The U.S. Department of Agriculture just unveiled a new graphic icon to encourage healthier eating: a dinner plate of brightly colored pie slices labeled vegetables, fruits, grains and protein, with a circular portion of dairy to the side. It’s meant to be a visual template for constructing the ideal 21st -century meal.

This supplants the pyramid that had been used to guide public nutrition since 1992. The pyramid spoke the scientific language of proportion, but the dinner plate domesticates the data, bringing it to the kitchen table. In a country increasingly plagued by obesity and fatal diseases related to unhealthy eating habits, a change of tactics for federal nutrition education was clearly needed. Many found the pyramid to be unnecessarily abstract.

But is a toy town plate, no matter how approachable, a sufficient strategy to address such a complicated and deeply ingrained set of problems as a nation’s nutritional health? Or is it just too simple?

Icons are used in public education campaigns of all kinds as visual mnemonics to help people keep important principles in mind. A picture of a baby asleep on its back with sheep jumping above it, for example, is a visual reminder to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome by putting babies to bed facing up.

Didactic Graphics

The first graphics produced for the government nutrition education program -- at the beginning of the 20th century, when its aim was to help a malnourished population make the best of limited food resources -- were didactic and hectoring. A typical National Dairy Council poster from the period depicts smiling rosy-cheeked children and plates heaped high with cream, butter and cheese, accompanied by the caption “The Greatest Nation Must Be Built on These.”

Later designs, like the food pyramid, were characterized by their organization and clarity. But times have changed, and so has our approach to influencing public behavior through design. Today, graphic identity and public messaging have become more subtle and more fragmented, reflecting a niche-oriented consumer society in which a top-down flow of communication no longer makes sense.

A campaign in New York City to promote environmental sustainability, for example, has re-invented graphic public messages to encourage the city’s multiple constituencies to ride bikes, use less energy and recycle more.

Dinner Plate Design

Various designers, photographers and illustrators have been commissioned to work on different parts of the campaign. A wide-eyed cartoon bird, by the design group HunterGatherer, for example, strikes various poses to urge consumers to pay bills online and use compact florescent light bulbs.

Logos and symbols no longer need to be static and simplistic; they can be digitally tailored for different audiences and contexts.

In introducing the dinner-plate icon, first lady Michelle Obama said feeding our children should be easy -- as long as their plates are “half full of fruits and vegetables, and paired with lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy.” In real life, though, our foods are messier than that. In which category, for example, would a burrito fit? Or a breakfast shake?

Even the plate itself is something a portion of Americans might not recognize. Many people now eat directly from a chicken bucket or pizza box.

Obesity Concern

The icon’s simplicity makes it equally ill-suited to address obesity. Weight control is a complex challenge involving everything from the prevalence of cheap, high-calorie meals to a lack of basic knowledge of how to shop for and cook healthy foods. It’s not clear how the cheerfully colorful plate can remind us to watch our daily calories.

Considering President Barack Obama’s commitment to sophisticated design, as evidenced by his 2008 campaign graphics -- including a bold website design and Sol Sender’s Obama-horizon icon -- his administration might have aimed higher for its nutrition campaign. It would have been more useful to create a flexible system of information graphics, educational videos and social media applications tailored for different target audiences. Some could have addressed how to cook with nutrition in mind, others how to shop for the most nutritious food and still others how to gauge how much we eat.

A flexible system could also do more than a single icon to take into account the wide range of eating habits that exist in this country. In an era of XXL, one-size-fits-all design can no longer cut it.

(Alice Twemlow is the chairwoman of the design criticism MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the author of this column: Alice Twemlow at atwemlow@sva.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net