In Praise of Good Design

Which pill bottle would you rather use?

The rightmost bottle was designed by Target to address the shortcomings of traditional pill bottles. And you probably decided which pill bottle you liked best within a twentieth of a second.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

Norman actually rants on that New York article here: a href="" – basically saying claims that the bottle is really better is “unsubstantiated opinion”, i.e. there isn’t any data to back it up.


A few observations based on a sample size of one, eg, our prescriptions from Target.

  1. The text isn’t curved around a cylinder, it’s printed on a flat surface. Which makes it easier to read.

  2. The colored rings make it easy to tell visually which drug is which.

  3. The text is much larger, which also makes it easier to read.

True, there aren’t any studies to back this up. But compare them yourself. I certainly don’t want to go back to tiny round pill bottles.

The Target bottle looks like it would fall over a lot. A top-heavy design for a container seems to always a bad idea.

If the bottle sat the other way up - the nice flat surface and colour coding would be a winner.

To me, the inverted design of this bottle, suggests that it was designed to be aesthetically pleasing - not useful. Sure there’s a good idea in there - but that’s an accident.

Nice bottle, how about printing on the side? Why not 12 different languages, brail for the blind and a voice chip for the illiterate?

When you redesign, why stop halfway? Simple. Economics. You can’t use a 20$ bottle to hold 10$ worth of pills.

As such, if this bottle costs 1 cent more a unit, it will be the next “target” when it is time to cut costs. Round bottles are cheap and easy to make. This bottle is made for 1 vendor, has multiple parts, uses non-standard labels, and has multiple small parts that look like they might be swallowed by a small child.

Sure, 1 cent a unit extra might sound like nothing, but if you but a 100,000 of them, it adds up fast. Chances are that the price difference is going to be MUCH more than a single cent, making it that much more likely to go in the next cost cutting move.

Never mistake an obvious marketing ploy for eurgonomic design. This was done for Target exclusively, and you’ll notice that their logo is still the most prominent item on the sticker. The marketing speak about how great their bottles are in an attempt to drive additional business to their stores is just that, marketing speak.

It reminds me of the Foldgers coffee can redesign. The former metal can with plastic lid is gone, replaced with all plastic container. They say it keeps the favour in, but it does nothing more than the can did. It was airtight, and had a plastic lid also. Oh, wait, you can’t the coffee smell out of the plastic, and it goes funky since the oils bonded with the plastic go rancid after you empty it, making it suitable only for the garbage. I have MANY old coffee tins used for storage after the coffee was used BECAUSE you could wash them. There are even reciepes that involve using the old tins as cooking vessels. I wouldn’t advise that with the new plastic ones.

Not every change is as good as it is marketed to be and secondary uses of a product are often harmed by seemingly helpful innocuous changes.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Incidently, the new bottle looks pretty lousy for storage after the meds are gone.

Why did it tkae 50 years?

Because it took that long for a a machine that could mold plastic in that manner, and for it to be cheap enough that making fancy bottles was cost-effective.

There have been tremendous advances in plastic shaping over the past few years, that are only now becoming cheap enough so that they can be used for such things as drug bottles. I used to work for a plastics company ten years ago, when stuff like this was on the cusp of being possible.

Another thing…

Look at the whisk. It’s actually a pretty obvious design, but think of what it takes to attach a little metal ball onto a thick wire. Then make it so that you can use that product day in and day out for whisking without those balls falling off.

People forget that making physical objects have very, very hard problems that might takes years to fix.

Heck, it took years of engineering just to make dripless spouts for teapots.

In Australia we haven’t had the US-style pill bottles for as long as I can remember (mind you, I’m only 31). In my experience we often have prescription tablets (vitamins etc can be different) in tamper evident blister packs (see for an example) that are then put inside a box. The label goes on the outside of the box and an instruction leaflet, if needed, goes inside the box.

Personally I think this approach works quite well. The boxes usually have plenty of room for a label, if more information is needed it can be provided on the instruction leaflet and the blister packs are printed with information on the drug so you don’t have to keep the box if you don’t want to. Also, research shows that blister packs can sometimes be a better prompt for when a script needs to be refilled than bottles with loose tablets, as it is more obvious where you are up to with the course. Moreover, the boxes are recyclable, lie flat and stack neatly and the blister packs/boxes don’t not require any wrist turning strength to open (a problem for many older people/those with arthritis etc). It makes me curious why such different methods are used.

I used to work for a plastics company ten years ago, when stuff like this was on the cusp of being possible.

An excellent point. Plastics – it’s the future!

Actually, the new Target bottle was designed by an independent designer, Target just bought the rights. Good article in Fast Company or Business 2.0 (I forget which) about Target embracing design, including Michael Graves and this bottle, last year.

I have a prescription in this bottle, and it’s great. Very easy to open, and it’s not top-heavy. It sits on its lid, and is very stable that way. You can also lay it on its side, where its easy to read and extremely stable. They always take a picture of it standing on its lid, probably because it’s easier to see what’s going on, but the side is fine as well.

The colored rings are actually for different family members, not different medicines. Target has you fill out a questionnaire when you’re a new customer, and one of the questions is which color of ring.

You’d be surprised. Plastics are an infurating product. They have about six qualities that you can adjust, but at any given time, you can only play with about four before you get dropoffs in the other two.

Plastic companies spend millions trying to create “perfect” plastics. It’s mostly a guessing game; doping polymers with various substances to effect its properties.

If you have a Toyota, the plastic for the dashboard took about 15 years to develop.

Whether the new bottle design is better or not is not the issue. As with most things, the answer is in your question.

Why did we have to wait 50 years for a better pill bottle?

It’s conceptually similiar to auto recalls. The auto makers weigh the cost of recall against the cost of lawsuits. In this case, the bottle has long been an issue, especially to anyone with arthritis or other age related dexterity issues. Now, as baby-boomers go from parents to grandparents, their loud voice will quit calling for child safety and instead demand to just be able to get into their pills.


The reason American prescription drugs come in bottles, not those blister packs (which we have in the US, for nonprescription drugs and gum) is lawsuits. Children can operate blister packs, and if some child takes a prescription medication that’s not his, everybody is getting sued.

Lots of companies make portable MP3 players, but Apple sells more iPods than anyone, despite the fact that iPods cost more than anyone. And the reason is good design.

Why is that lesson so hard to learn?

The picture of the new bottle illustrates a common design fault - the type size for the instructions is too small. There is space for it to be bigger, functionality dominates any asthetic considerations on this product, and the target user is more likely to have imperfect vision than average. Even your perfect vision won’t be, after you are 50. Bigger type here would cost nothing and would take advantage of the bottle design. Save us from short-sighted designers!

So assuming the type is small. That the bottle is designed to look more pleasing aesthetically. It is still far easier to navigate than a tradition bottle design. You can not deny that the information you need to find is easier to find on the new bottle than on traditional bottles. In addition, type is type, it takes 2 seconds to make it bigger.
Save us from mind-less fools who live for the status quo!

Lots of companies make portable MP3 players, but Apple sells more
iPods than anyone, despite the fact that iPods cost more than anyone.
And the reason is good design.

The reason is in the easily swayed public’s opinion of a product. I have not seen a single advertisement for a competing MP3 player. I also haven’t seen a competing MP3 player (with a few exceptions) that requires proprietary software, especially proprietary software that attempts to hijack all your music-listening tasks on the PC.

I own a Sony Walkman Mp3, and I have to say that not only did I get it for a fraction of the price of the severly over-hyped piece of cheap plastic covered circuitry called an iPod, (80$ vs- god knows- 299$?), I can also use Windows Media Player to transfer music, and even, get this- Windows Explorer!