Food design challenge: should we redesign the shape of our plates to transform the food industry?
January 7, 2021, 9 min to read
It’s virtually self-evident: food is an action steeped in meaning, with cultural, social and political implications. This can be seen in religious dietary prescriptions, in vegan movements, or simply in the importance that the vast majority of us attach to sharing a meal with loved ones. We often underestimate the impact of culture and the weight of tradition when it comes to our perception of what “eating well” means. Lively discussion about the place of meat in our diets is a very topical demonstration of this. This is equally true for the percentage of the population that still suffers from undernutrition: choosing one’s food and the context of one’s diet is a question of dignity, pleasure and health, inherent to the human condition. Finally, the food industry is unique in that it can respond to both the base and the tip of Maslow’s pyramid, from the pure physiological need to eat to the self-actualisation enjoyed through the sharing of culinary arts.
When we describe the long journey from farm to plate, there is ultimately the plate itself. The shape of the plate, the tableware, the room, the circumstances of their use, the people surrounding us, our culture... All these elements often have as much, or even more, meaning than the food we are actually eating. We mustn’t forget them when imagining new products and services.
And what could be more archetypal than the kitchen and its crockery in the eyes of a designer? This was actually the first sphere in which design had its beginnings: in the early 19th century, Catharine Beecher began to apply good factory practices to the organisation of the kitchen, giving rise to the worktop as we know it today. At that time, she sought to alleviate women’s work burden and even tried to convince people of the viability of slavery’s abolition, as she foresaw the repercussions of servitude for women’s work. The shape of the “plate” is therefore eminently significant. And it is certainly worthy of interest when considering the transformation of the agri-food industry. If Catharine Beecher’s approach was a strong testimony to the concerns of her time, contemporary designers are naturally tackling today’s challenges.
By enriching or shedding light on projects through design, we arm ourselves with an additional tool, one that we can use to encourage cultural acceptance of innovations in the field and/or anticipate the obstacles to their acceptance. So, for example, let’s ask ourselves: what are the cultural implications of cultured meat or imitation meat products? Wouldn’t more responsible packaging be desirable? When rethinking nutrition, what can we learn from a more “extreme” eating context like the hospital?
The following three design projects offer answers to these questions. They illustrate the discipline’s powerful potential to help build the future of food.
Projet 1 : : Should cultured meat remind us where it comes from?
Since 2006, British speculative designer James King has been working on the question of the form to be given to cultured meat – to remind us of its origin – in the context of its mass production. Today, meat consumption has strong socio-economic significance: what meaning will we want to attribute to cultured meat, starting with its form?
King uses MRI cross-sections of the internal organs of cows and chickens to create moulds. The most aesthetic moulds are then used to give shape to the cultured meat.
What can we take away from this?
This proposal falls within the field of critical design, a design practice that consists of exploring the future implications of innovations, by materialising possible scenarios to generate debate, particularly on social issues. It is therefore not intended to be commercialised. Through this project, James King seeks to open up a third approach, one that better answers the question of the form to be given to cultured meat. Rather than looking exactly like traditional meat or bearing no relationship to it at all (like the very first cultured meat prototypes), this new form asserts its artificial origin, without negating the fact that it came into being through advanced knowledge about living organisms.
With this palpable object, James King seeks to generate spontaneous reactions that go beyond disgust or fascination, to bring out deeper, more unexpected observations. This obsession with formalisation is one of the designer’s specificities: his interest lies in prototyping, testing, iterating...
We would undoubtedly learn a great deal if we were to put a similar proposal involving plant-based meat in the hands of consumers, in order to better understand their considerations, their socio-cultural context, and to better adapt the product to their expectations.
Projet 2 : a container and its content designed in symbiosis for a resolutely delicious and sustainable experience.
Stéphane Bureaux conceptualised packaging designed in parallel with its content, in order to deliver a complete and aerial object. With these two immaculate, levitating bars, he seeks to impart chocolate’s goodness, while at the same time depicting its bewitching aspect, thus revealing our most undisclosed desires.
And although it harbours a strong poetic and playful dimension, the specificity of this packaging is also in its material and its lifecycle: it is made of PET, the same recyclable polymer that drinks bottles are made of, and it is above all to be consigned to your local chocolate maker!
What can we take away from this?
This system was designed based on the specific constraints of the container (the PET packaging) and its contents (the chocolate bars), with a view to reducing material without complicating production. It deliberately seeks to reconceptualise the product’s traditional appearance.
Designed as a whole, this new packaging combines responsibility and pleasure, combining form and content to humorously reveal the addictive nature of chocolate.
To limit its negative impacts – while retaining its persuasive power – packaging could be designed to better showcase the products within, following this creation-under-constraint approach. This would certainly help increase the desirability and commercial success of more responsible products.
Projet 3 : what if we deconstructed certain prejudices about hospital food?
The question posed: the designer Marc Bretillot carried out a one-year residency at the Saint-Etienne University Hospital, focusing on the issue of nutrition for patients and caregivers. He then produced a discovery report that included areas for improvement.
The specificity of his approach is that he began his research without any precise questions in mind. He placed himself in a position of naive listening and participatory observation, recording what patients and caregivers said and noting their actions. He also kept an event log.
Once this observatory period had ended, he set out to highlight the most unexpected observations – the surprises – which presented themselves as ways to improve the daily lives of the people he met or, at very least, as lessons and insights to be kept in mind when creating food-related products and services for these users.
His findings touch upon sensory perception, self-image, service and the more generalised context of the hospital. One of his more surprising findings was the delicate question of alcohol, which came up several times. The commodity of sharing and pleasure par excellence, alcohol is also, in too high a dose, a commodity that isolates. In the context of illness, the question is even more delicate: could alcohol do more good than harm? Who determines this? Does the patient have a choice?
Marc Bretillot suggests that we listen to the longing for escape: “Aren’t there any drinks that could satisfy this desire with the same degree of ritual and sophistication? Can we imagine recipes for hospital cocktails?”
Another of his proposals involves the notion of freedom. Most patients feel partially or totally deprived of it, especially when the body prohibits movement. How could food restore their freedom, or at least offer them a taste of it? If the hospital’s central kitchen cannot meet this need, Marc Bretillot imagines splitting up the production units, creating kitchen spaces (like bathrooms) in each room, employing a mobile kitchen trolley in the privacy of each room, making use of a mobile chef, or even allowing the patient to cook if he or she has the capacity to do so.
Of course, these ideas would need to be considered in the light of the hospital’s organisational and sanitary constraints, a limitation of the approach. It would thus be advisable to combine the latter with other expertise to put it to the test.
Nevertheless, these proposals have the merit of simultaneously shedding light on two issues: the patient’s care pathway – and the centrality of food in his or her hospital experience – as well as the notion of freedom underlying food. If food products and services could manage to restore hospitalised patients’ sense of freedom, would it not be interesting to transpose them on a larger scale? Wouldn’t they be beneficial to hospital-at-home patients, dependent individuals or others in search of greater freedom? What possibilities might we identify in the liberating potential of food?
What can we take away from this?
It is evident that field research, in situ observation and prolonged discussion with consumers are unrivalled keys to identifying opportunities to improve their daily lives and bring them satisfaction. But it is still a question of attitude, and this dimension is very dear to the designer: the strength of Marc Bretillot’s ideas lies in the fact that his research approach is deeply empathic and free of charge. The designer observes, records and listens without preconceived ideas. He takes a guileless, fresh look at individual behaviour and the group phenomena he encounters, mobilising other disciplines as well as his experience and intuition. In this way, he reveals the salient points of lived experience and helps translate them into opportunities, deconstructing a few prejudices along the way.
For designers, exploring “extreme” use contexts, such as hospitals, reveals powerful and useful lessons for everyone. When designing a new product or service, conducting research or testing ideas in such contexts allows the unexpected to emerge. It ultimately leads one to consider not just accessible, but inclusive solutions (i.e., solutions that will satisfy the greatest number, regardless of context, inside or outside the hospital). In terms of systematisation, it’s a very interesting approach, not to mention a powerful tool for nurturing creativity.
Alongside all the other trades that contribute to a project, designers bring several strengths: the ability to immerse themselves in a particular attitude – in a socio-cultural context – so crucial when dealing with the question of food in an attempt to understand its myriad of particularities. Their creative power, based on subjectivity, conviction and experience, allow designers to respond to complex issues, such as packaging constraints and imitation meat products, in a completely novel way. Finally, designers are and must remain critical spirits, questioning the status quo, spearheading and enabling debate, so that we always remember to ask ourselves “why?”. So that when we imagine food production, or the way foods are distributed and consumed, we never forget to ask ourselves if it could be done differently.