Co.Design

What Leading Designers Think Of The FDA's New Nutrition Label

We asked Stefan Sagmeister, Tobias Frere-Jones, and Bonnie Siegler to weigh in on the FDA's redesigned nutritional facts sheet.

The nutritional label printed on most packaged foods in the United States is one of the more iconic bits of government-mandated design out there. With the news that the FDA is, after years of demands from nutritional experts, redesigning the label, we were curious about how professional designers would react to the proposed new look. The new design simplifies and magnifies the calorie count, moves the percent daily value to the left side of the column, and includes a space for "added sugar." Here's who we asked about the changes:

Tobias Frere-Jones is one of the world’s leading type designers. He teaches at Yale and lives in Brooklyn. Stefan Sagmeister has created album covers for the Talking Heads, Brian Eno, and The Rolling Stones, and was a frequent artistic collaborator with Lou Reed. Bonnie Siegler is a founder of design studio Eight and a Half, which has worked with everyone from the Criterion Collection to the Brooklyn Public Library to Late Night With Seth Meyers.

Left to Right: Tobias Frere-Jones, Stefan Sagmeister, Bonnie Siegler

Co.Design: What are your overall impressions? Is this an improvement?

Tobias Frere-Jones: It's as stark and as dowdy as before, but that's actually a good thing. It creates a blunt contrast with the surrounding package, so consumers can locate this label no matter what. That was a remarkable achievement the first time around, and this proposal does well to preserve it.

The FDA never specified Helvetica, using it only as an example, but it was a good choice and it still is. Helvetica tastes like authority, like confirmed fact. We need to feel trust when we get a second opinion on our food.

Stefan Sagmeister: I always thought of the existing label as one of the best pieces of government communication. The new one is even better.

Bonnie Siegler: This is a nice big baby step in the right direction. The original label was not designed for consumers, but rather as compliance with the FDA. Now, consumers reference the sticker all the time, but it is still following the same “not for consumer” model.

What are the best design details here? What are the worst?

TFJ: Shifting the Daily Value percentages to the left makes each category a clear unit. The previous flush-left / flush-right arrangement would make connections difficult: “Sodium, 160mg (pause) (pause) (pause) (pause) 7%. Wait—was that about, sugar?”

The multi-column footnotes at the bottom were baffling. They felt like an excerpt from an accountant's spreadsheet, so they were an invitation to tune out.

SS: There is now a clear hierarchy to the information that reads faster and communicates quicker.

BS: I think the scale adjustments make lots of sense. The Nutrition Facts headline used to be the largest single item, now the largest piece of type is the number of calories. That huge number is simply unavoidable now. I also like that the number of servings per container is much bigger. That small hidden number has always been a way to kid yourself into thinking you’re not overeating.

Is a chart like this the best way to present this information?

BS: I think most people don’t relate to the percentages of daily values. No one is keeping track of the percentage of sodium they have already had, before eating french fries. I think this needs to be simpler and more plain-spoken.

What could the FDA do differently to draw attention to certain facts?


BS: In terms of hierarchy, I would make the sugar section more prominent since that seems to be one of our biggest issues. Added sugars is a great addition but it is still very small.

How would you present these facts if it was up to you? Would you change anything about it?

BS: As someone who can eat a pint of ice cream alone, I wish the serving sizes were more realistic. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a single serving of anything, as dictated by nutritional facts. Additionally, since we don’t use the metric system here, using metric in this one situation is a bit of a mystery to me.

Maybe we should just be more blunt: different specific dangers carry different colored nutrition facts labels, so people prone to diabetes know without even reading that they should stay away from, let’s say, a blue label. People with high risk for heart disease should not buy any food with a red label.

TFJ: I'd want more data on there, but I'm also a nerd. I'd like to see countries of origin listed as well, but I guess that's a fight for another administration.

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11 Comments

  • Daniel Patterson

    The most important data contained in the Nutrition label should be the ingredients.

  • As for the actual label: why is the number of servings per container more important than the actual serving size? I track everything I eat (due to food allergies and a history of health problems in my family, which I'd like to avoid), and I hate having to search for a serving size. Serving sizes really aren't that "small," despite what most Americans think, except when it comes to meats and veggies/fruits. If a serving of meat is 3-4 oz, but you need multiple servings a day, why not increase the serving size there? Servings per container being the biggest thing conflicts with the calories (per serving) being large. At first glance, it looked like that was telling me there were only 230 calories in the container, not per serving. The "hierarchy" isn't consistent. And I think percent DV could be removed altogether because it's only relevant if you're on a 2000 calorie diet, which actually isn't the majority of people.

  • We use pint (in reference to the ice cream one of the reviewers talked about), as part of a gallon ( 2 cups = 1 pint, 4 pints = 1 quart, 2 quarts = 1 gallon). The US pint is different than a metric or imperial pint (also different meausres).

  • Too bad it doesn't mention whether or not GMO's are used . Added sugar? What about total sugar? Humm. The label is clear though just lacking some important info.

  • "Additionally, since we don’t use the metric system here, using metric in this one situation is a bit of a mystery to me."

    It's about time Americans learn to use the metric system.

  • As a 29 year-old American, I've been using the International System of Units (SI; metric) exclusively for my entire adult life. I've known nothing but SI g and mg on nutrition labels. If you want to experience a gram, just pick up a paper clip on your counter or desk top or a packet of sugar at your coffee shop or tea house. Thank God we use SI on nutrition labels, otherwise I couldn't easily relate their values to those published in nutrition journal articles, which describe the results of SCIENTIFIC research using SI units. Good design should facilitate clear, honest communication, not throw up another layer of bewildering and unnecessary translation.

  • Burkey Belser

    Gotta agree with Yoni Weiss. Clearly, it did not occur to Fast Company to ask for the opinion of the individual who designed the Nutrition Facts label in the first place. I have been featured in Fast Company for the design of the label in the past and, in the past two days, have been in the news nationwide talking about my response to the new label design. You might interested in more of an insider story. Just saying…

    Burkey Belser

  • Burkey, I am interested in the insider story.

    Why no color, say, red if it's been shown by the FDA to be harmful, or to help people like me remember whether polyunsaturated fat or mono is the bad one.

    Why no totals? While it's great to know that 2/3 of a cup something is considered a serving, and a serving contains X calories, and there's 10 servings per container - nobody cares. When I pick up a food product, what would be meaninful to read is: 'how much salt is in the chunk of stuff I'm holding in my hand'.

    Why no increased level of technology, such a QR code that can take you to the FDA site to get more information if you so desire?

    I'm sure that there are countless technical hurdles, regulations, constraints, and bureaucracies that we are unaware of that may make the new design really something - but I was hoping to see something more like what ClearRx did for pill bottles with such a project. Is there more info or storyline out there? Thanks!

  • My daughter got diagnosed with type 1 diabetes this year. Up until that point I never paid any attention to these labels. Now I have to reference them daily. The serving size in a measurable unit is much easier for type 1 diabetes because I need to be able to measure out the food I give my daughter to then be able to calculate how much total carbs are in the measured amount I give her so I know how much insulin she needs. With type 1 diabetes there isn't really any food they need to avoid. Type 2 diabetes (which is curable) has foods they should stop eating and has to change their diet. With type 1 diabetes this isn't the case.

    So from my perspective and how I currently use these labels I really like this redesign. Percentages still mean nothing to me. But the visual hierarchy still makes it much easier to locate the important things I need to know.

  • Stefan Sagmeister sounds totally disinterested in contributing to this topic. Why did Fast Company reach out to him? He is in the designer spotlight WAY too much. Why not contact someone who actually had a hand in producing the new labels? Or maybe an information architect like Nicholas Felton? The attempt at simple name recognition for clicks is so obvious.