Two jars of jam are set out on the breakfast tray: TownHouse Concord Grape Jelly and St. Dalfour Black Cherry spread. I turn to the familiar "Nutrition Facts" food label on the back of the jars. The grape jelly has fewer calories per serving than the black cherry--50 calories compared to 60 calories--but a slightly higher salt content.
I opt for the higher calorie black cherry spread. After all, it's the weekend, and I feel like a splurge.
The person who made this routine decision possible--for me and millions of Americans--is Burkey Belser of the Washington design firm of Greenfield/Belser. He's the graphics wizard who designed the simple black-and-white food label that now adorns all processed and packaged foods.
As a tax-paying citizen, I owe him because the government never paid him a fee for designing the label. The Food and Drug Administration was too strapped to offer real money for the job. He was reimbursed for expenses--about $20,000, he says--but that was all.
Belser has no regrets. "I'm not sorry. I'm really proud we were able to do that for America," he says. "You don't need to get paid for everything you do. It's too greedy out there--the culture, anyway."
Ordinarily, a contract for such a complicated project would run between $125,000 and $250,000, he says. As a whole generation of Americans was admonished: Ask not what your country can do for you. . . . And Belser was glad to do it. His firm has a thriving niche practice designing materials for lawyers. Government work was an opportunity.
"It's so rare that a graphic designer can make a positive impact--not just make it pretty, make it meaningful," he says.
It all started in the District neighborhood where his daughter went to the Lowell School and had a friend whose mother worked for the FDA. People knew what Belser did. In 1978, his firm had produced the Energy Guide--the label that goes on all appliances. He had also contributed a lot of work for the school, and people knew that, too.
So one day he got a phone call from the FDA. The agency needed someone to design the food label--fast. But no money had been appropriated for the design.
"It was bad news for Burkey. We were able to reimburse his expenses," says Jerold R. Mande, who oversaw the design of the food labeling project at FDA and is now at the U.S. Department of Labor. "But he donated his time."
For three months, all 10 members of Belser's firm threw themselves into the crash project. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act was clear: The goal was not just to list the contents in food; it was to provide information about health and diet that would reduce the incidence of disease. The FDA estimated that the new label could save up to $26 billion in health costs over the next two decades.
The process was a bureaucratic roller coaster because so much complex information had to be reduced to a simple label, which had to pass muster from scientists and politicians as well as consumers. In the end Belser insisted on three things: 1. The label needed to be boxed to distinguish it from promotional information. 2. It had to have a simple name--the result was "Nutrition Facts." 3. The type had to be big enough to read.
The new label, introduced five years ago, was an immediate success. Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, called it a "public health milestone" and a "victory for consumers." In an official review of the food labeling project, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David A. Kessler and his colleagues said it "may be the most powerful and important tool yet developed to help consumers make dietary changes that can promote health and prevent disease."
It's more than grape versus cherry. It's about choosing healthy foods and meeting daily nutritional needs. Before Belser's design, only one in three consumers surveyed said they changed a food-buying decision based on information on the label. By 1995, with the new label, half said they did.
Belser's design was also a spectacular artistic success. "The label is a clean testimonial of civilization, a statement of social responsibility and a masterpiece of graphic design," gushed Massime Vignelli in the Journal of Graphic Design. "This little label is indeed the best piece of graphic information or, better yet, information architecture, that has surfaced in this country in the last 20 years."
Belser's label won the highest honor for design in federal projects, a Presidential Design Award, administered by the National Endowment for the Arts and presented every four years. President Clinton praised the winners, noting that their "work exemplifies the ingenuity, creativity and skill that has always defined the American spirit."
Compare FDA's Nutrition Facts food label with the Food Pyramid produced by the Department of Agriculture to promote consumer understanding of the health benefits of different food groups from meat to pasta. The initial contract for a design concept went to a marketing firm for more than $100,000. Then the project ran into a political firestorm, costing more than $800,000 in new rounds of testing.
A tale of two nutrition projects, a tale of two government institutions. In the same time period, consumers got a million-dollar food pyramid and Belser's no-cost food label.
Which one have you looked at lately?