Food has become a socially relevant subject in a short space of time. This is understandable because the theme has a direct connection with major health issues, such as obesity, cancer and cardiovascular diseases. In addition, food has a direct relationship to even much larger themes such as global warming, plastic soup, over-consumption, biodiversity and water consumption.
Food also has a moral side. Should you cut a pregnant sturgeon because her eggs are so delicious: caviar? And is it okay for 15 chickens to spend their lives on 1 square meter? At this moment, everything on our planet that is keeping us busy, can be related to food.
Growth because of relevance
When a subject has that degree of relevance, designers will poke their noses into it. It understandable from an economic perspective: where something changes, there is something to earn from it. Apart from that: most designers like to engage with issues that are significant to us.
As a result, a whole army of food designers have started to emerge. This platoon is developing rapidly, because there already is a bachelor department at the Design Academy Eindhoven, headed by the uncrowned queen of food design, Marije Vogelzang. Furthermore, food designers have graduated from different universities as well, so this growth is unstoppable.
Yet I wonder what designers are actually doing in this sector. Not a whole lot I believe. It can’t be the design of food, since there is already a profession for that. Someone who determines which ingredients are used, how the food is prepared and how it is served we call cooks or chefs. Whether it is a star chef or it is Unilever who recently made the Unox pea soup with less salt. Cooks and chefs discuss this, in consultation with their managers. No designers involved. If a designer really wants to design food, I suggest that he or she takes a cookery course. It is the shortest route and it is a guarantee for the best training in food design. And be aware: the design process of a meal resembles the design process of a designer. Good chefs are already good designers.
They are creative, they have a plan, they listen to the customer and to themselves. They can handle assignments, they can make budgets and send an invoice. They often make prototypes and usually tweak the prototype again, based on the feedback they are getting. In short: chef = designer. Let's not pretend that designers know better, because we don’t.
Branding and advertising
I fear that designers play a big role in the branding of food - to give people the feeling that food can be authentic, that love and care has been put into it. Designers therefore make a lot of chalkboards to write the menus on, because then the food seems fresher. They serve on plates with surprising, uneven shapes or even on pieces of stone. They design different uniforms for the waitresses, they design different menus and invent cheerful, creative names for the dishes.
Can we call this food design? No, this is food branding or simply advertising. 90 percent of all those food designers are part of the advertising industry without knowing it. They invent new ways of selling food. Name a chicken leg: 'primeval poultry roasted in sesame oil' or call sauerkraut 'Choucroute'. Or add a story about the origin of the salt that is used in the butter.
These examples were real and there a numerous other: everybody can tell a few. Designers are popular in the food industry because they can create the illusion of small scale, authenticity and creativity. Values that we like to connect with food. Food designers dress up, pack, articulate, drape, envelop, embellish and stylize. Practically all used to be the competences of the advertising craftsman.
Designers are often praised for the 'awareness' they can create, and also around this theme. We no longer expect solutions from designers but take pleasure in 'generating awareness'. It is true that awareness is the first step towards change in complex systems like the food industry is. And it is valuable that someone is doing so.
Can I point out that generating awareness used to be a typical advertising task as well? Do you remember the hundreds of commercials for non-drunk driving. Or for safe sex, careful with fireworks, careful with drugs and social workers? They were all products from larger advertising agencies. All to create 'awareness'. I'll just say it once more: designers in food are primarily concerned with advertising.