In this time of Coronavirus, you may searching through your medicine cabinet, cycling through the supplements, vitamins, ointments, pills, creams, in search of something that will protect you from this increasingly omnipresent threat. As you do so you may become keenly aware of how bad communication design is for medical products. I don't mind saying that drugstores are home to some of the most arcane packaging design that a product can get away with. Last week, I referred to the bizarre graphic design fairy-tales one sees printed on soap dispensers. Similarly, vitamins, supplements, and herbal health products offer an exhibition in poor communication design, but for different reasons.
This culture of design - perhaps a holdover from a time when people trusted pharmaceutical corporations - is no doubt advantageous for producers when it comes to the many health and nutrition products that lack substantial evidence of efficacy. As seen in the image above, even though there is a surplus of "information," it is so horrifically designed you have to have a doctor or chemist standing there with you in the store to help you decode each individual product (luckily, there is usually a pharmacist but they tend to hang around those other medical products for some reason). For Hilma, a new natural remedy start-up, accessible information and the assurance of efficacy defines their products.
For the founders of Hilma, who are themselves consumers of herbal health products, settling for the ambiguous origins and bordering-on-campy graphics of products like Emergen-C felt like a concession. The medicine cabinet appeared to them a strange refuge for poor design, in a day-to-day experience that was otherwise flush with examples of well-designed products and services. More importantly however, they wanted to see a higher standard of naturally sourced health products, that focused on the growing concerns of consumers regarding product transparency.
Which has led to Hilma's first product offerings: "clinical herbs" that they describe as "natural remedies backed by science". Distinguishing them from other herbal supplement products, which are often not backed by reliable studies. One can spend a long time on Hilma's website, going through the information they provide about their medical advisors, the ingredients they use, and the work they put into assessing their products, they even tell you howthey conduct their studies. While there is always a threshold of understanding for someone like me who doesn't know anything about medicine, they are at least offering the information they have in a clear and accessible way.
Which is more than can be said about a lot of herbal supplements. As Hilma's website asserts, their ingredients are non-GMO, vegan, use only trace amounts of sugar, gluten-free, nut-free, and soy-free. Not only that but they also have a long "no-list," for those ingredients that they will "never" use, but that their competitors use often. Catering their brand and their products to consumers who, with the help of the internet, have become savvy to general nutrition and ethical sourcing.
While this may appeal to those consumers who may just be looking for a stylish, vegan lifestyle product, the communication design standards that Hilma has set for their products may offer a more significant service to consumers. In the United States, access to a human doctor (as opposed to an iphone-doctor, or a fit-bit doctor, or some other tech-based-doctor) you trust is, bizarrely, not a realistic economic option for a great many people and the next best thing is affordable medical products that don't require prescription. Making the need for more readable and accessible medical information a vital component of designing medical products for the modern American consumer.
To be clear, Hilma's products, and no other health product for that matter, can or should replace a doctor you know and trust (again, a human doctor). I don't know if good design could ever change that fact. Yet in the US, where many consumers will inevitably buy a $25 health product if it means dodging a $1000+ medical bill, the products that we do have access to must offer clarity and transparency as the baseline. As has been so clearly demonstrated in the current pandemic, access to reliable and readable information is important to both personal and public health.
The inscrutability of the many medicine bottles and packages we see at the drugstore is more than just poor design it is an illustration of how opaque most major pharmaceutical companies are when it comes to keeping their consumers informed about process and product. Whatever you may think about herbal treatment, Hilma's communication and education as a significant component of the design of their product sets a high bar for modern medical products.