How Being a Packaging Artist Made Me a Better Designer

My first design job out of college was as a packaging artist for a company that manufactures goods for both industrial and retail channels. Like most design roles, the role of a packaging artist can vary greatly between companies, but at this particular company it meant creating, editing, finalizing, and transferring packaging artwork to supplier and shipping partners.

Because the company supplied goods for both industrial and retail channels, this role had a heavy emphasis on communicating how products should first be assembled, packaged, packed into shipping containers (and palletized), and finally shipped to the company’s receiving warehouse. For products that would ultimately find their way to a retail shelf, I would also need to communicate to our warehouse staff how to unpack product from industrial packaging and then assemble (if needed) and repack for stores.

I was challenged to hone a variety of skills at once.

To communicate all of these instructions, I would create highly detailed instruction sheets known as PM References – if you’ve never seen one before, here’s a sneak peek:

Example PM Reference Document
Example PM Reference Document

While these documents certainly aren’t winning any design awards, they turned out to be a great sandbox for developing a wealth of skills – from photography, illustration, copy layout, and communication in general.

I was challenged to “just make it work”.

One of the greater challenges was creating product illustrations, instructions, and photography before the final product was actually confirmed. Because the company wanted its products, especially new ones, to reach the end consumer as quickly as possible, I often sorted through endless email chains and a variety of samples to gain a clear understanding of what exactly the end product would be. This process required equal parts Photoshop, coffee, and patience.

Design phases of illustrating a headset.
A frequent task was to illustrate products from unconfirmed samples or grainy, low-light photos. These illustrations were often used on packaging artwork or in product use manuals.

I was challenged to think about the whole product lifecycle.

Many times the PM Reference documents I created were specific to just one moment in time. For example, I would frequently create multiple assembly instructions for the same product. The first set might be for an international supplier, telling them clearly how to assemble, bulk pack, and ship to the U.S. Then a second set might be for a U.S. warehouse, telling them clearly how to unpack, assemble (if necessary), and individually repack for store shelves, and then palletize for shipment to a store.

Phases of illustrating from a source product.
Sometimes illustrations were solely for a supplier, to be sure the most recent care instructions tag or brand logo was being put on the final product.

But the end goal was always to provide the product to the end-consumer, making them still a critical stakeholder to my role. In fact, while I was thinking through the supplier and shipping perspectives, I was also required to think about the product features and use instructions from the consumer’s perspective – asking questions like, do these instructions make sense without my inside knowledge; are these visuals appealing and clear; have I effectively communicated the product benefits?

Ultimately, my greatest takeaway was an ability to really think about the products I was working with from beginning to end – through the whole product lifecycle. For me, it laid a solid foundation of experimenting with design, content, and user experience. It challenged me to think beyond my own perspective as a designer.

A packaging artist exists in-between – and understands the needs of – the manufacturer, customer, and distributor.
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