!!!Things That REALLY Piss Me Off
(no, not “rappers”… “wrappers”)  
Let me start off by asking a very simple question that you may want to take a moment or two to think about before answering. The question simply put is this. When was the last time you needed to take a strong (very strong!) sedative after trying to open a package or box containing some product you had just purchased? Go on…take a few moments to think about it, but I’m willing to bet it didn’t take all that long to remember the package and the frustration you experienced while trying to free the contents. Right? When it comes to packaging, you shouldn’t need an instructional manual just to get the damn thing open. Opening a package should just be basic, instinctive “slash and tear” with your bare hands and maybe your teeth or maybe even a small knife or scissors once in a while. Maybe that’s how it should be, but every day of the year, all over the world, tens of millions of people are working themselves into a rage while trying to open a variety of packages many of which have so called “easy open” instructions that almost always seem not to work as they were intended. Simply put, you shouldn’t need to retain the services of a professional safe cracker just to open package! A sure sign of trouble is package labeling that includes subtle instructions such as, “pull tab”, “open here”, “cut here”, “separate to open”, “do not use a sharp instrument to open” (Do they want you to use a toothbrush?), “cut along dotted line” and, my all-time favorite, “Place explosive charge here!”

You can trace a lot of the paranoia about packaging, and especially so called “safe” packaging, back to the Tylenol deaths in Chicago in 1982 when some nut seeking a ransom had the bright idea to spike with poison a bunch of Tylenol bottles in a drug store which ended up killing several people. The reaction of the federal government and the drug companies to this horrific crime, which was about as random an act of killing as one could possibly imagine, was to embark on a program to create what came to be known as “tamper proof” packaging, a technology which evolved over several decades until it has finally reached the point where honest people who bought a product for their own personal use can’t open it without the assistance of tools….and no, that’s not at all an exaggeration. Your bare hands are simply no match for much of today’s packaging. 

Let’s look at a few examples to illustrate my point. At one time or another most of us have purchased a pack of Lance or Keebler cheese or peanut butter crackers. You know the ones I mean…those square cracker sandwiches that come six to a package with three rows of two cracker sandwiches each. (Personally, I happen to be partial to the peanut butter ones that have bright orange crackers.) But while I like the taste of these salty treats, what I loved least was the (recently discontinued) little notation in very small blue letters which instructed you to pull a small tab which was virtually invisible to the naked eye and, I suspect, even invisible to an electronic microscope because I question whether a real tab was ever there in the first place. The so called “tab” was so useless that they finally discontinued it at some point in the last few years. At the same time they must have changed the glue or sealant they were using because previously I was required to use the fingers on both hands as well as my teeth to gain access to the little square, tasty treats entombed within. Since the change I am now able to open them using just my fingers (no teeth!). My guess is that they finally figured out they were losing a huge amount of business from seniors who had no teeth and who surely could not have opened those packages. Deep down inside I truly believe that there really never was any special opening tab, and that they just added the printed notation to give customers like me false hope.

Another popular packaging concept which is particularly widespread with snack foods such as potato chips and pretzels is to overinflate the bag in the sealing process and use that over-inflation to help protect the chips against accidental crushing. (And then there’s also the added benefit that the package will float!) The excess air provides protection for the contents, and it’s pretty much like trying to crush a grape inside of a beach ball. Whoever thought of it was a genius and probably should have been awarded a Nobel Prize. (Is there a Nobel Prize category for creative packaging?) Anyway, at about the same time snack food producers also started to use a new method of sealing their packages that involved a heat sealing process in which the two sides of the package are fused together in such a way that the molecules (and even the atoms!) of both sides are merged together in an eternal and unbreakable bond. You’d have a much easier time getting Mike Huckabee to separate church and state than you would separating the two sealed sides of these types of packages!)

Remember when you used to be able to grab one side of the top of a package of potato chips in each hand and then pull outward until they separated? If you tried that with a lot of today’s snack foods, you’d probably separate your fingers from your hands or get a hand hernia, neither of which are desirable outcomes. Way too many snack food packages now days are virtually impossible to open without the assistance of tools. In fact, there is little doubt that if you were stranded on a dessert island with fifty eight cartons of many of today’s popular snack foods, but with no tools, you would almost certainly either starve to death or die of exhaustion from trying to access the contents of those packages.  

There’s also another subset of user “convenient” packaging design which requires special mention and recognition. What I’m talking about are those so called “resealable” bags which have a zip lock type of seal that supposedly enables you to reseal an open bag so that the freshness of the contents are maintained. What a great concept, but unfortunately it’s still only a concept on many products. These resealable bags are usually accompanied by our old friend the dotted line along with an instruction that directs you to either “rip” or “tear” the package along the dotted line or “cut” with a scissors” (yep, a tool!). Sounds good….right? But most often when you try to “rip” or “tear” by hand as directed, the zip lock tab is damaged in the process and rendered useless. But then again, even when you use a scissors to cut along the dotted line it’s not at all uncommon to find that the top edges of both sides of the package are heat sealed right up to and including part or all of the zip lock mechanism thereby rendering the zip lock about as useful as a toilet on a goose farm. 

Another one of my packaging favorites is the packaging typically used for counter top appliances and other assorted electronics. It’s absolutely amazing how it has been thought out and designed in such a precise manner that there is virtually no room left in the box for so much as one additional atom. Every nook and cranny seems to be filled with something which is held in place most often by simple friction. Every individual piece is wrapped with clear plastic and entombed in formfitting Styrofoam. All of this is then placed into a very snugly fitting cardboard box with color photos on the outside depicting the product as well as a list of all of its features in no less than two languages. That’s all good and well, but it is virtually impossible to fit everything back into the box when you find that you either bought the wrong item or the one you bought doesn’t work and you want to return it. How many times have you returned an item to a store while holding a plastic grocery store bag containing all the parts you weren’t able to fit back into the original carton?

And while I’m thinking about it, let me digress for a moment to talk about the directions which were almost certainly included in your package. Those instructions were most likely printed in as many as eight different languages, and there is also a good chance that on the outside of the original carton you were able to more easily pick out the Spanish printing than the English.. (Where are we….Canada? Why two languages? What’s wrong with just English? You don’t see the French including English instructions on their packaging, do you? Oh, wait….I almost forgot. The French don’t make anything!) I should probably also add that because of the number of languages in which the directions had to be printed, you probably needed a magnifying glass, if not an electronic microscope, to read any of it. Notice I said “read”, not “understand”, because the latter is a whole other matter particularly when the manufacturer decides to use the same set of directions for multiple models which have totally different characteristics. Example: 

​“On models 843-JR insert part A into part B using eight G bolts and eight H nuts (on 843-BRX models instead use four J bolts and three K nuts while standing on your left foot reciting the poem “Trees”.) Do not swallow any parts of this package or attempt to insert them anally.” 

(Thank god they warned me because I was seriously thinking about….oh, well….never mind. They’re always concerned with our safety!)

The only thing worse than written directions are the universal assembly instructions which utilize graphic illustrations drawn by unemployed artists from third world countries who hate Americans more than I hate politicians! I’m talking about the assembly instructions like you typically find with Ikea furnishings. These graphic illustrations all too often look like they were drawn by developmentally challenged monkeys, and I often wonder if they weren’t intentionally written to make them impossible to interpret.

Now I’d like to turn your attention to what you might call security packaging or packaging so difficult to open that it can only be done by those with years of specialized training in the use of high explosives. The best example I can offer is a set of four toy cars which we recently purchased for my grandson who, at four years of age, is absolutely car crazy. Without any exaggeration, it took my son in law the better part of twenty minutes of intense effort to open the package and free the cars from their moorings within. I checked first in the dictionary to make sure that my use of the word “mooring” was proper, and this is the definition I was given. noun – a line that holds an object (often a boat) in place. Well, take out the boat part in parenthesis, and that’s exactly what you’ve got…a line that holds an object in place….very guardedly….very tightly….and very tough to remove or even cut! 

The first hassle he had was just getting the box open. The cardboard flaps were liberally glued and stapled multiple times, and getting them opened was a major effort in itself. Once inside the box it didn’t take long to see that a variety of tools would be required. When all was said and done, the tools he had to bring to bear included: a mat knife, scissors, flat head screw driver, Phillips screw driver, a pair of plyers and the ever popular wire cutters. Yes, that’s correct….really! All of these tools were needed to open the box and free four toy cars from their little individual and impenetrable encasements within the box.

I should probably mention after the cardboard flaps were finally opened, our next challenge was to cut through the heavy duty clear plastic shell in which the cars were encased. Each of the cars looked like the proverbial “Bubble Boy’ in its own cocoon of serious rigid plastic protection. We were finally able to cut the plastic with a heavy duty poultry scissors, but it was like cutting through clear sheet metal, and once the cars were free of the plastic, we then saw that each car was further held in place by a vinyl coated steel cable tethered to a block of some sort of hard material. At one point a witness to the event offered the thought that perhaps all of these safeguards may have been a precaution made necessary because the cars could be a choking hazard for young children. Huh? Are you kidding me? Each of the cars were a good four inches long! In fact, the cars were all of such a size that any safety concerns should definitely have been more focused on the possibility of a “hit and run” than choking. An adult hippopotamus would have had trouble getting one of those babies into his mouth let alone down his gullet!  

​So for the rest of the day we all kept asking the same question. “Was all that really necessary to package four lousy toy cars? What was the reasoning and motivation behind the extreme packaging other than to piss of the person charged with opening it? When you figure that one out, please give me a call. I’m in the phone book listed under “R” for “Really Pissed Off”! All of this tells me one very obvious and important thing which is that there’s no way in hell the owners or senior management of companies that use three types of packaging have ever bought their own products because if they did they’d run to the phone and fire all of their packaging designers!

There was a time long ago when the primary purpose of packaging design was to announce to the world what was in the package while also protecting the contents from possible damage during shipping and handling, both understandable and admirable objectives. However, those reasonable design objectives have long since been replaced with security packaging that is designed to prevent tampering and pilferage, itself a very sad indictment of the times. That being said, it seems obvious to me that those who designed this super ultra-secure style of packaging have never tried to open packages that have been wrapped in their designs or they most certainly would have put themselves back to work immediately on a redesign effort that would make the packaging a bit more user friendly. It’s gotten so bad that I often check out the packaging and ease of access before I make the final decision to by a product

In the 1967 hit movie, The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s character, who had just graduated from college, was offered sage career advice in what arguably may have been the best single word of advice ever served up…. “Plastics”! But if The Graduate were being made today I think the line would be changed from “Plastics” to “Packaging”. The future is here, right now on a nearby retail store shelf awaiting your assault.

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