Plenty to chew on

In crEATe, The Future Laboratory examines the complex
relationship between food and design. Clem Halpin tucks in

It occurred to me, when I sat down to review this book, that we often appropriate culinary terms when we talk about design. For example,

I often advise designers not to ‘over­cook’ their ideas, or complain about ‘half-baked’ solutions. Why? Probably because everyone understands the process of creating a meal. Apart from sex, food is the one universal experi­ence we all participate in, whatever our culture or background.

Food design is the subject of crEATe, a book produced by Future Laboratory, the London based trend-forecasting agency. It investigates recent trends and developments in the sector. It examines everything from what and the way we eat, restau­rant and grocery interiors, through branding and packaging to consumer profiling. It reminded me of a quote by Curnonsky, the definitive food writer,  and ‘prince of gastronomes’: “In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is the sign of perfection.” Curnonsky wrote these words nearly 100 years ago and could never have imagined the sheer scale of today’s food industry, the legion of food writers, activists, designers, lobbyists, nutritionists and celebrity chefs competing for our attention (and money). Food, like design, is a matter of taste but, despite everything, the same fundamental rule applies: if you over complicate things you’ll end up something unpalatable.

Future Laboratory has created a fantastic sourcebook for designers, planners, marketeers, basically anyone with an interest in any aspect of design within the food arena. The copy is clearly laid out under snappy, easily ‘borrowed’ titles and is backed up by striking, relevant imagery. The authors seem to have the knack of explaining complex ideas in an easily digestible way (did you see what I did there?). To be honest, this is one of those books that will pop up in a thousand lazy innovation workshops, but you can’t blame the authors for other people’s lack of inspiration. The book is split into seven sections; it begins by examining the uneven landscape of food politics.

Future Laboratory lays out the conflict­ing issues concisely and objectively. Environmental impact, obesity and the ever-increasing complexity of food choices are dealt with before moving on to discuss possible solutions with a range of food activists. It’s vision­ary stuff for the most part, if a little over-intellectual in places. The next chapter addresses the biggest current trend in food, the seemingly unstop­pable desire for a return to simplicity and tradition. Both these chapters address how we are trying to re-connect with our food in a simpler, healthier way. There is a perception that, despite growing awareness and promotion of the nutritional/emotional value of food, we have lost our way.

Next, rather aptly, is Smartfoods, the brave new world of superfoods, functional foods, nanofoods etc. Some controversial and some terrifying trends here. Those of us who have been working on consumer brands for the last few years will have noticed the growth of questionable pseudo-scientific claims (bifidus digestivus, anyone?) and the addition of omega 3 to everything from fish­fingers to cigarettes, but this nutritional/market­­ing area is just beginning to get going. I absolutely love the sheer cheek of Borbas skin balancing Gummi Bears at $25 a pop – beauty foods indeed! Apparently selling like hot cakes, if there is one product in the book that sums up how confused we are about food this would be it.

What a minefield packaging design has become. It used to be so simple: to protect, to preserve and to promote. Future Laboratory does a great job describing the conflicting agendas that packaging has to negotiate in the 21st century: value and appetite appeal of product versus its environmental impact. After discussing the politics and potential solutions they then move on to a classification of current trends within packaging design.

A really interesting (if subjective) exercise, which caused plenty of debate within our studio.

The authors have selected some great and some not-so-great packs to illustrate their classifications. Person­ally, I am a little tired of whimsical, light-hearted illustrative design, for example packaging from pie minister (what a hilarious pun, crazy pie maker). Now I love chicken pie, but I don’t particularly want to see cutesy happy little chicks on the box: didn’t you have to kill and render them to make my lovely meal? I love Jesse Kirch’s Gubble Bum packaging on the opposite page, however, which just goes to show that context is everything. I feel that, as we move into the dark, uncertain days of 2009 the use of whimsy within branding will (hopefully) be less prevalent.

Onto food spaces: there’s a great selection of innovative work, ranging across everything from restaurant to store design, also some fantastic conceptual and promotional ideas, illustrating emerging trends from cooking laboratories to eco-kitchens.

I haven’t had the pleasure, but I reckon it would be hard to digest any meal purchased in the Yelo Cafe. Granted it’s aimed at teenagers (and French teenagers at that) but lime green and purple, really?

Typologies begins with a series of photographs illustrating the idea that you are what you eat. Beautifully shot by Ted Sabarese, they show people taking on the characteristics of their fish supper. Whilst they are very clever to my mind they contradict the Future Laboratory premise that what we eat is increasingly defined by a complex set of views, attitudes and aesthetics that are difficult to define.

The character profiles that follow do an excellent job of trying to unravel the contradictions we all face in our food choices. I particularly liked the thoughtful selection of relevant brands to support each profile. This section was genuinely insightful: my kids can be classified as Zeno Youths as they have no problem chastising me for eating saturated fats while they seem to live almost exclusively on green Haribos.

Finally the book concludes with future solutions, described as a collection of emerging trends for the future. I would describe it as really cool stuff that was probably hard to categorise. I absolutely love Tord Boontje’s witches kitchenware for Artecnica, also the exquisite dessert collaboration between Nendo and Hironobu because they are great original ideas, amongst many others.

There are weaknesses within create – contradictions, a lack of focus – but in a book that covers so much ground, so quickly on such a huge subject, they are forgivable. It should be seen more as a snapshot of current and future trends in food design. What I love about this book is its richness, expressed both visually and through the text. Whether you agree with the categorisations or theories expressed by Future Laboratory is irrelevant, you will find diverse ideas on every aspect of food culture, on every page.


Clem Halpin is a design director at Turner Duckworth in London. crEATe is published by Die Gestalten; £36.



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