More Notes From the Design Ghetto

Pill bottle + woman

By Guy Mastrion (@gmastrion)

The recently announced demise of I.D. Magazine strikes a sad note for me, as I consider the need to spread good design thinking around the globe and how that thinking has enabled the creation of emergency potable water systems like those in use in Haiti as well as innovations like the iPhone or Droid. the creation of products that improve peoples lives is what matters and is the best use of design thinking. I.D. Magazine remains, for me, one of the few voices extolling the benefits of design thinking and the sharing of ideas and innovations to help solve some of the worlds more pressing issues (and the occasional new killer chair design too).

From graphic design to industrial design and the design of a digital interface, understanding the needs of the end consumer is key to a successful execution. When I consider the design of simple objects like pharmacy pill bottles for instance, I think of my Mother-in-law, GOD rest her soul. She suffered terribly from a number of conditions, the least of which was arthritis that made her hands nearly unusable for most tasks requiring any level of dexterity. Given the number of medications she was required to take every day, the task was daunting. She tried various approaches to managing her meds but the safest bet was to keep them in the bottles they came in from the pharmacy. She stood the bottles like little centuries, shoulder to shoulder on a piece of paper with boxes drawn on it, with each bottle placed in it’s square marked with very large letters the name of the drug and the time she was to take it. The child proof caps, barely on. For her, getting those pills in her mouth was a terrible task, that often held her in lack of adherence. This was many years ago now and it is a sad memory to think of her suffering so, with a task most of us take for granted. Yet these are the challenges for those who use design to solve problems, to place yourself in the shoes of another, to consider their situation and potential solutions and innovations to power their daily lives.

Target’s great improvements aside, there has been little advancement in the area of pill bottle design. Not too big a deal you say, unless you’re the one who can’t open the child safety top, or can’t read the warnings, or even see the name of the script. As America’s baby boomers age out, these challenges will become more apparent.

We need good design thinking to tackle the needs of the end users. Should meds for arthritis come in containers that arthritics can not open? Despite some claims to the contrary, if you got it bad enough, you can not open these bottles. What about those with Parkinson’s disease who take multiple meds? What if your eye sight is bad and your hands shake and there’s no one around to help? These are problems that good design thinking will solve. Those Mon.-Sun. pill containers don’t always get the job done.

But this is just one area of design in the Pharma space that needs addressing.


A peak inside a sample closet reveals another, there is more sameness than differentiation. Of course there are practical reasons for a certain standardization of shapes and sizes but what about graphics? The similarities create a dulness that defies brand differentiation. There’s a certain design “schtick” in the Pharma space that broadcasts itself, like old-time Catskill Comedians, about to hit the punch line (rim shot please).

Consider the doctor or nurse experience as they quickly duck into the closet. A former primary care doc of mine and his associates had tupperware bins built into their sample closet on angled shelves and taped big photocopied names of the samples on the front of the bins, to avoid confusion.

Design must consider the end user as much as the message it wishes to communicate.

The Pharma industry in the U.S. in particular, has a market that is going to continue to expand as it ages and it must meet the needs of its aging audience. There is much to be improved in package design in the Pharma space and Healthcare as a whole, from pill bottles to the sample closets, to user interface design in the digital realm.

Even in the blogosphere, we must work to meet the consumer with a set of design solutions that support their evolving needs. I’ll pick on WebMD for a minute but this applies to most interface design today as it relates to an aging population. Take this little test, go to right now. Better yet, sit down with an older person in your life, say someone in their mid to late 60’s or early 70’s and have them log on to WebMD. Then imagine yourself, maybe not in the best of health, with failing eyesight, staring at all those various bits of information trying to read. And maybe a little shake to your hands, trying to navigate the ocean of information that confronts you. Even if you zoom in enough to see, then you’ll find yourself scrolling back and forth trying to find what you’re looking for.

Is this a prescription for success?

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