Being Creative In A Manufacturing Environment
"Many designers think being creative in a manufacturing environment would be restrictive. I believe the constant pull between concept design and manufacturing reality has forced me to build up my creative problem solving abilities, making me a better designer."
- Sara Jane Falcon, Senior Design Lead - Global Design for MeadWestVaco
Sara Jane Falcon, Senior Design Lead - Global Design for MeadWestvaco (MWV), gives her perspective on being creative in a manufacturing environment.
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The Allure of Concept Work
Conceptual design work energizes people. It moves us to see the same problem in a new way, or imagine a completely new experience. It drives change.
As designers, that’s our job. We’re trained to think about what’s possible. What might the optimal consumer experience look like? What should the aesthetics be for this brand, this consumer? In a world without manufacturing constraints or cost parameters, what could we create?
But as designers working for a packaging company, we cannot ignore the boundaries imposed by materials, time and cost. For us, designing with these constraints in mind is part of what it means to think more deeply about what’s possible.
Designing in a Manufacturing Environment
As a member of the design team at MWV, a global packaging solutions provider, I work on pump and closure designs for some of the largest names in consumer packaged goods. We develop ergonomic and aesthetic proposals in support of the MWV product line. Our team leads brand- and consumer-driven packaging concept work for our customers.
Many designers think being creative in a manufacturing environment would be restrictive. I believe the constant pull between concept design and manufacturing reality has forced me to build up my creative problem solving abilities, making me a better designer.
Because we work for a manufacturer we have the opportunity to collaborate with a diverse and talented team of engineering and technical experts. We don’t have to know the ins and outs of part optimization, mold design or assembly efficiencies, but we do have to understand the basics and speak the language in order to develop concepts that are feasible.
Working within the constraints of what’s possible from a timing or cost perspective can be daunting, but only if you choose to let it be. I’ve found that the more I know about these limitations, the better I can set up ideation sessions with the team. Instead of discussing manufacturing constraints up front, we start our design work attempting to solve problems related to the consumer and the brand. We use constraints to refine our concepts. This “chunking” technique helps us continue to think creatively.
The more our team understands limitations, the more control we have to keep the design intent alive throughout the development process. It is our responsibility as designers to continue to push for the ideal product experience throughout this process. For this reason, when we’re told something isn’t feasible because of time, cost, or technology, we always ask, “If we could have this feature, what are some ways we could achieve it?” or “What if we did it like this instead?”
After all, the foundation of both design and engineering is problem solving. It’s much more impactful to do this type of work together. It’s also much more rewarding for our design team. By working hand-in-hand with engineering, we get to walk our concepts from strategy to manufacturing. Now that is pretty cool.
Believability in Concept Design
If you don’t have technical experts or engineers in-house, there are still things you can do to push your concepts further.
Have “functional experts” on your team. Everybody doesn’t have to be an expert in folding cartons, injection molding or flexibles. However, if you work with these materials and processes it is helpful for someone in your organization to act as a resource for more information. These functional experts should be leveraged to help refine concept work and to help predict technical concerns.
For primary plastics work, our team completes what we call the “believability test” before sharing concept work with our customers. For each promising concept, we ask the team to define one or two aspects of the design that they just don’t believe. Does it seem overly complicated for a minimal benefit to the consumer? Does it seem wasteful or over-packaged for the end use? Does the interaction with the product seem intuitive? Refining work based on simple questions like these is often where we get to our strongest concepts.
Creativity not Commodity
So can creativity thrive in a manufacturing environment, specifically in a product space that has historically been seen as a commodity? Absolutely. And for those of us who work in packaging, it’s imperative to think creatively if we want to give value to our products and move them out of the commodity space.