Switching to POP / Retail design

I’ve been designing products for the home furniture industry, mostly big box stores the last several years. I’m becoming much more interested in P.O.P. / retail display design.

What I’d like to someday get involved with, is designing product packaging, as well as the paperboard/corrugated pop-ups you might see at the end caps of grocery stores, and also the themed racks and displays (typically fabricated from mixed material) at common retailers like Old Navy for example.

So my question is to those who are in this field, or who at one time were… What skills besides the obvious (3D/CAD, sketching) do I need to prove to a potential employer in order to get them interested in me? Any other words of advice?

I also have a graphic design background but I have never used Artios.

Hello there – been forever and a day since I last posted on these forums, but your question above piqued my interest as I have been working in POP for about 17+ years now and think I might be able to help.

First, understand that POP is divided into three general categories: Temporary, Permanent, and Fixture. Sometimes the lines between the three can get blurred and there are certainly other little offshoots that one can go into, but here is the gist of those three:

This is the packaging and paper/corrugated (aka “cardboard”) side of things. Designers are broken up into two main categories – Structural & Graphic. Structural designers use Artios (predominantly) and are responsible for the nitty gritty details of how a display or package folds up, what materials are used, and generally just designing towards manufacturability. Graphic Designers are sometimes folks with actual graphic design backgrounds and, like myself, people with ID backgrounds who focus more on the conceptual side of things. Graphic Designers are typically responsible for working with the structural designers to generate concepts and developing artwork based on client assets to fit on a package/display. Graphic Designers are also often the people who generate the 3D renderings (Strata 3D is one of the major softwares used) as well as conceptual hand sketches. Of course as with anything, there are all different shades between these two functions and it’s not too unusual to find a Structural Designer that can also generate renderings, artwork, and concept sketches. Similarly, it’s not uncommon to find a Graphic Designer that carries expertise about structure and manufacturing. It really all depends on the designer and the company. Major players in this field are:
WestRock, Menasha, Rapid Displays, IP, Vanguard Packaging, Great Northern, etc

These are the POP displays that you’ll see in the store that are constructed from wood, metal and plastic. These displays tend to stay out in store for a longer period of time than their temporary counterparts. Designers in this branch of POP are also broken out into two categories: Designers & Engineers. Designers are generally the concept people (also disparagingly referred to by engineers as “Pretty Picture People”). Software is Adobe PS, Adobe AI, Strata 3D, 3DS, Cinema4D, etc. I used to even use FormZ. Every company has different 3D rendering software, so that’s harder to nail down. Designers come up with concept sketches, 3D renderings, and are generally responsible for the creative of “Fun” side of the process. On the other side, Engineers do exactly what you would think they do – SPECS and other pre-manufacturing development. Solidworks, AutoCAD, and maybe Inventor are the big ones used. They are also responsible for letting the designers know how dumb they are at every opportunity. I kid. I kid… (kinda). Major players: WestRock, Rapid Displays, Frank Mayer, Design Phase

Fixtures are the racks or shelving that you’ll find in retail. They tend to be really heavy duty and can range anywhere from down and dirty gondola shelving all the way to high-end boutique displays. I’ve only touched on the fixture side of things a few times, so my knowledge is limited. But from what I’ve experienced, fixture is similar to Permanent in that you’ll have a Design team and an Engineering team – each with its own responsibilities, and each required to work with the other. Software for designers is probably the same as permanent (Strata3D, Cinema4D, 3DS, etc). For Engineers it’ll be Solidworks, AutoCAD, Inventor, etc. Major players in this field: Madix, Lozier, IDX, LA Darling.

Note that in each of these categories, the development is broken out between “design” and “engineering” (or in the case of temp/pkg “graphic” vs “structure”). There are plenty of people out there that can do both functions, but in my experience, they are ALWAYS much better at one than they are at the other. So if you have a foot in both, its totally okay (and frankly can be seen as a big plus) – but you’ll want to brace yourself for the divide between the two and you may find yourself needing to decide which you like more and go in that direction. Of course that can also depend on the company.

Anyway – hope this brief primer on POP was somewhat helpful to you. Good luck!

Thanks – this is much weightier information than I’d envisioned anyone would provide.

Also encouraging to see that you’ve continued in your niche for almost two decades. And I don’t mean that facetiously or sarcastically… I mean that its encouraging to see others who remain passionate about their work enough that they stick with it! I will always love furniture, but I feel that I’m growing out of it.

I found your comments about how the engineers in POP relate to designers quite amusing, and think that’s probably very true in any aspect of ID. I enjoyed working closely with engineers at each company Ive been with, but I know there were times when they just “didn’t get” what I was trying to achieve and it may have caused frustration on both sides. I just learned to live with the fact that they are not designers and I am not an engineer. I think engineers want everyone in the whole world to think just like them. Because there’s only ONE way to do everything! Am I right?

After you’ve explained all of these, the category most appealing to me is the Temporary. I’m much more interested in working with paperboard/corrugated cardboard. One of the absolute main draws is the idea that the flat material folds into a useful 3D object.

In furniture we’ve mostly used Solidworks and Autocad, but I haven’t any experience with Strata. Is it a steep learning curve?

How do others typically learn how to use Artios? Considering its not low cost…

Can you recommend any books or online resources?

Thank you again!!

*Btw I’m really digging your sketches in the link here. Damn fine work!

Steep learning curve for Strata: Not if you’ve already got some solid experience using a 3D modelling/rendering software and know how to model, texture, light, and render. Those basic concepts carry through most 3D softwares, just different interfaces. In fact I think Strata3D is one of the easiest and most approachable modellers/renderers on the market. It only took a month or so to get fully trained on it having used a different software previously.

With that being said, Strata is NOT a manufacturing or engineering platform. You will not be able to generate production drawings, specs, etc from it. It is used to generate pretty pictures only. But for the conceptual (“Graphic”) side of the process, thats all you really need. If you want to play in the engineering (“Structural”) side of things, Artios is really the industry standard. Unfortunately I don’t really know much about Artios other than all the Structural Designers use it, and its very expensive. My impression is that if you want to go in that direction, you’ll likely need to either go back to school for packaging design, or get hired on with a company and try to get them to train you (possibly start as a Graphic Designer and begin working your way over to the Structure Side). For myself, I’ve never had any interest in the structural side and all the creative fun was on the graphic side. But that is also based on the two companies I’ve worked at that do Temp. POP.

As far as books or online resources, not really a huge amount, but here is at least a start:

Honestly the best resource you can find is to walk retail (U.S./CAN: Wal-Mart, Target, grocery, CVS, Walgreens, etc) and just start looking at all the various display vehicles up close and in person. Start paying attention to the different types of displays, what elements they have, materials they use, etc.

*Thanks for the compliment about the sketches. Those are so old they seem like forever ago

Thanks again! I sent you a PM.