Breaking into the Packaging Design Industry – a Q&A with Nicholas Johnson

For packaging design students hoping to break into the industry there are many opportunities throughout the year that can prove to be important milestones in gaining experience, recognition and boosting the C.V. We spoke to Loughborough PhD student and past Graphic Packaging International intern, Nicholas Johnson, about his journey so far…

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What attracted you to pursue a career in the packaging design industry?

I was interested by the fast-faced nature of the industry, where creative ideas need to be developed quickly. Seeing your designs come to life rapidly is such a satisfying feeling.

Packaging is a fantastic design tool for communicating product and brand values to consumers. Each design needs to look good and be feasible to manufacture. For me, this combination of industrial design and dynamic thinking is a fulfilling application of my creativity and skills learnt at university.

Was there a ‘light-bulb’ moment when you realised design was for you?

Back in secondary school I would spend most of my free time in the design and woodwork departments – as a keen student I loved design and wanted to develop my skills. I always had the ambition to go to Loughborough University to pursue industrial design, which was made appealing to me by the balance of creativity and grounded commercial manufacturing practicality.

Winning the Starpack Awards and then experiencing first-hand the day-to-day work of Graphic Packaging International’s (GPI) design team really cemented the realisation that packaging was for me.

The Starpack Awards has helped to kick-start your career. In your experience, were there many opportunities available to you or do you think the industry could do more to attract new talent?

Being successful in the Starpack Awards was the most important moment of my design career so far and a fantastic opportunity to put the skills I had learnt into practice.

In my experience, the industry presents a wide range of opportunities compared to others. What’s missing however is a direct route into the sector and awareness of the career scope on offer, with a lack of higher education courses specifically related to packaging. Far more new talent would be attracted to the industry if colleges and universities provided tailored courses or if more work placements were offered by packaging companies.

How has your Starpack-win-to-employment journey helped you in your current role? Has it allowed you to bring something to the company that others couldn’t?

It has allowed me to prove myself as a packaging designer early on in my career and GPI’s recognition of my work has given me the confidence that I have the potential to succeed in the industry.

The journey has also given me an understanding of what factors and limitations must be considered when designing packaging, which can only be learnt on the job. I still have a lot to learn, but I am sure that my time at GPI will allow me to develop my understanding and grow as a designer.

What has your role at GPI entailed (overview, or typical day)?

I am lucky that I get to work between both the technical and conceptual teams. Even though I have only worked with GPI for a short while, each day is different and that level of variety is exciting.

Some days I will be working on sketching visual packaging concepts for new products or developing improved packaging designs for brands and retailers. Other days will involve learning the technical side of the business, creating new package designs as well as learning what happens on the factory floor. This provides me with valuable all-round knowledge of the business and industry.

What has been the most valuable thing you’ve learned / what has inspired you most?

The most valuable thing I have learnt as a designer so far is that just because something looks good, it doesn’t mean it is practical to manufacture. There is no point in drawing a pretty design and presenting it to a client if you can’t follow through and make it.

I am starting to learn that every decision you make needs to follow a thorough investigatory process, for example considering whether certain shapes will actually work, whether a barrier will be needed and so on. This is something I am hoping to continue to learn and develop while still pushing for innovation in the designs I produce.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced or overcome in your time with GPI? And will this practical experience help you to think differently about challenges you might face related to your PhD?

The biggest challenge was probably coming straight out of university into a working environment and realising I still had a lot to learn and a lot to prove. It was a learning curve to balance wanting to do the best job possible with appreciating that I will make mistakes and that doing so isn’t the end of the world; as a young designer, mistakes are there to be learnt from as a basis for improvement.

This experience will be vital going into my PhD, which will also be aided by the work ethic gained from working in a fast-paced, high pressure industry. There will be successes and failures, but learning from these and moving forward positively will be key to successful and useful research.

What advice would you give to other young designers trying to break into the industry?

I entered the Starpack Awards three times and didn’t even place on the first two attempts, so it took time for me to learn and develop my skills before I eventually won. My advice would be to take all the feedback and advice you can get, don’t be too precious about criticism, practice and push yourself to be the best you can at what you do. If you are passionate about your work and it’s something you want to pursue as a career, hard work will get you there in the end.

Look out for placements where you can – I completed a year in industry at Kerry Food Ltd as part of my degree and it provided vital knowledge and experience. Make your name known and get yourself recognised by posting about your work online and entering every competition you can, you never know where it might take you! The most important thing however is to be patient and to persevere.

What’s next?

It’s back to Loughborough University full time for me this year. I hope to return to GPI throughout my PhD to help me in applying a practical, hands-on approach to my studies.

I hope the specialised knowledge and in-depth research skills I will develop through my PhD will be valuable for GPI upon my return, especially in the area of design schematics, allowing me to apply new methods of thinking and research to GPI’s innovation and design processes.

For more information on the Starpack Awards please visit:

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May Norman or

Vicky Zaremba

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