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Burkey Belser, nutrition-facts label designer, talks about the future of food information

Burkey Belser is the Steve Jobs of information design. The 66-year-old American graphic designer is the visionary behind what may be the most frequently reproduced graphic in the world: the nutrition-facts label. Drawn in simple black and white, with no punctuation, it was deemed a “masterpiece” by fellow designers when it was unveiled in 1994.

Since then, the nutrition label has become iconic, appearing in some form on countless pieces of artwork, comics, bags and
T-shirts — not to mention an estimated 700,000 food products on store shelves in the United States.

At the Moschino fashion show in Milan last week, the most talked-about item on the runway was a dress featuring faux nutrition-label information stamped all over it. After seeing the gown, British singer-songwriter Rita Ora tweeted: “My future wedding dress #1day #Gorgeous #SEX.”

On Thursday, Belser — who also designed the energy guide that appears on appliances and the drug-facts panel on medicines — reflected on what he was thinking when he created the food label and what he thinks of the first proposed changes in two decades, announced by the Food and Drug Administration.

Q. How did you get involved in the nutrition-label project 20 years ago?

I was working at a design firm with my wife, and one day I got a call from [FDA Commissioner] David Kessler. He said, “Burkey, I have a great project for you, but you have to do this for free.” So we did. It turns out that Congress had legislated the science, but they didn’t appropriate the funds for the design.

What were you going for when you designed the original label?

Clarity. We looked at 35 different designs. They included charts, sliders, all kinds of different graphical approaches. In the end, what we went with — there’s a harmony about it, and the presentation has no extraneous components to it. The words are left and right justified, which gave it a kind of balance. There was no grammatical punctuation like commas or periods or parentheses that would slow the reader down. It’s subtle. . . . It’s like what Steve Jobs said about the radius of the iPod, the corner. The detail is so important that you wouldn’t even notice it, and if you didn’t notice, it’s a sign that it succeeded.

This was the best project I ever did. I don’t know if anybody’s heart beats faster when they see nutrition facts, but they sense a pleasure that they get the information they need.

Tell me about the challenges of information design. How is it different from other kinds of graphic design?

It’s a very unique specialty, a special kind of skill. It’s very easy to run off the road in terms of design. . . . Every normal tool of a designer — color, photography, illustration — that’s all stripped away, and all we have is type. In this case, what we did with the original label is to use the dramatic difference between black and light fonts, between super-bold and super-light rules. Those act as organizing devices for the reader so they will slide right through that label.

Michelle Obama, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius unveiled the proposed updates at the White House. What do you think?

First of all, I really support the efforts of the FDA. I do have a certain fondness for the original, but I understand it’s been a long time and there have been shifts in the science. [In the new design], there are a couple of successes. It’s easier to see the calories. The consolidating of serving sizes is going to be really important.

But I ask if it feels as well organized down below, particularly with the movement of percentage of daily value to the left. . . . There are also multiple super- bold rules throughout the middle of the label, which break it up in a way the old label hadn’t. It now reads in lurches instead of smoothly through the label.

Now, if a label were designed by scientists, it would have no boldface. As soon as we bold something, that’s a public-policy decision. In the old label, you boldfaced fats. In the new version, calories.

I believe the alternative label should not be called “nutrition facts.” It should be called “nutrition guide.” It’s moved that far along the continuum because of the design. Instead of presenting facts, it’s prescriptive. It’s telling people what we want you to do — eat more of that, avoid this.

So you see, when you get down to details of label, you’ll see every single decision has an impact, has an effect on the reader.

It still feels like our old friend the nutrition label, and people are fond of the label. The proof is that it’s riffed on in so many ways. And I don’t think the affection will go away with this design.

Ariana Eunjung Cha is a national reporter. She has previously served as the Post's bureau chief in Shanghai and San Francisco, and as a correspondent in Baghdad.

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