Cal Poly Students’ Sustainable Packaging Design for San Luis Obispo Business Wins First Place in National Competition

Cupcake packaging boxes with specialized labels


SAN LUIS OBISPO — After a year of research and development, a team of Cal Poly students gained hands-on experience designing new sustainable packaging and labels for a San Luis Obispo-based gourmet cupcake and dessert business — and took first place for its effort.


Seven graphic communications students participated in the Phoenix Challenge, a yearlong project in which students help a local small business rebrand and market itself with materials using the flexographic print process, a technique that uses a flexible plate to print on a variety of materials.

The students, Naomi Furuya, Mandy Ko, Isabel Lao, Kaitlin Sakae, Ashley Rubens, Madeline Wales and Sadie Curdts, won first place at the college-level competition in March against teams from across the U.S. This year’s theme was sustainable packaging for sustainable business, and the students focused on helping a local small business reduce packaging costs and make their brand stand out.

They chose to work with a small San Luis Obispo-based business, SeaBreeze Cupcakes & Sweet Treats, to develop and design a cupcake carrying box, a three-pack extract box, and labels to help the business reach out to specific groups of customers and expand to new demographics.

“I learned a lot from the experience of iterating on a printed product with a team,” Lao said. “I feel like that hands-on experience prepared me for working in a similar setting in industry.

“I also appreciated seeing the flexographic printing process from start to finish. It was helpful to know what choices go into selecting inks, substrates, specialty processes, etc., based on limitations and what the client wants, and then seeing how those choices reflected in the quality during the press run. I can better envision the processes behind what we talk about in class now that I’ve seen them for myself.”

an image of the student team in front of a printing press

The team considered sustainability, environmental impact and efficiency while developing the packaging and labels. The cupcake carrying box and extract box are designed to use the minimum amount of glue, with dielines designed to cut out the maximum number of boxes from one single sheet of folding carton board. The boxes were made of unbleached boards with the minimum amount of ink, to further reduce the environmental impact.

The team also designed a set of labels for the business owner to target different demographics without changing the structure of the boxes. The labels are designed for efficient production to reduce the manufacturing cost.

The team spent the last academic year brainstorming different concepts, conducting market research on cupcakes and sweets, interviewing industry experts on regulations, packaging materials and structures, surveying targeted demographics for insights, iterating packaging structures and label designs, and printing on the flexo press in the lab for prototyping. Finally, they presented the works and the prototypes to a group of judges from the printing industry.

“The experience students gain from this competition helps them practice and advance their skills in technology, team building and leadership. Participating in Phoenix Challenge is more than a competition — it has a long-lasting impact on students’ success after graduation,” said team advisor and Graphic Communication Professor Xiaoying Rong.

- Cal Poly Graphic Communication Department
- Cal Poly College of Liberal Arts

About the Cal Poly Graphic Communication Department
The Graphic Communication Department at Cal Poly is one of the best-known and largest programs of its kind in the Western U.S. The department is home to more than 33,000 square feet of laboratories filled with cutting-edge equipment donated in large part through industry partnerships. The department serves approximately 300 undergraduate students pursuing a degree in graphic communication with emphases in four focus areas and a new Master of Science degree program in printed electronics and functional imaging. Visit

About Cal Poly’s Phoenix Challenge Instructionally Related Activity (IRA)
The Phoenix Challenge Flexographic Challenge IRA is a team of four to five students and two faculty who compete every year as part of the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA) Forum. Students design, prepare files, and print a “real life” package to be judged at the annual four-day event. This FTA Forum — the largest industry and trade association in the packaging printing field — provides students the opportunity to test their skills and knowledge, compete with other college and university teams, and network/interact with industry professionals from around the world. The competition and forum also serve to demonstrate the high caliber of Cal Poly Graphic Communication students to the flexographic and packaging industry.

Photo information:
Top image: Seabreeze-packaging.jpg — Custom packaging design for local business, SeaBreeze Cupcakes & Sweet Treats.

Middle image: Team.jpg — Graphic communication Professor Xiaoying Rong and students Isabel Lao, Sadie Curdts, Naomi Furuya, Kaitlin Sakae, Mandy Ko and Madeline Wales.  

Above: Mandy-Ko-labels.jpg — Graphic Communication student Mandy Ko works on specialty labels for the 2022 Phoenix Challenge.


May 2, 2022
Contact: Xiaoying Rong

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