Making a packet: What would make you take drugs?

Why the human spirit must be reflected by pharmaceutical drug packaging

There is a suggestion of communism in the way prescription drugs are packaged. Apart from the odd conservative flourish, like a coloured line, our life-saving pharmaceuticals arrive in steadfastly plain and, invariably, white boxes.

Whether it’s Erythrocin, Viagra, Tenormin or Pioglitazone, you will always get roughly the same container – the blandness only punctuated by the product’s name and a smattering of Braille. In a way, it is a corner of our lives that will forever remain ‘East Germany’, where eggs and shoes and Beatles’ albums were packaged in much the same way.

This stripped back style even became the focus of a Damien Hirst series of artworks. These were created by exponentially increasing the dimensions of the package facade, replacing the product names with items of food such as ‘Chicken’ and exhibiting the results on a gallery wall.

Perhaps this was a clever study of how pharma products have become so omnipresent in our lives that we barely notice them, or that drugs are now as readily consumable as everyday groceries. Alas, I think this was simply an example of Hirst’s own addiction to selling arbitrary art for obscene sums of money  – somewhat ironically in this case, given the criticism aimed at pharma.

Curiously, the design situation in terms of prescription therapies is in stark contrast to ‘off the shelf’ medication, which appears to have licence to use all manner of glowing organs and pain-expunging go-faster stripes on which friendly headache-crusading capsules glide.

One might suggest that the more useless the product, the broader the brush strokes on the associated container. I defy anyone to have experienced relief from a cough medicine, and yet these are among the most flamboyant vessels on the high street – according to the label your windpipe will be draped in a phlegm-consuming ultraviolet blanket and your hack will soon be history. Hogwash – quite literally.

I do think, however, that pharma companies have – through a rather complex set of moral and regulatory reasons – resisted the opportunity to make their products excite, interact or even talk to consumers. I do, however, understand why classic simplicity has been the chosen exterior for so long – in the UK there has been a reticence when it comes to celebrating drugs, as accusations of illicit glorifying hang over pharma like a guillotine. Consequently, industry has had to retreat into an extreme Britishness where cutting edge, disease-curing science is condemned to a white box for eternity.

Between the Lines

In spite of pharma’s cautiousness, the government’s stance on how pharma should be presented, could be navigated.

I’m not expecting pharmacists to fire antibiotics out of a cannon, or your dose to be announced by the voice of Tom Hanks, but surely, the appearance of boxes could at least engender hope or excitement or even human spirit.

All the scientific wizardry and creative zeal that goes into the development of a drug grinds to a halt at the packaging treadmill. This habit is unique to our industry – theoretically nothing needs to have a glorious exterior. Cars and buildings could all finish up as white boxes  – but the architects of those products want their invention to uplift consumers. So why are the same principles not applied to pharmaceuticals?

The government document which provides guidance on the packaging of medicines is called Best Practice Guidance on the Labelling and Packaging of Medicines. How plain a box should be is not as dominating as you might think. It appears in item 4.3, thus: ‘Consideration should be given to the line-spacing and use of white space to enhance the legibility’.

The point made in 4.5, however, hints at the reason for pharma’s reticence: ‘The labelling of packs intended for supply against a prescription should include space for the placement of the dispensing label. It is recommended that this should be a blank white space.’

‘Recommended’ – that doesn’t constitute a direct order. You don’t cure cancer because you listen to every recommendation.

The point I am keenest to digest, however, is the tuna mayo, the BLT, the – if you will – cheese and pickle between 4.3 and 4.5. Yes, I’m talking about 4.4 – the optimistic filling between two slices of white. It states: ‘Innovative pack design that may incorporate the judicious use of colour is to be encouraged to ensure accurate identification of the medicine.’

Woah! If that’s not a blatant invitation for pharma marketers to somersault into a loop hole, I don’t know what is. It continues: ‘The primary aim of innovative design of packaging is to aid in the identification and selection of the medicine.’

I would venture to suggest that almost all drug packages are entirely indistinguishable, and that the opportunities clearly stipulated in 4.4 have been ignored due to the ‘insurmountable’ obstacles posed by 4.3 and 4.5.

We’re talking about multi-national companies, surely with a little reinterpretation, some origami and the drive to optimise patient experience, drug companies can waltz confidently into 4.4’s unchartered pastures.

I am convinced that drug boxes featuring scenes from Star Wars would considerably enhance the mission of picking up a prescription. And, if you don’t think George Lucas would be up for that – think again. The whole Jedi ethos is about combining technology with the possibilities of the mind. It could even yield an interactive online  game featuring our favourite characters attacking disease.

How about using album covers to decorate boxes or linking them to a sporting event. Perhaps every time a patient punctures a blister pack it could activate ‘crowds cheering.’ The possibilities are endless.

If I was ill and I went to pick up a box saying ‘may the force be with you’, would I feel motivated – hell yeah!

Tackling illness doesn’t have to be about ‘get drug, take drug, get better’ – it has to involve the human spirit and, if that results in a 1% increase in efficacy, it has to be worth it.

It’s time to start thinking outside the white box. 

Illustration by Alex Buccheri