Illustration by Jake Dwyer

The Role of Metaphor in Design: Part 2

Tidepod or Bonbon?

As I have written about previously, metaphor is a powerful tool that designers use to help individuals understand how to interact with products. Unfortunately the use of metaphor for everyday household objects can also have dire consequences for health.

The Tidepod is a prime example of this.

It is a single-use packet of highly concentrated laundry detergent, stain remover, and color protector that was released in 2012 by Proctor and Gamble, and has been a blockbuster product for the company, accounting for over 80% of the laundry pod market and generating over $1.5 billion dollars in revenue.

What is the appeal of the Tidepod design?

Articles report that it is “popular on college campuses and among apartment dwellers, and people who have their washers in the basement”, which makes total sense from the user perspective.

First, it’s convenient.

There is no need to carry the entire heavy bottle down to the basement only to have to lug it back upstairs.

Second, it doesn’t drip.

Who wants to wash the residue that runs down the side of the bottle and have to clean up the mess?

Third, it’s aesthetically pleasing

Kaleidoscope is the design firm that helped design the pod. According to their website, they created:

“a product that employs the brand’s iconic colors and aligns with the Tide® brand promise and visually captures the essence of the brand.”

According to the Fabric Care Design group at P&G:

“The breakthrough and the beauty of the pod and packaging, required us to do it justice with beautiful print, TV and digital. Kaleidoscope raised the bar. In research, people could not stop smiling and engaging with the product.”

It’s a visually appealing product with a symmetric pattern of bold colors, which begs the question:

Is it a Tidepod or a Bonbon?

This parody article from the Onion captures the essence of the problem with the design:

Toddlers and even seniors with dementia, seduced by the design, are trying to eat the pods, resulting in serious injury and death.

The problem has been frequent and serious enough to warrant a full study of laundry detergent ingestions in Pediatrics, published in 2016. The study showed that rates of accidental exposure of children due to laundry detergent pods/packets were much higher compared with those for regular laundry detergent (see figure below).

Not only were packets/pods associated with a higher number of exposures, but the health outcomes of children who ingested packets/pods were much worse.

Compared with kids who ingested regular laundry detergent, kids who ingested laundry pods/packets had a higher risk of needing to be hospitalized, a higher risk of needing a breathing tube, and a higher risk of experiencing serious medical outcomes. There were 2 deaths, both of which occurred in kids who ingested the laundry detergent pods/packets, and 104 of the 117 children who needed a breathing tube had ingested the laundry detergent pods/packets.

This is a clear example of how design impacts health.

In response to the ingestions, the company has made multiple updates to the design of its product, including:
  • Providing consumers with safety latches for household cabinets and supporting a Safe Home campaign in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics to educate consumers about the dangers of Tidepods. (Education is probably the most low impact way to make a difference.)

Despite these design modifications, there have been over 50,000 ingestions of laundry pods by children under 6 years of age between 2013 and 2017.

I am always impressed by the amount of effort and resources invested in the design of consumer products, but Kristin Hohenadel in Slate poses a very important question:

“Does it make sense to tempt fate by sticking with the detergent-as-candy design?”

Should a laundry pod that is potentially toxic be made into a “beautiful object” that “visually captures” the brand? Isn’t that what leads to excess “engagement” from too many young children, leading to calls to the poison control center and visits to the emergency room? And doesn’t it also lead to the virality of the “Tidepod Challenge”, in which teenagers are daring each other to bite into brightly colored packets on Youtube?

Consumer Reports is no longer recommended liquid laundry detergent pods because of the health risks to young children, but incredulously, the product is still available in stores.

Tidepod as Bonbon: It’s a design metaphor that kills.

I tweet and blog about design, healthcare, and innovation as “Doctor as Designer”. Follow me on Twitter and sign up for my newsletter!

Click here for information about creative commons licensing. Disclosures: Unitio, Grant funding from Lenovo.



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Doctor as Designer

Doctor as Designer


Joyce Lee, MD, MPH, Physician, Designer, Researcher. #learninghealthsystems; #design for #ai; and the maker movement