RX: Clarity
by Pauline Tingas
Target improves prescription system with an easier-to-use-and-read bottle.
Ever thought your package might harm someone? It wasn’t something Deborah Adler had ever considered as an MFA student of design at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. That is, until she learned her grandmother had taken the wrong pills when she confused her husband’s prescription bottle with her own.
That incident inspired Adler to focus her master’s thesis on developing a package that would help patients more easily identify their medications—to make prescriptions not only easier but safer to take. Evidently, the idea hit a nerve: Adler sold the original concept to Target in April 2004 and worked with industrial designer Klaus Rosburg to develop a final packaging system that the Minneapolis-based retailer rolled out in more than 1,300 stores across the country this May.
Conventional pill bottles a ‘mess’
Drawing from her grandmother’s experience, Adler realized that the state of standard-issue prescription bottles was precarious. A quick review found their dosage information and drug interaction warning labels to be confusing, inconsistent and largely unintelligible. “There were different labels from one pharmacy to the next,” says Adler. “And message hierarchy was a mess.”
Poor color coding added to the confusion with, for example, orange warning stickers blending into amber-colored pill bottles. Even the bottle structure was cause for concern. Adler says the conventional prescription bottle has a cylindrical shape that makes it difficult for consumers to navigate the label. “Patients had to turn the bottle in a circle to fully read all the information.”
Clearly, traditional prescription packaging was ailing. But Adler realized it could be improved.
Front and back
She started with the development of a d-shaped bottle with a curved front that was made broader than conventional pill bottles to offer a wider label surface; she gave the bottle a flat back so that it could hold a detailed information card (something Adler says is often stapled onto a paper bag and discarded by consumers).
Another key feature was the reformatted label, which took an information architecture approach that made it more intuitive to use: the most important information—the patient name, the name of the drug and the dosing information—was featured first, followed by the quantity of medication, expiration date and other important drug information; only then did she feature the pharmacy logo and contact information (Adler says conventional bottles brand their labels too prominently with retailer logos, which takes valuable real estate from critical medication information).
After initially approaching the Food and Drug Administration, Adler presented her design to Target. “I knew the best way to get into the bloodstream was through a national pharmacy,” she says. “They were really receptive, because they could take the risk to be innovative.”
Target brought on Klaus Rosburg of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based SONIC Design, an industrial designer specializing in pharmaceutical and child-resistant packages, and immediately began work in July 2004 to refine the Adler system and bring it to market.
Rosburg say they started with a competitive audit. “We went to every major pharmacy and looked at their bottles and how they applied labels,” he says, explaining that their research indicated that traditional pharmacy labels just weren’t big enough. “Pharmacists had to apply a series of small individual warning stickers to the back of the bottle, and they would run out of space,” he says. “Sometimes they would go with the next bigger vial just to be able to apply the warning labels.”
Turning the bottle on its head
As a result, Rosburg suggested turning the bottle onto its cap and proposed a perfectly flat front, optimizing both sides of the packaging for printed prescription information. The inverted design would also make it possible to apply one continuous label to both sides of the bottle in a single step that would streamline pharmacy operations.
Target green-lighted the concept, but challenged Adler and Rosburg to develop a bottle and label system that would be large enough to clearly display crucial patient information but small enough to ensure proper ergonomics and consumer storage needs.
“We worked closely to develop synergy between the bottle and label,” says Adler.  
The result is a proprietary blow-molded bottle with a footprint that is as big as a standard medication vial; a tapered body overhangs that footprint somewhat. “To provide efficient label area, the bottle is slightly larger than competitive vials,” Rosburg says, “but research showed it was less of an issue for the consumer than expected.”
The size, however, required Adler to work with Target’s technology team on the software that would print the 8.5 by 11-inch labels and the patient information cards, which had to comply with regulations for each state in which the retailer had a presence.
Adler’s color-coding concept, initially proposed for the label, was translated by SONIC into colored silicon rings that sit on the neck of the bottle to help individual family members identify their medications (the initial idea would have required Target to change out its entire fleet of black and white printers for colored ones).
Other key features include a spine on the package, which creates a label area on top of the bottle where the medication name is printed; and transparent sides that allow patients to view the pills inside the bottle, a feature that can alert consumers when it is time for a refill.
This final package, based on the original concept and designs, and refined by Adler, Target and by Rosburg, has become the anchor of ClearRx, Target’s proprietary medication package design and health information and patient communication system.
“She came up with a great idea,” says Rosburg of Adler. “I give her credit that someone in her family had a problem and that she took it in her hands to solve it.”
MOMA approved
Target is pretty tight-lipped on the success of the new bottle, which hit stores in May, but Adler says she has received overwhelming response, including letters from nurses and doctors and the former U.S. surgeon general.
Even New York’s highbrow Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) has put its stamp of approval on the concept by selecting the ClearRx bottle for an upcoming exhibition called SAFE.
“One of the principles advanced by the exhibition is that clear information begets safety,” says Paola Antonelli, curator of architecture and design for the museum.
She says she chose the ClearRx system because she appreciates the designers’ approach, which stems from necessity but addresses the problem in a pragmatic way that doesn’t forget beauty.
“It is a very elegant and good example of design for safety,” she says. BP
The author, Pauline Tingas, is the Senior Editor of BRANDPACKAGING magazine
Where to go for more information...
Graphic design. At Milton Glaser, contact Deborah Adler at 212.889.3161 or www.miltonglaser.com.
Structural design. At SONIC Design, contact Klaus Rosburg at 718.387.7927 or krosburg@sonicny.com.