The ability to prototype and share digitally what you have in mind, rather than producing some prototypes, and then touching back with various departments two weeks later makes things a little more seamless. 

Chip Tonkin: For the longest time, only the people in the art department could even see what was going on in Illustrator, and even then it was flat, and when presenting to other departments and executives you’d say: “Well, picture this — instead of flat, picture it wrapped around a cylinder and inflated.” And now you can totally produce a three-dimensional model that’s accurate in its shape and lighting and push it to anybody, and they can see it and visualize it.  

Ashley Joyce: That definitely helps expedite the decision making process. 

What are key problems often overlooked by businesses in regards to design and packaging?

Chip Tonkin: You know, capitalizing on somebody’s cool idea is great, but often times companies don’t think it through; for example, do we have the appropriate selection of materials? what impact does packaging have on shelf life or ability to survive a supply chain? Will the color fade in the sun? There are a number of things that CPGs get excited about without thinking through all the logistics.

Jeff Rhodehamel: I think that’s correct, Chip, and some of the hidden things that maybe folks in the marketing world may not see; for example, how is that product going to be produced and run at efficient speeds. It could be a very cool package, but the converter can only do about ten an hour on existing equipment. And so there are the efficiencies that maybe aren’t always seen, and that’s one of the problems.  

The other is the shipping and distribution of the product — is it protected well enough? How is it going to be cased? Those are sometimes overlooked.

And then it’s turned over to somebody who may not know the special delicacies of that particular product, that it’s got a high gloss finish or they put it in a package where it’s loosely jumbled together and there’s breakage. There are all sorts of things that sometimes people overlook. Brands say, “Hey, we just want it in the retail store already,” but there’s a lot that happens between the manufacturer and the retailer.

Chip Tonkin: And those are problems that have been going on forever.  A modern problem I’ve seen is with digital printing, where you can customize applications that are key to certain demographics or certain customers or regions. Those projects are very difficult to scale. What makes sense on a small scale with digital equipment doesn’t always scale up to a bigger marketing campaign because of the cost of consumables. So there’s definitely some of these opportunities on the digital side that sound really cool but are limited, at least in the current term, because of technology limitations.

Ashley Joyce: In terms of design and packaging strategy, what direction do you see brands moving toward in the future? You mentioned digital printing. Is there anything else that you’re seeing that is going to be a game changer?

Chip Tonkin: I think brands will get increasingly better at strategic marketing, and I think we’re really bending people’s desires and interests and aligning it with the right products. And packaging will be a part of that. 

For a long time, brand strategy has included throwing spaghetti at a wall and seeing what sticks, and I think brands will get better and better at that using technologies to evaluate packaging design, like eye tracking and other methodologies to better understand consumer preferences and behavior. So we’ll know what effect a new design will have on consumers more than we have in the past, and we’ll be better at it.

I’ll give you an interesting example. We started doing some eye tracking studies in Clemson’s retail lab, and we came up with a whole methodology of how to statistically evaluate one design versus another. Many companies who used our lab already had in mind what the design should be, but they wanted to use our lab to collect data that validated their design, in order to gain approvals from executives. So they had already pre-decided the best design and they just wanted us to provide data to support that. I think in the future, they’ll be using those systems early on to decide the design, not just to produce data to justify the expense of the pretty picture they already created.  

Ashley Joyce: So with more tailored marketing, do you think then that customization will become even more popular?

Chip Tonkin: I think so, and brands will be better at it.

Jeff Rhodehamel: Twenty years ago designers, packaging engineers and converters would say, “We can do one design and maybe different colors.”.  Now I think there’s the chance to really, as Chip said, laser in on a specific set of criteria for a specific group and provide more options.

Chip Tonkin: And brands will be able to justify the ROI.  They’ll have enough granular information about why are consumers buying this versus that, and they’ll be able to justify the increased cost of the customization.

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