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Spirituality in Food Design-ing

By Francesca Zampollo Ph.D.

Every Design project is an act of self-actualisation. Think about this: everything in the world you interact with... changes you. Every interaction with a person, with a service, with an object, with a place, with other living beings, every moment of interaction with something that is outside of your body, changes you. Simply because you learn something, and you grow. Regardless of whether this happens consciously or subconsciously. This is inevitable, it’s the human experience.


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Now, as a designer, since a design project is an example of something you interact with, everything you design changes you. And I’m not talking about the fact that every product or service - or whatever the outcome of your project is - interact with people and through that interaction people change. That also happens, absolutely. I’m looking at this from designers’ perspective: every design project changes designers themselves.

The design choices you - as a designer - make, the design journey you immerse yourself in, change you. Inevitable, that’s the human experience. But the design process is a conscious act. Design choices are conscious choices. You make them. And when you design following your inner path, when your design project brings you to realise your full potential and to develop your abilities… when you design feeling that what you’re doing speaks of who you are and of what you want to bring in the world, there’s an act of self-actualisation.

To what was the well known sustainability triangle, where the three corners are economic sustainability, environmental sustainability, and social sustainability, I’ve added a fourth corner and lifted it up to make it connect to all three other corners, transforming this 2D sustainability triangle into a 3D Sustainability Pyramid. The fourth vertex I added is spiritual sustainability, acknowledging not only how design can explicitly accompany people on their own journey of self-discovery, but also the spiritual journey of designers themselves and how what they design impacts their own lives too.

All great traditions of this planet, all great teachers and philosophers and thinkers we’ve had tell us and teach us that we all have an ever-present, meaning-seeking flame inside. Most of us have felt it many times in our lives. Some of you might be feeling it right now. That sense of burning curiosity to figure out who we are, what we are here to do… That drive for inner development, for self-examination. That simple will to figure life out, to finally give ourselves to it, completely.

Spirituality is not related to religion necessarily. Religion can be considered one possible outcome or path of spirituality, but spirituality is also independent from religion. Spirituality is innate to every human being, even though awareness of our spiritual journey varies.

We’re talking about Spirituality in Design because spirituality refers to a wide range of ideas, experiences, practices that are considered life-enhancing and related to humans’ well being. Spirituality is also closely associated with relationships, peace, joy, justice, and a unified sense of body and soul. These are all things we design for.

Spirituality and creativity are closely connected. Creativity is pursue through practice, thinking and reflecting. The act of reflection is often aimed at the search for truth, balance, harmony, and anything related to living our best life possible. For artist David Hockney all creativity is about love (Harries, Art and the Beauty of God, 106.). It has been widely recognised that creativity is the expression of the “inner” or “higher” notion of human concern, and that art brings human beings to their spiritual journey of understanding and growth (Shumacher, A guide for the Perplexed, 143; Richard Harries, Art and the Beauty of God, London: Mombray, 1983, 101.).

“Creativity is… seeing something that doesn’t exist already. You need to find out how you can bring it into being and that way be a playmate with God.” — Michele Shea

It is important to mention that the Sustainability Pyramid can be used as a design tool, a map for making choices and visualise the impact of our choices and our overall product or service. This is the way it is intended in this paper. In this sense, we can see the interdependence of our choices towards environmental sustainability with our choices towards social sustainability and spiritual sustainability. Or we can see the causality relationship between our choices towards economy sustainability and spiritual sustainability. The Sustainability Pyramid can be a tool to check and assess throughout the process interdependence, causality, correlation, and other relations between any of the vertices.

As designers we are all aware of our “users’ needs”. We all know well Maslows hierarchy of needs and how at the very top we find, in fact, self-actualisation. When we look at this hierarchy from a design perspective we see opportunities: we can use this to make choices in our design project, we can use this to try and bring people to fulfil one or more of these needs with our products or services.

I would like to propose a way of looking at this hierarchy from the perspective of the Sustainability Pyramid.

Let’s start by considering the physiological need for having sex and reproduction.

Expressing our sexuality is one of our basic needs, as it is a key component of physical health. Let’s point out though, that sexual needs are not shared by all human beings. Maslow also puts reproduction as a physiological need, and this too is not shared by all human beings. But for most people sensual and sexual expression is a need. As designers we find indeed plenty of opportunities to design products and services to help people satisfy this basic need.

But, when we design with a higher purpose, when our design process is a conscious act of self-actualisation, the product or service inevitably allows people (i.e. users) to fulfil higher needs too: indeed a product or a service that promotes sexual health or that aids the reproductive process can also fulfil the needs of belonging, intimacy, meaningful relationships, affection, and indeed love. In the english language we use the terms having sex for our physiological needs, and making love for our belonging and love needs. An easy example of how addressing one need can also address others higher up in this hierarchy. Sex seems to be related to the physiological need, but the moment sex is done with a higher purpose, the moment sex is considered a sacred moment of exchange between two human beings, then we use the term “making love”. I personally find it interesting how we talk about the act of making love, creating love. A concept that is shared in the Italian language with “fare l’amore”, the Spanish language with “hacer el amor”, in Portugase with “fazer amor”, in German with “liebe machen”, and I’m sure many more.

From the perspective of the Sustainability Pyramid we can argue that the act of designing a product or service that fulfils people’s belongingness and love needs, besides their physiological needs, is an “act of self actualisation”. Therefore, since design is a conscious process, since we make our design choices in accordance to our own moral compass and sense of purpose, design projects that fulfil higher needs for people are, or at least can be, a tool for designers’ personal spiritual development.

Let’s consider now a shelter. If we design for the physiological need we design products and services that offer protection. We can stop here, nothing wrong with that. But when we design with a higher purpose, when our design process is a conscious act of self-actualisation, the product or service we design inevitably allows people (i.e. users) to fulfil higher needs: a shelter becomes part of a collective of shelters, doors open to the community and hosting is allowed, spaces become places for gathering, meaning-making, knowledge sharing, and who knows, in the process maybe even self-actualisation for many of the people interacting with them.

From the perspective of the Sustainability Pyramid we can argue that the act of consciously designing a product or service with a higher purpose creates a process of self realisation and fulfilment for designers, and therefore can become an act of self-actualisation and a mile stone in our spiritual journey.

“We should attempt to bring nature, houses, and human beings together in a higher unity” - Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Let’s consider now food. If we design food for the physiological need we design products and services to feed people. We can design just for this, nothing wrong with it. But, when we design with a higher purpose, when our design process is a conscious act of self-actualisation, the product or service we design inevitably allows people to fulfil higher needs: now food becomes nourishment, cooking a moment to enjoy, and sharing a meal a way to make wonderful memories.

I want to mention a company called TSdesigns. This company manufactures t-shirts made of organic cotton. Wonderful. But the company also has a food garden, close to the manufacturing plant. Workers rotate in taking care of the garden, so they might work on their accounting, or distribution, or manufacturing duties 4 days a week and spend the 5th in the food garden. All employees share the food that is grown, and they are free to eat the produce there or take it home to their families.

The food garden has no direct implication in the economic sustainability of the company - the food is not sold in any way. The function of the food garden, is the reason why this company is, in my opinion, exemplary and just wonderful. The food garden, 1) provides a healthy diet for the employees, 2) which implies general health and prevents many possible diseases. 3) The garden gives employees the opportunity to spend time in nature, touching the soil and the vegetables, with the countless benefits that we know this has on our physical and mental health. 4) The garden provides an opportunity for employees to feel part of a community, to work for one another, to share the outcome. 5) The garden introduces to and educates the employees on organic food, and food growing. 6) Finally, the garden provides a sense of accountability as well as satisfaction, and a sense of achievement, because we all know the feeling we feel when the first strawberry, or the first chilli appears on the plant we’re carving for. It never gets old.

This happened because the business owner had very clear ideas on what he wanted to create in this world, what he wanted to do for Earth and for people, his people, and therefore on the type of impact he wanted to have and the legacy he wanted to leave. In my opinion this person is a visionary, somebody moved by compassion and love. This person is walking his own spiritual journey and what he designs, reflects it.

“Rivers do not drink they own water. trees do not eat their own fruit. clouds do not swallow their own rain. what great ones have is always for the benefit of others”. Hindu Proverb

We’ve seen how we can use the hierarchy of needs as a way of visualising all the human needs for which we can design. We’ve seen how when designers are interested in moving beyond basic needs, and want to facilitate the fulfilment of higher needs too, they do it because moved by a higher purpose, a push to create impactful change for fellow human beings, and they do it when supported by compassion, joy, and love. We’ve also seen how this process is inevitably part of designers’ personal spiritual journey, a journey of choices towards who they want to be and what impact they ant to bring to the world, regardless of whether the designer is aware of it or not.

This hierarchy of needs though, can limit the scope of design itself, closing the possible reach of a design project to only people, users. There are plenty of instances where great design is achieved without having the user at the centre of the process.

Sometimes for example, Earth - environmental sustainability - can be at the centre of the design project, and social, economic, and maybe even spiritual sustainability follow its lead.

For example, there are companies making ketchup and preserves using food that otherwise would have been wasted (Ruby in the Rubbles), and a startup that is transforming expired milk into a cotton-like fibre, and making t-shirts with it (Milk Fiber). Simply, food waste is turned into a resource, and the economy become circular. Here we see economic and environmental sustainability lead the design process.

When designing for Earth e can also see companies committed to restoring biodiversity. Bohana makes popped water lily seeds grown in a farm in Bihar, India. Bohana has a close relationship with farmers, and is committed to fair wages, ethical and sustainable harvesting, and collaborative supply chain. Environmental sustainability as probably the starting point, and social sustainability followed.

Yolélé uses West Africa’s oldest cereal grain, fonio, to help alleviate extreme poverty, and create economic opportunity for smallholder farming communities to support biodiverse, regenerative, and resilient food systems. Again, environmental sustainability as probably the starting point, and social sustainability followed.

The reason why restoring biodiversity is essential is illustrated by the Irish potato family. Potatoes come from Peru and Equador, and there are hundreds of kinds of them. Ireland in the 1800 was growing 5 kinds, those potatoes found a blight (a plant disease), and it affected all of them. If they had been growing 20 or 30 kinds of potatoes, chances are that at least a few of those would have been blight resistant. But they were growing only five kinds and millions of people starved. People starved because of the lack of biodiversity.

Carol Koury, the founder of Sow True Seed, a company devoted to saving and distributing seeds, explains that “today the problem persists with genetically engineered corn, for example. The same corn is being planted time after time and all around the world. We’re noticing that there are blights that are happening, and they take down the whole crop. So, the reason to save your seeds, and have a hundreds types of tomatoes is, should a blight come along, or a bug, one of them or five them will be resistant. And that’s how mother nature works”.

“Biodiversity starts in the distant past and it points toward the future”. Frans Lanting

Another example that I want to mention is that of Appalachian Botanical. This company is restoring and revitalising land destroyed by coal mining by repurposing it into a lavender farm. We love it because the company gives work to the people who lost their job when the mine closed, and because it put together two things that needed each other: acres of abandoned, blown up, deprived soil, with a plant that happens to love pour soil: lavender. Lavender also happens to reduce toxic heavy metals from the soil, turning desolation, and destruction, into life, and beauty. Companies like this bring back nature, balance, and cleanliness where other companies have left pollution and ugliness.

Here again I can’t assume what was the starting point for this project and business, but we can say that in its completion environmental sustainability and social sustainability are at its core. Two things to consider here. Firstly, this is an example of environmental sustainability that goes beyond using recyclable materials, beyond using recycled materials, beyond up-cycling and repurposing, and towards regeneration. Regenerative design happens when not only we reduce our impact on the planet, but we actually bring back beauty, nature, nourishment, balance, and life, where we previously brought destruction and pollution. Secondly, this is to me another example of a company that is the result of someone who knows what type of impact they want to have on the world, and what they want to do for Earth and for their community. This company follows the principles of someone whose spiritual journey towards compassion is well on its way, whether they’re aware of it or not.

In conclusion, we can see there is a parallelism between designing for people’s higher needs and designers’ higher purpose applied to the design project. We can design for people to become aware of their own spiritual journey, and we can design for people who are already aware of it, but we should also design being aware of our own spiritual journey because our projects are infused with our own essence, and our projects teach us and change us. Awareness of how this happens, and awareness of the spiritual consequences of our design choices is simply a faster path for spiritual development.

I call this *designing-centered design*, a design process where the act of designing and its impact on designers themselves is the centre of the design process.

My intent is to remark how there is no difference between designing for others and designing for ourselves. First because every improvement we bring to other people’s lives, we bring to ours. And secondly because the act of designing itself, even when designing for others, is a process entirely ours, completely intimate, and intrinsically connected to our life journey and spiritual development.

Which brings me to food, and the reason why I completely and utterly love this discipline where designing happens for food and eating.

Food is an act of love. Cooking, making food for someone else is giving a part of ourselves. Eating food with someone else is one of the strongest bonding moments between humans, some say as much as intercourse. And this power that food has, more than any other material we could design with and for, is the reason why we are here right now, me writing this article and you reading it. We’re here because we feel the power that food has to change lives, to bring smiles, to better society, and we want to use it to bring our light into the world, to follow that call that I am sure you too feel to make this world a little better than we found it.

If you hear the truth in these words, or if you feel it on your skin or in your stomach, is because, whether you know it or not, you are already applying spirituality to design.

I challenge you to do it consciously, to use *designing-centred design* to bring spirituality to every design choice in your future projects. Because the real way we make the world brighter, is by getting brighter ourselves.

Happy Food Design



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