Picture this: your uncle, who can’t see well, is sitting at the kitchen table, while your aunt is busy cleaning the sink with scouring powder. As Aunt is talking to Uncle, she happens to set the shaker can of cleaning powder on the table. It’s lunchtime and she dishes up a plate of pasta for Uncle and turns back to the stove. Uncle sees the green can of cleanser, but without his glasses, he assumes it’s the green can of Parmesan cheese. He grabs it, shakes it onto his pasta, and starts eating. The taste is off and not the best, but he doesn’t want to hurt Aunt’s feelings, so he says nothing. It’s not until he’s done that he asks if she changed something with her recipe, because it tasted so odd. It takes a few minutes, but Aunt realizes he’s topped his pasta with cleanser – and eaten it all.
This sounds like an isolated incident, a one-in-a-million chance. But it happens. The elderly can have issues with vision, children aren’t able to read, and those who don’t speak the local language can’t always decipher details on a package. According to national data for 2017, US poison control centers were called for over 2 million human poison exposures.* That’s one poison exposure reported every 14.9 seconds. For pediatric exposures (children younger than 6 years), the most common substances involved in poison exposures are cosmetics/personal care products, followed by cleaning substances. Cleaning substances are also in the top five substances for adults (20 years and older.) We did a store audit and found some similarities across categories, as shown in the photos below.
On the left: scouring powder cleanser compared to grated parmesan cheese.
On the right: liquid cleanser compared to apple juice.
If you’re designing packaging, part of the process is evaluating the category, examining what competitor packages look like in order to avoid copying and to follow any relevant common category “rules.” But have you ever considered how similar your design might be to something in a completely different category? Or – if it’s a food product – if it looks like medication or a chemical or something else that should not be ingested? Is this even something that should be considered? Should there be some kind of industry-wide standards that we all adopt to help signal edible vs hazardous items?
On the left: bleach tablets compared to antacid tablets.
On the right: glass cleaner compared to non-stick baking spray.
Something else to consider: do chemical products do a good enough job of calling out what to do in case of accidental ingestion? Some packages may already carry that information, but is it noticeable enough? When you’re in this situation, panicked eyes aren’t going to see small type at the bottom of a back label.
Multi-purpose cleaner compared to flavored juice drink.
This issue goes beyond the design community; both food and chemical brands have a stake in it, not to mention regulators and governments. We don’t have any easy answers. The answers – if there are answers to be had – aren’t likely to be simple, clear, or easy to find. But given the severe risks of any mistakes made by consumers, it’s a question we believe should be raised. Is your brand a risk?
*All poison control center data from National Capital Poison Center, 2017. https://www.poison.org/poison-statistics-national
Spark is not responsible for any of the design or production work on the brands shown. Brands shown are for demonstration purposes only and are not linked to any actual data cited herein. All trademarks are the property of their respective owners. Spark does not own trademarks or licenses to any of the products displayed.