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Pensioner power - Packaging problems for elderly consumers

Packaging Professional magazine
1 Sep 2007
Elderly person opening packaging

This is not a fringe issue concerning a marginal, minority group – older people are the fastest growing consumer set and the implications for the packaging industry are incredibly important. Design issues such as difficult to access packaging, hard to read information and branding that overpowers, turn away potential buyers who, once lost, are much more difficult to regain.

The numbers are considerable for any industry. Half the adults in the pre-enlargement EU will be aged over 50 by 2020 and one-third in the US will be over 55. Amid sweeping demographic change, companies can no longer ignore older spenders, many of whom hold more financial assets than younger people to whom marketing is directed.

Packaging designers who address the older age group can reap the financial benefits. But designing for the old does not mean discarding the young. A twenty-something will not be heard complaining that a container is too easy to open or that the instructions are too easy to understand. Age-friendly design benefits everyone.

Aspirational aspects

Older people experience multiple minor impairments in eyesight, hearing, dexterity, mobility and memory, all of which have significant implications for packaging design, which might currently be mismatched to their ability. However, design for seniors, while focusing on this functional decline, rarely takes into account some of the more inspirational desires that this group has – aspiration does not fade with age.

Understanding older consumers is important. At the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London, UK, designers are urged to empathise with end users throughout the design process. This is especially important when a young designer attempts to work with a user who might be more than 40 years’ their senior and needs to understand lifestyle and aspirational factors that are all too often overlooked.

The Research Associates Programme run by the Centre takes new RCA design graduates and partners them with an industry organisation to work on research projects specific to that partner’s interests. Between 1999 and 2007, the Centre has undertaken projects with over 65 organisations from the corporate and voluntary sectors, including many household names. Much of the work has looked at packaging design for older people.

A study in 2000 conducted by Frank Philippin for the Packaging Solutions Advice Group looked at improving on-pack information for the more mature supermarket shopper. Currently, branding is given prominence to the detriment of mandatory information such as ingredients or dosage.

Philippin assessed everyday food packaging with older user groups and created a series of guidelines complete with exemplar designs for a milk carton and paracetamol packaging. The results showed that older people wanted a more balanced approach – branding was important in reassuring them that they had bought a good product, but key information needed to be more obvious and accessible.

A project conducted in 2002 by Edward Goodwin and Richard Hartshorn of the Goodwin Hartshorn industrial design consultancy, London, UK, with Waitrose explored the ‘openability’ of food packaging. It was found that over 2.7 million people aged over 55 in the UK have stopped buying products because they found them difficult to open. Working with a group of 65-75-year-olds revealed problems with current wrapping – one user struggled with ‘easy peel’ packaging for 10 minutes before giving up. New designs that give better visual and cognitive clues for opening were developed for five of the most problematic container types – bacon packs, fresh soup pots, ring-pull tins, jam jars and sardine tins.

Understanding how to open and use packaging can also mean the difference between life and death. Older patients take three times the number of pharmaceuticals as the general populus and over half use their medication incorrectly. This accounts for 40% of all hospital admissions and contributes to 125,000 deaths per year. Two projects looked at this issue.

The first, carried out with GlaxoSmithKline in 2003-4 by Richard Mawle and Chris McGinley, examined how packaging can actively encourage people to take medicine correctly. The cardboard box need not be a static, throwaway container, but an integral part of the patient’s life. Three different designs provided solutions for the three primary problems. The Access pack has a built-in receptacle that allows arthritic hands to ‘pop’ a blister pack pill, the Remind pack uses a variety of strategies such as stickers that can be placed on the fridge or TV schedule to remind people to take their medicine, and the Moving pack includes a branded mini-pack so that patients can carry their daily dose with them discreetly.

The second project, conducted by Thea Swayne in 2005 with the National Patient Safety Agency of the NHS, looked at publishing guidelines for designers involved in creating pharmaceutical packaging. This identified problems with the colour, type size/style and hierarchies of information, all of which can lead to confusion and error. The book promotes best practice by setting out the safety challenges that need to be addressed and a comprehensive list of ‘dos and don’ts’. It is publicly available from the National Patient Safety Agency and the Helen Hamlyn Centre.

Consider the consumer

The high street of tomorrow will look very different with the rise of the silver shopper and the older consumer has wielded so much power or importance. These projects describe the positive effects that design can have when users are consulted in the process, but they are in no way comprehensive or prescriptive. Individual companies have to find a way to be age-inclusive. Design that is inspired by user need and aspiration can be a powerful tool.

Packaging surrounds us. It holds our groceries, medication, electronics and products. In many ways it is a primary interface in our lives and can represent the first tangible contact we have with a brand or company. Packaging can therefore inform the future relationship we have with a brand and the object contained within. Understanding this, and consumer needs can help build stronger, more meaningful relationships – and this is true of all customers.


Further information:

Rama Gheerawo, Research Fellow and Research Associates Programme Leader, Helen Hamlyn Centre, Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London, SW7 2EU, UK. Email: