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

“These are 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.”

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Abacus caption

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 Alabama 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.”

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