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The Design Consumer: The pesky package
Jeff MacKenzie

“Something there is that doesn’t love a...package,” to paraphrase the immortal bard (Frost) who, though referring to a wall, might well have been expounding on today’s packaging. 

I confess to occasionally succumbing to the modern-day affliction of “packet rage,” a term that accurately defines the frustration at trying to get at a product ensconced in all but impervious packaging. 

Sometimes the bottle is the issue: a sturdy container with a childproof cap to be pressed down and twisted. (Note to parents: all children past five have long since learned this skill). Often a blob of clear plastic encircles the top and theoretically can be pulled up with a fingernail. In practice, the tip of a knife is required to pry it off.

Then the cap lifts to expose a paper seal across the opening. If we’re lucky, this has a protruding tab to pull it off. This rarely happens. The tab is minuscule, impossible to grip and often peels just the top laminate of paper, leaving a bottom layer in place and requiring stabbing a hole wide enough to remove the contents.

All the above actions generally require two hands, which must be entirely frustrating to one-armed people or those with limited gripping strength due to arthritis.

And then there’s blister packs, those items hanging on a retail peg that rest on a bed of cardboard and are enclosed in a bubble of plastic-such items as toothbrushes, small tools, and inkpens.

The plastic is all but indestructible, resisting efforts to squeeze or tear it away from the board. Often its configuration is so rounded it’s even hard to pierce with a sharp knife, and sawing with a knife is a waste of energy on this tough material.

So one is obliged to flip the item and try access via its cardboard base. Sometimes there’s a perforated panel that (theoretically) can be pressed in and then pulled loose, exposing the contents. 

In practice, the panel gives way grudgingly, and twisting or pulling it results in peeling off only the top layer of cardboard. Usually, I wind up stabbing either cardboard or plastic, hoping to avoid damaging the contents as I vent my rage against this insane container system. 

Another example is the cap on a favorite bottle of olive oil. First, there’s the plastic blob-in this case a kind of metallic coated stuff that extends an inch or so down the neck and has a tab that (theoretically again) effects its removal. It comes off in slivers and must be pried with a knifepoint. Once it pops loose I can unscrew the cap to access the oil.

But it doesn’t end there. Oh no! ... Removing the cap reveals a plastic plug seated down in the bottle. Attached to this is a tiny loop - about child-finger-sized - that must be pulled to pop loose a section of this last seal and allow the liquid to flow. Usually, this loop tears away without creating an opening. I wind up stabbing a cross pattern in the plug with an unintended benefit - a smaller opening than the loop would have made-and my consumption of the oil is thus much less and it lasts longer. 

Items packed in plastic pouches - jelly beans, beef jerky, travel-sized shampoo, etc. - used to be accessible by pinching one side and pulling on a flap opposite, which opened the top for access. Or a saw-toothed top seam conveniently ripped open if you pulled in scissors fashion at right angles to the teeth. 

No longer, folks. The plastic is too tough and resists all bare-handed efforts. Scissors or a knife are mandatory but not always available if walking or riding in a car. 

Purveyors of all the above would probably cite attempts to defeat shoplifting or unpaid random sampling, which sounds reasonable until you consider such items may be tucked into pockets in their containers and opened elsewhere. Denying immediate access in the marketplace is thus a fool’s errand.

Some years ago an aspirin bottle was contaminated with poison, which caused mass panic among retailers intent on avoiding lawsuits. Hence the blobs of plastic over the caps on all bottles today, except shampoos, detergents and other personal care products which presumably it’s believed, the consumer likes to sniff before buying.

After much thought, I’ve reached a startling conclusion: the companies that make these products want us to buy them. They just don’t want us to actually use them, as somewhere, somehow, for any spurious reason, someone might sue them. If I’m ever on a jury deciding a lawsuit by someone who has been by someone who has been injured in a fit of packet rage, I know how I’m voting.

The DESIGN CONSUMER, by Jeff MacKenzie (DNCNINPUT@GMAIL.COM), examines issues of design-be they objects, (buildings, appliances, landscapes, toys, furniture) or systems ( traffic flow, schools,  banking and credit, public health) - all are designed and all are products the citizen consumer uses. In a given product, the DC will ask: What was it designed to do? Does it work? Is it pretty-that is-is it an elegant solution or your basic economy model? An architect by profession, the DC appreciates good design wherever he finds it.