It's open war with the pack

Marketing: British executives have been getting an insight into the woes inflicted by their packaging on the aged, disabled - and everyone else
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The Independent Online
SOME of Britain's leading marketing directors were last week dressed in rubber gloves, goggles, armbands and ankle weights. They had not formed an off-shoot of the Freemasons but were part of a programme aiming to make those responsible for packaging understand how difficult it is for the elderly or disabled to use their products.

Called "Through Other Eyes" the programme is run by Age Concern Training. Roger Saunders, its co-ordinator, says: "It is open to anybody and everybody who may be involved in selling products or services to the elderly or the sensorily impaired." But Mr Saunders is not just talking about Zimmer frames, he is talking about all the products on our supermarket shelves.

He asks: "How often have you struggled to open a carton of orange juice or a jar of jam, or unwrap the cellophane from a compact disc? It is often frustrating and ends in broken nails and lost tempers. If you have arthritis or Parkinson's disease, for example, then it is doubly difficult."

One person who has taken part in the Through Other Eyes workshop is Ulf Brasen, the managing director of Tetra Pak, a packaging company , who says: "Wearing view-restricting goggles, armbands and ankle weights made simple tasks such as reading the cooking instructions on a food package significantly harder than I would ever have considered possible."

While those responsible for packaging are just beginning to understand the problems that the elderly face, the Royal College of Art is taking a practical approach and is training its students to develop solutions. The department of Design is working in conjunction with the University of the Third Age. It is talking to a group of older people who, it is hoped, can help set the agenda for design and persuade a new generation of designers to consider their needs.

Alison Pearce, a research fellow, says: "The University of the Third Age are acting as guinea- pigs so that students, through a process of trial and error, can find out what older people want." But she says that the department is aiming for what she calls inclusive, not exclusive, design. "It's not just the elderly who have problems opening jars, for example.

"If we can design packaging that is easy for the elderly or the visually impaired then that will be good for everyone."

Mr Saunders agrees: "In some respects problems such as legibility and pourability affect us all."

Workshop sessions with the University of the Third Age have helped the RCA to identify examples of both good and bad packaging. Ms Pearce says: "Probably one of the best examples of good design is the new flip-top toothpaste tubes. You cannot drop the cap or lose it, and it prevents tempers fraying - your children or your other half cannot leave the cap lying around on the sink any more."

However, examples of bad design are more prevalent. Mr Saunders cites yoghurt tubs where the silver foil does not peel off cleanly but leaves slivers behind. Ms Pearce says the packaging that received the biggest number of complaints in workshops was the Tetra Pak milk carton, where you had to prise it apart and pull out the wings to form a spout. She said: "It is really difficult to do, but imagine if you can't even see what you are doing. However, Tetra Pak has now introduced ring-pull tops, which are much better."

Mr Brasen said: "We have been looking at this issue for a number of years and are introducing easy-open packaging designs. If disabled people can safely and readily open, pour and reclose our new cartons, then so can the rest of the community."

But Tetra Pak, and other companies looking into better packaging, are not doing it for purely altruistic reasons. It makes sound economic sense. Mr Saunders says: "It is in the interest of any organisation that is aiming to provide a quality service to take more account of this group's needs."

By 2026, half the British population will be over 55, and that, says Age Concern, is an enormous potential market.