If you’re new to custom and sustainable packaging, Jessica Diatlo just might be the person you want to talk to. As the Director of Business Development at Zenpack, Diatlo spends her days coordinating between clients and the design and manufacturing teams, and helping prospective clients on the nuances and processes of custom packaging design.

Between learning about sustainable materials and what her clients need—either as established businesses or start-ups—listening and creative problem solving drive her every day. 

In her free time, Diatlo—who goes by Jess—builds Legos with her kids and explores the countless museums and parks across New York City.

I sat down with Diatlo to find out how she succeeds in her role, what people should know about sustainable packaging design and the timelines associated with it, and the impact sustainability-driven consumers have on Zenpack and its clients. 

(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

So, can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you came to be at Zenpack?

Jessica Diatlo: My background and experiences are a little bit all over the place, but generally around products, packaging, and making things in China. 

I actually met Zenpack about six or seven years ago now, when I was running an industrial design studio with my husband [in New York City]. My role at the studio was to help our clients find manufacturing partners. We had a couple packaging projects—that’s how I found Zenpack. And once we started working with them, the experience was so great, so easy compared to working with other manufacturing partners, we brought all of our packaging projects to them. 

Then a couple of years into our relationship Zenpack asked if I would help them manage some clients on the east coast on a contract basis. And then about a year and a half ago, I came on full time.

Did you live in China?

JD: No. I worked at a couple of different companies in New York, mostly in jewelry and fashion, accessories, watches, things like that. Doing product development and special client projects, working in between the manufacturing partners and design teams.

What is the ‘it’ factor that makes an ideal Zenpack client?

JD: I would say ideal clients are looking to create a partnership with us, not just to place an order. Obviously we can do just a manufacturing order, but we offer so many other services and we like to connect our clients to each other, if it makes sense, or to other resources that we may have. So we definitely love to build long term partnerships with our clients. 

And then also, our clients tend to value design. They’re not just looking for a box, they’re looking for something that may help their brand stand out, give their customer a better experience. They’re looking for something a little bit more. And that’s where we come in.

How does your background in sourcing and product development impact your sales role at Zenpack?

JD: A lot of our clients are startups or newer companies. And sometimes I’m able to give them a little bit of feedback or advice on how these processes typically work. Because if you’re creating a product from scratch, there’s a lot that goes into it. And not everybody understands that. 

There’s also customers who come to us looking for custom packaging, and they may not realize how much goes into that process as well. So a lot of my job is education—educating the clients on not only what we can do, but what that process looks like and why we need so much time and how much work goes into creating a custom package, and also why that’s valuable to them and their customers.

Same question, but let’s add sustainability into the mix—since Zenpack has such a strong focus in that area.

JD: A lot of our clients come to us looking for sustainable materials. And sometimes we have clients who come to us—that’s just not on their radar. 

We see feedback from our previous clients that sustainable packaging is really important to the end consumer, to their customers. Any new brand or product that’s coming out today—if you are launching with styrofoam or excess packaging, or excess plastic in your packaging—you will get pushback from customers. It’s just going to happen. So we try to push all of our customers towards more sustainable packaging, within reason. 

I like to quote Leo [Chao, Creative Director at Zenpack], when I’m talking to a client who has a more fragile product, ‘If your product arrives damaged or broken, that’s not sustainable.’

So you know, what does sustainable mean in terms of each client’s project? There are some cases where foam materials are what makes sense. But in general, our team of designers and engineers is really, really talented at removing any of those materials from packaging and making products shippable without foams and plastics and all of that.

Do you ever have a client that has no interest in sustainability? That wants to go the least expensive route possible?

JD: We do, but there’s usually a little bit more to it than just, ‘We want cheap styrofoam.’ Usually it’s, ‘Our product is slightly fragile and we know styrofoam will work. We need some packaging quickly and don’t have time or budget to invest in a larger design project that is sustainable and custom. So, what can you get me for now? And we can revisit this conversation later.’ 

And usually, if the product is successful, they’re going to hear from their customers that they don’t want to see styrofoam in it. As their business grows, they’re going to come back to us looking for sustainable solutions.

What would you like someone to know who’s looking for a custom, luxury, or sustainable packaging agency?

JD: Don’t make your packaging an afterthought. For a lot of people, a lot of startups, they put so much time and energy and money into creating an innovative, beautiful new product. And then they realize they need packaging a month before. So you have to make sure you plan for the packaging part as well. Because if you’re investing in creating a cool, amazing new product, and you’re investing in branding work and creating a brand, packaging just has to be part of that.

Brooklyn Robot Foundry packaging
BRF’s packaging design is integral to the overall user experience.

Another thing that I tell a lot of startup clients is don’t get too precious with whatever packaging you’re launching with. Don’t spend all your money on packaging upfront, because while it is important, it’s not the only thing, you may need that cash for other things. 

We don’t want our clients to go bankrupt before they even have a chance to launch. It’s in our best interest for our clients to grow and succeed. 

So our design team and engineering team is really good at helping clients identify what packaging they may need to launch and where they could save money and what they can come back to later. 

A lot of startups, after they launch, they learn a lot about their customers and their packaging. An amazing idea may end up being too finicky or too much work in terms of packaging operations, and their co-packer or manufacturer is struggling with streamlining that packaging process. 

Or they may realize that they’re spending a ton of money on shipping this big, beautiful box, and their clients are kinda like, ‘Iis half the price of this product the packaging? This is cool and impressive but it feels like a lot, like a waste.’ 

So you’re gonna get feedback from your clients, you’re gonna get feedback on the operations and whatever you designed to launch. You’re going to make adjustments for the second and third go rounds. And that’s a natural part of the process.

Is there any difference for retail vs e-comm startups?

JD: They definitely need different packaging structures and different graphic treatments. For e-commerce, shipping is a huge factor. You want to make sure that the packaging is really as small as possible, because you’re going to save money on shipping that way. You want to make sure that the product is protected. And then you will likely want to create some kind of cool unboxing experience. 

Because if you’re a new brand, this will be the first physical interaction that your customers have with your brand. It may be plain on the outside, but when you open that box, you really want to take advantage of every inch of space to create a branded experience that gets people excited about getting this package in the mail.

Whereas with retail, that kind of excitement needs to be built on the outside of the box. Other considerations might be how many pieces are fitting into a carton, does the retail setting have restrictions on shelf height, etc?

MakeupDrop packaging
With retail being MakeupDrop’s primary focus, their packaging reflects that.

What do you like about your current role? 

JD: I really like talking to different types of people, people in all different stages of either startup or design agencies, established companies—everyone has kind of a unique challenge and project they’re trying to make happen. So that part’s fun. 

I like helping people get what they need for their businesses to be successful. I also love everybody that I work with. I think that Zenpack has a really great team that is easy to work with. Fun to work with. And really talented.

What don’t you like?

JD: It’s frustrating when projects are not proceeding as quickly as the client wants, and as I want. But sometimes, when we’re taking on more challenging projects, there can be delays. Things just require more work, more time to figure out. 

For me, this comes back to educating the client that this isn’t just a straightforward process of making a box. There’s a lot that goes into it.

What do you think about the current state of packaging and where it’s headed in the future?

JD: I think the sustainable packaging, I guess you could say, movement, is really picking up steam and it’s just gonna keep going. There’s a lot of really cool innovations happening right now. Not all of them are easy to do on a mass production scale. Which is a challenge, but I think that’s something that we’re going to slowly work through to get more sustainable materials on that mass production level. 

I also think less packaging and reusable packaging are huge. If you’re doing any kind of beauty products or personal products that can have a refillable solution—I think everybody will be doing that soon. Luxury packaging is probably going to be leading the way on a lot of this. Five, ten years ago, you might see molded paper pulp in electronic packaging, and now you’re seeing it in high end beauty packaging.

Molded pulp is extensively used in products across diverse categories.

Diatlo is spot on: 78% of consumers say that sustainability is important to them, and this includes from the brands they shop from. So if all this sounds like the kind of packaging studio you’re looking for, shoot a message Jess’ way. Seems like she’d love to chat.

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