Labels, health and legibility…or I know which is ‘better’ designed but which one is better?

New Scientist, this week, has an interesting interview with Andrew Wadge, chief scientist of the UK’s Food Standards Agency. And what may this have to do with design one might ask? Well, the FSA is one of the more activist agencies established by the British government and wages a fascinating low level conflict with the food industry. This ranges from pressurising them to lower the quantity of sugar and salt in various food products to advertising through public information campaigns the health effects of diets and, most importantly from the design point of view, attempting to have them adopt a new system of labelling.

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Some may have noticed this system of labelling creeping across our supermarket shelves over the last year or so. It’s really a replacement for the more traditional tables beloved from the sides of cereal packages, and generally acknowledged to be difficult to read and interpret. The new system, produced by food companies and retailers, is known as the ‘guideline daily amount’ (GDA), and has five components, Calories, Sugar, Fat, Saturates and Salt. These are highlighted in bold against a fetching combination of pastel shades, while in circular insets beneath them are the percentages that they comprise of ones guideline daily amount.

Straightforward enough one might think. One would be wrong.

The FSA is convinced that the new system takes too long to read. Wadge proposes that “…when you’re very busy and you’ve got a couple of kids in tow, people spend on average 9 seconds on each choice’. Their solution is a ‘red light’ design where the good is healthiest, the orange is less healthy and the red is downright unhealthy. The components are simply Fat, Saturates, Sugar and Salt.

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Now, interestingly, the information in both GDA and FSA is identical. Look at the quantities per 100g. New Scientist argues that a ‘row of red traffic lights’ – for the truly unhealthy products – would be less easy to ignore than the rather more sedate GDA. And the UK National Heart Forum released a report in February arguing that to add to a certain complexity of interpretation the GDA values are ‘based on implausibly small serving sizes, making the products appear less unhealthy than they are’.

Wadge predicts that the FSA system will prove in the long run to be more effective and more widely used. Since the FSA has no executive authority in the area one wonders if that’s not a somewhat optimistic view of the situation.

But in design terms there is a paradoxical aspect to the two systems. The ‘FSA’ traffic lights are very clear, indeed visually very blunt in appearance. There’s little room for ambiguity. The GDA, by contrast, is more complex and polished in design. The rounded corners, the fairly small type size and the white circles which overlap the white surround combine to provide a strangely soothing visual configuration.

The old trope, which happens to be true, that the lighting in supermarkets is specifically chosen in order to calm customers – for more see this story at the Guardian – appears to be reinforced by this very design. The implicit signification of hazard in ‘traffic lights’ is avoided entirely. This generates very different significations, of ‘choice’ and ‘convenience’ and even ‘lifestyle’.

I know which one I prefer visually. I also suspect I know which one would be more useful in practice, yet I have a sneaking suspicion I know which one I will see used on more food products over the next decade or so.

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