I Just Can’t Get It To Zip Up!

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I have many fond memories of going camping with my family every summer.  Most memorable is the eager anticipation as we drove there, the agonizing wait to set up our tents before we could hit the water, the lazy days that followed, and then the more agonizing task of packing up.  Let’s face it there’s just no joy in packing up particularly at the end of 10 days with your entire family that by now needs another year off from each other.  No camping trip would be complete without the dreaded process of taking down and packing up the tent.  Queue the ominous music “Da da dun”!  Specifically the rolling and putting away of the tent.  This was always a grudge match full of grunting, stretching, and straining the fabric to get it into the tightest bunch we could muster just so we could get it to fit in the tent bag which was clearly designed to fit the tent only if it was precisely folded or rolled just like it was by some automated machine at the factory.  My mom would undoubtedly end up going off on an obscenity laced tirade because we would of course forget the tent poles or rain flap after fussing for ten minutes with the zipper of the bulging bag.  (Thank goodness my mom lives in the technological dark age and will likely never read this or else I would be the recipient of one of her famous obscenity laced tirades).

Did the engineer or designer not ever try to unpack and repack the tent as part of the design process?  Sounds like such a reasonable question right?  I tire of so many things that just don’t fit the container they come in once unpacked.  If it comes with a reusable bag or case it’s a guarantee it is undersized by at least a third.  This goes for the aforementioned tent bags, sleeping bag bags, and headphone bags just to name a few.  Even the almighty product design prowess of Apple is not immune to this.  This is evident in the recently updated Apple earphones.  They come with a case to wrap the cords that like all the other examples I mentioned barely fit unless the headphones are perfectly wound tight.  I struggle to close the lid every time and have even cracked it as well as rubbed some of the jacket off of the cables trying to close it.  I expected more of them honestly.

Don’t get me started on perforated methods of opening packaging.  They are at the top of my list of all time pet peeves ranking right up to shopping at Walmart.  Perforations representation everything wrong about bad designs.  They universally have I think about a 50/50 success/failure rate.  When I see a perforation I expect it to easily tear evenly along the whole line and to have some way to start it with say a pull tab.  Amazon is the best at this but really the only good example I can think of.  Usually the perforation tears off half way in forcing you to rip away with your fingernails and perhaps setting off your own profanity laced tirade.  We as consumers put up with this because we’re simply powerless.  Honestly who skips out on a product because of its poor packaging?  Not many of us I guess I believe because we’ve become so accustomed to it.  So what drives such bad design?  How can a company pay so much attention on the design of a product but get the packaging so very wrong?  Well I’ve got some theories.

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You see in my day job I actually am one of those designers.  I’m an engineer and have been involved with product design for the better part of ten years now so I think I might have a little insight.  It boils down to a combination of historically low priority, inherently flawed design processes, and basic economics.  The consumer simply doesn’t factor in to these drivers.  Low priority speaks for itself, if packaging was a priority for most consumer product manufacturers well I wouldn’t have any fodder to write this.  As a product designer for a couple different companies I’ve experienced my share of flawed design processes (present job excluded of course).  I can honestly count on one hand how many times I was asked to get involved with the packaging.  That task is usually handled by some manufacturing engineer only interested in reducing handling and space on the shelves or chalking off another cost reduction project by reducing the size of the box or going to less reliable methods of opening like perforations.  Other times it goes to some outside vendor like a cardboard packager only interested in providing the purchasing department with the cheapest offer.

I’ve never been asked to open a product I designed and am not too sure my feedback would have been seriously considered economically speaking that is.  Often the direct customer is not always the consumer but the middle man therefore protecting the product from theft becomes the greater priority regarding packaging design than the ease in which the consumer can open it.  Though a legitimate concern this doesn’t excuse poor designs for reusable product casings like tent bags and headphone cases.  I’m sounding off here and honestly don’t see this problem improving much but let’s hope that someone at Coleman will at least read this and spare some poor kid a round of obscenities by adding an extra cubic foot to the tent bag on their next design.

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