Michael Bierut | Essays

The Great Non-Amber-Colored Hope

ClearRx prescription system, Deborah Adler and Target, 2005

Every design profession needs its iconic success story. Architects have the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Product designers have the Apple iPod.

And now, at last, graphic designers have an icon to call their very own: a little pill bottle, about 4 inches tall.

Despite all the claims that designers make for the importance of what they do, it's hard to find examples of successful designs — especially graphic designs — that truly resonate with the general public. Editors face this problem every time they try to assemble a Special Design Issue for a non-design-specialized magazine. You can't make the case for design by showing a lot of esoteric stuff, things that normal people never see, wouldn't understand, or (worst of all) can't buy. So out come the Bilbaos and the iPods, the VW New Beetles and the Oxo Good Grips, accompanied by the usual suspects, Starck and Koolhaas, Ive and Gehry.

Poor graphic design seldom fits the specifications. Even the American Institute of Graphic Arts has a problem with it. Take a look at "What every business needs," a publication the AIGA has published that, in their words, "explains for your client, whether in-house or external, the role designers and designing can play in problem-solving." In it, the power of design is demonstrated with six examples. Three are products: a yellow Beetle, a slightly out-of-date looking iMac, and an Oxo Good Grips potato peeler. They all look vivid and dramatic, self-evident and even inarguable. Without requiring much explanation, the images alone, instantly familiar all, make a case for design as an important part of everyday life.

The other three are from the world of graphic design. They all look a little vague and mushy. There's the cheerful and messy Amazon.com home page, and the functional but hardly elegant Fed Ex order form: both are iconic because of their ubiquity rather than their questionable formal qualities. The third is the Nike swoosh, an indisputably monumental piece of graphic design that was commissioned from a Portland State art student for $35. The message to clients seems to be that where graphic design is concerned, take your pick: useful but dull, or mysterious and cheap.

Then along came Deborah Adler, the designer of the ClearRx pill bottle.

In the tradition of Maya Lin, the design for the Clear Rx package was a student project, conceived in the innovative MFA design program at New York's School of Visual Arts. A press release from SVA describes the project's genesis:

Adler first had the idea to redesign the standard amber-colored prescription bottle when her grandmother accidentally swallowed pills meant for Deborah's grandfather. Adler quickly came to the conclusion that the prescription bottle was not just unattractive — it was actually dangerous. Motivated by a desire to make people's lives easier and safer, in 2002 she designed a comprehensive system for packaging prescription medicine as her Master's thesis. "I wanted to design the bottle so that when you open up your medicine cabinet, you instantly know which is your drug, what the name of the drug is, and how to take it," says Adler. The results are a redesigned prescription and communication system that, which includes: the redesigned bottle, easy-to-read label, removable information card, color-coded rings and redesigned warning icons.

As someone who has tried for years to interest the general public in graphic design without much success, I can tell you straight out that this story has it all. The subject is a common object with which nearly everyone is familiar, and with which everyone is frustrated to boot. The problem to be solved is not mere ugliness (although an amber-colored prescription bottle is ugly) but literally a matter of life or death. Even the moment of inspiration is appealing: who can't relate to the story of those confused grandparents, and cheer when graphic design comes to the rescue?

And cheer they have. The story of Adler's bottle has been featured in nearly fifty publications, from Business Week, Plastics News and Pharmacy Today, to the Providence Sunday Journal, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Rocky Mountain Telegram and the Honolulu Advertiser. New York Magazine gave the humble package a lavishly illustrated feature story, "The Perfect Prescription," that provided the kind of step-by-step exegesis that magazines usually reserve for more important subjects like apartment renovations. Adler was interviewed on National Public Radio and will speak next month at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. The bottle is featured in the Museum of Modern Art's first major design exhibition in its new galleries, "Safe: Design Takes on Risk." And surely there will be another wave of publicity when "From Master's Thesis to Medicine Cabinet," an exhibition at SVA's Westside Gallery, opens later this week.

Much of this media frenzy has been due in large part to the project's receipt of the ultimate benediction in a market economy: the bottle will be used as the standard pharmacy package at, of all places, Target. The discount retailer is widely regarded as the corporate world's leading design advocate, assuming the halo worn previously by IBM, Apple and Nike. (Surely in the next edition of the AIGA business design guide, the circle-and-dot will replace the swoosh, no doubt further baffling potential clients who wonder why anything that looks so easy is worth that much fuss.) Target, who Adler contacted through an AIGA connection, paired her with industrial designer Klaus Rosburg; Adler gratefully credits him with making the project a reality, along with Target Creative Director Minda Gralnek and a support team of over 100 people.

I must confess I did not know Target even had a pharmacy. It's a bit buried on their homepage, down near the bottom in a box hyping their photo studio and grocery coupons. But evidently they do, and they are obviously staking a lot on the competitive advantage that ClearRx will provide. Once you find the pharmacy on the website, it's all about the the bottle, and not just the design but the story behind it. We meet the designer, and note the use of the singular: Target knows from their experience with Graves, Starck and Mizrahi that this is no time to dwell on the kind of large and complex team which brings any beautiful design to the marketplace. So it's in Adler's own voice that we get the now-familiar genesis story. And we also get some nice new touches, including the news that the grandparents have similar names — Helen and Herman — which further accounts for the inadvertant drug-swapping that started the whole thing. From such details are legends made.

Despite all the legend-making, however, there's no mistaking the bottom line: Target, to their credit, knew a superior design when they saw it, worked hard to bring it to market, and are banking on their conviction that it will get them customers. And if ClearRx is a success, you can be sure that no one will be happier than the graphic design community. Starved for years for persuasive proof that graphic design can make a difference, we finally have an icon to call our own. It looks good and it makes the world a better place. It's perfect. I predict we'll see a lot — a lot — of it in the years to come. I just hope we don't overdose.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design, Technology

Comments [39]

Well it's definitely some good news for graphic design. But not only do potential clients wonder why they pay so much for something that looks "so simple" - most people will wonder why no one ever thought of a similar pill bottle design before Adler thought of it and designed it. Maybe there was a designer before Adler who had indeed thought of and tabled a lengthy report on how to better design a pill/prescription bottle. And just maybe the client told him/her to bugger off.

Good graphic design doesn't just need an excellent designer stuffed with common sense; to be successful, an intelligent client is also a pre-requisite.

I'm glad Adler found the perfect combination!
Naina Redhu

I learned of this project and Deborah Adler via Debbie Millman's Radio Program Design Matters when she interviewed Uncle Milti.

More importantly, I'm happy that Ms. Adler has contributed Design Functionality Worthy of Praise.
She has resolved the problem with the Caps not only the Graphics.

Unlike so many other Designers undeserving of their Recognition and Praise whom have actually contributed nothing.

Ms. Adler has Raised the Bar in Critical Thinking in American Design Problem Solving Activity.

As an Advocate for Women in Design Ms. Adler is a Ray of Sunshine of Hope and Prosperity that Women in Design Stand beside their Male Contemporaries. And have never walked behind them.

And Proud Poppa Milton Glaser Cheers on from the sidelines.

I'm happiest the project was given birth out Milton Glaser's Office.



I think Adler's bottle is defiantly more legible and a step in the right direction. The colorful rings are problematic for me. An easier solution may have been to have the consumers name appear much larger on the label or in a contrasting type choice rather than struggling to change/save/remember your colored ring. If Adler's design became the standard I think I would miss the old, sad, amber-colored bottle in the same way I miss the light brown M&M.

Do we classify ClearRx as graphic design? It seems most of its success has to do with the unusual form of the bottle, which is more about product design... And I suspect this has helped generate press interest. There is no shortage of "Best Bets"-type columns for cool products.

It is a brilliant solution, as far as the graphics are concerned, and the colored band around the neck of the bottle is useful. It's the bottle itself I'm not so sure about: it doesn't lend itself to fishing out a pill with your finger, and larger capsules tend to get stuck in the tapered end.
Dave Parker

SVA has taken a much more three-dimensional aspect to graphic design. So I can see the problem for traditional designers, wondering: does this count?
But my real concern is this: as HIV+ I take a fair amount of pills. I've kept every single pill bottle in hopes of eventually doing something creative with them. But the other bottle is iconic. And so I think works better as part of an art show. But the new ClearRx is drool worthy and important as design.
So I'm torn -- ditch the amber for the new? Or keep the old bottle? (Of course, a fair amount of my pills come in the containers made by the pharmaceutical companies, too.)
Sigh. What's a designer to do?

I have always been suspicious about this design, mostly due to its "upside down" orientation. The convention that the cap is at a bottle's "top" is so strong, I suspect that many users, especially older users, have trouble with it.

Presumably, this has been tested and the results accurately reported?

I think it is a pretty bold statement to claim this as a graphic designer's icon.

Like a lot of great design it has all design disciplines represented.

It is well designed and graphic design has claim, but solely a graphic design icon?
Nathan Philpot

the only graphic design on this bottle design are the icons- designed by Milton Glaser- which, while appropriate and informative, are hardly revolutionary. The meaning is the use, as they say...
felix sockwell

There is way too much frenzy surrounding this bottle. While it certainly photographs well (color coding, more legibility) the problem is that this is a simply a delivery method oriented toward one client (Target.) From what I understand drugstores that distribute the majority of prescriptions are not going for it.

Also it does become awkward in that it adds one more step in the whole process of administering a pill, plus adding the whole color coding thingy. Pick it up, flip it over, fish it out, flip it back over then return it to the shelf. Versus the traditional method of picking it up, fishing out the pill and then returning it back to the shelf.

As stated the ergonomics & legibility of an existing pill bottle were the ones that needed to be addressed here, rather than the basic premise of the pill bottle as a form.

While aesthetically appealing and certainly unique as compared to the old standard this design begs the question of form vs. function and is it really all that successful in that regard?
Patrick Larson

You guys, it's a graphic design solution, and it's not just the icons. It's the typography, it's the visual hierarchy, it's the use of color, it's the location of information, every single aspect of that label was considered. Even parts that aren't a part of the label were considered, like the fold out instructions that can be put in a special binder. The only negligible aspect of the design is the bottle itself.

And no other pharmacies are going for it because Target purchased the patent, not because they don't want/like it.

Two thoughts:

First, Someone should redesign the packaging for the pill box. There won't be as much fanfare, as this isn't a matter of life and death - and its timing, coming after the ClearRx design, will seem obvious.

It baffles me every time I get a box of Claritin or Benadryl when I have to tear open the box, slide out a sheet of foil-backed plastic, tear off one or two pills, remove the outer layer of foil by prying up one of the corners, then finally pushing my medicine through the remaining foil, only to push too hard and end up picking my pill up off the floor.

I might take a stab at this in my spare time.

Secondly, on the importance of our profession: I cringe every time I have to design an email for a large retail client of ours. Emails seem very unimportant, but on certain occassions (holiday time) will generate millions of dollars for our client, and that's pretty important.

Danny, you may want to check out Karel van der Waarde and David Sless. They've been considering the type of issues you mention.
Michael Surtees

Actually redesigning pharmaceutical packaging (both otc & scrip) was a matter of life and death Tylenol as far as the pill pack, these are because of both the safety standpoint as well as an amazing amount of federal regulation in regards to dispensation packaging. But agreed, it is a pain in the backside.

From the patent standpoint of the ClearRX what is it that was actually patented? Was it the system (which is far too complicated for its own good, too many things to remember and kind of reminds me of DHS's color coded threat level ) or is it the specific reverse orientation of the bottle itself?

While the focus on the clearer presentation and information structure is certainly a welcome change, creating more legible warnings and changing the typeface hardly justifies all of this commotion.

Patrick Larson

I'm not sure if it's the pill bottle itself that really matters here. What's exciting is that the bottle was done not simply out of aesthetics, but out of trying to solve an actual problem, which unfortunately doesn't seem to really happen that often.

I think it is funny how the New Beetle and the original iMac are the big examples of the all-powerful glory of design. I've never used a more poorly-designed computer in my life than the original iMac. It looks cool and everything, but my god that thing was a horrible little monster to actually use. The screen was tiny, it sat uncomfortably low on a desk, the disk drives never worked, and it was slow as hell. That's what is annoying about designers -- we always talk about how necessary what we do is, then we give examples like the New Beetle and iMac. If that's the case, we're showing the world that design isn't about clarity, communication, people, making things that matter to someone, informing, crafting a good all-around experience, or any of that. Instead, we're showing the world that design is about applying our funky-fresh style to things.

What is refreshing about the new pill bottle is that Adler attempted to solve some actual observed problems, instead of just putting a dress on the existing pill bottle. It's not good design because it's less ugly than a regular pill bottle. If that was the case, she should have just made it bubbly and lime green -- it seemed to work for all of our other cherished design icons.
Ryan Nee

My dad has Parkinson's and is on an unholy # of meds and my mom dislikes those bottles. Why? Because as Patrick said, it adds another step to the process, and also because when she's sorting his pills, she can't leave the bottles open -- she has to close them and reopen every time she dips in.

Also, big tablets get jammed in the narrow end (the top).

This is a cool design solution but also not a practical one for people who are "power users" of pharmecutical products.

John Baichtal

Groundbreaking information design justifies itself with both elegant form and utilitarian function. It's instantly accessible to people. A writer can articulate why it's good, without having a background in design. A readers can see why it's good. The improvement creates a story that demands to be told.

Another example from history is the London Underground map created by Henry C. Beck in 1933.

While people may respond emotionally or subconsciously to a great logo, poster, ad, or album cover, they may not be able to discuss why it affects them. Great information design gives a non-designer a place to enter the discussion. Great information design becomes an indispensable part of a product or service.

While there may be improvements yet to be made to Adler's design, it's hard to argue the value that this new approach brings to people's lives.
Daniel Green

Adlers label design certainly does bring value from a legibility standpoint, but not a functional one(as in the actual using of the bottle itself, john's post)

But as designers (whether id, communication or informational) our work needs to be viewed not out of context but as a whole. Label, bottle systems et al.

In this instance the overall project fails, not because it's solved a labelling problem (for which it deserves commendation) but simply because it's far more difficult to operate than its predeccessor.

Patrick Larson

I really don't see the difficulty in operating this bottle. Hmm...let's see.. flip over, turn cap, and take pills according to new uber-clear label.

Adler's redesign of medication bottling, taken as a whole, or by parts, is absolutely a giant step for both the medical and design worlds.

Any designer who fails to recognize this needs to pop an eye-opener.
M Kromhout

This is a great solution to the problem of over labeling. A growing problem with medicine packaging is that patients are increasingly ignoring labels. Litigation has caused this problem. All consumer packaging, even bottled water, now come with warnings that caution even minor problems associated with the product. The culture of fear that lawsuits have created causes companies to put labels like, "caution hot" on coffee cups. The common graphic design response is usually: take what people ignore and make it larger and more prominent. However, the problem this creates is that people lose interest in cautions in general. In the UK, cigarettes come with giant block letters that say SMOKING KILLS. This "duh" kind of non-revelation signals the user that the cautions ,though true, are like chiding from an over-nervous parent. What Adler's pill bottle has really signaled is the need for a hierarchy of cautions. Limit the red bullet points to the real cautions such as "taking Vioxx and blood pressure meds together can give you a heart attack", and separating those from the "taking this without water will give you a stomach ache" variety of cautions. I think the same ideas from this pill bottle could be applied to other packaging as well.

Designers are quick to jump at the chance to glorify a heroic effort with in the community because they think it somehow validates the profession. I don't think design needs to be heroic in order to be a brilliant piece of society. I am happy that in this discussion designers are talking about the design of the bottle and not how necessary and over looked design usually is.

Designers are quick to jump at the chance to glorify a heroic effort with in the community because they think it somehow validates the profession. I don't think design needs to be heroic in order to be a brilliant piece of society. I am happy that in this discussion designers are talking about the design of the bottle and not how necessary and over looked design usually is.

Is this string of comments the beginning of an answer to Rick Poynor's question from last month, Where are all the design critics?

One thing that I haven't heard anyone discuss is, in fact, the problems of a color-coded system. While it may be fine for a large portion of the population, what about those who are color blind? The choices for the color bands - yellow, blue, green, and red - while varied, do not necessarily lend themselves to ease of use.

Color blindness does not mean that you can't SEE color. It just means that you can't distinguish between reds and greens. As for the upside down thing. The solution seems to keep the bottles on their side. No? I AM a power user of medication and it's a pain in the current format. Mostly in the pulling off the shelf. Remembering which bottle is which (they seem to change on a monthly basis, sometimes they are in the amber bottles sometimes they are packaged at the factory.) Dealing with the little thing that keeps the pills dry.
For another version of the pill bottle. Check out the Tylenol bottle by fuseproject over at Core77.com. It's a great solution as well.
As for Target, the Pharmacy in the larger stores is near the front and as places like WalMart (a competitor) are heavily into their pharmacy business: this is a way for them to differentiate themselves. I personally don't buy my meds in places like that and prefer a pharmacy for people with long term care issues, but these are not located around the country (U.S.) like Targets.

Wow, it's true that now graphic design is one step closer to solving the world's problems, as expected. Now if we could only design away the necessity for the pills themselves!
human progress landscape

I've always advocated design as a tool to improve society, however a couple of days ago something happened that made me question wheter what I do as a graphic designer is really helping anybody.
Right behind me, a lady was hit by and fell under a van with her bike. I called for an ambulance as some other people got her out from under the truck and we all realized with great relief that she had gotten away with "only" a crushed arm and some scratches.
I then held my arms around her to keep her warm and the broken arm steady until the ambulance came, a simple action that made me feel more needed than I ever have as a professional graphic designer.

Perhaps this bottle is as close as it gets to that feeling.

I think Deborah Adler has come up with a breakthough design that undoubtedly will change the way we interact with prescrption medications. It is important to note that this has not been adopted as the national standard for all prescription bottles, as say the Nutritional Guidelines panel has been adopted for all packaged foods. On the one hand, I personally believe there should be a standard, as to not cause any confusion or potentially serious mixups if a patient decides to switch their pharmacies from time to time. On another note, as designers we are always re-inventing and redefining even the most groundbreaking products and graphic designs, therefore we must not treat this as the be all, end all presciption bottle for decades to come. Just as the iMac was an innovation in its field, it has also been entirely redesigned twice since it's inception (only 7 years ago), and continues to evolve for the better and impress those who thought the original was great. Let this design be the first foot forward and let us not ever let our minds idle and ignore the opportunities to improve a completely innovative design.

I think the ClearRx prescription system is a great and innovative idea as far as a graphic, product design go, but the true test will come when we see how functional the design is when it issued to the masses. How will the pill popping community respond to this change in their every day life? For some, and especially older people may find it hard to adjust to an new way of taking their prescriptions, and if someone isn't there to explain the system to them it might just make things worse.

And as far as a pill bottle being an icon for graphic designers, that something I hope does not happen, no offense to Adler, that's just my biased opinion.
Zachary M

I think Adler's invention is a good step forward towards a better looking place. There are a few elements that could be improved but the only way to improve is to test this new bottle. It is great that Target is starting it out, congrats for getting this far! Only time will tell if the masses will like this new system, the masses like what they are used to seeing, so it's a tough road. But if I ever need a prescription I will use it, or try to...not sure if I have ever ordered a Px from Target, hope one day i can get it at my local pharmacy.

Also, I agree that we should NOT declare this product the "icon for graphic designers", let's not get a little to ahead of ourselves here.
Paola Echavarria

Perhaps the greatest challenge to promoting the import of graphic design is in the irony that, graphic design when it 'follows function', becomes virtually invisible, and when pursuing its own ideals, becomes detached self-referential and alien. The demystification and sausage-factory-isation of dtp certainly doesn't help either. It's a hell of a lot easier for anyone but a graphic designer to get excited over sleek concept drawings and their tactile realisations than, say, a preliminary lay-out for- and a final printed page.

PS. Unless you want to get excited about advertising, but with consumerism looking the way it does, that's hard.
André S C

Adler has designed a package that has excited many people within many industries. This translates to 'success.' Very good. Congratulations. Anytime your design can instigate such a discussion you have achieved a great thing.
I have not read all of the posts, but to share my thoughts on the bottle: why is red better than amber? related to the color blind comment by aj: yes, and alzheimers sucks too.
I agree with Robs 'idle hands' comment.
Unfortunately I am not so excited about the product. I heard a story on NPR a while back about the talking pill bottle http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4779825 - now I thought that was great! These two bottle designs should get together and make babies.

We will only be able to evaluate the success of the bottle once it has been on the market for a few years.

No research can guess all the problems that may arise. Time will tell.

This is why good design should never be automatically linked to successful design initially (and vice versa).

It strikes me that this great design solution was only conceived because Adler had the time during her Masters to identify the need and work towards it.

One of our most valuable skills as designers is being able to identify needs / problems and as a student, I don't understand why the world works as it does with most design work being commissioned by people with little or no design understanding.

A lot more effective work would be produced if we took the initiative and looked more at where the problems lie, instead of waiting for briefs.
Hannah Prittie

I'm really happy to see the talent of new and emerging designers! It really is a better pill bottle. I'd rather switch than fight with the old pill bottles. Cudos.
Paul Wighman

I ended up here thanks to a friends link. I am a long term med user, and hadn't heard about Target's new bottle until my husband brought them home the other night.

I LOVE them. I've got several now, and as a sometime graphic designer, a once pharmacy technician and long time patient I was overjoyed with these new bottles.

The bands are brillant for most families, and I love the clear labeling. I'm happy with the upside down design, and while some of my pills might get caught in the narrow end, a quick shake sets them loose - much like the shakes I used to give the amber bottles to get a pill out of them. My first thought upon seeing these was, "Think of all the geriatric patients who won't mix up their meds with their spouses."

I couldn't be happier with this, and I think as a design - it's brillant.

Isn't this a recognition of overall Product Design, not merely of graphic design?

Here's a link to a well-designed telling of the ClearRx story.
Michael Bierut

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