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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?

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  • No, since designers are given guidelines and an objective. If the menu ends up influencing unhealthier options, is because marketers chose so, not designers.

    Blame the master, not the tool.

    • Good point, Joao! 🙂 I meant to use the term 'designer' in a more general sense - the marketers who design the ads, the people who design the cups, the industrial designers who decide how people use the car, urban planners who design cities, the chefs who design product ingredients, the managers who design the business objective, etc.

  • Not sure what this blog has to do with SAP or Business Trends and why it was posted on SCN of all the websites. But since this is an important and somewhat personal ( I've gone through 3 dress size weght loss over 10 years ago) issue, just want to comment - no one but yourself is responsible for your own weight or diet. Take a long hard look in the mirror and ask yourself: who is in control of your body - you or the Lays potato chips (or popcorn in this case)?

    It's publications like this that contribute to obesity. Stop telling people someone else is to blame.

  • I'm going to admit I was really disappointed that article did not prove that the SAP GUI caused my personal weight issues and that by adopting Fiori, my problems would be solved.

    That being said personal choice is the real issue and not poor designs.  I live in an auto-centric area, but have access to miles of trails/sidewalks at home(one is 100+ miles long) and work so the use of the car is not the problem.  I can choose to be healthy if I want to be.

    • LOL 🙂

      SAPGui has definately not made a positive contribution to my health, nor the NWBC nor Fiori.

      One of my customers in the health care sector however offer an optional bonus plan for employees. They are "tagged" with a pedometer and encouraged to use stairs instead of lifts and walk around a bit to get to meetings on campus sites instead of driving. If they are more active, then it has an impact on year end appraisals.

      Downside is that the folks who ride solar powered bicycles and the likes felt discriminated against and there were lots of problems with misuse of guest parking spaces because folks tried to "clock in" to work somewhere else on campus and then walk around a bit. So they forced it that guest parking had to be reserved in advance and then all hell broke loose...

      -> For sure: if you design a system to encourage a certain behaviour, then (enough) people will adjust their behaviour and there are also unexpected side affects from shortcuts which typically make the issue worse.



  • Like Jelena, I wonder where the connection is to SAP in all this, but the way this discussion is headed, I would like to offer a different view. I agree that personal choice is the issue for a lot of obese Americans, but to me, the issue is not quite black and white. Yes, for some of us, the choice at our market is between indulging in the bunch of fresh, local, organic arugula or the pint of the high butterfat imported ice cream, and for a lot of us really fortunate folks, the price point never enters into the decision process. However, for many other people, the "choice" is how to get the family all fed now that the SNAP benefits have been cut, and fast food is nearly always cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables.

    And it is not just that simple either. I read this recently in an article on

    That's not to say that poor people don't make decisions about diet and exercise, but in general they are preoccupied with very different choices than wealthier people are: Should I pay my electricity or my water bill? Can I pay my rent and buy my kid a pair of school shoes? The immediacy of these pressures may make it more difficult to think about how eating choices today will affect health 10 or 20 years from now.


    Just something to consider, that it is more than just a matter of "personal choice" for a lot of people much less fortunate than we are.


    • There is definitely a "poverty of spirit" associated with this scenario.  The other big problem is that healthy foods have been turned into "luxury goods" by certain retailers instead of the commodity items that they should be in the first place.  if you are worried about bills then going to luxury grocery store chains(ala whole foods) is not in your budget.  We also have people insisting farmers grow food in less efficient ways or diverting food grown to other uses that raises overall commodity prices.  Even for a fast food budget, less food or healthier food at the same place cost more than the "value menu items".   We also rely too much on prepared food/dining out instead of making it ourselves.

      Take care,


    • Even on my SAP salary I can't afford to shop at Whole Foods (AKA "Whole Paycheck") for other than a few specialty or sale items. 🙂

      There are certainly many parts in the food equation, but I didn't want to justify the existence of this blog on SCN by starting a productive discussion in the comments (it felt important to speak just on one major point. If anyone would like to move a discussion to Coffee Corner, I'll gladly join.

      • Jelena,

        I'm all for continuing the discussion in the Coffee Corner, as the author has not yet chimed in with any connection to SAP solutions or services. nor has anyone else for that matter.


      • We will all end up in subsistence living in the agricultural sector sooner or later anyway, and then there will be lots of fresh veggies. No worries. If you are a resident of Kentucky then the option of roadkill also adds nutritional value (there are some nice recipes in the internet for possum stews and kebabs).



        ps: Perhaps I can make the connect here to coding quality?

        • Maybe you are on to something. Bad software design leads to lots of headaches and stress, which leads to massive chocolate intake which leads to obesity!

          • Yep, bad coding does not leave much time for sports, and that is scalable for all consumers of the code and functional enhancements options they might want.



  • Sorry for not chiming in earlier. I've been on vacation and having trouble commenting from my mobile phone.

    I do agree first, and foremost, that people need to take ownership for their choices! It's up to me to eat properly, exercise, and generally be my own advocate for a healthy lifestyle. I'm definitely not looking to blame anyone else!

    The goal was to start a discussion about where designers do (or do not) have a

    responsibility to help or hinder.The FAST Company article sparked the idea for the angle I took in this blog. Could have been a slightly different take; the intent was not to be offensive in any way!

    BUT I  believe some choices made by the people who design technologies and products will make it easier or harder for me to choose a healthy lifestyle. I have just spent a few days in New York city. I love the fact that most restaurant menus indicate the number of calories in the dish (I don't have that where I live). It's a simple design choice that makes it a lot easier for me to choose healthy! Without the 'designer' sharing this information it would be nearly impossible for me to know. Yes, I could go to a grocery store on my trip and make my meals in the hotel room, but the extra effort generally dissuades me from doing this!

    As alluded to above, your level of wealth and education can limit your ability to act on 'healthy options' is key. Not everyone can afford healthy foods, not everyone can choose to live close to their work, not everyone is educated enough (or has access to the Internet) to learn and understand everything they need to know in order to make informed, healthy choices in this complex world...

    Which raises yet another issue. Our world is so complex, we can't know enough about everything to always make informed choices. We eventually make assumptions that products won't harm us. Why can't I assume that products will look out for my best interest, and when they don't, at least inform me of it (i.e. some items on this menu are going to be bad for you, choose at your own risk!)?

    P.S. The connection to SAP is Loblaw, an SAP customer. Their loyalty application is designed with SAP technology and services. Loblaw takes very seriously the importance of helping their customers make healthy food and lifestyle choices and integrates that into their 'design' approach. I applaud their effort!