Image courtesy of On/Go

Welcome to Form Factor, our new column exploring the intersection of packaging, branding, and culture.

Packaging acts as a heuristic. When presented with more options than we can process, we use it to decide what to grab off a shelf or add to cart. But what about purchases that are purely functional? Does the box, bottle or label really matter? Launching a column about packaging design with a piece on the branding of Covid tests seems at once frivolous and relevant. Frivolous because, well, you know. And relevant because, nearly two years in, we’ve gotten to a point where the trappings of this pandemic have started to look less like medical equipment and more like mainstream products. Trendy branding, after all, is really just a sign of normalization. (See also: Red Antler’s “elevated design” for emergency preparedness brand, Judy, which launched back in January 2020.)

Trendy branding, after all, is really just a sign of normalization.

The recent Omicron surge in the United States increased demand for at-home Covid tests. This past month, when supplies were running low, On/Go, an antigen test manufactured by Los Angeles-based biotech Intrivo, rolled into conversations on social media. (Not all of this attention was organic — On/Go has accounts on Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram, where it works with influencers on sponsored posts.) Users discovered a trove of in-stock On/Go tests at Ro, a New York-based telehealth platform known for its spare, discreetly-packaged generic drugs. Intrivo, which pitches itself as “the only COVID control solution combining science, technology and a delightful user experience to end the pandemic for good,” seems to understand the value of presenting itself as a choice rather than a necessity. Ro cofounder and chief growth officer Rob Schutz says Ro’s commitment to “patient centricity” drew them to On/Go. 

“The team behind On/Go created tests that patients not only need but want,” says Schutz, who cited the “striking bright yellow packaging,” and “user-friendly app,” as features that catered to consumer’s desires. That want rather than need could drive a purchasing decision in something as utilitarian as a Covid test shows just how much consumers have come to expect of the things they buy. When it comes to branding healthcare products, there’s an uncanny valley between slickness and deadpan practicality. So-called good design can inspire trust, but only up to a certain point. Products that look too nice have a way of reminding customers that healthcare is a business.

LabCorp’s Pixel at-home Covid test.

On/Go’s packaging borrows from the visual language of direct-to-consumer brands. (Actual DTC brand Hims briefly offered a private label saliva test last spring.) At a glance, you might guess that any number of things—adaptogenic tea, paraben-free sunscreen, organic cotton tampons—sit inside On/Go’s matte marigold box. Compared to other popular rapid test options like BinaxNow, which looks, from the box, like a wireless router, On/Go is clearly positioned as an attractive alternative. (It’s worth noting that at-home PCR tests like Fulgent Genetics’ Picture and Labcorp’s Pixel, both of which are extensions of existing at-home test product lines that precede the pandemic, are also more marketing-focused in their design.) But if an option like On/Go didn’t exist, it might be jarring to see rapid tests at a place like Onggi, a neighborhood fermentation shop and food counter in Portland, Maine. (Onggi co-founder Marcus Im says the eighty tests the store recently ordered sold out in two days.) Familiar design makes room for unfamiliar things to fit into our lives. It’s strange that a Covid test was so obviously designed to photograph well, but it’s certainly not nefarious, or even really surprising. 

Products that look too nice have a way of reminding customers that healthcare is a business.

In the past decade, healthcare products, and the industry as a whole, have started to look more like the world of consumer goods. It can be hard to remember that a brand like Warby Parker deals in medical devices. The expectations created by customer-oriented brands have translated into healthcare, too. Phi Hung, director of consumer experience and engagement at Fulgent Genetics, the Southern California-based company that started manufacturing at-home PCR tests in 2020, says that more and more, patients demand transparency, “both from medical product design and from medicine in general.” Hung cites the popularity of telehealth during the pandemic as a catalyst for change in the industry. “As clinical options become more accessible,” she says, “we’ll see a parallel demand for design clarity in their products, websites, and user flows.”

Branding that gestures at values like these creates a sense of instant credibility. But, of course, there’s a difference between good design and a good company. In January, New York City primary care provider Carecube came under investigation from the state’s attorney general over reports that the company wrongfully billed patients for Covid tests. Carecube’s visual identity, with its rounded font, tertiary color scheme and slightly abstracted logo, plays to the preferences of modern consumers. Carecube’s bait and switch business model is a good reminder that when it comes to healthcare, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.