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Big Ideas

The High-design, Highly Unregulated Vitamin Market is Booming—How Responsible are Designers for Pushing Fake Pills?

As smartly packaged vitamins and supplements flood the market—as well as our Instagram feeds—what moral obligation do designers have to call out snake-oil salesmen when they see them?

“These lare basically candy; they’re almost entirely sugar.” My sister is rummaging through my kitchen looking for snacks and comes across the bright, attractive packaging of a newly-launched vitamin brand with an impossibly whimsical name. It doesn’t take a leading authority to see behind the Instagram-ready fonts and minimalist containers, and recognize that these “health” supplements are just just half a step above Sour Patch Kids.

The supplement industry is a booming $30 billion-a-year market, and by 2045 it’s expected to balloon to a whopping $247 billion. It’s only natural that entrepreneurs would want a piece of the pie, even if they lack the necessary dietary or medical training to weigh in on the value of their product. Sure, they may consult nutritional experts, sometimes even doctors, but they don’t actually have to; vitamins and supplements do not require FDA approval to go to market. Sour Patch Kids could be repackaged and sold as a vitality-boosting supernutrient (they could even use that word I just made up) and no one is going to get fined or lose their medical license over it. 

So what about the people behind the packaging, the designers tasked with making a flawed product look polished and enticing or, in the worst case, legitimate? What moral obligation do they have to vet a product before giving it their full professional treatment, and just how much vetting is reasonable to ask, both of the designer, and of us, the consumer? 

Franny Howard* is a packaging designer with a decade of experience on similar projects. “It would definitely give me pause,” she said, in reference to being asked to promote a vitamin or supplement she felt was flawed. “It’s accepted in the industry that a designer is free to decline work on tobacco, and sometimes even alcohol and spirits.” But, she admits, she once took on an assignment, despite her misgivings, out of necessity.

“I needed the job so I had to say yes at the time. But I’m not really proud of it.” It’s no secret that freelance designers often need work and can’t be picky. The ethical line can get just as hazy for those who work in-house or at an agency, and are unable to cherry pick assignments. A product like tobacco is, in Howard’s words, a “known hazard,” but a vitamin supplement is often seen as less black-and-white. “It’s probably not doing any harm, but it might not do any good, either. I’d say it’s up to the designer to make that personal call and think it through.”

abacus, inline, vitamin, packaging, design, ethics

Image by Maggie West, courtesy of Abacus

Designer Ryder Ripps is known for provocative, and more than occasionally controversial work that blurs the lines between art, new media, and subtle critique of hyper-consumerist culture. In 2016, he took his trademark digi-apocalyptic aesthetic to the health business, creating the branding around Soylent, a line of nutritional products ranging from supplement shakes to snack bars. He was so energized by the project he later moved to Savannah, Georgia, and launched his own supplement, Abacus Energy Pills, which offer “nearly double the active ingredients of Red Bull and 5 Hour Energy at about 1/5th the price.” Given Ripps’ past experience with tongue-in-cheek social statements, this might look like trolling. The pills, however, are now available on Amazon, making them, in essence, an accepted supplement.

“I think the ethics of design comes down to: is it ethical to make a product that adds nothing to the visual landscape of the world?”

Ripps continued, “Every new thing brought into the world should excite people. I find generic labels pretty unethical as they impose a depressing worldview.” He asserts that there’s little difference between branding vitamin supplements and revamping the public image of a clothing company. Consider all the branding that goes into socially acceptable pharmaceuticals, from Zoloft to Propecia. “Drugs have always been the height of branding, perhaps its deepest and most sensei state.”

olly, vitamin, packaging, design, ethics

Olly caption

One of the vitamin brands that initially drew my attention is OLLY. Launched a few years ago, OLLY is the brainchild of entrepreneur Eric Ryan (who also launched Method) and his partner Brad Harrington (formerly of Shaklee, a nutrition supplement distributor). Together, they set out to “reinvent the look, taste, and feel of boring supplements and brighten up the drab vitamin aisle,” according to their PR rep. By using words like Calm, Sleep, Energy, and Bones, rather than “confusing letters and numbers,” OLLY set out to make vitamins “easier than ever.” While I was unaware that vitamins were ever hard, I did notice these were significantly sweeter—another case of candy masquerading as a cure-all?

Ryan said his “Product Team always evaluates coated vs. uncoated gummy options during the product development process with the goal being to deliver the best product experience. The most common reason to use the sugar coating is to help mask the taste of bitter vitamins or active ingredients like caffeine. Since the sugar is the first thing to hit your tongue’s taste buds, it turns on your sweet receptors before the bitter ones are activated, so that the overall perception is a sweet flavor.” He indicated that the total amount of sugar in each serving of OLLY gummies is 2-3 grams on average, even in the sugar-coated gummies, so its total contribution to the recommended daily sugar limit is fairly small, even when compared to a glass of store-bought juice (which may add up to at least 10-20 grams).

Unfortunately, the pill beneath that sugar coating may be even more bitter than its cheery packaging design would indicate. When asked about the scientific research and development that went into the nutritional makeup of OLLY’s line of supplements, Ryan said, “We firmly believe that the role of creatives is to lead consumers rather than to follow, so we were careful to use research in a way that validated our beliefs but didn’t take away from the ability to be visionary.” What kind of crack team of advocates for cherry-picking studies that validate a favorable hypothesis, you ask?

“OLLY’s products are formulated by an in-house team of credentialed health and nutrition experts, including a naturopathic physician, nutritionist, and pharmacist who, together, have decades of experience researching and developing dietary supplements,” said Ryan. “They use published science to select the ingredients and dose levels of those ingredients required to deliver the intended health benefit.” And while OLLY’s pills may promise “Endless Energy” or claim to be the “Perfect Women’s Multi Vitamin,” and its design may reinforce that optimism and establish a sense of trust, there are no laws to protect consumers from companies selling pretty little sugar pills, just a warning statement to consumers that any claims of health and wellness “have not been regulated by the FDA.” Buyer beware.

elysium, vitamin, packaging, design, ethics

Image courtesy of Elysium Healthy

Another sleekly packaged supplement making the rounds on social media is Basis by Elysium Health, which promises to significantly increase the body’s natural production of NAD+, the so-called “youth enzyme.” Founded in 2014 by biologist Leonard Guarente, Head of the Paul F. Glenn Center for Biology of Aging Research at MITwho has thoroughly studied aging and chronic disease and how natural products can improve health and quality of life, it’s one of the few brands that seems thoroughly, medically vetted. Some have called it the Aesop of the supplement world, not only because of its appeal to the same health-conscious, affluent demographic, but because of its highly recognizable, science-chic  packaging, which often turns up on Instagram and Facebook.

Design helps communicate our message and mission in a way that highlights that it’s different from anything else in the market, and we continue to refine how we do that every day,” said Elysium Health CEO Eric Marcotulli . “A pillar of our brand is making important and often complex scientific topics and research accessible to consumers.”

Visually, our reliance on white and clean, straightforward type helps distill and simplify technical science concepts into useful and more easily understood content,” Elysium Health’s chief creative officer Andrew Lin told us, pointing to the brand’s standalone editorial publication, Endpoints, which “covers advancements in science and health with the goal of making science accessible to the public.” It’s obvious that Elysium’s creators obsess about their branding as much as they do about the product itself, which has been a huge part of their success. 

The boom in highly-packaged vitamins isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the controversy. In fact, the “hipster cosmetics boom” backlash is already underway, suggesting that we’re going to see more and more of these debates.

We’re definitely seeing a rise in supplements. Consumers are becoming aware that everything has a ‘fix,’ and are more knowledgeable of the impact of each ingredient that they ingest,” says Yarden Horwitz of Google’s Trends Team, citing the extraordinary rise in heavily branded skincare and wellness items. Interestingly, in studying food trends, she’s noticed a move towards products containing “supplement-esque products” ranging from the mundane (turmeric) to the exotic (ashwagandha, a rejuvenative herb beloved by yogis). “Interestingly, brands that promote these types of powders aren’t necessarily focusing on the packaging of the product, but mainly showing the recipes or beautiful scenery that tells the right story of health and adventure and ‘living your best life.’” Is it too soon to predict that this trend may soon bleed into the vitamin world, creating a backlash against hyper-branded products and a return to more earnest design?

“My hypothesis is that consumers are still in the early educational phase, and the searches are a bit more generic at this stage” she said, suggesting that we’re only just waking up to the wide world of wellness and that, in the future, great packaging might have to keep pace with more significant health concerns. But, for now, when you see a smartly packaged supplement pop up in your Instagram feed, it’s still worth doing your homework. Even if the ingredients are set in Helvetica, sometimes a supplement is really just nothing more than a well-conceptualized dose of snake oil, even if it looks great in a #shelfie.

*Name has been changed for anonymity

More Posts by Laura Feinstein

Laura Feinstein is a writer and editor, covering the intersection of art, technology, and global culture.

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