Better Together: Restoring Order in the Packaging Design & Print World

The relationship between designers, printers and consumers can often emulate that of a “superhero” blockbuster movie. But who is the superhero and who will restore order? Creating the perfect match between how a design is envisioned and how that design appears in print can be challenging and grueling. But it is worth the fight to make it right, and it takes all players to make it happen.

Forum 2018 Taming Consumer Behavior 1
From left: Jason Troutman, Jerry Thomas, Michael John and Jason Edelen discuss packaging design at Forum 2018

Establishing and aligning the plot, identifying characters and roles, opening up the script for discussion, and letting the story begin is a good start. The “Taming Consumer Behavior Through Packaging Design” session at FTA’s Forum 2018 discussed the various aspects of the design process, including designer/printer relationships, design briefs, design intent, marketing and manufacturing. Panelists—ourselves, along with Jason Edelen from We Are Alexander and Jerry Thomas from Decision Analyst—dispelled some of the myths and reasons why the relationship between designer and printer can be challenging. Perspectives were also shared on discrepancies and rationale for misalignment on final production art files and how to set realistic expectations up front to reach successful outcomes.

In a follow-up to that session, we will answer some questions which, due to time constraints, went unresolved at the end of that Forum 2018 panel discussion.

Behind the Design Mind

3M Design is inspired by collaborative creativity, which means we work collaboratively across disciplines. We believe the next big idea will come naturally from a creative collision of many smaller ideas that build upon each other. This also leads to design thinking, which is a natural way of working in our world. Integrating diverse perspectives to ensure the outcome is not just about reaching the finish line, but is also about a great brand experience.

Brand designers are in a unique position and have access to design operations throughout the entire process. We can collaborate immediately on feedback at any point of the process. In addition, design operations take into account the print processes involved for the entire shelf set, and brand design can make the appropriate adjustments so it will translate well through multiple print processes.

Question & Answer

“When a difficult-to-print design is presented, open up the dialog,” say 3M’s Michael John and Jason Troutman. “Talk about the difficult areas, possible solutions and what you can expect to see. Printers, when given the opportunity, should be doing this as well.”
Image courtesy of 3M

What happens if brand design is unsure or does not know where it’s being printed?

That’s what we explore together. In most cases, we know where the design is going to print and who the contacts are. We set up a pre-production meeting with all parties to help manage the design, as well as an achievable expectation for the print outcome. This is where it becomes critical you have a great working relationship between everyone involved. Open the dialog right away.

As a printer, I wish I could have input in the designs I receive. They ask, but then do what they want, and we have to do everything we can to print it. Kind of a bad position to be in. Any thoughts on that?

Again, this is where a good relationship and communication is key to a successful outcome. Together, you should be sitting down with printers and designers in the same room multiple times throughout the process to understand and align expectations up front. There may be assumptions made along the way that simply aren’t relevant or need to be discussed at project kickoff. Sit down and be open to dialog from start to finish. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and voice concerns. In a good printer/designer relationship, there’s trust and transparency with respect to each other’s areas of expertise and knowledge. Both parties should want the best outcome possible for the brand and consumer experience.

It’s important not to let egos or preconceived notions get in the way of a successful project. Neither character should fight to win against each other but rather fight for the consumer-branded experience. Eventually, you have to join forces so you all understand what it will take to win in the end game. Together, understand critical design elements alongside potential print limitations. Designers employ empathy and are typically willing to work within parameters that are defined up front. There should never be a hard “no” by either party, but rather a healthy discussion of why or why not and what the alternatives are. Feedback can be shared and better solutions will result.

Many conflicts are a result of miscommunication. Be open to discussion. The success of a project falls on both designers and printers.

Can you talk about what you mean when you say “Moving away from a transactional space and work toward a together space?”

Designers need to take some ownership in the process and understand what they are designing for. Designers are not necessarily taught print specifications. Why is this? Is it because “print is dead”? Is it because most designers never fully know what area of design they will land in, so the focus is not there? When you graduated from design school, were you thinking it would have been great to have more print knowledge? Is the space overwhelming?

Ultimately, it becomes the responsibility of the designer to take a vested interest in printers’ processes to understand potential limitations to their work. No one knows what they don’t know, so stepping up and taking a level of ownership with your design will help you in the long term.

Most designers will admit their output skills aren’t as strong as they would like when it comes to printing processes—that’s even more reason to take a vested interest and proactively seek out the information with your printers. This will save time, money and frustration in the end. Get ahead of it before you design something that “cannot” be printed.

Ultimately, it becomes the responsibility of the designer to take a vested interest in printers’ processes to understand potential limitations to their work. No one knows what they don’t know, so stepping up and taking a level of ownership with your design will help you in the long term.

Printers can also be proactive in providing and managing realistic expectations with designers up front. For example, it’s important to understand discrepancies in color right away. If the printed proof or onscreen proof sent to the designer will deviate even slightly from what’s actually printed, then make that clear.

Printers should feel comfortable pushing back when they do see issues in order to help temper expectations, while understanding they could be part of a larger piece of the puzzle. Printers should always be thinking about or asking about the overall project intent; in a case where the project assigned to them will sit on a shelf next to an item printed somewhere else in the world and it will need to look as if the two items have come from the same facility, it is critical to ensure consistent and quality output. Be part of a better solution. Push back with alternatives, rationale and understanding.

What do you do if you don’t have a print quality manager?

Take lead on setting up and managing expectations for both parties. When a difficult-to-print design is presented, open up the dialog. Talk about the difficult areas, possible solutions and what you can expect to see. Printers, when given the opportunity, should be doing this as well. This is the time for your voice. When you get the opportunity, take it, manage those expectations and be sure you cover all squares. Most clients are willing to manage their production art files to the specifications of the printer, but be sure this is discussed up front. This helps everyone: The printer can print without compromise, the designer can design with their entire portfolio in mind and all players are happy. Don’t be afraid to speak up.

Make sure you have the right people at the table, including the appropriate person to help mitigate potential issues. Consider your pressroom, production and workflow managers, and how to get each to help. Approach each project optimistically without overselling abilities and capabilities. Bringing in the right stakeholders each step of the way will save time and money in the end.

What about egos? How can we set aside differences to explore an output that works for all parties? What about education? Should printers go to design-centric conferences (like the AIGA Design Conference)? Should designers attend more print-centric conferences (like FTA’s Forum)?

Yes. Most of the content may not be applicable to your role, but if you make it part of your own development plan to learn a bit about the other roles, you have empathy for their processes and an appreciation for considerations on the other end. It is a good place to start and will only help in the long run to gain perspective from each other.

In the end, it’s on all of us to restore order together. There is no superhero or villain in this blockbuster, but each character plays a critical role in the story to successful outcomes that contribute to a great branded experience. We need to continue to collaborate to create more opportunities (through forums, panels, workshops, local chapters, etc.) to discuss each other’s ideas and to improve relationships. Speak up. Know your limitations. It’s OK to admit shortcomings and continue learning and teaching. And finally, most designers can handle “no,” but let’s open the dialog for rationale, collaboration on solutions, and help guide and manage the expected output.


About the Authors: With more than 30 years of experience managing prepress and printing projects, Michael John has extensive knowledge and expertise in the printing industry. As print quality manager for 3M Consumer Brands, including Scotch and Post-it brands, Michael is responsible for ensuring 3M’s print suppliers maintain a high level of quality, consistency and are in line with ISO standards and industry best practices. He manages overall uniformity and alignment between brands and print suppliers to drive efficiency, optimization and impact.

Michael sits on the Brand Owners Council of the Association for Print Technologies, along with other print professionals, to help establish industry-wide standards for all print production suppliers. He is passionate about print quality standards and strongly believes effective communication outlining expectations, in addition to color measurement, helps to ensure the success of brands at the point of sale.


Currently a principle brand designer with 3M Design, Jason Troutman brings more than 15 years of brand design and industrial design experience to the table, leading best practices and diverse projects across consumer brands. Jason has previously spent time at Aveda as director of package design, strengthening brand equity and consumer experience through packaging and collateral design. He has also worked on projects with other corporate brands including General Mills, Best Buy, TDK and Honeywell. Jason’s expansive creative background, focus on bringing strong strategic design value to organizations and brand portfolios, and his passion for design contribute to his success to change and impact the future of design.

Jason is a big geek at heart—seek him out for extensive knowledge in the world of craft beer, sci-fi, scale modeling, pugs and most recently, professional soccer.