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7 Things Food Studies Can Learn from Food Design

Food studies can learn from a similarly burgeoning and interdisciplinary field: food design. Last week, I had the opportunity to attend and present at the 3rd International Conference on Food Design, organized and led at every step by Francesca Zampollo. The conference consisted of ten research and practice presentations and four keynote addresses, which were all shared online in a virtual environment. As my first virtual conference and my first food design event, I’m now reflecting on seven key things.

1. The ongoing definition of a field is a good thing.

Just as food studies continually immerses itself in processes of interdisciplinary self-definition, so too does food design. In an editorial in the first issue of the International Journal of Food DesignFrancesca summarized multiple definitions for the field, excerpted here. And Francesca further clarified the field of food design, identifying key categories:

  • food product design
  • design for food
  • design with food
  • food space design
  • eating design
  • food service design
  • critical food design
  • food system design

In their conference presentation, Ludovico Pensato and Alessandra Ivul of Panem et Circenses conceded their discomfort with having their work categorized as food design, which in Italy refers nearly exclusively to industrial design, invoking commerce and architecture more so than art and performance. In the end, such wrestling with a field’s definition, boundaries, and meaning ensures innovation and invention, commitment and care.

2. Play possesses enduring value.

Food designers incorporate a sense of play, which illuminates their work and passion for food. Even when discussing food dilemmas—like the tension between health and indulgence—Deger Ozkaramanli, of the Delft Institute of Positive Design, asserted that food solutions can be inspired, creative, and playful, like chocolate to-do lists to maximize motivation, productivity, and pleasure, all at once. In their CHIL-DISH project, Kristos Mavrostomos and Anna van der Lei capitalized upon children’s sense of play and fun, as they created fully functional, kid-designed tableware with items like a house-shaped teapot and a bolt-shaped mug. And Léa Bougeault and Aude Laznowski of Miit Studios endorsed playfulness as a business strategy, arguing that positive childhood food memories make for natural points of connection, communication, and conviviality between people and companies. Somewhat similarly, Júlia Nasa argued that creativity is as important to consider as nutrition, sustainability, or safety, as a sense of curious creativity can enliven these other aspects of food and food systems.

3. Food and the senses remain central.

Food design foregrounds sensory experiences. Beatrice Lerma, Doriana Dal Palu’, and Eleonora Bugatti shared how the sounds made by food packaging—for example glass, clay, and plastic containers for yogurt—shaped how consumers perceived flavor, as well as characteristics like quality, craftsmanship, and genuineness. In her presentation, Slow Tofu, Weiwei Wang highlighted tofu not as a high-protein meat substitute with mutable flavor, as it is so often characterized in the West, but as a delicious and complex food unto itself, eaten in various ways and possible to prepare on one’s own with simple tools: a plate, a handmade basket, and a bowl. Ivana Carmen Mottle further explored how sensory tasting events can merge the experiences of eating and tasting, performance and art, entertainment and learning, conviviality and identity.

4. Food space can be transformative.

Food design often engages a strong sense of place and space. In her presentation on the rise of solo dining in urban areas, Emily Cheng posited ways for restauranteurs to spatially consider the needs of diners who eat alone in public, an activity that often carries social stigma. And Alexandra dos Santos presented the results of her work with a local market opening its doors after hours in an effort to engage customers and create a greater sense of community. Centered around the market’s space and building, the evening event incorporated not only locally produced goods and sellers, but also conversation, music, photography, drawing, and design.

5. Food experiences traverse the life course.

Projects shared at the conference engaged food at moments across the life course, from childhood to adulthood and into older age. In their CHIL-DISH project, Kristos Mavrostomos and Anna van der Lei engaged children as young as five in the processes of food design, cooking, and reflecting on food culture. Liza Murphy from The Big Picture research firm shared results from a study of one hundred Millennial and “Generation Z” consumers, revealing how young eaters are shaping the future of eating, snacking, and thinking about health. Additional projects at the conference navigated food in later stages of life. Annet Hoek shared the results of her study which incorporated the principles of molecular gastronomy to improve the culinary experience and nutritional status of elderly patients with swallowing difficulties. Jonas Pariente shared Grandma’s Project, a collaborative web series of recipes and stories, featuring grandmas from around the world.

6. Virtual conferences can be effective, fun, and meaningful.

I was very pleasantly surprised by how this virtual conference promoted the exchange of ideas and provided opportunities for social networking, collaboration, debate, and intellectual growth. All of the presentations were streamed with Google Hangouts, live on air, and then immediately available on YouTube for further viewing and sharing.  Presenters shared their interests and contact information with digital business cards:

Throughout the conference, presenters and attendees interacted  in the chat rooms, through direct messaging, and on Twitter. And even now that the conference is over, its entire structure still exists online with presentation abstracts, the conference proceedings, and recordings of all the presentations and Q&A ready and waiting, forever, to be further discovered and explored.

7. Aesthetics make an impact.

Lastly and perhaps unsurprisingly, designers produce beautiful things—including their presentation slides, videos, and materials. (Check out Emily Cheng’s lovely slides here.) Food studies academics could certainly learn a trick or two from the visually stunning ways that designers present, represent, and summarize their ideas!

As for my presentation at the conference, I shared “Designing Gender: Masculinity and Food Packaging.” You can read the abstract here and watch the presentation below, starting at approximately 4:00.

As Francesca would say, Happy Food Design!

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