Do Federal Nutritionists Get Graphic Design? Maybe Not

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MyPlate, which replaced the Food Pyramid, is pleasing and colorful. But it's a logo, not a chart—and that's a problem.

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Simplicity is efficient when conveying complex information to we, the masses. So rather than serving up impenetrable charts and graphs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is offering new nutrition guidelines on a dinner plate, replacing the ubiquitous and often confounding Food Pyramid. The plate, known as MyPlate, is divided into four colored slices representing fruits, grains, protein, and vegetables, with dairy in a cup off to the side. It is more vibrant than the pyramid, but is it better?

The first flaw is the fork (no spoon or knife) apparently needed to anchor the plate concept. Without the fork, is the plate just a circle?

The pyramid had been the chart-of-choice since 1992. Although uninspired, it did the job by recommending six to 11 servings of grains, three to five servings of veggies, two to four servings of fruit, and several servings of meat, dairy, or other protein. The plate is a simpler design but it is possibly too simplistic for the task.

Reporting on the new MyPlate, Sue Apfelbaum on the AIGA website notes, "MyPlate is far simpler to digest than MyPyramid was, and the plate is already somewhat ubiquitous as a symbol for what to eat [it is used by the National Diabetes Association, American Institute for Cancer Research, Canada's food guide, and Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine] so it should easily be accepted by the public. Exactly how much of each food type should be a part of each meal is not entirely clear from MyPlate, but each section is meant to suggest the ratio of food group on the plate, not actual portion size." The Associated Press says the USDA plate is "designed to be 'more artistic and attractive' and to serve as a visual cue for diners."

So how does the design stand up to scrutiny? Charts are meant to provide information. Unlike the pyramid, the plate skirts around the data. Instead of a chart it is a logo or mnemonic for healthy eating—no more revealing than the recycling symbol, which effectively says "recycle!" but does not indicate how to do so. MyPlate is also more like a banner or hotlink to the USDA site, which asks and answers nutritional FAQs. The question is: Should it do more? Or is it fine with less?

At best, MyPlate triggers nutritional awareness through its pleasing shape and tasty jelly colors. At worst, it is an unresolved mark. The first flaw is the fork (no spoon or knife) apparently needed to anchor the plate concept. Without the fork, is the plate just a circle? I think most people do not need the visual cue to make the connection. The organization of the plate suggests that these are not equal portions, but what they should be is a mystery—give us the facts! The typography, especially the longest word, "vegetables," seems like an afterthought. While it is necessary to provide a key for these color segments, simply labeling them in this inelegant manner shows a lack of integration. Incidentally, the design of these segments suggest buttons on a Game Boy or PlayStation, which promise and fail to deliver more interactivity.

The abstract nature of the illustration is essentially pleasing to the eye. Yet pleasure is not the primary goal of the mark. It should either have been even more abstract to trigger some kind of Pavlovian response, or bring back the old pyramid in brighter, more appetizing colors.

Image: USDA

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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