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Design thinking in packaging education

Scientists and designers use different approaches to problem solving.

Scientists try to explain a phenomenon by formulating hypotheses and testing them in experiments. Designers attempt to solve a practical problem by proposing design solutions and testing them in user trials. The difference relies on the nature of the problem and the refinement and specialization of their methods. Scientists are trained to know as much as possible on a topic and then design very well controlled experiments. Designers, on the other hand, are trained on in-depth idea exploration and decision-making with incomplete information. For packaging professionals, all these traits are very valuable.

The scientific method is very well known by most of us since our education is based on science and its methods, but what about design-specific knowledge? Design thinking embodies methods and activities that a person applies during the process of solving a practical problem under technological and economical constraints. It is an iterative process that facilitates innovation by a succession of approximations in which building prototypes for testing is at the core. This approach is typically taught only to industrial design majors, but engineering and packaging programs would benefit from its inclusion, too.

The design thinking process has five different modes or activities: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Each mode has its own set of tools and methods. The first mode relates to empathize with the different stakeholders affected by the problem at hand (i.e., consumers, vendors, brand owners, etc.). Most of the time stakeholders will have contradictory needs and requirements, and designers will need to prioritize and weigh these tensions. Analyzing and defining the boundaries of the problem is the objective of the second mode. The third mode, ideation, is probably the best known. It’s brainstorming, or “thinking outside the box,” where there are few or no limits on scope. Wild ideas and diversity are critical. In the fourth mode, ideas need to be quickly built to prototypes with different levels of quality. These prototypes are used for different trials in the final testing phase. A project iterates several times through these five activities until the end result is optimal. The added value of the design thinking approach is that, at each step of the process, hidden information and faulty assumptions are uncovered and detected, opening alternative paths that may lead to innovative solutions. Besides technical and scientific knowledge, the approach requires analytical and creative thinking, synthesizing skills, curiosity, optimism, teamwork, and people-centeredness.

In an industry that is constantly facing challenges, teaching how to “think outside of the box” in a methodological fashion is fundamental for future packaging professionals.

Javier de la Fuente is assistant professor of design of the packaging program at California Polytechnic State University and can be reached at

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