Burkey Belser ’69

Burkey Belser was a graphic designer best known as the creator of the Nutrition Facts label mandated by the FDA, which adorns most food sold in the United States. He died on September 25, 2023 in Bethesda, Maryland, of bladder cancer at the age of 76. 

James Burkey Belser was born in Columbia, S.C., on July 8, 1947. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was an interior designer. After divorcing in 1952, his mother remarried and moved to Memphis, where he and his sister were raised.

As a boy, he loved New Yorker cartoons, and he often redrew them. He majored in English and minored in studio art at Davidson College in North Carolina, graduating in 1969.

Mr. Belser then studied French literature at the University of Montpellier in southern France, and when he returned, in 1970, he got a job as circulation director of Avant Garde, an arts and politics magazine published by Ralph Ginzburg.

He left after a year, traveling with a girlfriend to Turkey, where they embarked on a 3,300-mile journey to Kathmandu, Nepal.

Upon returning to the United States, Mr. Belser and his girlfriend stopped briefly in Washington, where artist Lou Stovall let them crash at his house. They planned to settle in Boston, but Stovall convinced them to stay, getting Mr. Belser a job as business manager of the Righteous Apple, a graphic design studio connected to New Thing Art & Architecture Center, a nonprofit.

Mr. Belser set off on his own 18 months later, teaching himself graphic design and creating samples of magazine brochures, posters and logos to show prospective clients. He made hundreds of calls, resulting in handfuls of meetings. He persisted and ultimately launched Burkey Belser Inc. in 1978, the same year he married Donna Greenfield, a government lawyer. She started a consulting company focusing on professional services, and the two entities eventually merged into Greenfield/Belser. Their design firm was an early and dominant player in legal advertising and branding, a new category of business that opened up following the Supreme Court’s 1977 ruling in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona that advertising for legal services was protected commercial speech. The firm grew to more than 40 employees and was also a leader in arts branding, book catalogue covers and corporate design. Finn Partners, a global design agency, bought Greenfield/Belser in 2016.

As an independent designer, Belser won a Gold Award at the Art Directors Club of Washington, D.C., for the 18th century styled brochure he designed for the law firm McGuire Woods & Battle. His work helped change the way law firms presented and marketed themselves. Belser was also asked to design Energy Guide labels for appliances sold in the U.S. Based on that success, he was drafted to create the now ubiquitous Nutrition Facts label found on all food sold in the U.S., a design that is now used across the world. This was quickly followed by the Drug Facts label, also in wide use.

When not creating, Belser wrote about design principles in such books as “25 Years of Legal Branding” and “Best of Corporate Identity Design.” He won a Presidential Design Award, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Art Directors Club of Metropolitan Washington, an American Graphic Design Award, and honors from American Corporate Identity, Creativity magazine, the International Engraved Graphics Association, the Society for Marketing Professional Services, the Webby Awards, and many others. 

In addition to his wife, Donna Greenfield, survivors include two children, Mikell Belser Rice of Bethesda, Md., and James Belser of Aurora, Colo.; two grandchildren; a sister; and a half brother.