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 Three are products: a yellow Beetle, a slightly out-of-date looking iMac, and an Oxo Good Grips potato peeler.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.