The right (and left) way to design packaging

Forget about food safety and hygiene. Just opening a packet of sandwiches or a tin of sweetcorn can be a hazard – especially if you are left-handed, stubborn or poor at making decisions under pressure. Anyone can slip when opening a jar of pickle, but recent research puts the onus on package designers and engineers to cater for different consumer characteristics and personality traits in their designs.

Dr Belinda Winder and her colleagues from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Sheffield University asked 200 shoppers about their experiences with different types of food packaging. The shoppers also completed personality questionnaires.

The results show that ‘natural born worriers’ and those who have already suffered a serious injury on packaging complain the most about designs. “This group of consumers is most anxious about opening packets,” says Dr Winder. “However, those scoring highly in neuroticism were actually no more likely to injure themselves than anyone else.”

While the worriers are prone to complain, left-handed consumers suffer the most. “This is a world dominated by right-handed people, designed by them and, perhaps more to the point,” notes Dr Winder, “designed for them too. Although there are no differences in the types of accidents that left-handed people reported, it seems that left-handers are at a disadvantage when trying to open every type of packaging.”

Certain personality traits can also lead to a consumer’s comeuppance, the researchers found. In particular, fuzzy decision making under pressure appears to contribute to injuries. Moreover, ‘socially resistant’ individuals – those who do not ask for help – tend to suffer the most severe accidents. These people are probably the ones who will not be beaten; they resort to sharp knives, ‘home remedies’ and extreme measures to get at their food.

“The results of this study indicate that accidents and injuries from food and drink packaging cannot be attributed simply to poor designs,” says Dr Winder. “Individual differences and attitudes to products affect the way we try to open them. But it is important for designers to recognise the broad spectrum of consumers and take into account their characteristics and behaviour when planning new packaging designs.”