In a Lather Over Hair Product Labelling

I consider product packaging design a mostly fitting demonstration of the “Form Follows Function” principle, central to the design ideology of modernist architecture and industrial design of the 20th century. After all, the form of the package, its shape and size, the materials of which it is made, and any other ergonomically-driven criteria informing its design are a clear manifestation of its function, or what it is meant to accomplish, under what conditions and of how its content is meant to be dispensed and used.

 There is however another important functionality that often seems to elude various product packaging designs. Over-the-counter painkiller medications come to mind. With type often so small and labels so jam-packed, you need to magnifying glass to read important warnings, counter indications and general dosage information. For all sorts of reasons, packaging often fails to properly communicate important information. Often, the physical limitations of the container, as with the example of the pain killer medication above, get in the way of easy communication. Other times however, this failing to communicate clearly is tantamount to contempt for the user, negligence or just shoddy communications practices.

This was my experience recently when I was confronted with the simple task of applying shampoo to my hair while taking a shower. It would seem a basic consideration on the part of package designers that consumers should not be unduly challenged to identify the product contained within any given package. This should hold doubly true when the product in meant to be used in what should be anticipated to be the less than ideal lighting conditions of a typical shower enclosure, with water likely pouring over the user’s head and face and into their eyes.

 I am not fussy about what shampoo brand I use and I don’t use conditioner. Maybe that’s why my hair isn’t silky smooth or has that certain bounce in it. But I digress. My wife takes care of hair product purchases. I use what she places in the shower, and I suspect I am not the exception in this regard. So when she replaces the once familiar brand with new strange new bottles, I have to think twice when I reaching for the shampoo so I don’t grab the cream rinse instead. This means I have to pay attention and read the labels on the bottles.

Nearly Identical bottles. Two different products. Spot the difference

In case you gave up after 10 seconds, here it is, in glorious 10 point type

Walking down the shampoo aisle in a drugstore or grocery store can leave one overwhelmed. With so many brands brands and specialized types of shampoo – everything from volumizing for fine hair to special formula for permed hair, colour-treated hair, dry hair, oily hair, etc. (not to mention conditioners) the pressure for brands to stand out is enormous. Along the way, designers may forget that beyond the purchase decision, buyers will want to use the product once they take it home. So my advice for packaging designers is: try to think beyond the purchase and about the entire user experience before undertaking your next design assignment.