Film Critic

Here’s something I view as a serious design flaw. It involves food packaging, so buckle up. There’s a standard for containing goopy, spreadable foods and it usually takes the form of a short, round, plastic tub with a re-sealable lid. Hummus, salsa, and feta cheese are a few products that come to mind that share this type of packaging.

Under the re-sealable lid is a thin plastic film that’s glued to the outer edge of the tub. This is removed when you bring the item home and are ready to dig in. And here’s where we can separate the package designers into two camps: those that make it easy on us, and those that make it hard (probably while laughing).

Figure 1The bad camp glues the plastic film around the edge, with not nearly enough of an overlap. The overlap is crucial for being able to grab the excess film with your fingers, pulling it off quickly and easily. Removing the film in this scenario involves piercing with a sharp knife, then peeling it back. The pierced film nearly always comes in contact with the food below, resulting in a messy removal. It’ll also split into several pieces, requiring multiple peels.

Figure 2The good camp leaves a little “tab” of excess film at one spot on the tub’s edge. this little tab is big enough to grab with your fingers, easily pulling the entire film off the tub without piercing. No mess.

Often, I end up pathetically reaching for the tab, rotating the tub all the way around until I find nothing. And that’s when I become sad.

Yes, this stuff is important to talk about.

57 Comments

  1. AkaXakA says:

    Yes, this stuff is important to talk about.
    Thanks for adding that :)

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s a fine example of usability in the real world. I think we can learn much from this in our work online.
    By the way, your diagrams always so enjoyable. :-)

  3. Dave Simon says:

    I was just cursing a film on a Country Crock macaroni & cheese the other day. Ended up cutting it with a knife.
    The other crazy thing is that those Country Crock sides are the same size as the Country Crock spread, yet they only have the film, no lid. So they miss the bonus of having a package for storing leftovers…

  4. Ole Hansen says:

    And then there’s the “at least they try” camp. The make the tab, but use weak film and strong glue, so by pulling the tab all you accomplish is tearing it off – instantly transforming the good-style tub to a bad-style tub.

  5. Ben says:

    Or what about the individually wrapped beef jerky. Those designers must all be laughing seeing as there is no easy way to open one…especially if you just ate one and your fingers are all greasy. :(

  6. brian w. says:

    Yes, preach it brotha. This kind of stuff drives me nuts. I despise having to cut the film just to get in. Argh. Good post title, by the way.
    I wrote about Stove Design a while back griping about similar unthinking product designers. Argh, this kind of stuff can get me worked up.

  7. Allan Rojas says:

    How about the aluminium layer on my Pringles?? I hate it…

  8. John C says:

    This is right up there with drinks/bottles that have the little round seal around the neck.
    Those seals are important- they guarantee freshness and an untampered-with product.
    What REALLY weasels my hampsters is when aforementioned seal doesn’t break, but spins with the top…….AAARRRRGGGGGGGHHHHH!!!!!!!!
    I feel your pain.

  9. Oliver Zheng says:

    Argh I hate those! Especially the instant noodle cans. Some actually have that little ear sticking out, but it’s usually very easy to tear it.

  10. I was thinking about that exact same thing this morning, actually. They’ve started doing it on milk bottles too, round here – they have tabs, but they usually either break off when you pull them (a common problem, actually) or the screw on lid is so tight it breaks them off when you unscrew it.

  11. The food ones drive me mad at times but other packaging can be even more annoying. Try buying a pair of scissors that comes in bomb-proof sealed plastic packaging. How are you meant to get them out when the very tool you need is on the inside? Could they make those packages any stronger?

  12. I love the fact that you took the time to make diagrams.

  13. Andy says:

    What concerns me is not that these things exist, it’s that the people that design them clearly aren’t using their own product, or else they would know that its nasty and messy or that the tab just pulls off.
    If they are not using their own products, then we really need to start asking what they know that we don’t.

  14. Roger that! Ha, you’re not the only one who’s written on such a topic…I could name an army of people who have written essays/rants on this “important” topic.
    Those quotes are for emphasis. This stuff is important!

  15. Ugh. I can’t agree more. Not to get off subject, but the plastic sticker things they (who’s “they” anyhow?) put on the spines of CDs and DVDs drive me almost as nuts as a sour cream film removal mess, or stirring natural peanut butter when you first open it.

  16. Justin says:

    How about the seals with the tab on top? I’m not sure how to explain it exactly, other than that when you open the lid, you have a seal that looks like two pie halves. You lift one and pull, which unseals the whole thing by pulling along the seam in the middle… ermm… go buy some Miracle Whip® and you’ll know what I mean.

  17. Chriztian Steinmeier says:

    This is SO important, yes :-)
    I always curse when I have to open those individually wrapped writeable CD-ROM’s…
    It goes something like this: “For crying out loud! We can put a man on the moon but [insert seriously foul language here]…”

  18. Pringles has a nice removalble aluminium cover.

  19. Tony says:

    I don’t think the tab-free version are meant for peeling (obviously). I always assumed you are meant to run a knife around the circumference of the tub, just inside the outer lip. Somewhat the way a can opener cuts into a tin can.

  20. Eric Gmutza says:

    I’ve also often wondered how the remaining film, still glued to the edges of the plastic tub, affects recycling. Does it contaminate the process to have a different type of plastic in the mix? I know our recycling center only handles certain types of plastic. That sticky film that won’t peel away can’t be helping matters.

  21. Shane says:

    I guess you could draw parallels between these types of packaging and web design.
    You’ve got the knife-requiring non-semantic, font-tagged ridden types you describe.
    Then you’ve got the separation of content from structure, degradable, clean and easy opening packages.
    I think we need to educate the ‘people who build packaging’ into producing more of the second type.
    Dan – how about writing a book: Bulletproof Package Design?

  22. Reggy says:

    I worked in product design before moving into the web, and once had a job interview for a packaging company specialising in “lipid-based food packaging” or something, basically just margarine tubs.
    It would have been so much fun calculating the radii and wall thicknesses prior to thermoforming from high density polyethylene. But, alas.
    There’s a huge overlap between industrial/product design and web design, with similar attention to the user interface, standardisation and many, many other factors.

  23. Steve says:

    As a related note, maybe I’ve got a little OCD streak, but I hate it when I remove the film from the top, and there is still pieces of film left around the ring of the container.
    (eg. removing the foil from the top of advil or yogurt containers)
    If they build in a little vial of HCl that will eat away this stuff, that would be good. Ok, maybe not so good when you accidently ingest it.

  24. Ole -
    “They make the tab, but use weak film and strong glue, so by pulling the tab all you accomplish is tearing it off”
    So true. Even the presence of the tab doesn’t mean it’ll work :-) That damn glue…

  25. npadgett says:

    This reminds me of the days when McDonald’s had a peel-off plastic piece on only one corner of the bar-b-q sauces. I’d always wind out breaking it off and had to open it using other means.

  26. WD Milner says:

    Or they use strong film and stronger glue. The last 6 or more tubes of Pringles pulling on the tab has pulled the liner completely away from the inside of the tube instead of the seal from around the lip.
    Then again … maybe it’s a new dieting feature …

  27. David says:

    Dan, you’re so spot-on. Packaging engineer would be the job of my dreams. I stumble across a poorly designed package of cookies or whatever each week. It’s just annoying.

  28. Greg says:

    For the CD cases:
    Remove the film by putting a small knife (like a box cutter) in one of the slots at the bottom of the case then slide the knife through the film along the whole bottom of the case. Rip the film off. If you don’t have a knife you can try rubbing the bottom of the case against the sharp square corner of a tabletop.
    To get the sticker off the top, remove the front of the case from the bottom hinge and move the front like a flap towards the top of the case. The sticker should come off in one piece.
    With practice you can get to your music in less than 10 seconds without even breaking the case!

  29. Phoat says:

    Where the heck do you get your feta cheese from? I know for a fact that feta cheese is not supposed to be spreadable. That’s just silly.

  30. Virginia says:

    In Australia – maybe nowhere else is as stupid – a company introduced a 1 litre carton of fruit juice a few years ago. It’s just like a 1 litre carton of milk, except that instead of the perfectly functional pouring spout that you make by peeling back the flaps and squeezing (like you have on milk), they’ve put a little plastic spout on the side of the carton. The plastic spout has a diametre of about 12mm, which is too small to pour properly, so instead of a nice stream of fruit juice you get backed-up air and a glug-glug-glug effect that most often results in fruit juice splashing out of the glass, up in your face, over your clothes, or anywhere but the place you’ve intended it.

  31. david says:

    hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha omg too funny. I love pringle cans for that very reason… they are in camp two and leave a flap.

  32. kylie says:

    there is way too much plastic packaging produced in the world. this results in a ‘disposable culture’ where what matters most is convenience for consumers over where the junk is going to land after consumption. who really cares about packaging anyway so long as the contents taste nice? and besides, you can always make hommous yourself. it tastes heaps better.

  33. eddmun says:

    But then there are always those in Camp 2 that leave a tab which breaks off before you can get a decent grip.
    They make me cry.
    *sniff*

  34. Greg says:

    Ever tried opening toys these days? Back in the day you just ripped the end of the box off and the toy fell on the ground.
    Now they have 8 million wires around every little nook and cranny. Always fun when you are trying to get it off the cardboard as your kid is freaking out on Christmas day :)
    What is with the wires anyway? Do they honestly think that by putting all the wires on there that someone won’t steal it at the store? Shoot they’ll just take the box.
    Oh and yes, the wire snippers are always missing when you need them :D

  35. Alain says:

    Greg, you’ve nailed it with the toy wires. Just when you think you’ve gotten all of them untwisted, there are about a half dozen more connected to the other end of the toy. By that time, your (in my case) son has started playing with the wires, and by playing I mean tasting.
    Having said this, one packaging invention I love love love is the screw top wine bottle. I know some frown upon this. But it’s so much easier than dealing with the cork and the foil and all the rest of it. I do, however, draw the line at wine in a box!

  36. Erik Gustavsson says:

    What about the mystery with the hotdogs vs the bread?
    Why are there 10 hotdogs in a pack, and only 8 breads? There must clearly be some devious plan shared among the hotdog and bread producers.
    How come parents often need the help of their kids to get through the “child safe” lid on medicine containers?
    Sometime when I open a package I get a warm and fuzzy feeling, this is when I feel that the package is an aid in using the product, rather than a hindrance. :D

  37. eddmun says:

    Erik, you are spot on with that hot-dog thing. In fact some Year 9s at my school had to do a study about it for some Maths practice coursework.
    What is the world coming to!?!

  38. Reggy says:

    When I was a small child, milk came in sachets; one pint plastic bags of milk left on the doorstep by the milkman.
    Youngsters used to steal them and chew the corners off to use as “water pistols”, or just jump on them with comic results.

  39. Ryan Barr says:

    Dan, why do you never fail to speak the truth and nothing but it? Perhaps you should go work in a court, probably pay you extra and then some.

  40. eddmun says:

    Milk in satchets? Wouldn’t that be a bit hard to like pour and stuff?

  41. mikulla says:

    Peanut butter is the worst. Especially the real kind where the oil seperates to the top.

  42. testMonkey says:

    This is the only blog/site I know of that can generate 40-something comments about lid design. Bravo.

  43. Reggy says:

    Mr. Eddmun, the “bag o’ milk” was designed to be dropped into a special jug, snipped along a handy dotted line and poured, usually all over your clothes.
    They’re still doing it in some parts of the world, just look at this happy couple.

  44. Mac says:

    I cannot believe that I’ve just read all of the comments. I was so fascinated at an article (with diagrams!) about such a common irritation that no one ever seems to think to mention.
    It is scary to think that those responsible for the terrible experiences we endure probably have no idea there’s a problem in the first place. As an interface developer, that makes me downright nervous about my own oversight.

  45. Peter Boere says:

    Product design issues: I remember heinz ketchup used to have these invincible foil caps (probably UK market only) always required something sharp and dangerous, but where there’s a will there’s a way…

  46. Thanks for writing about this. It is very important to write about and point out.
    This is one of the most annoying things to me in food package design.

  47. eddmun says:

    Reggy: wow… how cool!
    And Heinz foil tops. Now they *are* annoying…

  48. Chris Hunt says:

    @Virginia – The way to pour fruit juice from a carton without it glugging is to make a small extra hole in the top of the carton at the opposite end to the pouring spout. Air comes in through the little hole while juice goes out the other. Result = no glugging.
    My own packaging peeve is vacuum packed rashers of bacon (or whatever). One corner of the package is not fused together, implying that you could grab the bits concerned and tear the package open. Well, you could if you could get any purchase on two half-inch slithers of PVC and if you were as strong as the Incredible Hulk. But the Hulk only gets that way after he tries opening modern packaging…
    Don’t make me angry…

  49. PaulV says:

    My packaging nightmares are
    1) The hard moulded plastic wrappers that are about the right shape for the item they are packaging. They have no tabs, so you cannot separate them withpout a sharp knife or a pair of scissors (which also sometimes come packaged in said packaging). They used to be folded over and have a sort of plastic rivet punched from one side to hold the sides together.
    2) Supermarket cheese in shrink wrapped thick plastic. Unless you can get the scissors out of the packaging in 1), you are not going to eat.
    There is some good packaging these days though – ketchup and shampoo bottles designed to sit upside down (with the lid at the bottom). As long as the lid seals, this makes things much easier.

  50. Dave says:

    You’re so totally right.
    I was working on making dinner last night and in a moment of panic, I realized I had to open a new container of pesto. I tried to do it with the “easy lift tabs” but I ended up having to use a fork to break through the plastic film and just ended up making a big mess.
    A single, larger, tab would have done the trick.
    I also have issues with CD/DVD packaging, but let’s not go down that road.

  51. Ty says:

    Back to toys…why do they all have battery compartments that require screwdrivers to open? And how many of us have phillips screwdrivers that are small enough to fit in the hole with the screw 2cm deep? I used to hate the battery hatches that required a coin to open, but much prefer those to these new screw-based hatches. And with Christmas coming, I hope someone sends me an assortment of small screwdrivers…and batteries.

  52. Tom Parson says:

    “Back to toys…why do they all have battery compartments that require screwdrivers to open?”
    Presumably so children can’t open them and put the batteries in their mouths…?
    Good point, though!

  53. Jeremiah says:

    Whats your address I have an intire drawer of those things.

  54. Steve says:

    I just love the little diagrams you add to these posts :)

  55. I was just opening a jar of Nutella (hands down, the best spread in the world) and sadly noticed how the pseudo-aluminum film has no tabs to pull on. It’s really hard to open, which made me think of this post. :-)
    *Sigh* off to get my Nutella.

  56. Bob Aman says:

    At RIT, where I graduated from, they have a major called “Packaging Science.” It’s probably the most harrassed major in the whole school because they tend to make 6-figure salaries immediately upon graduation, and, so far as anyone can tell, mostly they’re just experts in injection molding. If they bothered to train them in “package usability,” I would totally cut them some slack, but nooooo… We’re going to go on making those strange indestructable plastic containers that surround all manner of cheap consumer electronic devices preventing their use for all eternity.