It began with Deborah Adler's grandma Helen getting sick. She had accidentally taken her husband Herman's dosage of a drug they were both prescribed but in different amounts.
After her grandma got better, Adler, a senior designer for New York-based Milton Glaser Inc., decided those little prescription pill bottles needed a makeover. The type on them was illegible. The bottles were cylindrical so to read any information you had to rotate them. The largest letters were the pharmacy's branding even though that information was infinitely less important than the name of the drug or the dosage. And the labels varied considerably from pharmacy to pharmacy.
Adler began some research on how to improve the design for her graduate project at the School of Visual Arts. She called experts, read books and studies including Label Design, from the Earliest Times to the Present Day by Claude Humbert and Design Literacy by Steven Heller, and searched the Internet. She found that misunderstanding prescription labels was a common problem. (In a recent survey, Target Corp. said 60 percent of Americans have taken medication incorrectly.)
Her thesis project, dubbed Safe Rx, attempted to rectify some of the problems. She created a D-shaped bottle, because a flat surface allowed for easier reading, and a new label organized information into two categories - primary and secondary. Primary info included drug name, dosage, and the proper way to take it. Secondary info included the doctor's name, expiration date, and quantity.
``The labeling is intuitive,'' Adler said in a telephone interview. ``It's very easy to understand.''
There were some problems with her initial designs, which were inspired by an antique apothecary aesthetic. Most importantly, it was unfeasible to injection mold a D-shaped childproof cap.
But many of her first ideas were applied to the final product, including having a front and back to the bottle instead of a cylindrical shape. Also, Adler attached an information card to the bottle rather than stapling it to the prescription bag.
``Nine out of 10 times, you throw [the bag] out anyway,'' she said.
Finally, she made certain that the label was arranged properly with primary and secondary information. ``The most important change I made to the whole system was to the label,'' she said.
After receiving her master's degree in fine arts, she approached Minda Gralnek, a creative director for Target. The company agreed Adler's idea was a worthwhile endeavor, and it was placed under the auspices of project manager, Matt Grisik.
Now ClearRx is being used at Target pharmacies nationwide. Designer Klaus Rosburg of Sonic Design Solutions Inc., based in New York, also worked on the project.
``We worked very closely to ensure the synergy of the label and bottle,'' Adler said.
Rosburg was the one who thought of turning the pill bottle on its head. He drew his inspiration for the project from an unlikely source.
``We looked at peppermint dispensers,'' he said in a July 26 telephone interview, ``but you can't have a children's lock seal if it is shaped that way.'' So Rosburg, a Brooklynite by way of Itzehoe, Germany, placed the cap on the bottom. This also allowed the pharmacies to save on labeling, because the label could now wrap over the top of the bottle.
Though the idea initially came from Adler's thesis, Rosburg and Adler worked together with the idea of a six-color rubber ring system that differentiates the pill bottles for different members of the family. The colored rubber ring warns a family member if he or she is about to accidentally take someone else's medication. It's not unlike family members each having different color toothbrushes.
Rosburg also worked with the plastics packaging injection and blow molder Kerr Group Inc., which recently became a subsidiary of Evansville, Ind.-based Berry Plastics Corp.
Target contacted Kerr in June 2004. Kerr's vice president of business development, Mark Fricke, had a meeting with Target executives, including Vice President of pharmacy and health and beauty Mary Kelly and senior buyer Richard Carron.
Kerr had not worked with Target before. ``This was our first exposure to the market,'' Fricke said.
The pill bottles are extrusion blow molded out of glycol-modified PET at the Kerr facility in Anaheim, Calif., and the caps are injection molded from polypropylene in Ahoskie, N.C.
Fricke said the best part of the project was the opportunity to alter something that is generally taken for granted.
``What is really exciting about this is it's a truly unique innovation in a product where there hasn't been a unique innovation in 30 years,'' he said in a phone interview July 28.
The ClearRx design will be displayed at New York's Museum of Modern Art in October for its exhibit called ``Safe: Design Takes on Risk.''
``I'm most excited about it being out in the world, but it's such an honor to have it displayed at MOMA,'' Adler said.