In re: Why milk cartons are square and soda is round?

I’ve always loved everyday economic explanations to simple little things that often we don’t notice. I found a great post over at Design Observer that mentions the milk carton situation (has to do with maximizing the space in refrigerated spaces, versus unrefrigerated soda – although carbonation may prove to be another answer that some of the comments point to) this example and some other situations come from The Economic Naturalist: In Search of Explanations for Everyday Enigmas by Robert H. Frank. While my nightstand is currently packed with books waiting to be read, I think this is one I will add to the queue.

Frank takes this cost-benefit accounting through a number of interesting design examples (these are posed as questions that his students in “economic naturalism” originally asked). For example: Why, even though the discs are exactly the same size, do DVDs come in such larger packages than CDs? The answer, as supplied here, is that vinyl records came in tightly shrink-wrapped sleeves, 302 mm square. If one made the CD package a little less than half that size, one could fit two CDs in the racks that countless record stores had installed. The height could be kept the same, which is why you may remember CD jewel cases themselves used to wrapped with all kinds of surplus packaging, strange cousins of vinyl sleeves that were to be ripped away and discarded. DVDs, meanwhile, were riding in the wake of the VHS tape, which came in a 191 mm-high box. Keeping DVD cases the same height meant retailers (and consumers) could simply stack DVDs on their VHS shelves. One does wonder if some brave designer, some Howard Roark of the blister-pack set, stood up in an early meeting and asked if the cost of the excess packaging was indeed greater than the cost of retrofitting shelves. It could also be that Hollywood was leery of people thinking they were getting “less” for their money.”


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