Outside the Box


Packaging students and instructors collaborating on a project

The Orfalea College of Business and the College of Liberal Arts continue to collaborate to construct a flexible, durable, and peerlessly-creative packaging curriculum.

By Christina Arthur


Business senior Samantha Phan first got involved with the Orfalea College of Business Packaging Technology Concentration because she has always loved to be creative. “Packaging just kind of made sense for me,” she says, “because I really like how hands-on it is. I think just being able to create things that are physical was why I was drawn to it.” 

With this mindset, Phan helped lead Cal Poly’s winning team in the Paperboard Packaging Alliance 2019 Student Design Challenge, which is one of the most rigorous packaging design competitions in the nation. More than 50 student teams from 13 different universities submitted entries to the competition. The submissions from the participating Cal Poly students were all Learn-By-Doing projects that resulted from an ongoing collaboration between industrial technology and packaging (ITP 408) and art and design (ART 437) students.

This aspect of Cal Poly’s packaging program curriculum is a prime example of the benefits of cross-disciplinary learning. Consisting of students from different majors, minors, and concentrations between the College of Business and the College of Liberal Arts, the collaboration these classes foster have led to many different successes, such as winning first place in both the Paperboard Packaging Alliance Student Design Challenge and the 2020 Student Flexible Design Challenge. They’ve also won a total of seven awards at the WorldStar Student Design Competition, making Cal Poly the first university in the world to place two top winners at this global competition.

“Getting to work with ITP students, GRC students, and art and design students really elevates everything to the next level,” says Phan, “because we all have different strengths and different things that we’re passionate about. So for the Paperboard Packaging Competition, we were able to put it together and come up with something really cool, which taught me a lot.”

The merging of these disciplines started in 2015, when Associate Professor of ITP Javier de la Fuente, Lecturer of ITP Irene Carbonell, and Professor of Graphic Design Mary LaPorte, decided to combine lab times for their students, in order to blend disparate packaging and design courses so their students could learn from one another. 

“Packaging just kind of made sense for me because I really like how hands-on it is. I think just being able to create things that are physical was why I was drawn to it.” 

Samantha Phan, ITP Student

Since then, the three instructors have been recognized for their work on what ultimately became a four-year research project called “Design Thinking as a Framework for Teaching Packaging Innovation,” which uses a design-thinking and project-based approach to enhance the innovation and creativity of their students. Many of their findings appeared in a peer-reviewed article published in the Journal of Applied Packaging Research. They’ve also had ongoing recognition in conference presentations in both the U.S. and the Netherlands, in addition to presenting at the International Association of Packaging Research Institutes Symposium 2019.

On top of these successes—and the proven victory rates of their students in national and global competitions—the professors were also honored by Cal Poly with the 2019 Learn by Doing Scholar Award for Completed Research for directly contributing to the instructional understanding and practice of Learn By Doing.

Graphic Design Professor Mary LaPorte says when they first started out, there was no official university overlap at all between courses that the two majors were taking. “My students were working with the ITP students through special projects, special problems, and independent study,” she explained, “and that worked out really well, and that’s when we discovered that the marriage between the two was quite beneficial.”

Over the years, the instructors were able to bring the class times of both disciplines closer. Now, they’re finally completely overlapping three-hour labs and synchronizing the classes, with each group bringing strengths that augment the other. The ITP program is more focused on materials, structure, engineering, and resources, whereas art and design is more about the graphics and the marketing psychology behind using colors, illustration, typography, photography, and other visual arts. 

ITP Lecturer Irene Carbonell points out that this exchange of viewpoints across disciplines teaches the students about the professional world, which helps prepare them for their futures. “They have their own responsibilities that kind of mimic the professional roles,” she says. “We want to prepare the courses as close as possible to what it would look like in a professional setting.”

“The students have their own responsibilities that kind of mimic the professional roles. We want to prepare the courses as close as possible to what it would look like in a professional setting.”

Irene Carbonell, ITP Lecturer

Graphic communications senior Morgan McKean has a concentration in design, productions, and technology and a minor in packaging. She also collaborated with Phan in the winning team of the Paperboard Packaging Alliance 2019 Student Design Challenge and says that the packaging program has given her an experience she believes would have been missing within her major. “I’ve learned so many different disciplines within packaging,” she says. “Not only design, which is what I primarily focus on, but more on structure, value-chain, and the process of conceptualizing something and really bringing it through design testing and then a final product.”

 “There are so many benefits for the students,” says ITP Professor de la Fuente of these quarter-long projects. “They get to work with people outside their major and they all have their different ways of viewing things and solving problems. Typically, packaging projects will scratch the surface in terms of a topic, but you need to make an extra effort to go in deeper and really come out with a simple, cost-effective solution, and that takes time.”

Ultimately the job of the instructors is to keep pushing the students, de la Fuente says, and to make sure they have the tools necessary to succeed as they prepare their projects—which will inform their skills and modes of thinking as they transition to the workforce. “I believe the students come out with a different mindset than they had in the beginning and are better prepared for packaging jobs and industry.” 

Phan, who will graduate with a concentration in consumer packaging and a minor in packaging, agrees and points out how the faculty constantly challenge certain ideas, also adding how relatively small the department is, which makes it easier to have close-knit relationships with the instructors. “They’re very invested in our projects,” she says, “and that’s something I really appreciate. They’ll push our ideas to the next level. I’ve learned so much through how they are able to open our eyes and encourage us to explore different aspects. I think making it diverse is really important. That’s probably why we’ve been able to be so successful.”