Food labelling is a commercial battlefield

Food labelling is a can of worms (DW 23 February). It’s a conflict between the provision of public information and sales targets – and information design is the battleground.

When politics and commercial interests go to battle over information design – I heard the fmcgs rubbishing the traffic light system on the radio – you will end up with a dog’s dinner. Just look at the signing on the railways – what a mess.

There will always be this battle, but it will be consumer power that forces clearer food labelling. Are fmcg brands interested in providing effective information design? The answer is a reluctant yes, but it depends what you want your information design to do. The most effective system would be one, universal method – because then we could all learn it and it’d be more useful.

Is the current system effective? Go ask the public and see if it works. Personally, I don’t know if 1g of something is a lot or not – it needs more context. Traffic lights seem to be a bit blunt (and potentially ruinous for sales). Red is a powerful warning and these labels are surely about informing, not fatal warnings, as on cigarettes, so I can see why they’ve gone their own way – which is not a good thing.

Are fmcgs doing enough to consult the design world? Labelling is a very powerful tool, and most fmcgs work with packaging companies who aren’t necessarily information designers.

Information design is more scientific and quite easy to manipulate or to render useless – it’s a delicate balance. I may be doing some of the work a disservice, as it may be well-researched and tested. If it is, then this should be published in titles like Design Week.

As a profession, we could do more peer group evaluation – as with medicine – and publish our research for scrutiny. I’m happy to do this with our wayfinding work.

Tim Fendley, Applied Information Group, London EC1V

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