Designing socially sustainable food labeling.

How interaction design can change the way we eat.

Kirk Draheim
Dec 10, 2015 · 8 min read

There’s a fire inside me, and it’s what people call passion. I am passionate about helping myself and my people become stronger through the food they eat. “We are what we eat,” is not just a saying, it’s one-hundred percent true. Food is how we transduce the energy given to us by the universe into our bodies so that we can enjoy that which is life. The organic matter that makes up our bodies comes from the food we eat. When we starve our bodies of the nutrients it craves, we limit its ability to grow and function properly.

Sugar from fruit is a great way to provide fast acting and high caloric density energy to our bodies. Sugar also triggers a massive dopamine rush when we taste it. Our brains have been biologically wired to seek out sugar since before we evolved to walk on two legs (bipedal locomotion). Before farming was discovered, food was scarce; sugary fruits were an extremely effective and rewarding way of obtaining energy. The problem we face now, in the 21st century, is that we are surrounded with an abundance of added sugar (sugar added to foods) in our food system. We no longer need to seek out sugary things as we once did, yet we can’t resist the temptation to do so. Our desire for sugar bypasses reason and logic because the primitive part of our brain, the Nucleus Accumbens our pleasure center, is neurologically wired to seek out its reward.

Food corporations are taking advantage of this. Added sugar is hidden in 74% of packaged foods. This pattern needs to end soon or we face huge consequences, for example, 1 in 3 people will be diabetic in 2050 according to the CDC. How can it be 2015 and we still don’t have the recommended daily value of sugar on our food labels? This question is what drove my quest of designing a sugar warning label for the world’s most popular treat, Coca-Cola.

I chose to focus on soft-drinks because 1/3 of all added sugar consumed in the United States comes from soft-drinks alone. Sodas contain a massive amount of sugar and no nutritional value. Soda seemed like a worthy adversary in my quest to expose its dangers. However, I did not arrive at this decision from the start. I explored and prototyped several different food label concepts for which I could design for.

Concept One: Nutrition Labels

Nutrition labels were my original target. I think they are great tools, but not user friendly. An astounding 60% of people have difficulty understanding nutrition labels. My original hypothesis was to create a nutrition label that leveraged visual metaphors to help people understand the information. I started on paper exploring different frameworks and visual metaphors.

I moved to digital once I had an idea I liked. The idea behind these labels was to use triangles to represent the percent daily value. Because of the nature of triangles, a low percent would appear as a lot. The higher the percentage, the less room there appears to be, causing the consumer to become more cautious of how much they are eating. I also added a visual metaphor for the serving size, reworded several phrases to make serving size more understandable. I emphasized calories and added a color code so people can easily find what they are looking for. The feedback I got was that this may be “nicer to look at and read, but I was still manipulating people and not representing accurate information.” I still like the idea as a concept, but the feedback was convincing enough for me to not pursue this route.

Concept Two: Food score

This food score gives people an at-a-glance guide for a product’s nutrition quality, ecological friendliness, and worker fairness. The food score, located on the front right of all packaged foods, would be supplemental to the nutrition facts that currently exist on the side and rear of packages. The goal of this concept is to help people who have trouble understanding food labels by simplifying it, increase the number of people who pay attention to nutrition, and encourage shoppers to consider purchasing healthier and more sustainable products.

Concept Three: Nutrition Guide

The other concept was a nutrition guide iOS app. Scanning or searching a product results in relevant information such as, ingredient health rating, risks associated with consumption, ingredient information, nutrition breakdown, and articles related to its health risks/benefits and marketing ploys. This product would save hours of time spent researching certain foods by doing the research for you. The feedback I got was that, “I was adding a layer of complexity to the purchasing process and that would likely lead to it not being used.” In hindsight, I realized that I am actually reducing the complexity it requires to become aware about certain foods. It may be a useful tool for people who already are trying to be healthy, but I want to help people that aren’t like me.

Concept Four: Sugar Warning Label

The idea behind this concept was simple. Visualize the amount of sugar in the can, on the can. The label represents the amount of sugar if measured out in its solid state. A simple, yet effective metaphor of what 49 grams of sugar looks like. Everyone I showed this idea to gravitated towards it. There was just something striking about how simple and effective it was at conveying important information. This idea was inspired by people who measured out the sugar and placed them in cups or bags next to the product, surprisingly no one had considered the idea of putting it on the can. It was obvious this was the concept that I was to push further.

Ecosystem Map

Before I started designing the labels I explored the relationships between the actors and objects in the packaging space and designed an ecosystem map. Here’s a fun fact I discovered along the way: the FDA allows a 20% accuracy range for the nutrition facts, so if you are drinking a 100 calorie drink, it might actually be more like 120 calories.

Physical Prototyping…

The next step was to create physical prototypes of my concepts. After several user tests and a critique, I gained valuable insights on how to improve the label and further validated that the sugar label was, in fact, the concept that resonated with people the most. People were not able to easily understand that the label represented the amount of sugar, so I revised the wording.

For the second prototype, I decided to make the background have a sugar texture, rather than a plain white. I also added a proactive tip on how to burn off the calories. After testing the second prototype I found that the texture did not come across as sugar, they thought, “it was dirty.” I also got feedback that the wording was still not clear. People enjoyed the tip on how to burn it off because it gave them an idea of the amount of energy in the can. The wording, “you are about to drink this much sugar,” was still not clicking with people.

The final Design.

The final design incorporated a less literal texture of sugar, I used a pattern that resembled sugar rather than an image. I also changed the text on the can to say, “This label represents the amount of added sugar in this beverage.” In addition, I visually improved the label and brand by adding more icons and redistributed the text areas.

Right Side
Center View
Left side

Going Public

Part of this quest was to actually bring this design out into the public and gather reactions. My goal was to give away 100 Coca-Cola cans to the public containing my sugar warning label. In order to do this I needed to print, cut, paste, transport, and hand out my design.

Reused a cart I used for a last project
100 cans of coke
Hand cut labels with exacto knife and ruler
100 cans of coke with my label, hand pasted with double sided tape
Finally made it out into the public (located on the end of the ferry building closest to fisherman's’ wharf)

The reaction

I can’t tell you how overwhelmingly positive the public’s reaction was. This was information that they wanted to know, and my visual metaphor was extremely effective. Many people were very supportive of my cause; taking pictures of the design as well as pictures of me! Doctors, nurses, and farmers gave me their contact information so that we could stay in touch. I gave lectures to children about the dangers of soda and sugar. I was surprised at how many people were not aware of how much sugar was in soda. From my 2.5 hours in the public, the label proved its value ten-fold. My most successful moments were when several different people came to grab a Coca-Cola, read the label, and put it back! Successful behavior change.

Watch their reactions below.

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