Inside the Studio: Product Ventures

"The power of packaging has finally been revealed. Packaging is now being embraced as the brand ambassador it always was, but more fully now that a more expansive and untraditional view of ‘advertising’ is being adopted. Packaging is no longer being thought of as an expense but a value-added contributor to the brand/product experience. Packaging professionals are finally being invited into the C-suite to retrain corporations as to how to work with packaging and unleash its potential.

- Peter Clarke, CEO and Founder of Product Ventures

Peter Clarke started Product Ventures in 1994. The goal was to help the world's leading companies shape thier best known brands with breakthrough design. With almost twenty years of success and a long list of household names as clients, Product Ventures offers a holistic approach to package design, from market research to industrial design and graphic design.

The Dieline had the privilege to talk to Peter Clarke about Product Ventures' history and daily process, as well as his incredible insight on the industry's growth and future.

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Tiffanie Pfrang: You started Product Ventures at such a young age (29), what inspired you to start your own company? What were some of the challenges along the way?

Peter Clarke: I was hungry to fully immerse myself in any given initiative, discover and implement more effective ways of solving challenges.  I no longer wished to be a cog in the wheel but empowered to do the right things right.  Owning and operating my own firm enabled me to engage in all aspects of a challenge from first hand observational research to pioneering consumer-informed design iteration and ultimately establishing the right tools, talent and facilities to help the world’s best known brands shape products and packaging for success.

The biggest challenge was the identification and assimilation of our interdisciplinary team. The key to success was finding diverse talent and experience representing the necessary disciplines to provide holistic design that is consumer-informed and business actionable. To ensure harmonious collaboration each new employee had to have one common trait which I call, “The Humble Pursuit of Excellence”.  At Product Ventures, you’ll find the talent without the ego.  Everyone works together to get it right for the client.

Tiffanie: Who was Product Ventures first client?

Peter: We were extraordinarily lucky to obtain Procter & Gamble as our first big client.  It was through that relationship that we honed our skills to support the world’s sharpest marketers and R&D genius.  The importance and global reach of P&G’s brands challenged us to develop a proven process for success that ensures solutions hit the sweet spot between what a consumer desires and can afford and what the business can actually produce for a profit.

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Tiffanie: What was the turning point where you realized the growth and potential of Product Ventures?

Peter: It was the specialization and focus on packaging. Most industrial designers, or at least back when I graduated from school, viewed packaging as low on the design opportunity food chain. I saw great importance and potential in packaging.  I recognized that big brands rely on packaging to communicate, in many cases, the intangible value of the products they contain. That packaging could be their brand ambassador. The trick with packaging is to understand the business realities of the infrastructure that is required to manufacture, fill and distribute packaged products. I appreciate a challenge, and there is no greater challenge than creating a desirable package for a low price point and high volume item. Through specialization in this field, Product Ventures honed its abilities to research, design and develop packaging and today is entrusted as a valued partner to many of the world’s best known brands.

Tiffanie: You mentioned in New York Times, From Drum rolls to Design that you were in the Marines as well as the marching band, both of which require a lot of discipline. Did you bring a lot of that training into managing your staff at Product Ventures?

Peter: Yes I do. But most importantly is instilling the ability to persevere in the face of adversity. The design business can be a challenging one with short timelines, limited budgets and high expectations. To be successful as a design business you need to work smart. You need to have the best tools and training at your disposal and you need to be well informed. To solve a creative challenge fast requires continuous efforts to hone your skills, develop talents and fearlessly engage in sometimes difficult debates so that the best possible solution can prevail.  My take away from my unique background is that “design for business” requires discipline and creativity to be successful.

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Tiffanie: How many people do you have on staff at Product Ventures?

Peter: We have over 40 people on staff encompassing Industrial Designers, Graphic Designers, Mechanical Engineers, Packaging Engineers, Prototyping Experts, Consumer Researchers, and Strategists.

Tiffanie: What do you look for in an employee? What makes Product Ventures staff different from other firms?

Peter: We look for unique talent, complementary and relevant experience, along with a can-do and helpful attitude.  Our point of difference is centered on the breadth of our interdisciplinary staff.  We are able to bring 360 degrees of consideration to a challenge ranging from the identification of what the consumer wants, to creating a holistic solution, selecting and validating that it’s the right solution for successful commercialization.

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Tiffanie: What is a typical day like at Product Ventures? How many projects do you usually have going on at once?

Peter: At Product Ventures we work on a wide variety of challenges from food packaging, to personal care products to vacuums to surgical equipment. This variety enriches our experiences, fills our heads with new knowledge, and hones our abilities. 

We typically work on 10-20 challenges at a time. To manage the work load in an intimate way, we purposefully composed two main teams, with each having the appropriate mix of disciplines and stratification of experience. With two teams, each is able to really focus on each job and see the job through to completion.

Tiffanie: How do you keep your staff inspired? What does the Product Ventures staff do for fun?

Peter: Every Monday morning we share out industry news of compelling and inspirational happenings in the world of design.  In addition we have a global team of shoppers that scout new and compelling technologies and groundbreaking design examples.  As a result we have one of the world’s largest packaging libraries which provides great inspiration and proof of what’s possible.

On Friday afternoons we do “bar cart” – where a staff member walks the office with a stocked happy hour cart. The staff grabs a drink and shares some laughs.  At Product Ventures we work hard but also seek to enjoy life and each other’s company.  It’s a great way to start the weekend. 

Halloween’s coming up and there is no greater fun than unleashing the creative talents of the staff to put on a show. So for Halloween we have a costume party.My personal favorite was when one of my design managers impersonated me for the day. He had me nailed…from the Snapple bottle in hand to the constant fussing with the thermostat. Each Halloween there’s a new memory made.

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Tiffanie: How do you keep a smooth workflow from Market Research to Industrial Design to Graphic Design all the way to Engineering?

Peter: Actually the research is the glue by which otherwise disparate steps are joined.  Research has extended our involvement from early discovery to commercialization. With research we are able to inform, focus and validate design.  Our consumer-informed and business-actionable approach is a true point of difference for Product Ventures.  So is the collaboration of graphic and industrial designers that work together at the same time to inspire one another to create a richer outcome.  We have developed a proven process for success that reveals the opportunities and constraints to inform and focus our creative talents for success.  Our engineers work closely with our designers to ensure designs are actionable by conducting early manufacturing assessments and facilitate manufacturing summits to optimize designs for commercialization.  True to the entrepreneurial goal that led to the conception of Product Ventures, is the fruition of the seamless involvement of interdisciplinary expertise which doesn’t skip a beat until the item is successfully on its way to market.

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Tiffanie: You mentioned in The Dieline's Advice from the Pros: The True Art of Package Design (2009) that Product Ventures aims to take package design from “labeled container” into “value added delivery form”. Do you think you’ve reached that goal, after nearly 20 years in the business?

Peter: Absolutely… There are quite a few examples where our creative solutions aren’t just a vessel for containment and display but a value-added product delivery system. Case and point is the Similac pediatric formula package, which revolutionized the experience of preparing a baby bottle. The solution addresses the unmet needs of the consumers for one-handed operation derived from its pinch grip and hinged lid. A scoop holster was also created to provide immediate access to the scoop which was once buried in the formula. The corners of the containers were also rounded to match the diameter of the scoop in order to enable consumers to make use of the last granules of powder.  No desire was left unsatisfied and the solution catapulted Similac to a leadership position.  No longer were they purveyors of a product in a ubiquitous metal can fraught with consumer issues, but pioneers of the category’s first pediatric powder delivery system.

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Tiffanie: As a company that has worked with leading brands such as Trojan, Sunny D, Summer’s Eve, Heinz, Pantene (just to name A FEW), How does Product Ventures address environmental impact in package design to these brands?

Peter: We are well educated in the realities of packaging and the environment.  We perpetually seek to design only what is needed and drive out unnecessary packaging waste.  We make sure we are working with materials that are either recycled or readily recyclable.  We are constantly looking for new and emergent materials or processes that reduce the creation of greenhouse gases.  Finally we seek to extend the life of packaging by providing after-life use or leveraging the package as a refillable option that facilitates the use of concentrates.

Like all things, the environmental considerations with regard to packaging are one of many issues that need to be addressed.  It’s about balance.  It is important to run a life-cycle analysis to understand the realities of various packaging possibilities. We have software which our Packaging Engineers utilize to assess a package’s environmental footprint. In the end, the usefulness of the package must ensure that the energy that went into the creation of the product doesn’t go to waste. The package itself needs to be well designed so that no more material than is necessary goes into it. The package needs to be efficient to form, fill and distribute. Its end of life scenario needs to embrace the recycling/reclaim systems that are in place until truly viable bio-degradable packaging is available.

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Tiffanie: Can you tell us about any new & exciting projects you have in the pipeline?

Peter:  Sadly, no. Since the day-to-day reality of what we do is mired in confidentiality. I can tell you that at the moment we have an exciting balance of both packaging and product design challenges for some very iconic brands. 

Another thing I can share is an internal initiative focused on witch hazel; a dated product overdue for reinvigoration with a compelling brand story. By leveraging our Brand Narration & Visual Translation process we discovered that Witch Hazel is derived from a plant that the Native Americans referred to as “winter bloom.” This unique shrub actually flowers in the winter, thriving on the harsh elements of the season. This story, in addition to the actual healing and toning properties of the witch hazel extract, makes it ripe for an anti-aging product & brand proposition that is truly “Not your grandmother’s Witch Hazel”…Stay tuned…

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Tiffanie: From 1994 – 2013 (almost 20 years), what do you think has been the most vital change in the package design industry? What’s next?

Peter: The most vital change is that the power of packaging has finally been revealed. Packaging is now being embraced as the brand ambassador it always was but more fully now that a more expansive and untraditional view of ‘advertising’ is being adopted. Packaging is no longer being thought of as an expense but a value-added contributor to the brand/product experience. Packaging professionals are finally being invited into the C-suite to retrain corporations as to how to work with packaging and unleash its potential.

In addition to the more traditional role that packaging has played it now plays an ever increasing role in engaging the consumer. The convergence of technologies such as printable electronics, inductive power transmission and organic light-emitting diodes, among others, allow packaging to interact with the consumer in ways never before imagined. Packaging can talk, and display customized messages with stunning visual effects so that consumers can’t help but reach out and touch.

Behind the scenes advances in nanotechnology and polymer chemistry are allowing packaging to perform better than ever before. It can protect product quality  better, provide cool tactile sensations and even go as far as disappearing in a few weeks if inadvertently dropped on the side of the road after the product within has been consumed. Packaging can now, more than ever, become a tangible and engaging ambassador for a brand.

Special Thanks to Peter Clarke, CEO and Founder of Product Ventures for his time and incredible insight, and James Fiala, Manager of Creative Services & Marketing for making this Inside the Studio segment possible.

In-DepthTiffanie Pfrang