MS. REBECCA SHEIR
All right, so we'll head now from E Street northwest to N Street northwest, right near DuPont Circle, that's where you'll find the brand marketing firm, Greenfield/Belser.
MS. DONNA GREENFIELD
My name is Donna Greenfield-Belser, my married name is Belser. I'm married to Burkey Belser, who is sitting beside me. We live in Bethesda, Maryland.
The husband and wife design team is quite accustomed to reinventing brands from top to bottom, and their most famous brand? Well, you've definitely seen it before.
Burkey designed the nutrition facts label, which is on just about every food package that you'll ever see.
The label dates back more than 20 years, to 1992, and now, the Food and Drug Administration has announced its making over the nutrition facts label to incorporate modern nutrition science. Emily Berman sat down with Donna and Burkey to discuss his design, and what this new label might look like.
MS. EMILY BERMAN
When you tell people you designed something as iconic as the nutrition facts label, you get all kinds of reactions. But mainly, Donna Greenfield says, most people want to know if they get royalties.
Which, of course, we do not. If we got royalties, we would be the richest people in the world right now.
That black and white box is printed on just about every food item sold in the United States. But chances are, according to its designer, Burkey Belser, you've probably never really looked at it.
MR. BURKEY BELSER
If we've done our job right, it in fact is very unimpressive.
That's the thing about design, he says, when it works, it looks like it's always been there. But in this case, it was brand new.
In the Depression, there was very little food labeling. But what food labeling there was, was really responsive to a diet of scarcity. Imagine, there are no superhighways, there are no coolers everywhere, there are no large grocery stores, and food that's basically fresh.
The nutrition labeling consisted of a short of vitamins and minerals, just what you needed to avoid rickets and scurvy. But then, in the 1950s, we built the interstate highway system and began shipping food long distances.
Suddenly around 1980, we're looking at a completely different issue. We're looking at a diet of surfeit.
The United States was getting obese, and so in 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed a law that gave the Food and Drug Administration authority to require nutritional labeling on most foods. They had spent years deciding what should be on the label, but in order to make consumers notice it, they would need a designer to jazz it up.
We tried pie charts, and bar charts, and what we learned about charting mechanisms is that they are actually a second level of literacy.
They tried creating a logo of a rising sun.
We thought that would be a wonderful expression of health, the rising sun. Well, in fact, people couldn't tell whether the sun was rising or setting.
Belser turned then to color, which didn't work either.
Does red say, don't use this food? Is that a warning? Does green say this food is good, when the food may in fact not be the healthy choice?
It took 35 versions, until finally, we had a winner.
There's a title on nutrition facts, that was critical. Here this shouted out, nutrition facts, we're a thing.
There's a thin border that goes all the way around the label, creating a box.
What it did was it kept manufacturers off that turf.
The minimum type size is 8 point, which isn't huge, but it's readable.
And when you're wrestling with a manufacturer for space on the package, the size of that type is huge consideration for them, because that means it's going to simply occupy more real estate.
Two thick lines separate the macronutrients, like the fats, sodium, and carbohydrates, from the micronutrients, the vitamins and minerals.
The bold type guides the reader through the structure of the label itself, the light type provides the backup to what's under those bold headlines.
Belser was happy with it, the public accepted it, the FDA loved it, but its biggest fan was perhaps Italian designer Massimo Vignelli.
"The first time I saw the nutrition facts label, it earned my unlimited enthusiasm."
Vignelli wrote an op-ed for AIGA's magazine, that's the magazine of the Professional Association of Designers.
"The label is a statement of social responsibility, and a masterpiece of graphic design."
Wow, yeah, that was pretty exciting.
Exciting, sure, but how can a nutrition facts label actually be a success, in a country with a skyrocketing obesity rate?
I often ask myself whether the label actually works.
The label is now in its 20th year, and the FDA confirms it is, in fact, getting a makeover.
Something that's frequently brought up is the idea of sugars, and why isn't there a percent daily value for sugars on the right-hand part of the food label and because, in fact, you can't identify one.
Belser says he has been involved with the redesign, and says we probably won't see sugar treated any differently. We will likely see more information about allergens and artificial ingredients, he says.
Yes, the goal is to change behavior. The real question is, can behavior be changed?
Belser says he's a bit fearful his original award-winning design will be ruined, but for the greater good and improved public health, he's willing to let it rest in peace, up somewhere in design Heaven. I'm Emily Berman.
We're curious, what do you think the new nutrition facts label should or should not include? Send us a tweet. Our handle is @wamumetro or reach us by email, our address is email@example.com.
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