The painkiller vs vitamin metaphor is not serving us, here’s why.

Milosz Falinski
5 min readJun 8, 2020

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“So, are you making a painkiller or a vitamin?” I hear this question asked often in discussion, when people share their product or idea they’ve been working on. It’s become something of a Startup 101. Supposedly, your painkiller product provides relief to an immediate problem, while your vitamin gives you long-term benefits and could become part of your customers lives for good. Google ‘painkiller vs vitamin’ and you’ll see hundreds of articles and videos discussing the topic and repeating this idea.

This isn’t one of those posts. I’m here to tell you that this metaphor is flawed and misleading. In fact, if what you’re making is either a painkiller or a vitamin, you just might be wasting your time.

Art of the metaphor

Words and metaphors have an immense power. They are the cornerstone of our thinking and culture (this is a metaphor). Metaphors paint the picture, set the scene (also a metaphor). They create boundaries, rules and conditions for our thinking on a given topic (some more metaphors!). A metaphor creates a world for us, a world within which we then operate. Accepting this world, we also accept blindspots and biases that come with the metaphor.

So let’s discuss the blindspots and biases of the Vitamin vs. Painkiller metaphor.

Why your product shouldn’t be a vitamin.

I’m not going to discuss any medical benefits or facts here, I am not qualified to give you medically correct information (and you shouldn’t take it from a designer anyway). I’m going to discuss simply about how we perceive vitamins in western culture.

It’s generally recommended to take vitamins. They’re not exactly pleasant to consume, and are a ‘nice to have’ supplement to an overall balanced diet and life. They are probably good, but rarely show visible measurable results. Then why do we take them? It may be from a health concern, as a proactive way to tackle a specific problem, or as just a way of improving our wellbeing. Consumer vitamin users actively seek to improve their condition, not out of necessity, but motivation that comes more or less from within.

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Milosz Falinski

Milosz Falinski — founder at Lumi.design. Leads Product-market fit sprints for fast-moving founders. Strategic designer.