Transparency by Design

Art student considers potential risk in the design of prescription medicine bottles and collaborates with Target Corporation to make ClearRX


Transparency by Design

January, 2009
By Kevin Belt

People can grow so accustomed to a product or service that they fail to consider how it might be improved, until a tragic event—or near tragedy—awakens them to potential flaws. Deborah Adler, a design student, found the standard amber prescription drug bottle to be outdated and poorly designed after her grandmother became ill by mistakenly taking her husband’s prescription instead of her own.

Almost completely unregulated by the FDA, the prescription drug bottle’s design had remained virtually unchanged since its inception following World War II, with the only addition being the safety cap in the 1970s. While the individual pharmacy logo tends to be clearly and colorfully displayed, the more critical medical information is often much less conspicuous. Different pharmacies place the patient name and dosage information in different areas and usually print both pieces of information in the same black and white font as the rest of the prescription label, making this information easy to overlook. Important warning labels are unclear—often complicated and plastered over each other or completely blended in with the bottle itself. Finally, the cylindrical bottle shape is counterintuitive, forcing patients to turn the bottle in search of the label. A recent study reports that 60% of patients have taken the wrong medicine, mainly due to the bottle’s design. (Hafferty, 2005)

Target Corporation, however, has taken a step in improving patient safety by acknowledging a moral dilemma and the potential harm that can come from inadvertently taking the wrong medication. By developing intelligently-designed ClearRx prescription bottles, Target chose to pursue a better, more economically and ethically viable solution. The initial bottle design was created by Adler as part of her thesis project at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She decided to propose the design first to Target, given its philosophy regarding well-designed yet inexpensive products. (Associated Press, 2005) (Hafferty, 2005) Seeing the potential for this product, Target bought it, patented it, and brought in Adler as an advisor. “Before that,” said Target’s creative director Minda Gralnek, “we never really thought much about medicine bottles. Obviously, no one else did either.” (Hafferty, 2005)

The industrial design of Target’s ClearRx bottle differs significantly from the standard amber ones. The new, red-colored bottle is ergonomically designed, flipped upside down so it stands on the cap. Equally important, however, is the graphic design of the label. Target’s objective, Adler explains, “was to make three things clear: what the drug is, who it belongs to, and how to take it,” all of which need to be communicated immediately to the patient. (Hafferty, 2005) The patient’s name is printed clearly on the top of the front label, and each person in a multi-member household is given a particular color-coded ring on the neck of the bottle to identify his medication. The drug name is placed prominently on top of the bottle and highlighted in grey below the name on the front, and the dosage directions are printed clearly and located directly below. (Bernard, 2005) (Target Corporation, 2004)

Target’s ClearRx has been positively received by professionals and patients. Don Downing, a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Pharmacy agrees with Adler that the time has arrived for a change. He claims, “This improves [font size and readability issues] dramatically.” Customers also seem to recognize the value of the new design, affirming that it’s much easier to use, read, and identify which prescription belongs to whom. Each of these factors contributes to customer safety. (Associated Press, 2005).

Taking something simple, like a medicine bottle, for granted is a common every-day occurrence. Yet through our heightened awareness of potential dilemmas or adverse reactions sometimes caused by ordinary products such as the medicine bottle, we begin to think and act beyond the status quo. Such attentiveness to unintended outcomes of products or services is an example of effective moral imagination leading to successful innovation.


Associated Press. (26 April 2005) Target turns old pill bottle design on its head – More Health News – (Accessed October 24, 2007) from MSNBC:

Bernard, S. (18 April 2005) “The Perfect Prescription: How the pill bottle was remade – sensibly and beautifully,” New York Magazine.

Hafferty, E. (5 September 2005) | Target Clear RX Bottles | Industrial Design in Pharmaceuticals. (Accessed October 24, 2007) from

Target Corporation. (2004) ClearRX at Target Pharmacy Backgrounder / Target Corp., (Accessed October 24, 2007).

Keywords: Intelligently-designed, ClearRX, customer safety, moral imagination, innovation

Organizations: Target CorporationFDASchool of Visual Arts (New York, NY), University of Washington School of Pharmacy

People: Deborah Adler, Target’s ClearRx Prescription System Creator and Principal Designer; Minda Gralnek, Target’s VP Creative Director; Don Downing, Professor at the University of Washington School of Pharmacy