Intelligent Packaging Design

For Mavericks in UTA’s Visual Communication Design Program, thinking outside the box is not hyperbole. Students interested in starting a career in the high-demand packaging industry will find an educational path at UTA that leads them directly there.



Did you receive this magazine in the mail? Perhaps it arrived alongside boxes from a certain multinational e-commerce company. You hope what’s inside survived its trip in one piece. If you’re reading this online, there may be various items on your desk, such as a to-go cup of coffee. It’s adorned with visual aspects of a brand and may contain your liquid in environmentally friendly or compostable packaging. In short: Packaging design is literally everywhere.

Packaging design is something that we see and use all over the world, says Ben Dolezal, associate professor of art in packaging design. It’s underappreciated, though, and doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.

Packaging is the material that contains a product, while packaging design is the process that allows the packaging to fulfill a wide range of purposes, including functionality, sustainability, and visual appeal.

It’s structure design and graphic design, says Dolezal. The courses we teach are visually based and have a tangible deliverable that students must develop. That’s one of the major differences between what we do in design versus business, engineering, or marketing—the requirement of that visual, artistic output.


Outside the Box

In 2012, UTA was the first Texas university to join the International Corrugated Packaging Foundation’s (ICPF) university partnership program. UTA was identified as offering the best opportunity for an ICPF educational partnership to develop qualified graduates for the region’s corrugated industry. ICPF has donated over $12.5 million in equipment—including CAD systems, sample tables, presses, rotary die cutters, and other resources—to advance university curriculums to better prepare students entering the field.

Growing up, I loved Tetris and origami, says Al-Refai. It made sense that I would end up working as a designer with a foot in both structure and graphics.

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Ben Dolezal (front) with graduate teaching assistant Nijal Munankarmi in the lab where students produce their work.

At UTA, "thinking outside the box" is a literal endeavor. The courses in packaging design attract students with different perspectives and creative interests. While other partner universities with ICPF have their packaging and design courses housed under departments like business, technology, science, or engineering, UTA is one of a small handful with these courses in the arts.

Because the class I teach is part of the Department of Art and Art History, it doesn’t follow the traditional packaging science teaching methodologies, says Al-Refai. Instead, there is a strong focus on fluid intelligence, creativity, and the ability to multitask with what’s expected in the industry.

A decade since it first joined ICPF, UTA is still the only partner university from Texas.

Foundations in creativity, art, and the 3D form help students approach design situations in uncommon and unique ways because they aren’t restricted by all the science and manufacturing limitations, says Al-Refai. People can be taught manufacturing or how to use a program because those are concrete or hard skills, but creativity falls into a weird gap. It’s a soft skill that can be honed over time and a mindset of a nonlinear approach that’s intrinsic to the individual, like a personal quality.


The Best Things Come in Maverick Packages

Students enrolled in packaging design courses at UTA participate in a variety of national and international competitions each year. Since 2013, Mavericks have received more than 40 awards for their packaging design solutions, including national first-place prizes from the ICPF and AICC, The Independent Packaging Association. This recognition has led to program support from local packaging companies, internships and full-time jobs for graduates, and an increased national ranking for UTA’s design concentration.

Shelby Carson graduated in spring 2021 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in design and a minor in art history. She is currently working as a graphic and packaging designer at Lone Star Corrugated Container.

I have always been artistic, and I knew I’d end up doing something creative for work, she says. After my first graphic design class, I knew this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my career.

photo of Shaban Al-Refai
Shaban Al-Refai is an alumnus, an employee at Harris Packaging, and an adjunct professor at UTA.

Through UTA’s partnership with ICPF, Carson was able to learn on ArtiosCAD, which is the primary program used in the industry.

The practical implementation of art and structure in terms of packaging is integral to my current position, she says. In addition, with my freelance work, I work in so many forms of design for my clients. UTA’s wide array of course offerings prepared me to be successful in creating whatever my clients need, whether it is a website, a logo, or advertising and marketing materials.

Carson notes that in the packaging and design field, learning never stops.

Innovative design rarely comes from a place of comfort, she says. There is always something new to try.

Hieu Pham (’22 BFA, Art) worked in Vietnam doing floral design for more than 10 years before he came to the U.S. After settling in Arlington near UTA, he dreamed of becoming a professional graphic designer.

With UTA’s packaging printing lab and professional CAD software, I was able to experience the profession like I would in the workplace, says Pham. UTA equips students with so much knowledge and skills, they have become instinctual to me.

Pham says he will carry those new instincts into his next career, as he works to become a branding designer or packaging designer.

Design is all about problem-solving, says Pham. My classes at UTA presented me with challenging and interesting projects that have made me a better problem solver.

His advice to others who may be considering UT Arlington is Don’t hesitate to become the next Maverick.


A Package Deal with Industry Partners


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Jana Harris (right) with employees at Harris Packaging. Photograph by Carey Stinson.


Jana Harris (’99 BS, Exercise Science) is a UTA alumna and the president, CEO, and co-owner of Harris Packaging Corporation and American Carton Company. She grew up with Harris Packaging, the company her father started. In 2006, Harris and her sister, Jenise, were given the opportunity to work in the family business. Harris worked in several positions to learn the company’s many facets, including in customer service, sales, and with the production team that implements manufacturing techniques.

Whenever I come to the UT Arlington campus to talk to the College of Liberal Arts or with students in the College of Business, I always ask if any of them ever grew up knowing that they wanted a career in the box business, says Harris. The response is ‘What is the box business?’ I’m a cheerleader out there spreading the word that there are many great career options in this industry.

Since 2010, the sisters are majority owners of Harris Packaging and American Carton Company, completing the transition from the first to the second generation of the Harris family. Both Harris Packaging and American Carton Company have become certified women-owned businesses with national, state, and regional associations. Harris is also the first vice chairwoman for the AICC. She is interested in building a recruiting pipeline for UTA students to enter the packaging industry.

My theme this year as chair is ‘better minds, better boxes’ and investing in the future through education, says Harris. Everyone knows what a box is. The beautiful thing about it is that it gives more creative students another option for a career that they may have never thought about.

Harris works closely with UTA’s Visual Communication Design program to provide scholarships and internships to students, as well as sponsoring a sales competition through the College of Business. She also established The Joe Harris Annual Packaging Scholarship for graduate and undergraduate design students, which is named in honor of her father.

I have several designers and business students who came from UTA, and I just love them, she says. You can really tell the difference between a UTA graduate and the other new hires. Mavericks are—simply put—good, hard workers. I know a lot of my competitors look to UTA when they’re hiring as well.


Unboxing the Future

The United States is one of the fastest-growing packaging markets in North America. The rise of online retail and marketing has created a demand for skilled individuals who are familiar with graphic design, consumer experience, and structural design for product packaging and displays. According to research from IBIS World, the projected 2023 revenue in the box manufacturing industry is expected to top $78 billion in the U.S. alone.

UTA Art and Art History Department Chair August Davis says the field requires students to design clever answers to tricky questions regarding branding, supply-chain management, sustainability, and more.

Packaging design challenges students to be innovative and practical at the same time, says Dr. Davis. It offers the chance to enhance everyday life and uses students’ full range of artistic skills in the process.


photos of student projects" _languageinserted="true
Left to right: Daniel Sandri, Nicholas Williams, and Jessica Mendez  |  Brenda Vitela and Jonathan Nguyen  |  Brayden Itz  |  Hieu Pham



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