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Burkey Belser, designer of ubiquitous nutrition facts label, dies at 76


Burkey Belser, a graphic designer who created the ubiquitous nutrition facts label — a stark rectangle listing calories, fat, sodium and other content information — that adorns the packaging of nearly every digestible product in grocery stores, died Sept. 25 at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 76.

The cause was bladder cancer, said his wife Donna Greenfield, with whom he founded the Washington, D.C., design firm Greenfield/Belser.

Mr. Belser’s nutrition facts label — rendered in bold and light Helvetica type — was celebrated as a triumph of public health and graphic design when it debuted in 1994 following passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act.

Although some products had previously included nutritional information, there was no set standard, and the information was of little public health value in helping consumers make better food choices. The new law, drafted as obesity and other diet-related illnesses were surging, required mandatory food labels with nutrients presented in the context of a healthy 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.

Writing in a journal published by the Professional Association for Design, Massimo Vignelli, the renowned Italian designer, called Mr. Belser’s creation a “clean testimonial of civilization, a statement of social responsibility, and a masterpiece of graphic design.”

The Food and Drug Administration chose Mr. Belser to design the nutrition label following his success creating the black and yellow energy guide label for appliances. Once dubbed the “Steve Jobs of information design,” Mr. Belser’s fondness for exceedingly simple design perfectly suited him for a job that required stripping down nutritional facts to the bare essentials.

Working pro bono — Congress did not appropriate design funds — Mr. Belser and his team labored through three dozen iterations of the label. There were many cooks in the kitchen. The Agriculture Department, for instance, was concerned the label would cause consumers to eat less meat, which is typically higher in fat and calories than other foods.

“You not only have FDA as a player in the design, you have industry people who want to guide what the label says and does,” he told the Commercial Appeal in 2014. “You have consumer groups, and they have an agenda. All three are doing battle day after day after day. ‘Do this, don’t do that.’”

The squabbling resulted in a multitude of design ideas, including pie charts, sliding graph charts, colors and even the image of the sun. All of them posed dilemmas. Which were easier to understand, pie charts or sliding graphs? If red was used, would that signal to shoppers not to eat the food?

Even the sun was problematic.

“We thought that would be a great image of health, but in fact, people couldn’t tell whether the sun was rising or setting,” Mr. Belser told WAMU.

Mr. Belser, working with FDA officials, ultimately settled on, as he later put it, “simplicity in itself.”

“There’s a harmony about it, and the presentation has no extraneous components to it,” he told The Washington Post. “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.”

The dramatic difference between black and light fonts, between super bold and super light rules, “act as organizing devices for the reader so they will slide right through that label,” he added.

Mr. Belser compared the finished product — which he later adapted to over-the-counter drugs — to the Apple iPod.

“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,” he said. “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.”

In an interview, David A. Kessler, the FDA chief during the label’s creation, called Mr. Belser “an absolute genius.” President Bill Clinton honored him with a Presidential Design Award.

“The label had enormous public health impact for millions and millions of people who rely on it every day,” Kessler said.

James Burkey Belser was born in Columbia, S.C., on July 8, 1947. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was an interior designer. After divorcing in 1952, his mother remarried and moved to Memphis, where he and his sister were raised.

As a boy, he loved New Yorker cartoons, and he often redrew them. He majored in English and minored in studio art at Davidson College in North Carolina, graduating in 1969.

Mr. Belser then studied French literature at the University of Montpellier in southern France, and when he returned, in 1970, he got a job as circulation director of Avant Garde, an arts and politics magazine published by Ralph Ginzburg.

He left after a year, traveling with a girlfriend to Turkey, where they embarked on a 3,300-mile journey to Kathmandu, Nepal.

Upon returning to the United States, Mr. Belser and his girlfriend stopped briefly in Washington, where artist Lou Stovall let them crash at his house. They planned to settle in Boston, but Stovall convinced them to stay, getting Mr. Belser a job as business manager of the Righteous Apple, a graphic design studio connected to New Thing Art & Architecture Center, a nonprofit.

Mr. Belser set off on his own 18 months later, teaching himself graphic design and creating samples of magazine brochures, posters and logos to show prospective clients. He made hundreds of calls, resulting in handfuls of meetings.

He persisted and ultimately launched Burkey Belser Inc. in 1978, the same year he married Greenfield, a government lawyer. She started a consulting company focusing on professional services, and the two entities eventually merged into Greenfield/Belser.

Their design firm was an early and dominant player in legal advertising and branding, a new category of business that opened up following the Supreme Court’s 1977 ruling in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona that advertising for legal services was protected commercial speech.

The firm grew to more than 40 employees and was also a leader in arts branding, book catalogue covers and corporate design. Finn Partners, a global design agency, bought Greenfield/Belser in 2016.

In addition to his wife, survivors include two children, Mikell Belser Rice of Bethesda, Md., and James Belser of Aurora, Colo.; two grandchildren; a sister; and a half brother.

In 2016, the FDA modified the nutrition label, with the most noticeable change being a large increase in type-size for calories.

“The simplicity has been abandoned in favor of brute-force communication,” Mr. Belser told the Commercial Appeal, observing that “calories are literally shouting like all caps in an email.”

In one sense, Mr. Belser was frustrated.

“It feels as if my daughter got married to somebody I like well enough but not all that much, a gangly guy with a cowlick,” he told the paper.

But in another sense, the changes were a victory.

“This is the first time they have touched the label in 20 years,” he said. “I think that says what we did then was done right.”



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