Stop, children … everybody look what’s going down.

Stop, children, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s going down”—For What It’s Worth: Buffalo Springfield

I saw this NY Times op-art piece and had to stop for a moment:

I admire the sentiment, but the execution is a little rough—The soda labels are good, and factually accurate, but the milk bottle is confusing and the bagged meal label makes no sense.

The soda bottles are clever, eye-catching, and say the right things. Drinking too much soda can lead to weight gain, diabetes, possibly tooth decay, and is generally not supposed to be a staple item.  The average American drinks 53 gallons of soda a year, mostly made with high-fructose corn syrup, or artificial non-nutritive sweeteners.  Irrespective of whether HFCS has a different metabolic path than sucrose (cane sugar), that’s still about 79,000 kilocalories a year to drink (that would be 565 12-floz cans of Coca-Cola classic).  Or in other terms, 20 lbs of fat, in energy terms.  Whether or not aspartame or sucralose have adverse health effects is a debate I’m not going to get into here.

The milk bottle doesn’t make sense to me: the label on the side says “organic” and there’s a big ‘no’ symbol on the big kid, so what do they mean? does it contain rBGH or not?

The bagged meal, is rather confusing as well: what do you mean by “this meal will not decompose for one year”?  Strange, but not really informative.  It sounds a little like the urban legend that Twinkies ® are intended for a 25 year life.  Apparently, they’re designed to last 25 days (see Twinkie, Deconstructed)

Information presentation is supposed to get a message across.  To that end, it has to be (A) the right message and (B) intelligible.  While the point of this is satire, injecting some levity into the recent announcement of more graphic labels on cigarette packages.  Those messages will have some effect, but I think the FDA could do well saying “this product is only available because the tobacco lobby bribed congress members” (appeal to moral revulsion)

For a very good discussion of moral revulsion and how your brain is cross wired, see here:


I’m interested in making sense of how we got here – and promoting conscious, reasoned actions to steer the future. Over the last 100 years, there has been profound change in the way we live, and those changes inevitably influence the immediate future of our society. Our environment determines our actions to a great degree, especially when we do not consider its influence.

By making our path to the here and now sensible and understandable, we as a society can take a measured look at our situation, and consider where we are going. If where we’re headed on the status quo line isn’t where we really want to go, we can make changes in our behaviors, technologies, and environment, in order to end up in a (hopefully) better situation.

An information presentation is inevitably persuasive, and by designing the presentation to be acted on, change in behavior can be effected. As BJ Fogg’s mantra says, “put hot triggers in the path of motivated people” (Fogg, 2010). See Lily’s YouTube video on the topic. This change can be in individual behavior, or in the system—through changes in the built environment or in policy.

Many examples of information visualizations of how our environment evolved have appeared in the media and in academic papers, and they influence the understanding of issues and present conceptual frameworks, such as “Climate Wedges”:

Policy and design decisions have caused us to gain weight, shaped our living patterns, changed the ways we view and use resources, and have modified the dynamics of our relationships. Irrespective of value judgments related to these issues, these changes have for the most part been out of the view and out of the consideration of the public, and more importantly have only considered their impact narrowly.

In order to make reasoned decisions about the future (especially important in a democratic political model), an understanding of the situation is essential, and its historical context. While it is impossible to present information without bias, especially in a persuasive medium, the facts do lean towards certain conclusions.

The Wicked Problems paradigm describes the highly complex interactions underlying issues such as the obesity epidemic, which combines such disparate issues as the development of high fructose corn syrup and zoning laws. Bob Horn’s Mess Mapping visual analysis technique can be very useful in understanding complex problems such as this, and through visual analysis the antecedents to the problem can be determined, and therefore addressed.

A framework for telling these types of stories has been to follow a process or item. Steve Ettlinger’s Twinkie Deconstructed tells the story of the Twinkie, and shows the ‘miracles of science’ part of our food system by breaking down a food product into its chemical constituents (see Dwight Eschliman’s photography of those items, for a real visual treat). The documentary King Corn follows an acre of corn, and ventures into a discussion of agriculture policy and food science. Nicholas Felton’s Feltron reports are an excellent showpiece of how to make data look elegant, but it doesn’t tell as much of a narrative story.

To address highly complex issues, it is necessary to have both a solid understanding of the antecedents, and a method for effecting change. As the obesity epidemic stems from a large variety of antecedents, the issue must be addressed on multiple levels, by policy changes, technological innovations, and individual efforts. Being able to understand where to start, especially at the policy level (which can incentivize changes on other levels of intervention), can make it possible to change the direction of the epidemic.