The graphic solution to an otherwise ignored product began with Deborah Adler's thesis project at the School of Visual Arts, completed in May of 2002. Adler drew inspiration from a personal experience when her grandmother unwittingly took her husband's prescription. Both had been prescribed the same medication, but in different dosages. Due to the poor information design and inconsistencies of placement of information on the label, the grandmother became ill. Adler, the child of a physician and a former nurse, began revisiting the pharmaceutical bottle's information design.
The design of prescription bottles in the US has not been standardized since the introduction of the familiar amber-colored bottle, launched in the mid 20th century. As it stands now, each pharmacy locates the information presented on drug bottles differently, posing a series of challenges to the consumer.
On some bottles, the name of the patient is barely legible because of tiny type size. Sometimes a prescription's name and dosage appears on the bottom of the bottle label, other times at the top, or lost within the content of the bottle label somewhere in the middle. Because the bottle is typically round, the patient must turn the bottle to read the label. Crucial warning labels are often plastered over important information (including each other), treated as secondary information, and sometimes blend in completely with the amber color. Usually the pharmacy name is the most prominent feature of the bottle—good for the retailer's marketing perhaps, but bad for the patient.
Research regarding mishaps due to poor hierarchy of information and the placement of instructions support the need for new design; a poll by Target found that 60 percent of patients have taken the wrong medication.
The US Food and Drug Administration does not have federal regulations regarding prescription drug labeling. Instead it is left up to individual state boards and pharmaceutical companies to arrange information as seen fit.
Adler's initial student project prototype was a half ellipse shaped container that relied on a color-coding system. Unfortunately, the bottle was not child resistant, and due to manufacturing obstacles was economically infeasible to produce. She later learned that her color-coding system would be difficult to implement without upgrading all pharmaceutical printers (which are generally B&W) to full color.
A large pharmaceutical company could bring her vision to the masses, and Adler ultimately chose Target for its philosophy regarding well-designed, inexpensive products.
Once Target obtained a patent on the design, it brought in Klaus Rosburg, industrial designer and principal at Sonic Design, who created an upside-down bottle that rests upon its cap (an untraditional approach for pharmaceutical containers).
The new bottle is made of a clear red plastic, complementing Target's bulls-eye identity. Unique and distinguishable, the bottle's shape also allows for easy storage in a narrow depth medicine cabinet.
"Our objective was to make three things clear: what the drug is, who it belongs to, and how to take it…. This information needed to be communicated immediately," Adler says, referring to her work with the team of approximately 200 designers at Target.
Describing the final product, Rosburg says, "[The design] fully optimizes the perfectly flat front and back areas available for printed prescribing information, including up to five patient warnings. One continuous label optimizes pharmacy operation and allows consistent placement and orientation of crucial drug information and warnings. Another notable feature of the design is the 'spine' on the top of the bottle, enabling the customer to more easily identify the bottle if kept in a drawer. The design leaves the container sides clear, enabling patients to identify their drugs."
Bump-outs in the plastic near the widest part of the bottle were built to facilitate the patient's grip when opening the container. The removable colored rings, which allow family members to color code their prescriptions, are also a helpful innovation. Mom's painkillers are green ringed, Dad's Viagra and heart meds are yellow ringed, and Timmy's Ritalin is orange ringed.
Each bottle has the patient's name displayed at the very top of the front panel. Below this, in bold and all-caps, is the prescription name highlighted by a light gray background. Below the name are instructions followed by a line, where secondary, utilitarian information, such as the amount of pills, date, refills, doctor's name, drug routing info, and pharmacy phone numbers, along with the Target brand, resides. Gone is extraneous information such as the prescribing doctor's address, which uses up valuable real estate. Behind the back label is an info card with additional information regarding side effects and warnings.
"At the end of the day, the responsibility on how to take your medicine is yours," says Adler. "Most likely, the only form of communication you have is your medicine package so it's important that it is clear and easy to understand."
The result of Adler's concept and the physical design of the bottle demonstrate what can happen when two fields of design (graphics and industrial) work together to create a better solution. Rumors in the pharmaceutical industry hint that new FDA regulations may soon have other pharmacies redesigning their drug bottle systems. Although Adler would obviously love to see her system become the industry standard she explained that Target owns the patent exclusively.
The launch of the new bottle coincided with an impressive ad campaign on Target's part. The Target website featured a Flash interview with Adler and her mentor the designer Milton Glaser discussing the creative process between information and graphic design.
The role that design plays in this situation demonstrates that it is possible to design something both beautiful and functional that contributes positively to the lives of consumers.