Building a Better Box

By Charles Purdy

Looking at Think Packaging’s portfolio, you might imagine that the Auckland, New Zealand–based structural packaging design company is a bustling shop with several designers working busily with styluses and knives. But in reality, Think Packaging is run by one man—one man passionate about making things out of cardboard.

In collaboration with Kevin Soh, Think Packaging developed this box for Stolen Smoked Rum. “You can start simple, and then you can add bells and whistles as you need,” says Bogust. “I sweat the small stuff. My favorite thing to do, no matter what the job is, is giving the box a purpose.”

Mat Bogust, Think Packaging’s founder, calls himself a “cardboard engineer”—a title he created for himself for two reasons—first, because it sounds cool, and second, because it describes Bogust’s specialized niche in the packaging-design world.

He explains, “If I tell people I’m a packaging designer, people think of branding and graphics, which is not what I do. But saying ‘structural packaging designer’ feels a bit long-winded. If I have time to describe my work to someone, I say that I’m focused on the structural part of packaging—that is, I come up with 3D thoughts in my head, I draw in 2D using CAD software, and then I hand-cut samples to bring the idea into 3D again, to create working dielines for packages.”

A JOURNEY INTO PACKAGING

An artist whose favorite medium is cardboard, Bogust stumbled into his life’s work at age 17, at which point, he (like many people) hadn’t really thought about how boxes are designed—or imagined that designing boxes was a viable career path.

 “I was 17, in England—I’m formerly British; I’ve been in New Zealand for 15 years—and I’d left school,” Bogust remembers. “I loved photography, and I was also thinking about being a furniture designer, because I loved making things. And the school’s career advisor said, ‘Don’t be a photographer; that’s a waste of time’— which looking back was a pretty shit thing to say. Not a very good career advisor! Anyway, they said, ‘You could be a furniture designer.’ But then I was set up doing some work experience with a joiner, and they just had me hammering fences all day…. And I said to myself, ‘Well I don’t want to do this.’”

There’s more to cardboard than boxes—Think Packaging was commissioned to create this giant piñata for the Designers Institute of New Zealand’s Best Design Awards.  

He continues, “So I was at home one day, and my dad found an ad in the paper for a ‘structural-packaging-designer-slash-sample-maker’ in a local town near me. I went for an interview, in my best shirt tucked into some chinos, and walked up to see this dude in an office full of cardboard, and I was like, ‘So what is it?’ And he showed me. He drew out an idea on CAD and printed it out as a template, and then cut it out in front me and made it up—and I was sold. I said, ‘Shit, that’s my jam, this is it!’…So I really fell into it. Luckily I was good at it.”

Bogust feels fortunate to have found this apprenticeship, which put him on a path to mastering his craft: “I was done with studying; I wanted to make stuff,” he says. “So this was a perfect opportunity for me.”

One of Bogust’s most recent personal projects was creating packaging for knives, which he also designed. The knives were gifts for clients; he created them after a Think Packaging rebrand. “The project was called You Made the Cut, and it was really a piece of me on a plate—delivering the calling card of a cardboard engineer, the knife, and it looked like Excalibur…. The message was ‘You made the cut, and I think you’re rad. Be bold.’”

A HOME ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD

About 15 years ago, Bogust and his now wife left England together—intending to explore the world and “see what happens.” The pair saved up their money and bought one-way tickets to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; from there, they traveled through South America and the whole of Australia, before landing in New Zealand, where they’d planned a snowboarding trip. The couple fell in love with the country and decided to stay.

The brief for this Cook & Nelson food hamper was “to have no wood shavings or cellophane in sight.” The bold blue cube houses a collection of individually crafted packages; each of the boxes is adorned with a striking graphic pattern based on the flag of the city in which the product inside was made (graphic design by Butcher & Butcher).

The couple and their children call Auckland home now, and it’s from Auckland that Think Packaging serves clients from around the world.

But the company wasn’t exactly an overnight success. “I couldn’t really find a job doing what I did,” says Bogust. “Structural package design didn’t seem to be a big thing here. So I did a few other jobs, and I used to last about two months in each; then I’d have to say to my wife that I’d quit my job again, I’m sorry. Eventually she said, ‘You need to start your business; just do it.’”

The Breakout Room approached Think Packaging to help create a vision: a whimsical beach scene, plus props, all made from paper.

Bogust began his company while working as a stay-at-home dad, earning extra money with part-time jobs: first in a bar and then sorting parcels for a courier service. “I used to call that ‘research,’” he recalls, “because I was throwing boxes around—that would make my mates laugh.”

His first clients were a New Zealand chocolatier and a local architect who wanted a 3D cardboard pencil to give as a holiday gift to clients. In those early days, Bogust focused on doing great work (and doing much of that work—including cutting, folding, and other production work—by hand, which he still does) and then making that work visible to the world, on his Behance portfolio page and by submitting it to packaging sites like The Dieline and World Brand Design Society.

A CONTINUING SUCCESS

A post on The DieLine earned him his first international client, Jasper+Black, an American stationery company. “I was a bit shocked to get that first call from America,” says Bogust.

But eight years later, Bogust reckons there aren’t many product categories that Think Packaging hasn’t worked in. He credits his success in part to focusing on his craft and being smart about collaboration—“Stick to your knitting, do what you’re good at, and don’t try to do everything” is one of his personal mottos. He explains, “People have often told me that they were looking for someone like me: I just supply dielines, so you can produce your job wherever you want. And I don’t do branding and artwork, so agencies have said to me, ‘You’re the missing link!’ They can use me for my bit and then finish it in their department. I found quickly that having synergy like that was the key.”

Bogust points to a design created for Steens Honey as an example of collaboration leading to dazzling results. David Trubridge and his team came up with the packaging’s look and the idea of a flower encasing the honey. “I fell in love with the idea,” says Bogust, “and I had to make it work, make it spin open, which was extremely difficult. I probably spent more than 40 hours on just that part—40 hours of pure frustration, tantrums…when I cracked that, I shouted ‘Eureka!’ That literally was a highlight of my career.”

Wrapology produced the packages. Bogust says, “It’s all about bonding with great creatives. We had a specialist in design, a specialist cardboard engineer, and a specialist producer—without one element, it would fall down.”

Every project is different, but Bogust typically works in three phases. Phase one is ideation and research, which he uses to create quick sketches that he can submit for client feedback. With that feedback, he and the client or agency flesh out the ideas.

A cardboard “mustache protector” created for Movember, an annual event focusing on men’s health.

The second phase is using CAD software to draw a design. Bogust prefers to hand-cut all his starting models. “This helps me continue to hone my craft, and taking time and care in the design process saves me having to cut something eight times…. This is still my happy place, getting it on the cutting mat and making samples. I’ll often photograph that stage or make videos for clients: I started this thing where I video myself and do stupid songs, and there’s a bit of that on my Instagram. I think that not being a boring dude really helps in this industry—because packaging is fun, it’s playful, so why not own that?”

Then the third and final phase is sending off those finished samples and outputting the dielines for production.

These days, Bogust’s work comes from everywhere. He says, “I’ve been talking to a toy company today. I’ve just packaged a 35-kilo hydrofoil bike. And then I’m working on a candle package. And some socks. So it’s all over the show, and it’s so sick. This is what I love. It could be anything. It’s wicked. I never say no!”

Find more of Think Packaging’s cardboard architecture on Behance and on Instagram.


March 22, 2019