Design Today: Manual Creative X Soma

DESIGN TODAY: Manual Creative x Soma 

Manual Creative is one of the best San Francisco-based design firms. They are responsible for some of our favorite creative work, including building the Soma brand. Soma makes beautiful, innovative, sustainable water filters. In this interview, I ask Tom Crabtree, creative director of Manual Creative, about the Soma project and what is exciting him in design today.

Walk me through the lifecycle of the Soma Water project. How did it begin, how did you progress toward the final design?

We started working with Soma in the Summer of 2013 when we were tasked with creating the Soma brand identity, beginning with the logo design. In our first design presentation, where we presented logo options, we had already started visualising packaging for the carafe - but at that stage, we were mainly exploring standard rectangular boxes.

It was only after the brand identity was chosen, that we really started to think about what the direct-to-consumer shipper packaging could be. It was a very collaborative process. We met with the Soma team, and their industrial designers Moreless, for a whiteboard session where we sketched out a few ideas about what the packaging could be - both from a structural perspective (how to protect a glass carafe in shipping) and an aesthetic point (how could we make it look more interesting than a simple box). We landed upon the idea of a cylinder package — a capsule-like form.  It seemed like a no-brainer given the circular aesthetic nature of the product and the brand identity.

After we had the idea we then had to work out the details. Over a couple of months, Moreless worked with Stephen Gould packaging to develop an internal structure that would successfully protect the carafe. We would meet every week or two to review samples, test the user experience, and refine the design.

What were some of the challenges about this project?
We all put a lot of time considering the user experience: such as how a user knows how to open it, how they know how to remove the pulp structure, what is the first thing they read, how do they know how to open the lid to get to the filter. 

Printing was also a challenge. We wanted to introduce a playful element to the outer appearance, using a repeat-pattern of the Soma icons printed onto the tube. But they needed to be printed using a flexo method, which doesn’t allow for much detail or ink opacity (it’s like printing with a potato). 

What is unique about the Soma packaging design?
I wouldn’t want to overstate its grandeur. It’s simply a practical solution designed to be highly recyclable. It’s not the most ‘sophisticated’ of packaging designs in that it’s not meant to feel high-end. The materials are economical and quite humble (the outer cylinder is similar to a Sonotube: a tube usually used to pour concrete foundations).

How does the nature of the project drive your design?
The nature of any given project always drives the design. Before we design anything we need to consider who it’s for, what the budget is, where will it appear, how will it be perceived? Making it look nice is almost the easy bit.

What do you consider a successful design? 
Good design elevates a human experience.

What's next for Manual Creative?
We’re currently engaged in a number of interesting and eclectic branding and packaging projects. We’re working with a progressive Whisky distillery in Glasgow, a microbrewery in San Francisco, a tech company creating a game changing product to help seniors stay in their homes, and a wearable tech device that blurs the line between fashion, art, and media. And of course Soma: we’ve just finished up some nice limited edition packaging for the Soma carafe, and we’re also designing a new retail packaging lineup for Soma that will launch in 2015.

What kind of projects are you most excited to work on? 
We love to work with people who are really passionate about their brand, product or service, and who obsess over design and experience as much as we do. It also helps when it’s a product that we (the design team at Manual) have a personal interest in (beer and whisky anyone?). When we can get excited about the subject or content, we do our best work. 

We especially enjoy working with people who want to do something different, and aren’t afraid to take risks.

What is exciting you about design today?
It’s exciting to see how business leaders increasingly view design and branding as an integral part of their business. Finally, we’re not just the people that ‘make it look nice’.

By Grant Van Sant
Editor at Large, The Dieline

Grant is from Los Angeles but divides his time between New York, Nashville, Sydney and Florence. He studied film at NYU and writing at Vanderbilt.

He has worked as a brand strategist on both the client and agency side. He has done design and video work for Nike, IBM, and has advised numerous startups. Grant has written for Huffington Post, Business of Fashion, and Cultural Capital. 
Stay up to date with Grant's latest projects at OSSO, Instagram, and Twitter.