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Why Food Design Matters

In preparation for next month’s opening of “Food Culture: Eating by Design” at the Designhuis in Eindhoven we talk to two of the most interesting food designers working today.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 31-05-2012

Food design garners comparatively little attention considering that every day six billion hungry humans need to be nourished. In Europe alone about ten thousand new food products are launched every year.  Fifty per cent fail within three months and only one out of twenty remain on the market for more than two years.

Martin Hablesreiter and Anna Maria Orru have two very different approaches to this issue, but both gently coerce consumers to re-evaluate both mentally and physically the way they eat.  

“Everybody is talking about a telephone with an apple on it, but nobody is mentioning the apple,” Hablesreiter says.

For the past decade, food design has referred to the development and shaping of food.  The design, to fit the demands of the modern world, needs to be reproducible and recurring.  Food design does not just make food edible, storable and transportable, but it works to fulfil sensual, functional and cultural demands – in much the same way that product design does.

In Food Design XL, Martin Hablesreiter along with Sonja Stummerer argues that the way we eat reveals an enormous amount about us, and the cultures from which we hail.  “Food consumption is more about lifestyle and self-fulfilment than nutrition,” Hablesreiter says.

Hablesreiter focuses on the process of food preparation, which in his view begins the design journey – the way crops are harvested, processed and packaged; the way the inedible becomes edible, and the way fresh produce is treated to guarantee a longer life.   

Anna Maria Orru, like Hablesreiter, has an architectural background.  Her approach to food design is more rooted in problem solving and using biomimicry to design/create ways to solve an impending food crisis.  Both of these food designers focus heavily on research and are fascinated by the structures underlying food design, but ultimately have little in common.

Orru’s work might be called the first phase of food design. She thinks food design should start with agriculture.  “What I want to think more about are the values and principles underlying farming before even the first seed is planted,” she says.  

Entwined in that is everything from environmental theory to an aesthetic formula.  Food is researched using permicultural and nutritional analysis.  “My projects are about energy (kilojoule) release, food ecosystems and what can be done in different cities,” Orru says. “Biomimicry is about looking at different organisms and ecosystems like a grass land or the water’s edge and understanding how all the different life forms interact cyclically.  A city with its urban infrastructure - its buildings, people, parks and roads - can be understood in the same way if the relations between the various elements are similarly observed and mimicked.”

Both this year and last year in Stockholm she worked on “Foodprints” together with FoAM a project that explored how biomimicry can promote urban food resilience and biodiversity in urban landscapes.  “In that way biomimicry can also be understood as a new approach to sustainability,” Orru says.

For example, how do you taste the concept of PEAK a climatic challenge indicating that our resources – particularly oil and fish - are running out.  A dish of this kind would taste like the last remains of something.  “This is what I’d call food design,” says Orru.  “The collection of senses that combine to evoke an experience and an understanding of something new that then leads to a paradigm shift in eating behaviour. Food designers becoming extrasensory chefs, cooks, philosophers, eco-therapists and foragers.”

By 2030 an estimated 60% of all people will live in cities.  The most successful cities will be ones that mimic nature’s ecosystems, where all the elements are interactive and make the best use of resources.  

But that requires whole news systems and inventing those is what many of Orru’s projects focus on.  “It is a mixture of design, architecture, agriculture, science, politics and economics,” she says.

To work not only is a new mentality needed but full input and cooperation from governments, farmers, people, professionals and the economy.

“At the moment we will be focussing on the planners in Stockholm,” Orru says.  “Using food as a communication device and working to help them understand what all this could lead to.”

And this project has been funded by the Innovative Culture (Innovativ Kultur) Department of the City of Stockholm suggesting that the government is boldly trying out new modes of creative thinking and doing.  “This is a really good sign,” Orru points out.  “Imagine the doors opening for creative design with a mission.”

Food design seen in this way is not just a meal or an aesthetic form, but something that inspires one to think differently about the environment.  “I think food can become a muse,” Orru says, “a muse for sustainability.”

Which is where Hablesreiter re-enters the picture.  What interests him is not just where the food comes from, but what happens next – both historically and today.  “I believe that food design is not just about the appearance of a dish or a product,” he says.  “It is about the design of taste, consistency, texture, surface, the sound of chewing, smell and much more.”

The issue, however, is how to bridge the gap between first phase and second phase food designers.   “I think more communication between farmers and food designers is the first step,” says Orru.  “I think this is even more important than urban agriculture.”

A lot of how we eat today can be traced back to industrialization and how food in that era had to fit the limited parameters of machines.  It is when condensed milk, meat extract, margarine, cornflakes and dried soup came into existence.  And it all needed to be transported efficiently at a minimum cost.  

“The Roman Empire would not have been able to expand and remain powerful over centuries without a sophisticated system of food logistics,” says Hablesreiter.

Everything from hot dogs to corn flakes and chocolate bars look, taste and feel as they do because they are mass-produced.

Food must satisfy all the senses to be successful. A lot of these preferences are culturally acquired like, for example, the way a dish is presented.  From Japan to Western Europe odd numbers work better than even numbers on a plate and the flower is practically always the initial inspiration to the way food is presented.   

“Four roses in a vase is something that is seen as optically unsatisfying,” says Hablesreiter.  “The Viennese Kaiser roll and the Italian Rosetta, for example, both consist of five and not four or six parts.  Even traditional multi-level wedding cakes have an uneven number of tiers.”

Thinking about questions like why are cheese loaves round and fish finger rectangular, Hablesreiter concludes that it always comes back to ease of production and transportation.  “Fish fingers, like comfortable shoes, can be manufactured industrially, easily stacked, have a long life, are simple to cook, can be eaten with our hands, and fit exactly into our mouths,” he says.

And food not only has to be nutritional, but also durable.  Prior to refrigeration ways to preserve food developed.  Curing, smoking, pickling, candying, drying, pasteurizing, sterilizing, canning and bottling abounded. These techniques have survived and shape the way food is still designed today.  

“But although these techniques have survived,” says Orru, “I would say we have lost many traditions and handed too many responsibilities to food manufacturers and ‘E’ numbers.  The question now becomes ‘How do we take back our food’s durability? What role can design play in this too?’”

Technology then has both inspired and limited new shapes and general food design.  New tools and production processes like saws, rollers, stamps, centrifuges, mixers, pipes and extruders are stock standard equipment in food factories.  

“And time is money,” Hablesreiter points out going on to explain why stock cubes are not in fact cubes but rectangular prisms.

“It takes more time to cast a deep mould like a cube with a mixture of beef extract, dried vegetables, fat, salt and spices than placing it in a flatter mould,” he says.

And even when technology improves, efforts are normally made to maintain the appearance of the most popular food products like bread shapes that were once made by hand and now made by machines in a way that best resembles their original form.

Consumers rarely ask questions about food.  “I think that is because food is seen as primeval and natural and thus its properties are not questioned, “ says Hablesreiter.  “And food design happens behind closed doors.  The food industry is wary of industrial espionage and negative headlines in the press.”

And perhaps the biggest forces shaping food design are the very same economic principles that drive other markets. The industry is constantly under pressure to innovate because food corporations can only grow if they conquer more market share.

New products are constantly being researched, tested, manufactured, marketed and distributed. Experts are called in to help advise on details like portion sizes and packaging.  Economists, pricing experts, engineers, government advisory boards and even psychologist are all part of the food design process.   

“It is a complete interplay of concept, design and marketing strategy,” says Hablesreiter using the Magnum ice cream as an example - a popsicle for grown ups.  

The way food is designed conveys values, feelings and emotions.  “In that way it is very similar to fashion,” says Hablesreiter.  “Good food products trigger fantasies and stir up emotions.”

With that said, good food should also leave a healthy trace on the environment, and produce further opportunities to feed everyone and not just a select few.  “I completely agree with Hablesreiter that good food stirs up emotions,” says Orru.  “It is the designer’s creativity to ‘design’ these emotions, and I believe it should be a ‘design’ towards sustainability not just marketing.  Of course, the design world has consciously embarked upon ecodesign as its main driver so why should ‘food design’ be any different?”