The Visual Display of Fattening Information
November 25, 2007
Last week, I watched the “60 Minutes” segment about chain restaurants and the growing pressure by New York health officials to prominently display calorie counts.*
My mind turned an ashamed eye back to a Starbucks in Washington, DC, which fed me a small mocha frappuccino a day for an entire, hot summer. Urban legend has it that a frappuccino has ‘as much fat as a Big Mac.’ I never motivated to research this until now… <researching>… actually, the small one isn’t as bad as that. Phew. Apparently hyperbole goes both ways in the Obesity Wars. But I’ll stick with tea.
Back to “60 Minutes”. Lesley Stahl accuses a calorie count board hanging at a Wendy’s of being “drab and easy to miss.” From what I saw in the video, that seemed a bit unfair. True, the text is small. But there’s lots of stuff to show (which is probably why the Starbucks site is very interactive).
From the show’s online summary:
[A Wendy’s spokesperson] says that because Americans love to customize — adding cheese or extra mayo — providing accurate information is nearly impossible… [He] showed 60 Minutes a Wendy’s menu board that lists the combos.
He then showed Stahl what it would look like [with calorie counts]: a dense, cluttered board, with tiny type. “Obviously … no one can read it. And you would have to see this from eight feet away,” [he] explains.
“Let me see. This is absurd. Oh my gosh,” Stahl remarks.
Seeing the board, I saw an information design problem. A problem for:
As far as I know, Mr. Tufte has never tackled this. How would he — or any information designer — present calorie counts in a way that is accurate, comprehensive, and easy to read at a glance?
Would it change how people order? Would it change how they eat?
In other, more dramatic terms: Could good information design fight obesity? (Has it already, in supermarket labeling?)
*The logic that targets the chains is a bit bizarre, according to “60 Minutes”:
The calorie labeling in New York would not apply to “calorie Meccas,” like Chinese restaurants, delis, and fancy French bistros. The chains were singled out because they already publish nutritional information about their food…
Would I want to be confronted with calorie counts wherever I eat out? No. Would I want to know, when choosing where to eat, that the worst of the offenders had been banned? Sure. For example, while it would be naive to trust that the FDA vets everything, there’s a reason it exists.