Born in South Carolina, Belser studied English and took a minor in art. He then studied French literature. So it seems unlikely he would be known as a graphic artist; he was self-taught in that field. He worked for magazines and a design studio before starting his own design firm, specializing in advertising for lawyers once that became legal in 1977.
In 1992, Belser got a phone call offering what he would later say was “the best project I ever did.” David Kessler called to say, “Burkey, I have a great project for you, but you have to do this for free.” Kessler was the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Congress had mandated the FDA create a standardized food nutrition label, but didn’t provide any funds to create it.
Belser took the job. It didn’t have to be pretty; it had to be understandable by the average consumer, and be eye-catching so it was easy to find on a busy package. “I don’t know if anybody’s heart beats faster when they see Nutrition Facts,” he said later, “but they sense a pleasure that they get the information they need.” It became perhaps the most-reproduced graphic art in the world, printed on the packages of 700,000 foods, many of which are sold in the millions.
Though perhaps another FDA label, the “Drug Facts” on over-the-counter medicine packages, is the most-reproduced label. That would be OK: Belser designed that one too, as well as the “Energy Guide” tag or label that comes with home appliances. Hopefully he got paid for those. He went on to write multiple books on advertising and design, and won dozens of awards. James Burkey Belser died from bladder cancer on September 25 at his home in Bethesda, Md. He was 76.