How to become a: 3D packaging and structural designer

Written by: Sarah Dawood
Published on: 16 Apr 2019

Design Week: What does a 3D and experiential designer do?

Mike Beauchamp: A 3D designer will work on a range of projects in the studio. Examples of this could be expressing a brand’s personality in a physical form that could be anything from bottle shape concepts to an innovative piece of cardboard engineering.

We also work on a number of projects that involve a more holistic approach to problem-solving by reimagining a brand’s products or services. Our work with Wagamama is a good example of this — the output of the project was a system of takeaway bowls that was part of a service the brand would offer.

DW: What’s your educational background?

MB: I took A-levels in product design, art and photography, then as I was finishing secondary school and considering my future options, I met a guy at an open day at Kent Institute of Art and Design (KIAD) who was doing a one-year course in industrial design. I spoke to him and loved his passion for it, and when I looked at his sketch book and the emotive, stylistic work he’d done, I thought, ‘this is what I want to do’.

I ended up studying a three-year undergraduate course in automotive design, which was part of a bigger school of industrial design and engineering at Swansea Metropolitan University. I was into cars and had a love of racing — I still do — so I loved the idea of styling cars for three years at university.

DW: What’s your career journey been so far?

MB: My university would partner with outside businesses to take on briefs. I worked with Jaguar Land Rover as part of my uni course on a joint project. After this, I wanted to apply the skills I learnt at university across different disciplines, so I looked for an internship in industrial product design. I found that there was a lot of industrial design talent working in branding.

I did a few placements and internships and found the skillsets you learn as an industrial designer, such as understanding ergonomics, human-centric design and the three-dimensional (3D) form, can also apply to branding.

One of the first internships I did was at brand design studio Bluemarlin, working on a project for Shell, which had a lot of parallels with the work I had done at university. We designed oil lubricant bottles based on the aesthetics of car styling, but also worked on the functional side, like how you pour and hold them.

I progressed to my first full time job as a junior structural designer, working for a year-and-a-half at brand design studio Holmes & Marchant, in a role centred around designing physical objects.

I then rejoined Bluemarlin as a 3D and structural designer, working as part of a global industrial design team for nearly four years.

After this, I joined Pearlfisher and I was the first permanent industrial designer that the company had ever employed. They had used freelancers before, but the business wanted to bring those skills in-house. It was an opportunity for me to grow a team and shape a vision for 3D design.

I joined as a senior 3D designer, then after about two years, I was promoted to 3D design director and two years after that I became the associate creative director for 3D and experiential, working with David Jenkinson, the creative director who oversees all creative work in the studio.

Pearlfisher’s takeaway packaging project for Wagamama

DW: What first got you interested in 3D design?

MB: An interest in problem-solving; getting a brief, finding a solution to it and expressing it, is something I have always loved doing. I’ve also always had a fascination with how you can express something through shape and form, materials and its look and feel.

At university, I loved working on projects from ideation to creation to development and production. There is something satisfying in being able to realise something from an idea to a physical form. I loved the all-encompassing and holistic design process, from start to finish.

DW: What does a typical working day look like for you?

MB: My working hours are 9am to 5.30pm. In the morning, we catch up with the creative team. We have several different projects running at any one time, so I check in with the team and review their work.

There is also inevitably a client presentation or two, such as a briefing, a presentation of creative work or an immersion of a product. An immersion involves meeting with the project and client teams and going through a project brief, with the aim of understanding the key business challenges and opportunities and establishing the extent and scope of the project.

I also get involved with new business opportunities, which means meeting with prospective clients, presenting Pearlfisher and establishing any potential projects.

Often in the afternoon, I facilitate ideation sessions with our team, which involves bouncing ideas off each other and problem-solving. We don’t see ideas as belonging to an individual but as one collective thought that gets built on.

I am usually in the studio from 9am, but there is a bit of a culture in this industry where you never really switch off. There are emails on the bus or train and responses to Slack messages in the evenings, which has pros and cons, but it is about making sure the work we are producing is on point.

We are focused on creating the best possible outcomes and inevitably, we will work late sometimes, for example if we are leading up to a client presentation or deadline. The idea is you are working late because you want to be, not because you have to be, as we are in an industry where we get to have fun and love what we do.

DW: What are your main day-to-day tasks?

MB: As associate creative director, this includes reviewing work, meeting clients, working on new potential projects and engaging with the wider team in the business to align on projects.

More generally for a 3D and experiential designer, day-to-day tasks might include carrying out research tasks, collective brainstorming, concept sketching, physical prototyping and concept testing.

They might also carry out some design development work with 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software, as well as design refinement and realisation tasks such as working with manufacturers to translate designs to production samples.

DW: How creatively challenging is the job?

MB: The job is very creatively challenging as you have to constantly come up with ideas and create them in physical form. There are many different elements of creative output to think about, such as what the idea is, how we are going to make it happen, what the brand stands for and thinking beyond the brand to the end user. I may also be actively involved in a project, so I still sketch, design and use Computer Aided Design (CAD), as well as oversee projects.

DW: How closely do 3D designers and graphic designers work?

MB: We work as one team. Designers in the building have different skillsets, backgrounds and ways of working, but the great thing about working at Pearlfisher is that ideas can come from anywhere. The ideation sessions are very much about all the designers in the studio working within a wider team to create.

Then, depending on what we need to deliver, different individuals will have skillsets geared toward realising different parts of a project. We look at it as one team — we just express things in different ways.

DW: What strengths do you need to be a 3D designer?

MB: You need to be a strong, creative thinker, have curiosity, be inventive and be able to problem-solve in a way that is relevant to both brands and consumers. A lot of the briefs we get are around fundamental problems to do with an object or service that require us to design an improved system. You need to have a strong ability to communicate your ideas, whether that is through sketching, writing or something else.

DW: What are the best parts of your job?

MB: When we have taken our clients on a journey to solve a problem, but also when you see people engaging with the work or the object you’ve created. Seeing something come to life that was a sketch on paper 12 months ago is the best part of the job.

Working on projects that have a bigger purpose is also a good part. With Wagamama we had to design for so many different people, including chefs in the restaurant, the front-of-house team and the end consumer. We had to design in consideration of food-to-go, specifically the Deliveroo roller-coaster ride that happens after someone’s food has been ordered. It was about designing the Wagamama takeaway experience.

DW: What are the worst parts of your job?

MB: The challenges of working in an industry that is so relentlessly fast-paced and the requirements to deliver innovation in a very tight time-frame.

Some clients are used to working with two-dimensional (2D) or graphic design, which can be changed quite quickly. For me, it’s important to make everyone aware that we are creating innovative solutions that take slightly longer to realise.

A project for us could take six months, a year, two years. There is frustration and conflict around wanting to solve the problem at the heart of the brief, and actually having enough time and budget to do it.

DW: If you were interviewing for a junior 3D designer, what would you look for?

MB: We look for an innate ability to come up with lots of ideas and a great portfolio, which showcases many different ways to solve problems. Being able to communicate those ideas through sketching or other means is a very powerful skill we look for in junior designers.They need to have curiosity, be keen and have a level of excitement around their work.

Predominantly, we look to industrial or product design graduates, but the most important consideration is to show an effective ability to problem-solve through having great ideas.

DW: What advice can you offer people considering a job in 3D design?

MB: It comes back to problem-solving — it’s important to not just consider one option, but to keep an open mind to the different ways you can solve a problem. It’s about challenging things and doing things in an unexpected way.