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Consumer Product Labeling
The final product looks simple enough, but designing the Nutrition Facts label for the Food and Drug Administration was a mind-boggling task. Four thousand pages of regulations had to be reduced to a few square inches, flexible enough to appear on a candy-bar wrapper or a cereal box. And the process was hampered by the byzantine maze of American politics, plus the usual issues package designers have to face:
- Low levels of literacy among a sizable chunk of the public.
- Significant populations for whom English is a second language.
- Older Americans with failing eyesight, and younger Americans just learning how to read.
- Production issues such as varying-quality label papers, like wax paper and cellophane, that tend to blur small print.
The food label is an inherently complex piece of information that assumes that all users are literate, familiar with the metric system, and understand nutrients and their relative value. For example, what’s the difference between fat and saturated fat? Why are complex carbohydrates and sugars subsets of carbohydrates, and why should I care?
The label also assumes all consumers understand percentages and daily values, what their usual caloric intake is and should be, and how to convert the information on the label to their needs. The national news media printed at least six different versions of the label as they reported on its development over two years. If the information on the label was a moving target, imagine the difficulty of formulating the design.
In fact, the information was so complex that at one point, we resorted to reversed columns, pie charts, and asterisked notations in order to help organize the information for the consumer. We thought that adding parentheses, commas and such would help the reader, but we soon realized these devices excluded people who cannot read well from using the label. Reversing the type, for example, meant that readers skipped over it because individuals will—indeed, can—process only so much information.
At one point, we tried to organize nutrients into “good” and “bad” until the scientists convinced us it was not so simple. What are the good guys and the bad guys? If both dietary fiber and sugar are carbohydrates, are they both bad or both good?
Ultimately, our victories in designing the label were substantial. The combined forces of a multi-billion-dollar food industry were arrayed not so much to defeat us as to make us careful of every step. Our success?
- By defining the point size of the type, we staked out a sizable chunk of real estate on each product package—considerably more than had been used before. The label is visible to the naked eye!
- By giving the label a boldface title, we ensured scanning readers could recognize the label immediately.
- By putting a one-point rule around the label, we defined its territory, making certain that manufacturers could not encroach on public property and disguise nutrition information as something else.
- By using bold rules to separate sets of information, we gave the reader an easy road map through the label.
A simple label. A monumentally complex political and design task. Good design is always a collaboration between client and designer. Every now and then, we hear about public servants tucked away in the system who work hard and really care about their work and the American public. The individuals at the FDA—Commissioner David Kessler, Bill Hubbard, Jerry Mande, and Sharan Natanblut—and the FDA scientists are true American heroes. Their song is sung on every food package you buy.
What should be next? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to read your plane ticket? How quickly can you find the Open button on any elevator panel before the doors close on the latecomer? On the horizon, will there be an intelligible user interface on your screen on the Information Highway? Designers, America needs you!
Facts Up Front
An excerpt from The Wall Street Journal article, "A Measure of Understanding":
For the design of the nutritional label, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tried to make grams accessible. “We discussed lots of ways of making the nonfamiliar metric system easy to use,” said Burkey Belser, president of Greenfield/Belser Ltd., the Washington, D.C., graphic-design company that designed the nutritional label with the FDA.
For more information on current nutrient-based labeling systems, also check out FactsUpFront.org.