What is Food Design Thinking?


Restaurants, cafes, and other food business… fail. All the time.

Why? Most articles you’ll find list these reasons: location, lack of people management, lack of accounting skills, bad food execution, poor promotion, poor inventory, etc. While these causes are all true, nobody talks about the number one reason why food businesses fail:

lack of good ideas

Here is where Food Design Thinking comes in. Food Design Thinking methodology provides companies and food designers with all the tools and resources necessary to generate multiple, innovative ideas: ideas for dishes, whole restaurants, events, products, etc.). The content of this process is absolutely unique, and 100% exclusive. You won’t find a similar approach to food creativity, or similar tools and techniques, anywhere else.

What Food Design Thinking is:

I define Food Design Thinking as the branch of Design Thinking that is specific to Food Design.

Food Design Thinking is the creative process that leads to innovative propositions for new dishes, food products, food services, food systems, food events, and anything in between.

A Design Thinking process can be used to design anything, including food. A Food Design Thinking process only makes sense within Food Design. While it is perfectly fine to use a Design Thinking process for food projects, it is argued that when designing food and around food or eating, adopting a Food Design Thinking process will lead to better and more cohesively designed propositions.Below is the entire Food Design Thinking process, which shows all 52 methods that I have designed as part of the methodology.


What is the difference between Food Design and Food Design Thinking?

Food Design is the Design discipline concerned with everything around food and the act of eating. Food Design Thinking is the process that leads to generating new and innovative ideas for any food and eating-related project.

What is the difference between Food Design Thinking and Design Thinking?

What makes Food Design Thinking, is a series of specifically designed tools and techniques. These are designed to trigger creativity for projects around food, and could not, for example, be used in a general Design Thinking process. While it is appropriate to use a Design Thinking process for food projects, I argue that when designing food and around the act of eating, adopting a Food Design Thinking process will lead to better and more cohesively designed propositions.

For whom is Food Design Thinking?

Food Design Thinking is for food companies, food startups, food designers, and food innovators wanting to design new products or solutions.

Food Design Thinking is for all food lovers, from home cooks to professional chefs, food designers, bakers, restaurant managers, food truck owners, and food entrepreneur.

Food Design Thinking is for dreamers… for anyone wanting to explore their potentials within Food Design. Food Design Thinking is for those who want to take their food creativity one step forward.



Want to try Food Design Thinking first on your own?

Check out FOOD DESIGN THINKING The Complete Methodology:

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Read and download my published article here:

Title: Food Design Thinking: a branch of Design Thinking specific to Food Design


Within Design Thinking, is there a space for a set of methods that are designed specifically for a Food Design process? Is there a space for a branch of Design Thinking dedicated to Food Design only? We are just starting to understand how chefs ideate, and what recourses are available to them, considering that chefs are not usually trained in Design or Design Thinking. Given the complexity of eating situations, and the many aspects that influence it, a design method that specifically stimulates thinking around many of these aspects, can be very useful. I introduce a design method designed to generate themes on the ideal eating situation (called TED: Themes for Eating Design), the themes it has generated in a previous research, and how these themes have been transformed into a tool for the idea generation phase (called Thoughts For Food). In discussing the positive results obtained by using both TED and Thoughts For Food, I argue that yes, there is a scope for design methods and tools designed specifically for a process that aims at designing food or for eating, and that these methods can be part of a new branch of design theory that I call Food Design Thinking. 

What is Food Design?

The first thing people always assume when they hear the words Food Design, is that it’s about “how you put stuff on a plate”. No. Food Design is not food styling. Or at least, not only. Food Design is much more.

But before we dive into everything that Food Design is, I want to point your attention to the term itself: Food Design is made of two words, food and Design. Noticing this seemingly obvious combination of words really does make things clearer to those approaching this discipline for the first time. If you ask me, Food Design is as much about food, as it is about Design.

To me, the best way to understand what Food Design is, is to understand what Design is, because Food Design is, after all, a Design discipline. Just like there is Product Design, Graphic Design, and Interior Design, there is also Food Design. So, let’s see what Design is.

I like to start explaining Design using a quote I really like by Wouter Stokkel: It’s art if it can’t be explained. […], It’s design if it doesn’t need an explanation. Art is personal; it is personal to the artist and to the viewer. Art is interpreted differently by each viewer. Personal interpretation is good, because art is there to trigger thoughts and emotions that are intimate, maybe private, definitely subjective. Design on the other hand, should be universal. Design should be – in general, but there are exceptions – easily understandable and usable by anybody. Imagine if you had to interpret an iPhone, and dig deep into your feelings and memories to understand how to use it.

My favourite definition of Design is by John Heskett: Design is the deliberate and reasoned shaping and making of our environment in ways that satisfy our needs and give meaning to our lives (consider that the word “environment” here means more than the physical surroundings, but rather any possible stimulus human beings can interact with). Given any definition of Design, you can have a definition of Food Design just by making the said definition specific to food. For example: Food Design is the deliberate and reasoned shaping and making of our food environment in ways that satisfy our needs and give meaning to our lives. And there you have it: a perfectly good definition of Food Design. So remember, Food Design is any act of design applied to anything food or eating related. In fact, my personal definition of Food Design is:

Food Design is, simply, the connection between food and Design. Food Design is the design process that leads to innovation on products, services or systems that intervene in the production, procurement, preservation, transportation, preparation, presentation, consumption, or disposal of food. Food Design is the process that brings deliberate and reasoned innovation of function, technology, or meaning on anything that has to do with food or eating.

And now that we have a definition, let’s really dive into the vast world of Food Design.

Back in 2007, I created a Food Design sub-categorization that helped me, and later on many other people, to understand how multifaceted the Food Design discipline is. During the past year, I’ve been looking at, considering, and re-considering this sub-categorization. I have been scratching my head, thinking, pondering, and re-evaluating, and now it’s now time to take Food Design, and once again visualise its sub-disciplines, with some additions. This time, in a way that shows how these Food Design sub-disciplines intersect and merge, and how other disciplines inform and influence Food Design.

So, here is my proposition for what Food Design is. Version 2.0.

Okay, let’s start from Food Product Design. In this Food Design sub-discipline, where food is the material designers design with, we find edible products that are designed for mass production: Pringles, pasta, packaged ice-cream, chocolate, snacks, etc.

The food product designer usually has a background in product design or industrial design: he understands how the food material is molded, printed, extruded, and so on. He might also be familiar with packaging design, or he might collaborate with a packaging designer. The Food Product Designer usually doesn’t have a vast expertise in food science and food technology, maybe a little bit, maybe none, so he is likely to collaborate with a food scientist when it comes to designing the recipe of the food material he is using.

For example, years ago, I designed a chocolate snack. My background was in industrial design, so I took care of the shape of the snack itself and how it was manufactured, but I collaborated with a food scientist who created the recipe of the chocolate filling and coat, and with a packaging designer who was doing all the packaging and graphic for that particular chocolate company.

Then there is Design For Food. In this Food Design sub-discipline, we design not only products like pots and pans, plates, cutlery, and containers, but also from blenders, rice cookers, and toasters, to ovens, fridges, and 3D food printers; and finally packaging. In short, Design For Food is about all those products designed to prepare, cook, serve, contain and transport food.

Here, the food designer is again someone with a background in product or industrial design, often in packaging design, in which case he might or might not have the expertise in graphic design as well, and if he doesn’t, he is likely to collaborate with a graphic designer. In general, the Design For Food designer is likely to collaborate, at some point in his design process, with someone with extensive food knowledge. For example, if he is designing a pan, he will have long and extensive conversations with chefs, to learn from them what they need and like in a pan. If he is designing the packaging for a particular cheese for a cheese company, he will definitely be talking to the cheese maker, and maybe a food scientist who knows what the cheese needs to stay fresh. Also, he needs to know how the cheese changes after two days or a week, and whatever other cheese knowledge necessary to maintain it, transport it, present it, and of course, eat it.

Notice that there is an intersection between Food Product Design and Design For Food. This is because food products always come in a packaging, which is a result of Design for Food. So these two sub-disciplines are definitely linked, and food product designers and Design For Food designers, will often collaborate.

Then there is Design With Food. In this sub-discipline, we find all the products that come from the genius of chefs who push the boundaries of culinary arts. In Design With Food again, products are edible, but this time they are not designed for mass production, they are instead designed to be made, and eaten soon after. Let’s say that in Design With Food, there is no transportation involved between the place where the food is made, and the place where it is consumed, but there could be a customer buying this food directly where it is made, and taking it home to eat it. So we’re talking about dishes from the restaurant scenario for example, sandwiches from places like Subway or my favourite Pret a Manger, or cakes from a wedding cake shop, and bread and cronuts from bakeries. In this case, the food designer is definitely someone with a culinary arts background, or even somebody who has just studied baking for example. The food designer here is somebody who knows how to make food, and makes it himself. There can sometimes be some collaboration with food scientists to help with a specific recipe. In the case of the restaurant, or cafe scenario, this food designer should really collaborate with the restaurant manager, service staff, and anyone involved in the running of the service, not just the other chefs who are making the food.

There is one consideration I want to make here. What I am implying here is that, chefs are indeed food designers. But what I want to specify that not all chefs are food designers. Let’s remember that Food Design is a Design discipline. There are many ways to define Design, but it is generally agreed that Design leads to some type of innovation. Therefore in my opinion, only those chefs, who really push the boundaries in terms of cooking techniques, technologies, and the search for emotional responses from customers, are actually food designers, because these are the chefs who are innovators in their field, including those who do not refer to themselves as food designers.

Notice that there is an intersection between Design With Food and Design For Food, and this is because food is always served on some type of vessel: usually a plate in the restaurant scenario, a cup in the cafe scenario, or a simple paper bag at your local bakery. Those dishes, cups and bags are designed by Design For Food designers, which means that Design With Food designers, chefs or bakers, should indeed collaborate with the designer who designs the vessel in which their food is served or contained. This is because the vessel, its material, shape, texture, and ability to maintain moisture or temperature, will indeed influence the overall experience of eating that food. There is also an intersection between Design With Food, and Food Product Design, due to the likability of chefs and food scientists to be asked to work on the recipe of food products.

Then, Food Space Design. In this sub-discipline, we find all food spaces, which include the eating spaces as well as the cooking spaces. This means that food space designers design the restaurant itself, with everything that is inside, furniture, layout, lights, music, etc. Similarly, we find cafes, bakeries, and food trucks. But also, think about the cinema. There is a food space where the popcorns and drinks are prepared and served, which is of course designed, but there is also a food space where the food is eaten, which is the theatre itself. Almost all theatres have in fact a cup holder between seats: someone thought it would be a great idea to free people’s hands from having to hold their drink while simultaneously eat their popcorn. Great. And that’s it… this is in my opinion one of those areas where more food design can be done.

A Food Space Designer has a background in interior design or architecture, he understands spaces, and he designs both the eating space as well as the cooking space. In fact, notice that there is an intersection between Food Space Design and Design With Food, because all chefs, bakers, sandwich makers do need a cooking space, which should be designed to respond to their needs. For this reason, Food Space Designers are always collaborating with the chefs or bakers for which they are designing a kitchen layout, as well as with the restaurant and cafes owners or managers who knows what the eating space should feel like for their customers.

Finally, let’s talk about Eating Design. This is about designing the entire eating situation, and by eating situation I mean any situation in which there is someone eating something. In my opinion, Eating Design is about designing one-off eating situations, which means that it is different from designing permanent services like restaurants and cafes, and it is really about designing those dinners or lunches that happen one time only. In a simplistic way, this is what most caterings do, they design an eating event that lasts a few hours to one day: a wedding banquet, a business lunch, a baby shower buffet, a birthday party, whatever it is. The most interesting part of eating design is that eating designers have to – but really get to – design everything: from the food itself, the vessel, the elements of the space like layout, music, and lighting, and number and role of service staff. This means that when it comes to designing for the eating experience, eating designers have absolute control over the vast majority of the aspects that influence it. And this is fun. Free from the constraints of a static space, we have seen how many eating designers have attached spoons or other vessels on the wall, and placed food on it. Food can also be walking around us hanging from an umbrella carried around by the waiter, like the example from the NYC based catering company Pinch Food Design).

With this freedom of course also comes a lot of multidisciplinary work. We can see in fact that Eating Design intersects with Design With Food because the food itself is designed, it intersects with Design For Food because the food’s vessel is designed, and it intersects with Food Space Design because the food space, and sometimes the temporary cooking space, is designed. This also means that the eating designer usually collaborates with a lot of people, because he rarely has knowledge and skills in so many disciplines. First of all, the eating designer often collaborates with one or more chefs in designing food that aligns with the his or her vision. The eating designer also often collaborates with product designers to design custom-made vessels that allow the food to be served in a way that helps conveying that same vision. The eating designer then is likely to collaborate with a Space Designer, as to design the entire space, or even just custom-made pieces of furniture. Similarly he could consult with a light designer, and hire a musician, a band or a DJ, to play the music that is specific to the atmosphere he or she wants to create. And finally the eating designer will have to at least instruct the service staff to move, talk and behave in a certain way; here their role could be as simple as standing on the corner with a tray, to full on performances. The eating designer does not work alone.

These Food Design sub-disciplines more or less correspond to what I initially proposed in 2007. From now on, we’re in new territory.

Another Food Design sub-discipline is Food Service Design. Food Service Design is Service Design applied to food. This is the future in my opinion. This is where we should concentrate our time and efforts. Matt Hunter, chief Design Officer at the Design Council, describes services as “something that I use but that I do not own”, so you have an idea of all the services that exist and the different types of services. I use the electricity to switch on lights in my house, there is a service behind that, but I don’t own the electricity; I use taxis but I don’t own them; I buy coffee at a coffee shop, but I don’t own the coffee shop… and so on. Services are made of things, places, spaces, systems of communication, people, organizations and interactions. Because services are permeated with human activity, between customers, between service stuff, and between customers and service stuff just to mention a few, they are complex. In the 20th century, designers were supposed to create and develop simple objects. Towards the end of the century designers realized that generating successful solutions required including in the process more and more unpredictable factors whose behaviours are impossible to completely predict: aka human beings. So, user-centred design exploded. Designers started realising that since we’re ultimately designing for people, then we should put people in the picture, actually, at the centre of the picture. This also meant that designers had to get used to the idea of navigating into complexity. It is in this context that design started being less about the final object, and more about the interaction between people and that object. It was not about designing the cup of coffee anymore, it became more about designing the situation in which people buy and enjoy that cup of coffee: with it’s environment, human interactions, tangible factors, and outcome. This interaction is an activity that occurs over time, an activity with goals and results. Ezio Manzini, probably one of the fathers of Service Design, calls this an action platform. Whenever we design something we’re designing an action platform: a system that makes a multiplicity of interactions possible. Within food, services are for example cafes and restaurants, cafes, hospital kitchens serving food in the patient’s room and in the canteen, food catering in airplanes, as well as a hotdog carts, fruit and veggies shops, and food trucks. When you think of designing a service, you have to remember that you’re designing the setting, the aesthetic cues, the structure of the events and the overall eating situation; and you’re also managing the presence of fellow customers and linking the backstage activities with the front stage experience.

As you can see, Food Service Design completely encircles Eating Design, because all possible outcomes of Eating Design are services; a catering business, or food event business, do in fact provide a service.

Food Service Design also intersects with Food Space Design, because often food services have a food space that needs to be designed: a food shop, a canteen, even a hospital food service has a cooking space and a unique eating space that need to be designed. Food services, though not always, have a tangible space. For example, consider sharing economy apps like ‘Too Good To Go’, an app that allows you to buy from restaurants leftovers at a low price, food that would otherwise go in the bin. This type of food services only have the virtual space of the app or website. Which also means that food service designers might have to collaborate with web or app designers. Another reason why not all Food Space Design is included within Food Service Design, is because Food Space Design is also about designing the domestic cooking and eating spaces: kitchens and dining rooms for example.

Food Service Design also intersects with Design For Food, because when it comes to services too, there’s plenty of vessels needed to prepare and serve food. Again, not all Design For Food is included in Food Service Design because Design For Food is also about designing domestic cooking and eating utensils.

Food Service Design then intersects with Food Product Design, because many food services, like supermarkets, convenience stores, and cafes, sell packaged food products.

Finally, Food Service Design intersects with Design With Food, because chefs, again those who design the food itself, often operate within a service: restaurants, cafes, food trucks, caterings, hospital canteens, etc. At the same time, not all Design With Food is included in Food Service Design because I believe it is possible for innovation to also happen in domestic kitchens. I think there are out there, chefs or regular people who design incredible combinations of ingredients, flavours, and shapes, served in a certain way, on a certain vessel, as to trigger intense, positive emotions in people, and therefore creating long lasting memories. Isn’t this innovation?

One more Food Design sub-discipline is Critical Food Design. Critical design, sometimes also referred to as concept design, was made popular by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. Critical Food Design is simply Critical Design applied to food and eating. Critical Food Design is the discipline that makes us think about food and eating issues, that raises awareness, exposes assumptions, provokes actions, and sparks debate on food related issues, problems and future possible scenarios. Critical Food Design is the discipline that joins Critical Design to Food Design; it’s about any Critical Design project applied to food.

Critical design, sometimes also referred to as concept design, was made popular by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. The term Critical Design was first used in Anthony Dunne’s book, Hertzian Tales (1999) and later in Design Noir (2001), but we can attribute the roots of Critical Design to the Radical Design movements which started in 1970, and the conceptual design movement that started in the 1990.

Dunne and Raby’s say that “Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life. It is more of an attitude than anything else”. “What is it for? Mainly to make us think. But also raising awareness, exposing assumptions, provoking action, sparking debate, even entertaining in an intellectual sort of way, like literature or film” (from dunneandraby.co.uk).

Critical Food Design therefore is the discipline that makes us think about food and eating issues. It raises awareness, exposes assumptions, provokes actions, and sparks debate on food related issues, problems and future possible scenarios. Even though this term has never been used to define this Food Design sub-discipline before the beginning of 2016, when I first used, many designers have in fact been practicing Critical Food Design. Marti Guixe is one of the most well known critical designers, and he has worked a lot with food. Israeli Designer Lee Ben David has designed cutlery to be use use with just one specific type of food. The designer’s aim was to highlight the unnatural disconnect she believes cutlery creates between diners and their meals. Finally, designer Marre Moerel has designed a collection of dishware meant to promote thought and discussion about how, what, where and why we eat. From her website marremoerel.com: “The pieces are molded and cast directly from animal organs, such as cow hearts and livers, pig intestines, sheep brains, bull testicles etc. The shape and function of each object were derived from its original, natural form, without further manipulation or ‘design’”.

Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby in their website dunneandraby.co.uk state that “there are many people doing this who have never heard of the term critical design and who have their own way of describing what they do. Naming it Critical Design is simply a useful way of making this activity more visible and subject to discussion and debate”. Similarly, we can state that there are many people doing Critical Food Design who have their own way of describing what they do. Naming it Critical Food Design is simply a useful way of making this activity more visible and subject to discussion and debate.

I have put Critical Food Design outside all the other sub-disciplines, and therefore circling all of them, because Critical Food Design has the potential of being applied to any of these sub-disciplines. Critical Food Design has been applied to Design For Food, and it has also been applied to Eating Design, even if the designers did not explicitly say they were doing Critical Food Design. Probably one of my favourite examples is Salvage Supperclub, created by Josh Treuhaft, which is a series of dinners hosted in a dumpster, and designed to serve dishes using expired and aesthetically imperfect foods that would otherwise finish in…the dumpster. Dinners designed to really make people think.

Next is Food System Design. Have you ever heard about System Design? We can certainly talk about Food System Design too! What is a system? Well, it is basically the overview of every possible aspect that comes into play for anything you design. It’s really about thinking about where things come from, where they go, who moves them and how. In Food System Design, you’ll be answering questions like: What is the environment of this product or service? What is the feedback loop that the system uses to correct its actions? How does the system measure its achievements and failures? Who defines the system, environment, goal, and monitors its intersections? What resources does the system have for maintaining the relationships it desires? Are its resources sufficient to meet its purpose? Etc.

Most products and dishes, each tangible thing people eat, is part of an environment and of a service, and each service is part of a bigger system. Think about it; strawberry cream cheese (product) is sold at the supermarket (food service). Supermarkets are not only building filled with products, but these spaces are part of a network of people and other companies that enable purchase and distribution of products. Even more broadly the company which produces the strawberry cream cheese has its own network of people and companies for the purchase and distribution of the ingredients and packaging. At the other end of the spectrum, there are services that will allow you to dispose of the cream cheese’ packaging from your home when you’ve eaten it all. All of these components are part of the same system. It just depends on what level you want to design; micro (the cream cheese itself), macro (the entire cream cheese system), or anything in between.

And finally, there is one last Food Design sub-discipline that must be included: Sustainable Food Design, which is simply Sustainable Design, applied to Food. You can consider Sustainable Food Design a sub-discipline on its own, but to me, this should actually be an attitude more than a sub-discipline. An attitude that every designer, and food designer, should use when designing anything. Everything should be designed to be as sustainable as possible. Actually, in this day and age, we should only design products or services that are sustainable in terms of food waste, organisational changes, behavioural changes, materials, agriculture, supply chain, etc.

It is not possible for food designers today to not think about the environmental impact of the materials they choose. For example, the impact materials have in order to be made, and after they are disposed. It is not possible for food designers today to not think about the environmental impact of the production, distribution, preservation and disposal of foods. It is not possible for food designers today to not think about the environmental impact of industrial farming and industrial agriculture, in terms of water footprint, energy efficiency and transparency, respect, and equity within trade. Sustainable Food Design should simply be the sustainable approach that every food designer uses to make each and every design choice. For this reason, Sustainable Food Design is the outermost circle in this visualization.

How can you use this Food Design categorization? Well, first of all I think that understanding what Food Design is, and really having the bigger picture of all its sub-disciplines, will help you figure out what type of food designer you want to be: given your background, you can see where you fit as a food designer, but also, given the type of Food Design you want to do, you can see what type of knowledge and skills you should acquire. In addition, I’d like you to think about this categorization as a map; a map that shows you the context of your project and guides you to seek the best knowledge and collaboration you need.

Public Speaking

I often give talks to various academic and non-academic events. According to the type of events you’re organizing, here are various talk-options I can offer (the length can vary from 30 minutes to 60 minutes, according to your needs):

Talk on Food Design

For a general audience, this is an introduction to the varied and complex world of Food Design. This will broaden the audience understanding of this discipline, show them how far food creativity can – and should – stretch, and how interconnected the various Food Design subdisciplines are.

Talk on Food Design Thinking

For a more competent audience (either in design or culinary arts and gastronomy) I introduce the Food Design Thinking methodology, the theory behind it, and how it can help any company, and chef, and any designer achieve food concepts that are more innovative, more meaningful, and more sustainable.

Talk on Sustainable Food Design

An overview of what it means to design food (and for food, e.g. products, serivices, events, etc.) in a sustainable way. We’ll look closely at the Circular Food Economy and on why we should move our attention from products to food systems.


Whatever your event is, we can discuss together the best content of my talk and delivery modalities. Send me an email at onlineschooloffooddesign at gmail dot com and let’s discuss!




Hands on Food Design Thinking

Whether you are a Food Company looking to learning more about the creativity and development process, a kitchen looking for new ideation tools, or caterings needing new inputs to generate new and innovating concepts, my workshops can help with that. I introduce you to my Food Design Thinking process and teach you all or a selection of methods that will allow you to easily work on all future food challenges. The FDT process can be used to design new products or re-design existing products.

Below is a representation of the whole Food Design Thinking process. You’ll be introduced and exposed to some or all methods, depending on your needs and resources.

ONE day workshops

A one-day workshop where I teach your Food Design team the principles of the Food Design Thinking (FDT) process, and introduce some key methods selected ad-hoc for the company (includes all PDF worksheets for said methods). The goal is to give you enough tools to be able to use the FDT process independently in the future. Most methods are only introduced to the team, and a few are simulated so the team can experience them. 

TWO to THREE days workshop

A two or three-days workshop where I teach your Food Design team the principles of the Food Design Thinking (FDT) process, and introduce some key methods selected ad-hoc for the company (includes all PDF worksheets for said methods). The goal is to give you enough tools to be able to use the FDT process independently in the future. The number of FDT methods you’ll be introduced to is proportional to the amount of time we have for this workshop. Most methods are only introduced to the team, and a few are simulated so the team can experience them. 


Live Webinars

I more or less regularly host Live Webinars on my YouTube channel, where I share insights on Food Design or interview food influencers and innovators. Make sure to subscribe to my channel to see announcements of future webinars, and if you click on the Bell Icon you will receive notifications when I’m live!

Below are some of the live Webinars I’ve hosted so far.

Hope to see you at the next one!

Minimalism + Veganism = Sustainable Food Design

There are two quite controversial words in this title; two big words, full of meaning and history. Minimalism and Veganism are the two concepts that when applied to Food Design can lead towards sustainable solutions. We can also argue that Minimalism and Veganism combined to create the fastest road towards Sustainable Food Design, creating a formula that for this reason is really worth exploring. In order to discuss this solution, let’s first remember the extent of the problem we are facing, let’s portray a picture of food waste today.
Of the six billion pounds of produce that is wasted each year in the USA, many of these are fruits and veggies that are discarded because of their appearance. A single restaurant can produce from 25,000 to 75,000 pounds of food waste in one year. In American restaurants, 84.3% of unused food ends up being disposed of, while only 14.3% is recycled, and only 1.4% is donated (businessinsider.fr). The contribution of food wastage emissions to global warming is almost equivalent to transport emissions; it other words, if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest emitting country in the world (wri.org). 1.4 billion hectares of land – 28% percent of the world’s agricultural area – is used annually to produce food that is lost or wasted (fao.org). Agriculture and Animal farming are the main causes of deforestation; about 48 football fields worth of trees are lost every minute (worldwildlife.org). Up to 28,000 animal species can go extinct in the next quarter century due to deforestation. If we continue like this, by the year 2030, we might only have 10% of Rainforests left and it can all disappear in a hundred years (theworldcounts.com). 21% of our fresh water is used to make food that will be wasted (refed.com), while 844 million people in the world don’t have access to clean water (wateraidamerica.org).
Now let’s look at food packaging, indeed a key component of food production and of Food Design itself. Food packaging is approximately 50% (by weight) of total packaging sales (ift.org). Confusion over the meaning of date labels is estimated to account for 20% of consumer waste of safe, edible food (refed.com). 90% of all seabirds have plastic in their stomachs (plasticoceans.org); it is safe to assume that much of this plastic was once food packaging. A recent study looked for plastic contamination in the tap water of cities around the world. 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibers (theguardian.com). In 2014, only 9.5% of plastic material was recycled in the USA. Another 15% was combusted for energy, while 75.5% was sent to landfills (epa.gov); It takes up to 500 years to decompose plastic items in landfills. In 2013, 59% of beer and soft drink bottles, and 66% of wine and liquor bottles were not recycled (gpi.org); glass in the landfill takes 1 to 2 millions year to decompose. And this is without considering what happens to cooking equipment, kitchenware, tableware, furniture for the eating environment, etc.
This was just a picture of the waste made from the food itself and its packaging, without considering what happens to cooking equipment, kitchenware, tableware, furniture for the eating environment, etc. When we talk about food waste, we’re not just talking about the organic edible material, but every product used in that food systems and that is at some point thrown away.
What is interesting to remember at this point is that this year’s earth overshoot day was August 2nd. Which means that since August 2nd we’ve been taking from this planet more than what it has to offer. And we’ve been doing this since 1971. We keep using enormous amounts of materials, resources, and energy to make food that is going to be wasted, packaging that is going to be thrown away and to recycle stuff that just could have been designed to have a smaller environmental impact. We’re constantly borrowing resources from this planet. What can we do to do better? Starting now?
Two approaches that would allow people to make more sustainable choices, creating an immediate trajectory towards positive change are veganism and minimalism. Let’s consider them one by one, and see why both consumers and innovators should apply them to their life and work.
Veganism is the choice of not eating, wearing, and in general buying animal products. As a diet, it excludes meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. In other words, veganism rejects animal farming. The reasons why one should consider veganism, are the reasons one should reject animal farming. Animal farming is the number one cause of deforestation, because animals take land, as does growing food for these animals. Animal farming is also the number one cause of Co2 emissions, and it is, therefore, the number one cause of global warming. Moreover, animal farming uses a lot of water: it takes 2,400 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef while producing 1 pound of tofu only requires 244 gallons of water.
But Oreos cookies are vegan, Ritz Crackers are vegan, Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars are vegan, Krispy Kreme Fruit Pies are vegan, etc. These products are vegan, but not necessarily healthy and not necessarily environmentally friendly. The healthy and more sustainable branch of veganism is a plant based diet. A plant based diet excludes all processed food: no candies, no vegan ice cream, no pasta, no cookies, no Pringles, no canned food, no fruit juices or soda, etc. The reasons why one should consider a plant based diet, are the reasons one should reject processed food. Processed food uses a lot of energy and resources. Processed food is likely to have some chemical that our body doesn’t really need. And processed food comes in a packaging, which uses energy and resources and then becomes rubbish, rubbish that takes energy and resources to be recycled, or even worse ends up in the landfill.
For many people veganism, and even more, a plant based diet, seem extreme. It is not necessary for the whole planet to become 100% vegan immediately. Those who are interested in making this shift can start with one day a week, maybe two. Even part-time veganism by just half of the world population would have a very quick impact on the environment. Choosing a vegan plant based diet, and choosing to design for a vegan plant based diet, immediately reduces the environmental impact of your food. Michael Pollan clearly explained that living a more sustainable life is in our own hands because three times a day we can choose our food, and therefore the type of impact our lives have on the planet. As consumers, we can choose what to buy, and as food designers, we can choose what to design.
Minimalism as a life philosophy (as opposed to an art movement) has been popularised by Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus who in 2011 published a book titled “Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life”. In essence, minimalism is about simplifying our life, starting by the things we own. There are various reasons why one should consider minimalism. From an everyday perspective, minimalism is about owning fewer things, owning only what you really need. When it comes to buying things, it is indeed about buying less, but also buying better: buying the things that have a minimum impact on the environment and on other living beings. Minimalism can also be about tiny living, living in the minimum amount of space for us to be comfortable. From a broader perspective, minimalism is about zero-miles and zero-waste, trying to buy local, ethical and sustainable: trying to buy things that have a minimum Co2 footprint and a minimum impact on our world. And from a food perspective, then a plant based diet itself seems to be the minimalist approach to food: eat only what you really need. It is only when we really ask ourselves “what do I really need…” that we realize how much we have filled our homes, lives, and bellies, of stuff that we can easily live without. And if we can live without it, why having it? Why buying it? Why eating it? Products use energy and resources to be made, assembled, and transported, and products will use energy and resources to be disposed of.
Choosing not to buy something is the single, most immediate act one can do to live a more sustainable life. And as food designers, choosing not to design something, is again the quickest way to design for a better present, and a better future. Interestingly, this aligns with Dieter Rams tenth principle of good design: “good design is as little design as possible”. Mastering the art of designing as little as possible is indeed the biggest challenge for any innovator, but arguably it is the most important.
Veganism and minimalism can be considered as two approaches to Sustainable Food Design, the two fastest roads towards more sustainable choices. Veganism and minimalism are also two philosophies that are not widely embraced by most societies. Considering the state of the planet in this day and age, although controversial these two approaches deserve consideration especially in the ideation process of new propositions. Food designers, chefs, events planners, and any change maker and innovator should at least consider veganism and minimalism as philosophies that can quickly lead to a more sustainable future.

My Circular Food Economy Model

The Circular Economy is a way of thinking, it is a goal that every designer and food designer should aim at. In this paper, I propose a model for the Circular Food Economy, a model that is specific to the food industry.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation defines the Circular Economy as “restorative and regenerative by design. Relying on system-wide innovation, it aims to redefine products and services to design waste out, while minimising negative impacts”. In order to understand circular economy it’s useful to start from what was there before we started thinking circularly: the linear economy. In the linear economy, which unfortunately is the approach still used for much product design today, consists of taking raw materials from the planet’s resources and use them to manufacture products; these products are used by consumers and then disposed of, ending up in the landfill. This type of economy is linear, from one step to the other, finishing with waste in the landfill. Subsequently, with the reuse economy we started creating one or more loops: the product or material is reused or recycled and, after this second life, still end up in the landfill. Here the attention to avoiding landfill was minimal and waste was still largely produced.

Nowadays there is a big effort being made to consider recycling as the last resource before landfill, and instead prompt reusing and remanufacturing towards a zero waste future. The ultimate goal for a truly environmentally and economically sustainable future should be reducing waste and minimising any type of negative impact. This mind-frame is what makes the circular economy, an economy that doesn’t see waste but only resources.

Let’s take a closer look at my model for the Circular Food Economy. This model is based on the circular economy model from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, but includes various additions and a more detailed – in my opinion – visualisation of resource movement.

The economy is made by moving around organic materials, many of which are edible, and inorganic materials, all your plastic, metals, glass, etc. At the top of the diagram materials are made: farms and animal farms, and factories where inorganic materials are gathered and refined.

Materials then go through some manufacturing process: here is where metal becomes pots, glass becomes jars, and plastic becomes packaging, for example. The vast majority of plant products and animal products go through some type of manufacturing process. Here the organic and inorganic materials then meet: the jam meets the jar and a label and lid, and it becomes a jar of jam, the yogurt meets the plastic packaging and it becomes a yogurt cup, etc.

Once the product is processed, packaged and ready for distribution, it goes usually to a service where it is sold. These can be stores, shops, warehouses, markets, etc. A small amount of plant products, the part which is not processed, goes straight to the service provider: these are basically only fresh fruits and veggies. The same can happen for some type of fresh fish. Fresh meat, on the other hand, always undergoes a processing stage where the animal is killed, dismembered, and portioned. At the service stage products are sold, and here they meet the consumer.

The consumer uses the non-edible products, and eats the edible products. Let’s see what happens to the non-edible products first, after the consumer has used them.

The first thing that the conventional circular economy model leaves out (at least visually), is the possibility for the user to reuse the product. This is the case of products that have solved their first function, and now can be used for a second function which was not intentionally designed. A simple example are drinking glasses that once were jars of olives, or jam, or whatever else. For example, when I finish the jam, so when the jar has finished its firs function, I choose to reuse the jar for another purpose, using it as a drinking glass. This is quite simple, many people are already doing this, and certainly everybody could do it. In this case the object does not need to be altered, or fixed in any way before being used for a second purpose.

Then there are the products that broke or that have a malfunction and that can be repaired by the consumer herself; good design would have taken this possible maintenance into account, and would have designed protocols to help the consumer in this repair. For example, if my coffee grinder brakes but the parts and instructions are simple enough, I can fix it myself, if a part is broken I can call the manufacturer and they’re going to send me the piece I need.

Another aspect that the circular economy model leaves out, is sharing and everything that is the sharing economy. Consider a pasta maker that travels between friends according to who needs it that week: sharing happens when the life of the product is still in its prime, when it’s still functional. The product can be shared with someone we know, or within a small group of people, or it could be shared with strangers, like in the case of an airbnb apartment.

Now we enter into the possibilities for discarded products and materials when the product no longer is usable and functional, or when the consumer no longer needs it.

First of all the product can be sent back to the service provider where, if necessary, it is repaired, and where it can be sold to someone else who is able to reuse it or give it the necessary maintenance (e.g. second hand shops, eBay, etc.). I want to spend a moment here saying that I believe too little effort is done to educate people on the values of buying second hand. Second hand purchases was the norm up until 60 or 70 years ago, but then all of a sudden the culture of “the new” has invaded us, so much so that now for most people buying second hand is somehow unthinkable. Instead, I believe the reusing economy is a wonderful space for opportunities for designers and food designers.

Products can then be refurbished and remanufactured. In this case, when a products are discarded they go back to the manufacturer where, through a service provider, they are sold to other people.

And finally products are dismantled and materials recycled, which means that materials go back to the parts manufacturer, then to the product manufacturer, the service provider, and back to the consumer as completely new products.

And now for the organic products amongst which there is of course food. Let’s remember that organic products are not only food, but they also include flowers, some body care products, some clothes, paper, etc.

When it comes to food specifically, the first thing that we can do with leftovers, and this is something that is not in the original circular economy model, is donating them with or without sharing economy services. There are for example apps like Leftover Swap that allow you list your leftover food, and whoever in the neighbourhood would love to have it, can come over and pick it up. Donating leftovers is of course something food services can do, for example donating their food to charities. From now on, it’s worth remembering that every option the user has with her own leftovers, the food service provider also has.

What else to do with leftovers? A portion could be given it to family pets and farm animals, if you have any. This might seem obvious, but I think it is important to visualise this, as to make it clear that we have this option too; food designers could, for example, easily design a pick-up and drop-off service from houses to farms for households without their own goats, rabbits, or chickens.

Then, food can become compost. Compost is another highly underrated solution that anybody can implement to transform food waste into a high value resource. You could compost your own food and use it for your flowers or your own balcony garden. All that is needed to compost are two buckets, dry leaves or cardboard, and food scraps. For those who can’t, or don’t want to compost, food scraps can still be donated. Grow NYC for example organised 42 food scraps collection points where people and go whenever convenient to donate their food waste which will be used to make compost. Compost then of course is used to grow more organic materials and therefore goes back into the cycle.

For the next few options there needs to be a system in place; these are either solutions adopted by the town where you live, or by private services in your area. Again, this is yet another area with scope for design.

Organic material can undergo a process called anaerobic digestion, which produces either biogas or fertiliser made from solid and liquid components. Biogas can then be used at any point in the circular economy, and the fertiliser goes back into farming.

Finally, fats, oils and grease which cannot be composted, can be rendered to make biodisel, animal feed, and some types of cosmetics, soap, etc.

To conclude, I want to bring your attention to something we all should think about everyday, and before buying any product. As a global economy today, we use resources 1.5 times the regeneration capacity of planet Earth. According to WWF and Global Footprint Network, in 2017 humanity used up its allowance of planetary resources (such as water, soil, and clean air) by August 2. This means that humanity lived on “credit” for the rest of the year. We started using more resources than earth is able to regenerate back in 1971, and since then, Earth Overshoot Day as arrived earlier every year. It was August 13 in 2015, September 22 in 2003, and October 21 in 1993. http://www.overshootday.org/

Circular Economy definitely is a good way to move forward. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation website lists the three principles of Circular economy: “1) Preserve and enhance natural capital by controlling finite stocks and balancing renewable resource flows. 2) Optimise resource yields by circulating products, components, and materials at the highest utility at all times in both technical and biological cycles. 3) Foster system effectiveness by revealing and designing out negative externalities, which includes reducing damage to human utility, such as food, mobility, shelter, education, health, and entertainment, and managing externalities, such as land use, air, water and noise pollution, release of toxic substances, and climate change.” You can see how the application of each of these three principles is visible in the Circular Food Economy model too. As food designers we should remember these principles in your future practice, and thus contribute to this planet with sustainable propositions.