Profile: Tin Horse

"We love it when our clients have a really difficult problem" Martin Bunce, Tin Horse director, likes a challenge.

"Really big dreams for everyday things," quotes Tin Horse's website, and it's not wrong. The small but hugely successful UK company has transformed paint tins, oil cans, pots of moisturiser and shampoo bottles to become everyday objects which stand out from the crowd.

Structural packaging design house Tin Horse was formed in 1990 and is owned by its three directors, Martin Bunce, Peter Booth and John Lamb. "We're first and foremost designers, passionate for creativity, exploration and invention," says Bunce. "In the early days, we viewed business issues with a high degree of suspicion, never wanting them to come between us and our creative intentions. More recently we've embraced a little more discipline as we utilise the extraordinary resource that the Tin Horse team represents."

The three directors are all industry-trained, cutting their teeth at the likes of DCA, PI, Addison and Design Bridge as well as many freelance projects. "We formed Tin Horse early in our careers, when we had nothing to lose!"

Based in Marlborough, Wiltshire, the 14-strong company is outside of the capital but nonetheless pulling in big name clients. Tin Horse's portfolio sports packaging work for Unilever, BP, ICI Paints and Kraft Foods. "Our aims are consistent patent making, mould breaking, category challenging innovation. We love it when our clients have a really difficult problem, or even don't know what their problem is. Their trust is our most valued commodity." When it comes to pinning down a mission statement, they're working on something more than just making a difference. "'Really big dreams for every day things' is more us, but we quite like 'warriors against mediocrity' too!"

The company's fight against mediocrity has been recognised by awards. Its work was recognised by a Starpack Silver Star Award for Business of the Year 2006, rather a biggy in the packaging world. But more importantly, a Good Housekeeping Award for Product Innovation following their user-friendly paint pot for Dulux, the EasyCan. "Our holy grail is not the awards," admits Bunce. "Achieving something of meaning and value to the person for whom our designs are intended is where we gain the glow of satisfaction. Winning the Good Housekeeping Award was brilliant, voted for by the women for whom we'd set out to make decorating easier."

The Complete Package
Tin Horse specialises in structural design, that is the shape and functionality of a product, as well as the materials used. It's not just about the label, but the specific materials - plastics (PET, PVC, just for starters), metals, glass, paper and so on. This can make or break a design concept, and in-depth knowledge as well as a good relationship with packaging manufacturers is massively important. To create the stunning graphics to accompany the packaged product, Tin Horse often works with the clients' brand agency to ensure consistency.

The tools for this job are many - Pro Engineer, Maya, SolidWorks, Rhino, Cinema 4D, Photoshop, QuickTime Pro to name just a few. In addition to a fully equipped CAD lab, it has a prototyping workshop to actually create and test a package design before it's worked up for the brief. "It's constantly surprising when you compare a prototype to a 3D object that has been designed on screen, however meticulously." says Bunce. "A garden shed was the first thing we bought as a company as we recognised the need for a fully equipped workshop for making up prototypes."

Tin Horse's current jobs are giving them the biggest buzz, but Bunce is keeping schtum on what those jobs are. "We'll be lucky if we're able to talk about any of it within the next 18 months. In packaging you have to deal with a relatively high project casualty rate. Only 5-10 per cent of what we design, create and prototype might reach the hands of the consumers for whom they're intended."

Skincare Sensitivity
But there's plenty of recent work to talk about. The attractive range of new jars and dispensers for the Pond's skincare range are on store shelves right now. "The project harnessed much of everything that is new in this area of design: particularly CAD, rapid prototyping, bi-injection and virtual cross-Atlantic communications." Working closely with the client and the consumer, the result is a stylish white packaging with a simple pool of colour in the lids. Even the way the jars feel in the hand was engineered to give the consumer a sumptuous feel. "This combination of intellectual sensitivity with artisan feel and technological delivery is a model that we exploit in much of our work."

Also in the skincare line is the recent work towards the Clearasil product range. As an added challenge, the packaging had to work on a global platform. "We were charged with shaking off a tired and hackneyed (not acneed) 80s look," says Bunce. In the revamped range of products, elegant shapes are intersected by a colourful asymmetric arc which provides an integral structural brand element. The graphics complement the style and shape of the packaging perfectly and the colour-coded lids are a useful device for range differentiation, wherever they are in the world.

Tin Horse also works on in-house design projects which experiment with outlandish concepts, push the boundaries of available materials and create packaging for products which don't even exist. A lot of time is spent working on pitches either as the sole company or in tandem with another design or branding agency, depending on the scale of the job. "In structural packaging design, you can't wait around for your clients to keep coming back with the same products," explains Bunce. "Some packaging isn't updated for years. We're currently working on packaging we first designed over ten years ago!" And the net stretches wide: around 60 per cent of Tin Horse's current workload is for international clients, with 40 per cent of that outside Europe.

Getting a clear brief is essential to client work anywhere in the design industry, but in structural packaging it's even more important to pinpoint the client and consumer needs and the right level of innovation to attract, rather than alienate, the consumer. "Most big projects have huge safety nets to avoid any potentially alienating solutions reaching the market. But these same safety nets can also filter out what may be genuine, breakthrough innovations," says Bunce. "Working with consumers and not just researching them helps us first discover meaningful insights and then translate these into appropriate new packaging solutions."

Tin Horse has proprietary development tools when approaching a brief - tried-and-tested ways of getting it right before they begin. "Some briefs can be surprisingly the same - it's all too glib to say every project is different," says Bunce. "Sometimes, for a fast track programme, it's helpful to use an approach you know has worked and can work again. That said, each new brief is carefully considered. We encourage our clients to embrace the most adventurous approach to suit their innovation appetite." Bunce likens the process of communicating a project's development to the client to a journey: heading somewhere, making discoveries and returning with a distillation of what has been learned. "We coach our clients on what to expect at each stage and to avoid the tendency to default to solutions too early. The solution masquerading as a brief is a big watch out for us."

Big Dreams
Briefs arrive from both small and large companies, but such investment in structural packaging is a luxury small businesses can ill afford. "It's not so much the investment needed for design, but for tools and production. For smaller projects we'll go for selected standards with strategic use of the more designed elements for maximum impact." Bigger brand opportunities are often complex global projects which demand greater innovation within conservative boundaries. Bunce admits, "Diplomacy is a prerequisite to negotiating the political networks and meetings, always with a passionate eye on 'big dreams for everyday things'. Determination and a tough outer skin are essential if creative ideas are not to be brushed aside."

For prospective structural packaging designers, Bunce recommends a course in Industrial or Product Design rather than a graphics/packaging course. "It's so important to learn the skills that are at the heart of every design problem, to breed designers with discipline rather than minute specialisations." He also recommends "spending an abnormal amount of time in supermarkets."