Pharmaceutical Packaging: A Design Galapagos

There’s a certain part of me that adores utilitarian design: Road markings, oil refineries, factory lines. The Melbourne museum has a small display that shows the history of barbed wire fencing. Enthralling. There’s a guy in New York who does tours into the basements of old buildings to talk about boilers.

And I love pharmaceutical packaging.

Not the stuff on the counter. Or foot balms. Or cosmetics. I’m talking about the good stuff. The stuff out the back.

I had the good fortune to recently find myself in the back of a pharmacy in Spain. Basically, in graphic-design-nerd heaven.

I’m sure you’re aware of the formula. White box. A large headline of black sans serif type. Geometric blocks of colour. Unlike the counter drugs, this is a world that is not designed for consumer seduction. It’s designed so that the pharmacist doesn’t get confused and mix up your Viagra with your Vicodin.

It’s beauty is in it’s strict adherence to function. One striking aspect of this strictness is that a drug’s packaging necessarily becomes a time capsule from the year of its inception. If the function of the package is to not confuse the pharmacist then why would you want to change the typeface, or the colouring?

To see these artefacts of decades of graphic design trends all together on the same shelf is bracing: its the living dead. Like seeing your ancestors all together in the same room, all young, fit, fresh and beaming back at you.

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