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Design for the Real World

By Michael Bierut and Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen
August 1, 2001
Design for the Real World

Nutrition Facts

Greenfield/Belser's design of the Nutrition Facts label was analyzed by Pentagram's Michael Bierut on Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, the weekly public radio show about arts and culture produced by WNYC New York and heard on more than 85 stations nationwide.


Intro: Music by Joe Loco "Nightmare" from the LP Bongoland EMD/Capitol


Sometimes a piece of design is so everywhere so in our face that we don't even notice it after a while as a piece of design. That's where "Design for the Real World" comes in and today graphic designer Michael Bierut helps us see and understand one of those ubiquitous graphic pieces of every day life.


I can almost promise you that you're nearly blissfully unaware with the work that I would say is the most widely reproduced piece of graphic design in the world today. Now, what do you think it is? I guarantee that there are hundreds of examples of this piece of graphic design in your house right now.

You can get any product you bought in a grocery store; a box of cereal, a can of soda, if it's anything that you can eat, somewhere on the label it'll have this little thing says "nutrition facts." That, my friends, is the single most reproduced piece of graphic design of the 20th century and may actually prevail in the 21st century, as well.

It's as if every single one us out there in the world kind of revealed to each other what we're really all about. There's like the flashy front; you know, the gold foil on the front of the fancy box of chocolates, the crazy cartoon characters on the box of the sugared cereal, the flashy youth-oriented label on the high caffeine soft drink, and on the back, everyone sort of has to kind of like take off all their clothes and stand naked before the commercial world and say 'I have this many calories. I have this many grams of fat. I have this much calcium.'


Dick Hyman "Caravan" from the LP Bongoland EMD/Capitol


A designer named Burkey Belser was hired by the FDA to come up with standards for it and he came up with very precise standards for it. So, it's amazing how similar these things look one from the next.

If you're a connoisseur of avant-garde, Soviet, agitprop design as practiced by Rodchenko and El Lissitzky you'll recognize in the nutrition facts logo its distant echo: The bold horizontal rules, much thicker than they really have to be to function; mere functionalism wouldn't have led us to this; you know this is functionalism carried to the nth degree with a little bit of knowing artfulness thrown in, and the beauty that kind of merges with truth to create something very nice can happen, you know, not just in the design of something grand like an expensive automobile, but also in the humblest, humblest things in the world, whether it's a ballot, whether it's a form you have to fill out or whether, in fact, it's a little postage stamp size thing that appears on the back of, you know, every candy bar you buy that's tells you fat you're gonna get if you eat it.


Michael Bierut is a partner in Pentagram Design. If there's some piece of design you'd like us to decode for you, let us know about it through our website at Studio