The Food Plate and Our Taste for Infographics
I’m excited about the introduction of the Food Plate, which The New York Times said will be unveiled by the Obama Administration this coming Thursday. Without even seeing it, a plate already seems like a more telegraphic icon to communicate what we should eat every day. Clear and educational without being bossy or boring, it’ll also be a useful tool for Michelle Obama’s initiative to help tackle childhood obesity (disclosure: for which my agency did work recently with the Ad Council).
The Food Plate replaces the despised Food Pyramid. I hated the Pyramid for its complexity but also because during Passover, it reminded me of the exodus from Egypt. I would think about how I was such a slave to fattening breads, dairy and routine, mostly due to my severe food allergies which had affected me nearly my entire life and were only getting worse with age. My banned food list — everything from nuts and pears and apples to spices, mustard and pepper — was a kind of indenture to a short list of what I could eat. It took five visits to an Upper East Side nutritionist to get me to a happier and healthier place of variety. I learned to focus on the green light of what I could eat rather than the red light of what I couldn’t.
The best educational symbols are like traffic lights. They stick in your mind and quickly teach. They provide a subtle confidence that you can go about your business in a normal way, with a foundation of civilization stable underneath. The earliest signs outside stores in the medieval ages were pictures of the services sold within. Shoes for a cobbler. Shirts for a tailor. A white castle for burgers.
Because we are a culture that’s both busy and semi-illiterate, we still use visual shortcuts. Street and traffic signs. Pick up after your dog signs. The choking poster in restaurants. Some stick, some don’t. The Department of Homeland Security recently replaced the five color coded threat system which didn’t help people with a two-level system which might, and the FDA has also updated the food label with clearer type, information and layout. The iconic Red Cross has one of the best, most universal and enduring logos on the planet, reinforcing its utter neutrality and support for all. It’s the reverse of Switzerland which also doesn’t like to pick a side.
Not everything is simple. The digital age has made richer information much more in demand. Infographics have become a part of the culture. Charts. Graphs. Maps. Comparisons. Two pioneers were the Smart Money Map of the Market and Marumushi’s Newsmap. In more recent years, Mint.com, Good Magazine, Daytum and even USA Today‘s popular little snapshot graphics have brought information design to the masses. Now you can enjoy data in context much closer to you and intimate with your life. The interactive Electoral Map in 2008 was also a watershed for widespread adoption. Who didn’t play out the scenarios with different swing states swinging different directions? Several of the big brands I work on in my day job tap infographics in different ways as a routine part of their work, whether it’s to communicate facts about their products in a new way or demonstrate the impact they’re having on an area of the world. We’ve been using icons for a long time on websites to help with navigation. Now we’re using infographics to help express thoughts more quickly.
Can’t wait to see the new Food Plate. I hope it’s colorful, I hope it’s clear, I hope it works. And for those hungry in the morning for a taste every day, there’s a blog for you: Daily Infographic.
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