Feeding a new breed of designers

Text by Marije Vogelzang

The design discipline is, by definition, young. People may ask how best to define ‘design’. One could say that the first people who made fire achieved a feat of design. On the other hand, the professional field of design is not actually that old. Artisans became masters of the applied arts, and ultimately, with the arrival of industrialisation in the 1930’s, they became designers. The designer, by definition, was no longer the maker. Thus the gap developed between inventor and executor, and marks the first step in the process where the designer’s work and the product materials became separate entities. The designer devised the form, and the machine produced it. The form was subservient to, or supported, the function. The designer not only shaped the material, but also the ideology behind the design. Ultimately, with the rise of the conceptual platform Droog Design (NL) in 1993, the form became a result of the ideology as well as the function. Designers started thinking about how people should live. The discipline was no longer just about form and materials, but about vision and concept. This is an important starting point if we want to understand how food has emerged as a subject for design.

When I first arrived at the Design Academy in Eindhoven in 1995, Droog Design had been around for two years. I had heard about a new way of designing, in which concept transcended form, or where neither form nor materials could be left out of the equation. The designer was being challenged to explore the possibility of working on an intangible level. Digitalisation was also starting to make inroads in the design world. It was now possible to create a three-dimensional design for an object without ever having to touch the actual material. The revolutionary idea that materials did not necessarily constitute the entire essence of the design field meant that you could also design a service or ideology.

The human factor

Traditionally, designers have put their work in service of the human being. Designers create applied work for people as the users of their product or service. They design cars for driving, clothes to protect us from the elements, – or merely for show-, and pots and pans for cooking. If we look around, we see that nearly everything surrounding us has been designed. In spite of this, it took quite some time before designers started focusing on what lies at the essence of what people truly need to live; food.
In 1995, designing food was not a logical choice. Although food has a long tradition in the arts, designers have always focused on non-perishable materials; after all, food was the chef’s domain. Now and then, you would see a designer deviate from this concept, such as well known product designer Philippe Starck, who once designed pasta in the 1990’s. However, the result of Starck’s work was also an extension of traditional design methodology. It was not about where the pasta came from, what it was made of, or where it was going. It was merely giving a new shape to the pasta just how he would do with designing a new chair. It remained a one-off departure, a flash of humor, a witticism in Starck’s oeuvre.

Drinking tea

A different way of thinking started to develop in the 1990’s within the design practice based on conceptual design. Suppose a designer is given the assignment to create a design using tea. Initially, the designer might think of a teapot, tea service or packaging for tea. But if you approach the assignment from the standpoint of the verb phrase ‘drinking tea’, you can also start thinking about the ritual of drinking tea, the harvesting of tea leaves, the transport and processing of tea leaves, the types of tea that are available, and how we actually define tea. The designer naturally thinks about the packaging. However, do we also consider what happens to the packaging once we have finished drinking the tea? How does the process of fermentation of the tea leaves work, and who is the person drinking the tea? Does this person drink tea alone? What is the significance of drinking tea in different cultures, and what is the economic value of tea? Are there political implications involved in the production or sale of tea? What does tea do to your body? Is it healthy? Does it affect your mind? What does ‘fair trade’ mean? What kind of information can we find about the history of tea drinking? Where is tea grown, and has this always been the case?
These are just a few of the questions that a simple subject like the practice of drinking tea can raise.

Contemplations based on a verb (in this case, drinking tea) raises many questions. Questions are a stimulator for inspiration and research, for innovation and enticement.
When, as a young designer, I started working with the subject of food in 1999, people told me that I was a ‘food designer’. It seems logical, but it could also imply that I literally designed food.
When I started asking questions about a design, the way I have described above, I realised that the universe behind the notion of design is much larger than I had anticipated, and that making a new kind of food literally does not do justice to all the fascinating aspects that emerge.

To eat or not to eat

I prefer to refer to this overarching area as ‘Eating Design’, using the verb ‘to eat’ as the starting point. In this case, the overall subject of eating is the area in which the designer works. Whether food is ultimately the final product, devised by the designer, remains the question. It could also be a new logistics system, a new type of fertiliser, or a ritual.

An important, but much smaller part of Eating Design is the literal design of food; Food Design.
The literal design of food is only one of the things people think of, when they hear about designers who specialise in working with food and eating. This area greatly appeals to our imagination, and people immediately think of artsy cakes in a variety of colours, or industrial foodstuff, such as Magnum ice cream or pasta in a thousand different shapes.

It is hard to explain exactly what type of position an Eating designer holds. Aren’t there already enough professions in the food sector? Don’t we already have enough food? Does our food really have to be designed? These are the questions I am often asked.
In order to provide some insight into the potential of this field, the breadth of the subject and the possibilities that Eating Design offers, I have listed below seven different areas from which designers can pull inspiration when working with eating as a subject matter.

It is important to mention that these fields almost never exist in isolation. They overlap one another, touch one another, kiss or even mate with one another in order to arrive at new hybrids.

SENSES

This seems obvious, since chefs and food technicians always work based on the senses, and it would seem that all the sensory experiences have already been tried or tested at one time or another. And yet I think that there is still a lot left to be discovered in this field. The aesthetic value of food is still underestimated in the West. As my mother always said, when I complained about the unappetising looking food she served, ‘It all gets mixed up in your tummy anyways.’ I always thought that was a strange comment, and one that wasn’t helpful at all. In Japan, people talk about the ‘shape of the taste’. When you eat, you start with your eyes, as it were. The color, shape and consistency betray some of what you can expect in terms of the taste. (Sometimes, they do the opposite.)
The fascinating thing about food is, that aesthetics not only emerge in the shape and color, but also in the temperature, the consistency, the flavour, the smell, the way it feels in your mouth, and the sound the food makes when chewed. Composing an ultimate taste experience is a true art form that in terms of the degree of difficulty ranks perhaps even higher than the fine arts. After all, you are dealing with a broad range of practical expertise such as hygiene, food safety, the short shelf life of food and the perishability of the materials. It is also a very cruel art form; at the end of the day, there is nothing left.

We must not forget that a sensory experience is never isolated, and must be viewed in a certain context. The interpretation of sensory qualities is therefore incredibly personal, and associations can change over time. (Remember as a child, the lovely desserts you wanted to eat every day until one day, you ate too much and ended up sick)
Sensory experiences, and personal expectations and associations pave the way for emotions. Our sense of smell and taste are the motorway leading to emotions, both positive and negative. It is a powerful instrument, yet difficult to control since you never know where someone’s trigger lies, and even if you do find this in one person, it may be entirely different in someone else.

PSYCHOLOGY

Why do we eat when we are not hungry? Everyone knows the feeling; you run into friends on the street and they asks if you want to have a cup of coffee with them. Normally, you wouldn’t actually drink coffee at that time of day, but social conventions dictate that you should have a cup anyway. What about after a rough day at work, when the train is late and you are waiting around at the station? You would not normally eat at that time, but to comfort yourself, you buy a nice piece of chocolate. Or you eat crisps every night in front of the TV. Not because you are hungry, but because it is a habit. Suppose you are walking down the street, and you see posters everywhere advertising a pudding with velvety-soft chocolate mousse and thick blobs of cream and crunchy nuts on top. You are tempted: ‘Mmmmm! I could really go for that right now!’ The next time you do the shopping, you buy that pudding, a product you normally would not buy. All these decisions have nothing to do with an empty feeling in your stomach. You eat or drink, but not because you are hungry. These are all mental decisions to eat. In the western world of overabundance, your head has more to say about your eating habits than your stomach.
It is important for designers to be aware of this phenomenon. Food is so much more than calories alone. Food is a sense of community, memories; food can make you feel at home but also uprooted. “The way to a man’s heart is through the stomach” is a well-known expression in most cultures. Everyone is familiar with the psychological effect of food, such as the Proust effect. Marcel Proust, a French writer who wrote the book À la recherche du temps perdu between 1913 – 1927 describes the process of a so called ‘involuntary memory’ connected with the sensation of eating.
Eating a Madeleine cake transported Proust back to a memory of his younger years that he thought he had forgotten. Still in this time, this effect is referred to as the ‘Proust effect’. Advertisers also try to employ this trick, but this is difficult since it only has a very fleeting and personal effect.
If you look at food from a psychological perspective, you can usually see the subject as a means rather than an end in and of itself. It does not necessarily involve gastronomy or the development of the best taste. At its core, it is about the effect of food on the person who eats, how food enables people to connect, or develop an understanding of one another (or, in fact, the opposite, depending on the intended effect). Food plays a role in this mostly as an excuse for an action, or to bring about a situation in which a person has the opportunity to gain a (new) experience.

Designers who work with food have not merely chosen a material to work with the way their colleagues might choose wood or glass. Eating is the only subject in which the designer’s work is absorbed by the user’s body, and from there makes its way to the brain.


MATERIALS

Designers usually choose a specific material and a scale that will best help them express themselves. We live in a world full of graphic designers, fashion designers, urban designers, product designers, ceramic designers, furniture designers and so on. Designers often work with several materials that are suited to the works they create; wood, plastic, glass, textiles and so forth. The reason why food has only recently started being used as a material is not entirely clear.
Perhaps it has to do with the transitory nature of the material. At any rate, you may say that food can in fact be considered an equivalent material when compared with more standard production materials.
Food can be shaped, squeezed, woven and printed in 3D. In the food industry, a variety of techniques is applied to food. On the one hand, this is done to give the materials appealing properties, such as an attractive color, a nice feeling in the mouth, or an unusual shape. On the other hand, practical considerations demand that the material have a longer shelf life, an enhanced flavour, or for example, a reduced risk of breaking in the packaging. There is a great variety of motives for adapting food. Producers are looking for ways to make their product as economically attractive as possible. How can you use the least possible quantity of ingredients and still achieve the maximum possible effect? They also deal with issues such as how to ensure the product will move smoothly through the packaging line. Or how to develop products from residual waste flows.
The traditional skills a designer possesses are very easily adapted to working with food.
In spite of this, you should not consider ‘food’ an isolated material. Chocolate has very different specifications than bread or meat. Within the food-design field, as a smaller part of the larger ‘Eating design field, you can therefore make distinctions between specialisations that are comparable to those made in old trades. You could develop a food-design specialisation in meats (and thus fall under the scope of the butcher trade). The categories of ‘pastry chef’, ‘baker’, ‘greengrocer’, and ‘cheesemaker’ also offer indications of possible food-design specialties.
Apart from the food itself being used as a material, there are important, related topics in which product design is literally necessary. The development of bioplastics, biodegradable or edible packaging, or generating energy from food waste are just a few examples.

NATURE

Something that people often forget (including people who work with food on a daily basis) is that food always has a natural origin. At the risk of stating the obvious, some food is grown and comes from the soil, no matter how you look at it, and no matter how refined or synthetic food may be these days. There is always a link to nature. As a society, we are moving farther and farther away from nature and food production. Urban citizens no longer see animals grow up nor do they witness their slaughter. For a child in today’s modern world, it is hard to understand where eggs come from, how tomatoes or potatoes grow, and what the skin of a sausage is made of. Designers can play a clear role in education and communication about food.
The educational aspects are not the only important ones. The agro-sector is in a constant state of motion, and is always innovating. Farmers are at the foundation of our civilisation. It is a sign of the times we live in, that modern farmers are having trouble keeping their head above water. Our primary focus is on gadgets and digital technology, and we take the daily flow of food for granted. Food production is not reserved exclusively for farmers. Wendell Berry made this clear in his statement, ‘Eating is an agricultural act.’ People do not realise that they are part of agriculture. By making certain choices in their daily eating habits, consumers are controlling farmers from a distance. Designers can play a role in this by ensuring a stronger connection between consumers and farmers.
Knowledge of biology is the foundation for understanding the food cycle. Starting from rudimentary biology, the field for designers grows, extending into biotechnology, genetic engineering and micro bacterial research for example. This brings us to the next field.

SCIENCE

Food plays a major role in science. How the human body functions have been studied for a very long time, and a great deal of research has been conducted on the effects food has on our bodies. In spite of all this, the actual functioning of our bodies and how food affects them are generally a mystery. Researchers have been able to clarify bits and pieces, but we have yet to fully understand everything about the great, complex machine that is the human body.
The interest in nutritional science has grown a great deal in recent times. We understand that food can have a tremendous impact on our bodies and minds. The more Western diseases increase on a worldwide scale, the greater the interest in food-related solutions. People are looking for the Holy Grail of health, but the average consumer gets lost in the forest of diets and food philosophies. In addition to dietary science, the medical nutrition field of research has also grown. How can we ensure that consumers understand scientific discoveries? Can designers play a role in these efforts?
Food that supports the body, improves its performance, or cures it from disease are not the only complex subjects that researchers focus on.
Other major issues occurring outside of the human body such as meat production, innovation in water purification technology, recycling excrement for use as fertiliser, harvesting algae for a broad range of applications, solutions for preventing bee mortality, intestinal bacteria transplants, micro-organisms that eat plastic, and developments in food safety, to name just a few examples, are being studied and developed.

Designers can work side-by-side with scientists and convert scientific developments into useful, comprehensible or tangible designs. Scientists can achieve interesting developments, but if the user cannot hold this research in their hands, understand or interpret it in the right context, the research is only interesting to a selected group. In this situation, the designer once again fulfils the function of agent, developer. The exciting combination of science and the creative process is not a new invention. Art and science were inextricably linked to one another in the 16th and 17th centuries. We are seeing a revival of this trend today. These disciplines are not necessarily united in a single person, but as several specialists who reinforce one another.


CULTURE

We live on a giant, beautiful planet. There are people living in nearly every part of the world, and they must all eat to survive. How we eat, what we eat, how we prepare our food, and the etiquette and rituals we have when it comes to eating vary from one region to another. In spite of the fact that globalisation and developments in logistics have played a substantial role in ensuring that these different foodstuffs, dishes and rituals have spread to other areas and mixed with local customs, we still see clear distinctions in food and eating cultures from one place to another. Sometimes, we find hundreds of different eating cultures in a single country. These include traditional cultures as well as pop culture and subcultures.

Even if you know nothing about history, you can still gain an understanding of how certain events of the past transpired based on food alone. You can trace the spread of Judaism on a map if you know what people eat in certain parts of the world. You can see just by looking at the menus of certain exotic restaurants in Rotterdam how the Chinese settled in Surinam, and how, as part of the Netherlands, Surinam has merged Surinamese-Chinese cuisine (two areas that seem geographically incongruous) in a cold climate in which these exotic ingredients would never grow.
Food has also traditionally helped us express our own personal identity. ‘You are what you eat’ is not just a statement representing our physical state; it also provides an indication of our social status. By definition, religious dietary laws separate the believers from the nonbelievers. More modern choices regarding what you choose to put into your body, provide insight into which social group (or subgroup) you belong to. Vegetarians, vegans or fruitarians, intentionally or not, position themselves in a different social corner than that occupied by carnivores. Special dietary preferences indicate a person’s concern with health or vitality. Special rituals, for example those involved in making coffee or drinking tea and the knowledge that goes along with this, give insiders a certain position within a group. Epicureans and even people who ‘just’ eat everything occupy a certain position by virtue of their choices.

Eating habits vary all over the world, and cultural differences dictate how, what, how much, with whom and when people eat. It is not only the differences that are currently determined by culture, that are interesting to a designer. Every place in the world has a history filled with deeply rooted food stories, preconceived notions, food wars (such as the potato wars in Ireland), superstition and tradition. When you realise that, every place on earth has experienced its own unique historical development that has an effect on how its people eat. Look at how a value is assigned to the concept of food, and how people have evolved, as groups over the course of history. This makes you understand what a rich source of inspiration culture is for designers. What can we learn from this history? What does the development of a certain eating culture tells us, and how can we interpret traditions and rituals in today’s society? Our lifestyles are changing. We are assigning new standards and creating different definitions of ‘family’. Mothers have long since stopped staying at home only to raise their children. Designers can play a role in developing more relevant rituals and traditions. The interesting thing about eating culture is that it needs to be recreated every day and that culture is not a static thing. Culture can be shaped and designed in a way that can influence many people.


SOCIETY

What makes food so radically different from all the other design subjects is that food is always a political act, whether we are conscious of this or not. We are living in the most schizophrenic of times when it comes to food. We (and I am speaking mostly about the western world here) have never had such a wide variety of food available to us and at such a low cost. We spend the smallest percentage of our income on food even though our food safety is considerably higher than it was in the past. There are 2.5 times more obese people than malnourished individuals, and there is a growing number of people who are both obese and malnourished (a large proportion of these are children).
An interesting fact is that we are now living in a time we always dreamed of throughout history. This is a place that has been portrayed in all sorts of paintings throughout the ages: the land of plenty. Each day, our stores are magically filled with fresh food the average westerner can load up on. The meals that our forefathers might have eaten once a year, at a wedding or special celebration, are meals that are now easy for us to eat every week. We do not know how products are grown, who has produced them, or where they have been transported from. More and more people are growing up without knowing how to cook. In major cities with high property prices in Asia, but also in New York, flats are even built without kitchens. Many people eat alone, sitting in front of a computer screen. We see this scenario alongside the increasingly present concept of Food Porn, and the enormous quantity of food photos posted on Instagram and other social media sites, the growing focus on the origin of food, a whole host of slow-food enthusiasts, and a growing market share of organic products.
This disunity may be seen throughout society, yet is nowhere as blatant as it is with food.
We are faced with a very pressing set of problems. The topics vary from overfishing and loss of biodiversity to food waste (⅓ of all food produced becomes waste), bee mortality on a massive scale, animal exploitation, a growing world population plus increasing prosperity and rising consumerism versus the earth’s production capacity. This is only a few examples of the increasing range of problems that the large-scale production of food (in addition to food safety and affordable and easily accessible food for everyone) has brought with it in the last century.
It is precisely these problems, which increase the need for creative spirits, now more than ever.

What can designers do with these seven areas?

Designers are people who can move from one specialisation to the other and who can shift gears at a moment’s notice, both in terms of technical and cultural aspects. Designers are not the people who can solve all these problems, but they are the ones who can provide acceleration, a connection and provide alternative routes. They can disrupt and challenge the system and re-build it in a new way using the tools of imagination and communication.

We see that the food chain is filled with skilful specialists who know exactly how to make their part of the chain function but they have a limited view on the rest of the chain. Designers can take position from a bird’s perspective and shape these unexpected connections. Connection can be created between farmers and mothers feeding their children. Food technicians can work with logistics specialists, scientists with retailers, and seed improvement companies with environmental activists. These connections are not linear. Designers can connect the specialists to one another, and apply the factor of creative thinking, of twisting perspective and shaping a new context.

As Einstein said, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’

I am convinced that designers who focus on food must be aware of the moral and political implications of their chosen field. The complexity adds another layer to the Eating designer’s work. However, an overly moralistic attitude can be fatal for creativity. It is up to designers to strike the right balance.

Marije Vogelzang

revised version of the original text written for Elisava in 2015