Are Designers Responsible for Obesity?

The design of a menu can influence consumers to choose healthier options, according to a FAST Company article. The corollary, of course, is that design choices can influence unhealthy eating. Which raises an interesting question: Are designers morally responsible for obesity in North America?

There’s no denying there’s an obesity epidemic: a staggering one third of Americans are obese. There’s a strong argument it’s a moral issue too with obesity causing 100,000-400,000 deaths each year, depending on who you listen to. There are many factors affecting people’s weight. Are some of them addressable with better design?

There are lots of reasons why people consume too many calories. For instance, designers have increased portion sizes, dramatically, as this ‘then and now’ visual shows (I’m not giving up movie popcorn anytime soon, even though my waistline says I should!). Of course the marketers who design menus, packaging, and advertising have all played a role. It’s also important to note that foods today use ingredients with higher calorie and lower nutritional densities. Essentially, many design choices have fed the obesity problem.

It’s not just a food problem, though. The car was a wonderful invention. Some claim the automobile has had the greatest impact on society, more than any other invention. A more sedentary lifestyle is one of the side effects. A study in Melbourne, Australia suggests your daily commute is weighing down more than just your cheery disposition. Why did car designers make passengers sit while driving, where the most exercise amounts to the tap of a foot or the turn of the stereo dial? Car design has clearly lost something since the stone ages: say what you will about the Flinstone’s car, they had slim waistlines and amazing quadriceps. I have neither.

The car’s impact on city design hasn’t helped either. In the article The Impact of Technological Change on Urban Form, Kenneth Jackson discusses how pre-Industrial cities were really ‘walking cities’:

“When Queen Victoria was born in 1819, London had about 800,000 residents and was the largest city on earth. Yet an individual could easily walk the three miles from Paddington, Kensington, Hammersmith, and Fulham, then on the very edge of the city, to the center in only two hours.”

In our real-time world few people are willing to burn two hours walking across town. But even then most people rarely walked from end to end. According to Jackson getting to work was a short jaunt: “In 1815, even in the largest cities, only about one person in fifty travelled as much as one mile to his place of employment.” The design of modern cities is based on the assumption that people will drive, or ride public transportation. The resulting urban sprawl turned that design assumption into a self-fulfilling prophecy – walking is rarely practical.

Addressing obesity doesn’t require one massive solution. Small design choices could have a huge impact in aggregate – smaller portion sizes, menus that subtly promote healthy food, bicycle lanes on city streets, cars with a built-in treadmill (okay, maybe not that one) – can all add up to visible results.

While participating on a recent design project I learned how Loblaw, Canada’s largest grocery store chain, implemented the Guiding Stars program. Guiding Stars helps shoppers make healthier food choices by displaying a health rating on its shelf display. While shopping the next day I noticed the stars, and my family ate a little healthier that night. I now look at every food’s Guiding Stars rating before I buy. It’s a very simple yet effective design element. Healthier design doesn’t have to be difficult.

Some argue that individuals just need to make better choices, to eat healthy, to walk to work. True, the consumer has a role to play in all of this. I don’t have to buy that large, butter-loaded popcorn every time I go to the theatre.  BUT it’s hard to deny that design influences us in subtle ways. Shouldn’t consumers be able to trust that vendors will keep them safe and healthy? We don’t allow manufacturers to use dangerous chemicals in children’s toys. When are designers in the food industry morally responsible for the design choices they make?