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Designing the Food Label: Nutrition Facts

By Burkey Belser
May 22, 1994
Designing the Food Label: Nutrition Facts

The final product looks simple enough, but designing the new 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 complicated by a tangle of issues designers do not often have to comb through all at once:

  • low levels of literacy among a sizable chunk of the public

  • significant populations with English their second language

  • older Americans with failing eyesight and younger Americans just learning to read.

  • production issues such as varying quality label papers, like wax paper and cellophane, that tend to blur small print

Plus, the food label is an inherently complex piece of information that assumes that all users are literate, familiar with the metric system of measure, 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 calorie 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 in the past two years. If the information on the label was a moving target, imagine the difficulty formulating a 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 other notations would help the reader, but we soon realized these devices excluded low-level literacy readers from using the label. Reversing the type, for example, meant that readers skipped over it because individuals will—indeed, can—only process so much information.

And, 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 designing the label were substantial. The combined forces of a multi billion dollar food industry were arrayed not so much to defeat us as make us careful of every step. Our success?

  • By defining the point size, we defined a sizable chunk of real estate on each product package-considerably more than had been used before. It's visible to the naked eye!

  • By giving the label a boldfaced title, we ensured scanning readers would know how to recognize the label immediately.

  • By putting a one point rule around the label, we defined its territory, making certain manufacturers could not encroach on public property and disguise your nutrition information as something else.

  • By using bold rules to separate sets of information, we ultimately gave the reader an easy roadmap through the label.

A simple label. A monumentally complex political and design task.

One final note: Good design is always a collaboration between client and designer. Every now and then, we hear about public servants squirreled away in the system who work hard and really care about their work and the American public. The individuals at FDA—Commissioner David Kessler, Bill, Jerry Mande and Sharon Natanblut and the FDA scientists—are true American heroes. Their song is sung on every food package you buy.

I am indebted to Cheryl Achtenberg, Associate Professor of Nutrition and Director, Penn State Nutrition Center, for her careful review of the food label in process. Her comments were, in my opinion, the most complete, intelligent and cogent among all public reviewers.

This article was originally published in the AIGA Journal.