Part 2 – The Power of the Question (Rx for Deadly Mistakes)

by Matthew E May

You may or may not know this: Art has its foundations in utility.

Great works of earlier centuries were never meant to hang in museums and adorn private collections any more than elegant Egyptian hieroglyphics were meant to simply beautify crypts, wooden totem poles to garnish the forest, or coarse images of the hunter’s kill to decorate the walls of a cave. Rather, they were intended for a very specific purpose or to signify a specific event, judged first and foremost by function and usefulness, and by the ability to meet the requirements of the commissioner. They were made by people, for people.

Deborah Adler knows it, though. She was a design student when her grandma Helen took grandpa Herman’s prescription medication Amoxicillin by mistake in 2001, and it was a clarion call for Deborah to apply her skills and make sure such a thing never happened again. Coming from a family of doctors, the world of medicine was a familiar one. When the unfortunate accident occurred, it became clear to Deborah that she had an opportunity to develop an idea that both hit close to home and satisfied her need to help others.

A single question drove her pursuit of a new design: How can I make medicine bottles more safe and user-friendly?

She immersed herself in the problem, exploiting her own need for an MFA thesis project at New York’s School of Visual Arts. She discovered that people take medication incorrectly 60% of the time. Grandma Helen’s problem was almost universal.

Medication bottles hadn’t changed much in 60 years. Sure, there was child-proofing in the 1970s. But simple observation told a story of deadly complexity: Inconsistent labeling, confusing numbers, poor color combinations, hard-to-read shape, and tiny type, (except for the drugstore’s name and logo).

Her goals? Clarity. Visibility. Intuitiveness. Personalization.

The new design included turning the bottle upside down and flattening it, so the label doesn’t wrap out of view. The prescription information is delivered in a hierarchy of priority, starting with the medication in big bold letters. Back label directions (e.g. “Take with food”) are standardized and icon-based. Information cards tuck neatly into the back of the bottle label. Color-coded rings make it hard to take the wrong medication, because every family member has their own designated color.

Target liked it so much that they bought up her patent rights and fast-tracked the design to all 1000-plus Target pharmacies nationwide, dubbing it Clear Rx.

The Clear Rx design is a true work of art. So much so that the New York Museum of Modern Art put it on display in the autumn of 2005.

Matthew E. May is the author of “IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.” He is constantly searching for creative ideas and innovative solutions that are ‘elegant’ – a unique and elusive combination of unusual simplicity and surprising power.

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