On a recent trip back to the USA for a few weeks, I noticed something new in the dairy section of the grocery store—a new milk container. The milk was the same, but the container was completely new—square in shape and made from recyclable plastic. A quick search online produced all the details, such as this NY Times article “Solution, or Mess? A Milk Jug for a Green Earth” and revealed what I thought was another great example of the rising role and increasing importance of design for a bright future.
As I looked into this story of these new milk containers, I was struck by:
- The simply staggering improvements that were realized by a relatively simple redesign of the everyday milk container
- The role that consumers need to play in both the design process and the successful implementation of these changes into mass usage.
For those who have not seen these new containers, here is a quick overview:
- More efficient storage; new jugs store 50% more milk by volume and are stackable. More milk can be shipped per truck and requires less refrigerated storage. One retailer now stores 224 gallons of milk in the same space that used to hold 80. Combined these reduce fuel and energy use dramatically.
- Does not require crates or racks for shipping and storage due to its stackable, flat-top design.
- With no crates to wash or transport, labor is cut by half (loading, returning, washing) and water usage is reduced by 60 to 70 percent. One dairy mentioned in the NYT article was using 100,000 gals of water per day just for washing crates!
- More milk per truck and with no crates to haul back, the number of truck trips to the store has been reduced from 5 per week to just 2, which is a major fuel saving, and it lowers the overall cost of milk 10 to 20 cents per gallon.
- Overall efficiency is increased; milk from the cow in the morning is on the store shelves by afternoon. When I was young I spent many summers on my uncle’s dairy farm and always long for the taste of truly fresh milk.
To summarize, these new milk jugs result in cheaper, fresher milk that requires much less energy, water and labor and is better for the environment.
Creating a better world through a different design approach
This example also gives me even more confidence and optimism that we can create a better world through a balanced approach that benefits all those involved in the entire cycle—from initial idea to design to production, consumption and recycling.
Has to be an instant success, right? Not quite. The real challenge may well be our ability as milk consumers to adapt to these new containers, to UNlearn some of our ingrained habits, such as how we do something as basic as pouring milk from a container. It turns out that many people spill some milk when they first try to pour from these new containers. Why? Because they try to pour milk the way they are used to doing it. Many people end up rejecting these new containers and go back to purchasing the older style of containers. To address this problem, some stores are even offering in store lessons on how to pour with no spills—by tilting the jug forward rather than lifting it up, a technique described as "rock-and-pour instead of a lift-and-tip."
Spilled milk is clearly frustrating and wasteful, but rather than crying over it (sorry , couldn’t resist), the solution would appear to be twofold: short term this appears to be a good example of one of my favorite themes of unlearning and relearning how to pour milk from these new containers without spilling and longer term, I suspect that there are additional design improvements that will make these containers even more spill proof and easy to use.
I think there is also a larger lesson to be learned from this example. I have to imagine that if a more holistic approach had been taken by involving consumers in the design process, the new containers would have been easier or more intuitive to use without spilling.
Maybe I’m just being my hyperbolic self and I’m seeing more than there really is, but I don’t think so. Look at some of these numbers and start multiplying them by the amount of milk consumed every day around the world. Seems like an amazing improvement to me, and all from a relatively straightforward rethinking and redesign of an everyday item.
Tapping into the "Prosumer" model
There is a lot of talk these days about the environment, being green, sustainability and so on, most of which is well intentioned and much needed. However, it seems to me that these changes are often implemented along the lines of the historical roles for consumers and producers where the producers come up with the ideas, make the changes, and the role of consumers is to buy and use these new and improved products. Not a bad model necessarily and one capable of producing good results as the new milk jug attests. However I’m advocating the need for a more “prosumer” and collaborative approach to design where we are simultaneously producers and consumers.
The term prosumer was first coined by Alvin and Heidi Toffler in their 1980 book “The Third Wave” where they predicted what I think we are now seeing—a society where the previously separate roles and responsibilities are increasingly being combined or “mashed up” to create a very new and different role for all of us.
I see a distinct trend towards a prosumer society where all of us will play an increasing role in the design process of everything around us. Keeping in mind that pretty much everything in our world that isn’t living matter has to be designed and built by us, this has very major implications for all of us and the world we inhabit.This is a theme I’ll be expanding on more in upcoming articles and podcasts here on OCOT.
More than anything else though, this new milk jug example has me pondering what other everyday items besides the lowly milk container could produce similarly staggering results. What if we were to look at them more closely and rethink the design and unlearn some of our habits for using them? Packaging alone is an enormous area ripe for major improvement, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg of benefits to be had from redesigning and rethinking our current products and practices.
How about you? Look around your home, office, car, or other places you frequently inhabit and try seeing using a newly critical eye to see what opportunities you can find. You don’t need to have a degree in design nor have it appear on your business card or job description to be a designer. All it takes is adopting a more critical and new look at everyday things, thinking differently and thinking about seeing anew those things we take for granted. Who would have thought that something as basic and “unimportant” as a milk container could produce such staggering improvements? Let’s hear some ideas from the rest of us about what should be next in line for such redesign.