I’m often asked why I chose to study packaging and what exactly it is that we do as packaging professionals. Like many folks fresh out of high school, I went to college without a clear direction. I figured I wanted to do something engineering-related—maybe architecture, mechanical design, industrial design, or even something more abstract like computer science. When I discovered packaging as a potential career choice, I saw a confluence of many specialized disciplines and a unique opportunity to touch them all rather than pigeonhole my career into one thing.
Packaging is a melting pot where design, engineering, manufacturing, marketing, research and development, and logistics—just to name a few—converge to create a holistic product experience. From my first internship in a manufacturing facility to my second internship in an R&D center, I was able to experience two opposite ends of packaging. My first internship dealt with the practical and tangible—what currently is but shouldn’t be? My second internship dealt with the theoretical and conceptual—what currently isn’t but could be? Over the years my direct reporting line has been drawn and redrawn through restructurings, role changes, and job changes. Regardless of whether the solid line went to procurement, engineering, R&D, marketing, or logistics, dotted lines have always connected them all.
Keep an open mind
Beyond my professional endeavors, my decade-long experience as a trivia host has equipped me with valuable communication and interpersonal skills. These capabilities, although seemingly unrelated, have seamlessly intertwined with my work in the packaging industry, enhancing my ability to engage with diverse audiences and adapt to evolving circumstances. My career journey has highlighted the transformative power of keeping an open mind.
Leveraging the “what currently is but shouldn’t be?” experience from my first internship, one of my earliest projects involved a disruptive package redesign that spanned multiple brands and product lines. By embracing the diverse reach of packaging, I was able to anticipate and mitigate the range of impacts posed by the project. This led to higher efficiency, less waste, lower cost, more cohesive branding, more consistency in the warehouse, and improved overall package performance.
My experience hosting trivia helped me to tailor the presentation of project information to a diverse audience, anticipate negative reactions and prepare solutions, and sprinkle in light humor to keep folks engaged while softening the blow of any bad news. A mistake we often make as engineers, especially on projects we initiate and lead ourselves, is to assume we have it all figured out when presenting to key stakeholders. By keeping an open mind, I was able to quash my ego and listen to all feedback, positive and negative, enabling me to make required changes swiftly. As a result, cross-functional approval was achieved with minimal resistance.
On the other side of the spectrum, a different project utilized my second internship’s “what currently isn’t but could be?” experience. A customer presented us with a lucrative opportunity, but only if we were able to deliver an entirely new—and at the time undefined—packaging format within four months. This included ideation, prototyping, design, tooling, and testing of the new package, in addition to the purchase and installation of an entirely new packaging line. It posed a daunting, seemingly impossible task, but a combination of pure grit, open-mindedness, creativity, and dumb luck allowed our packaging team to pull it off and exceed the customer’s expectations.
Again, my experience as a trivia host contributed to this success. Picking up on some common writing tropes from trivia questions showed me the power of making something out of nothing, while having access to everyone’s answers—both correct and incorrect—provided me with insight into how different people can interpret the same thing in many different ways. The silver bullet in this project was using naturally occurring patterns and textures rather than any bespoke design. The final design was largely inspired by a random piece of rock. Without open-mindedness—not just from myself but from all parties—a design based on a rock surely would have been shot down.
Reflecting on my journey, I’ve realized that the dynamism of the packaging industry, and embracing opportunities beyond its conventional confines, has been the cornerstone of my professional evolution. Packaging isn’t confined to rigid tasks; it encourages interdisciplinary collaboration and continuous exploration. By keeping an open mind and actively seeking opportunities beyond conventional boundaries, one can uncover an array of rewarding career pathways. In my case, spending a night or two each week asking trivia questions in a bar helped me develop communication and interpersonal skills that immediately contributed to project success and professional growth.
In essence, the key to unlocking the full potential of a career in packaging lies in embracing its multifaceted nature. It’s about fostering a spirit of curiosity and a willingness to embrace the unknown, recognizing that each experience, no matter how seemingly distinct, contributes to a vibrant spectrum of professional advancement. This mindset opens doors to an enriching and fulfilling journey, transcending conventional limits and leading to a world of endless possibilities. PW
The author, Chris O’Clair, is an IoPP member and Packaging Engineering Manager at Sun-Maid Growers of California. To learn more about IoPP and its education, networking and individual recognition programs, visit www.iopp.org or email [email protected].