Design and the Loblaws applesauce jar

If interest in design could be measured in podcasts, mine would rate just a little above average, with shows like 99% Invisible, or Design Matters in my Stitcher app feed. A recent episode by TED Radio Hour, for example, featured an interview with computer engineer Tony Fadell, who offered satisfying anecdotes about Apple’s iPod design solutions. Design stories tend to give you a shiver of pleasure as they unroll a problem and offer a delicious solution. But design can also make you uncomfortable, because once you start to notice it, you start to categorize it. Living with bad design is what the TED Radio Hour podcast host Guy Roz calls “accepting design flaws”. His guest however, was hardly so passive. Mr. Faddell said, “we lose control to these things that are thrust upon us as opposed to wrenching control back [and saying] ‘I’m not going to do that anymore, we need to get this fixed.’” But I wonder who he’s addressing. Is it me, the lowly consumer? Or is it other designers? Or is it an elite I don’t belong to?

Take the No Name unsweetened applesauce sold by Loblaws. We buy a jar or two every week. It will be out on the counter during our weekend lunch, still cold from the fridge, and while I wait for my slice of bread to toast as the kids are eating at the table, I’ll take a spoon from the drawer, pick up the jar and reach in for a few heaping spoonfulls. The consistency is always just right, and the flavour is dependable. Years ago I tried making applesauce but my efforts would not compare, with exception to one luxurious variant.

About three years ago, Loblaw’s decided to change the design of the applesauce jar. It had previously been made of glass and held a larger amount of applesauce. The new design is made of plastic, and contains less. The issue is the design of the jar. Underneath the yellow “No Name” label, the plastic is ribbed, and the bottom is full of indents. It has since become impossible to clean out the jar with a spoon so that jars go to the recycling with applesauce still clinging to the sides.

I called the phone number provided on the jar twice. The first time was to make a complaint about the design. The representative on the other end of the line was sympathetic. I felt consoled to know that others had made similar complaints. I held on to a hope that an imaginary pile of complaints might cause a change in the design. A year later I called a second time to ask whether or not it was possible to know who made the jars. The representative checked and came back to me and said that there was no way of knowing because it was proprietary information. In the Loblaw Code of Conduct, it is written “disclosure of confidential Company information can seriously harm Loblaw.” I get that. I don’t want to hurt the makers of the applesauce that I like.

So then, what? My frustration with an applesauce jar is this trivial thing… You assume that the more you pay, the better a thing should work. A jar that costs two dollars is more about content than packaging, more about affordability than brand. The irony is that the applesauce jar causes food waste for the customers who least want to afford it.