Universal Design: Does it Deliver?
In packaging circles, the term has often been used to describe packaging designed to facilitate ease-of-use for disabled consumers, seniors with reduced hand strength or limited vision, and children with developing motor skills—without interfering with its usability for (and appeal to) the general population.
That, in fact, points up the essential debate that surrounds UD: Is it a theoretical concept more suitable for the classroom and the trade show presentation circuit or is it a practical, achievable goal that all packaging professionals, from designers to machinery makers, should be working toward?
This article won’t resolve the debate, but it is obvious that Universal Design and the growing effect it is having on almost every aspect of packaging is not going away. A key reason: the oldest of the Baby Boomers is turning 60 this year, leaving manufacturers little choice but to consider their changing needs in an attempt to capture some of the trillions of dollars the influential demographic group is estimated to spend.
Laura Bix, assistant professor at Michigan State University’s School of Packaging, defines Universal Design as “the concept of designing not for the healthy, average adult, but for the worst-case scenario.” She adds that proponents of UD believe that the resulting designs benefit the entire population, not just the difficult cases, and by doing so they improve the product.
At the same time, Bix talks about UD as an ideal. “It’s impossible to say that you’re ever going to create something universally useful, because there will always be a more extreme case,” she says. “But as you strive toward universality, you move your package closer to the ideal.”
Bix also speaks in holistic terms about the process. Rather than focus on the label, the closure or any other element, she believes the whole package, from shape and color to functioning components, works symbiotically to make a more universally accessible package.
“We are practical people here,” she adds. “I understand the need for guarding against pilferage and for making packages leak-proof over long shipping distances. But I think in the midst of these concerns about potential immediate monetary losses, the consumer tends to get lost.”
Many designers and an increasing number of brand owners, according to Bix, tend to support this view. And they are doing something about it.
Duracell, for example, recently commissioned Peter Clarke, president and founder of Product Ventures, a packaging and product design and development agency, to redesign its hearing aid battery package. The existing package presented such difficulty for some users that they were reportedly saving their hearing aids for “special occasions” to prolong the charge and avoid struggling with the packaging to change the battery.
Duracell’s project team and Product Venture’s designers began work by simulating the difficulties of the user to better understand the target audience. They donned gloves and “coke bottle glasses” to better understand the physical limitations of Duracell customers who were having difficulty with the existing package.
The solution was the Duracell EasyTab, a design with an easy-to-open resealable package and individual tabs with a grippable surface that transforms them into a tool to place the battery easily into the hearing aid. The package (according to Clarke) “empowered users to change their batteries by themselves rather than asking for help.” He says, “The end result for users was having usable hearing aids; the result for Duracell was increased battery sales.”
The design was specifically aimed at the elderly, but sacrificed no convenience for other users, making the new package handier for consumers of all ages and abilities.
Clarke himself, when first invited to present at MSU’s conference on Universal Design in 2004, had only a basic familiarity with UD principles. Today, he understands the intention to design for use by all, regardless of ability, but he also sees “universality” as transcending its traditional framework.
“Package designs can also be universal in appeal and accessibility across cultures, societies, and the personal traits and behaviors of individuals within those groups. Or a package may be environmentally universal.”
He sees some emerging communication technologies, such as Siemens’ digital labels, which contain interactive printed circuits placed directly on packages, as being supportive of UD goals to overcome communication barriers that inhibit consumer use.
David Schultz, president of Union Street Brand Packaging, says he associates any “universal” approach with the need for intuitive understanding of how a package works, and advocates the use of symbols to support that understanding.
“In this global [marketplace], you don’t have room for directions in 17 languages; you need: a) your package to telegraph how the user reaches the product; or b) a symbol that communicates that information,” he says. While most of the symbols used on consumer electronics are widely recognized, Schultz points out, that is not yet true in packaging.
Dean Lindsay of Dean Lindsay Design faced just such a problem in developing fastener packaging for ITW Buildex, a division of Illinois Tool Works. Retailers such as The Home Depot require such packages to carry three languages, resulting in lots of copy in a little space. In Lindsay’s design, critical information (weight-bearing capacity, for instance) was more efficiently communicated through non-verbal elements such as color-coding.
Union Street’s Schultz also associates UD with what he calls “design balance”. A package works best when its design balances innovation with familiarity. The packages in the laundry detergent segment look alike because packagers understand that consumers know how they work. Innovation draws attention, but if consumers can’t understand how the innovative package works, it won’t succeed.
The observations of each designer do not grow out of an intimate familiarity with or a commitment to UD principles; yet they have certain features in common with UD. They reflect a desire for intuitive packaging, for instance, supported when necessary by clear communication through symbolic language when available, and for package designs that meet the needs of those using them.
Where they differ from each other, and from UD principles, is in their understanding of what constitutes a “user,” and in how they deal with what Laura Bix describes as the “tension” between commercial and consumer needs. Designers who work daily with packagers tend to give commercial needs more weight.
Kornick points out that in the discussions over competing philosophies, from Universal Design to the eco-friendly cradle-to-cradle concept, people overlook the fact that approaches to real projects tend to grow out of who gives the design assignment.
For example, when Kornick’s firm designed the award-winning Motorola Envoy sleeved blister (see sidebar on page 6), Motorola’s main concern was that the package be fillable with minimal training and equipment anywhere in the world. However, the end result was a package that appeared to follow Universal Design principles, and in fact won an award for its accessibility.
“Many of the UD principles still apply: flexibility, for instance. UD focuses on flexibility for the consumer, but this package offers a flexible solution for the packager, and coincidentally for the user.”
“Universal Design is a valuable approach to design,” he concedes. “But it is only one approach—one that focuses exclusively on the consumer. There are many other players in the total packaging universe whose needs should also be considered. I think our concern in discussing it should be: what does it encompass and what does it leave out?””
Paul France, principal engineer at P&G, directs the company’s UD Team, and was a presenter at MSU’s UD Conference in 2004 (and will be again in 2006).
Bayer was less “universal” in its redesign for Aleve pain relief products. In reviewing the packaging for these products, the company saw the need to improve the communication of information by reorganizing how it was presented, changing the typography to make it more readable and adding a prominent statement about the product’s 12-hour relief. But it left the basic carton and how the product was accessed unchanged.
Can a package be both secure against pilferage and accessible? Motorola’s package bridged the gap, but it hadn’t intended to.
The answer doesn’t seem to be quite clear, yet. It does seem clear that a better-designed package—eye-catching, environmentally friendly, easy to display, secure when it needs to be and easy to use after purchase—will sell better. But that observation is not limited to UD-designed packages.
Any disagreement among designers and brand owners about Universal Design may be more about semantics than anything else. Is the reality of what is being done in the name of Universal Design actually following UD principles, designed to benefit less capable consumers, or are varying degrees of market-responsive improvements bringing packaging more in line with increasing public calls for greater accessibility?
On the other hand, whatever the motivation (and it is probably mixed), isn’t what is being done in the name of Universal Design a “good thing”?
The author, Bill Makely, is a freelance writer specializing in packaging and technical subjects. Contact him at 630.960.0821 or at email@example.com.
Interestingly, the innovative sleeved clamshell package developed by Kornick-Lindsay Design became a prize-winner for quite another reason—its accessibility.
The two-piece thermoformed clamshell, made by SCA Consumer Packaging, is held together by a paperboard sleeve that slips over tabs in the shell to form a tamper-proof package that requires no fusion or RF seal. The package fills by simply sliding the sleeve over the shell.
To open, the paperboard sleeve—which also offers billboard space for marketing and other necessary information—must be torn, indicating tampering in a retail environment. But unlike other clamshells, which consumers often struggle to access with everything from scissors to knives, this package can be opened without tools. The clear clamshell also lets consumers see the product.
Though it was not designed specifically to do so, this is a package that successfully overcomes the tension between security and accessibility.