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What is Food Design?

Here is an outline of the complete Food Design discipline with all its sub-disciplines. 

Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the owner of this content is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Francesca Zampollo and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Food Design is a vast discipline, that in one sense is about 23-25 years old, and in another sense is as old as human beings. After all, the first time we put a piece of meat on a fire we were applying innovation to food, so we were food design-ing. Right? In this paper I will outline the Food Design discipline as I see it, with all its sub-disciplines. I will show how these Food Design sub-disciplines intersect and merge, and how other disciplines inform and influence Food Design. This paper will also highlight who food designers are and how they collaborate with each other.


There are as many definitions of Food Design as there are people trying to define it. As it should be. I’ve been in this field for almost 20 years and my own definition keeps changing. Food Design is a huge discipline! And it is not “how we decorate food on a plate”… or at lesat not only.


Firstly, 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 Food Design is Design applied to anything related to food and the act of eating.


Ok, now how do we define food and Design then. Well food is pretty self-explanatory, but we include drinks too. Food as anything that nourishes the body.


And Design… 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.


There are as many definitions of Design as there are people trying to define it. Defining Design itself is an effort that has lasted for as long as the discipline itself has existed, and it’s much of the debate that fires Design Theory. Exactly what is happening for Food Design.


I usually like to explain what Design is 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.


Another definition of Design I really like 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.


We should also remark on the fact that Design is not an outcome, but a process. Specifically, Design is a conscious process of creation. And to me we talk about Design when the outcome brings some type of Innovation. Again, what is innovation? Let’s say that innovation implies significant improvements to life, the life of people, the life of any living thing, and the life of the planet.


Therefore, one of my definitions of Food Design is:

Food Design is the conscious creative process that brings innovation to people and/or the planet on anything related to food and the act of eating: from production, procurement, preservation, and transportation, to preparation, presentation, consumption, and disposal.


And now that we have a definition, let’s really dive into the vast world of Food Design. Here is my proposition and visualisation for what Food Design is.


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, like potato chips, pasta, packaged ice-cream, chocolate bars, snacks, etc.

Food product designers usually have a background in product design or industrial design: they understand how the food material is moulded, printed, extruded, and so on. They might also be familiar with packaging design, or they might collaborate with packaging designers. Food Product Designers usually don’t have a vast expertise in food science and food technology (maybe a little bit, maybe none) so they are likely to collaborate with food scientists when it comes to designing the recipe of the food material they are 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 coating, and with a packaging designer who was doing all the packaging and graphics 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 cooking appliances like blenders, rice cookers, toasters, 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, food designers are again someone with a background in product or industrial design, often in packaging design, in which case they might or might not have the expertise in graphic design as well, and if they don’t, they are likely to collaborate with graphic designers. In general, Design For Food designers are likely to collaborate, at some point in the design process, with someone with extensive food knowledge. For example, if they are designing a pot, they will have long and extensive conversations with chefs, to learn from them what they need and like in a pot. If they are designing the packaging for a particular cheese for a cheese company, they will definitely be talking to the cheese maker, and maybe a food scientist who knows what the cheese needs to stay fresh. for example. Also, they need 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 chefs who push the boundaries of culinary arts, or food scientists who innovate with the food material itself. In the case of Design With Food done by chefs, products are edible but not for mass production, they are instead designed to be prepared and eaten soon after. In the case of Design With Food done by food scientists often they’re designing the food materials for food products for mass production, but they are not designing the overall food product, that’s why they belong to a category of its own.


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 cafes, cakes from a wedding cake shop, and bread and cronuts from bakeries. In this case, food designers are definitely someone with extensive food knowledge, usually someone with a culinary arts or food science background, or even somebody who studied only baking for example. Food designers here are people who know how to make food, and make it themselves.

There can sometimes be a collaboration between chefs and food scientists for a specific recipe. In the restaurant or cafe scenario, food designers should collaborate and even co-design 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 is 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 designers who design the vessel in which their food is served or contained. This is because the vessel itself, 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 how likely it is for chefs and food scientists to be asked to work on the recipe of food products for mass production.


Then, Food Space Design. In this sub-discipline, we find the design of all food spaces, which include eating spaces as well as cooking spaces, whether commercial or private. This means that food space designers design the restaurant (for example) itself, with everything that is inside: layout, furniture, lights, music, etc. We can also design the food/eating/cooking space of cafes, bakeries, food trucks, etc. Moreover, think about the cinema. There is a food space where the popcorns and drinks are prepared and served, which are of course designed, but there are also food spaces where the food is eaten (the projection rooms, the lobby, etc.). Think about how 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. A simple example of Food Space Design.


Food Space Designers usually have a background in interior design or architecture, they understand spaces and design 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, etc. 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 know what the eating space should feel like for their customers.


Now 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 caterers do, they design an eating event that lasts a few hours to a few days: a wedding banquet, a business lunch, a baby shower buffet, a birthday party, etc.


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, the number and role of service staff, etc. 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. 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. For example, 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 eating designers usually collaborate with a lot of people, because they rarely have 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 their vision for the event. Eating designers also often collaborate with product designers to design custom-made vessels that allow the food to be served in a specific way to help convey that same vision. Eating designers then are likely to collaborate with a food space designer, as to design the entire space or even just custom-made pieces of furniture. Similarly, they could consult with light designers and hire a musician, a band or a DJ, to play the music that is specific to the atmosphere they want to create. And finally eating designers 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. Eating designers do not work alone.


Another Food Design sub-discipline is Food Service Design. Food Service Design is Service Design applied to food. 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, organisations 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, design was generally about objects. Towards the end of the century designers realised 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 are 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 its 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, hospital kitchens serving food in the patient’s room and in the canteen, food catering in airplanes, as well as hotdog carts, fruit and veggies shops, food trucks etc. 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 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 to waste. This type of food services only have the virtual space of the app or website. This 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 intersects with Design With Food, because chefs, again those who design the food itself, often operate within a service: restaurants, cafes, food trucks, catering, 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, flavors, 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?


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.


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


One more Food Design sub-discipline is Critical Food Design or Speculative Food Design. 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 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


Critical Food Design, therefore, is Critical Design applied to food: it 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 it, 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 used 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 “The pieces are moulded 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 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. One of the first examples of Design applied to the topic of food waste that we have seen.


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? A system 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, goals, 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 of. 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 visualisation.


How can you use this Food Design categorisation? 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 categorisation 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.

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