The New Food Architects

Let’s say you’re a professional designer and you’ve just been hired for a major project.  Your task is to improve an extremely common and simple object.  Something every person you know already owns, uses, and likes.   Something like a chair.

You might start slowly, by thinking about the function of a chair.  “Well, I guess to be sat on,” you’d say.  Okay, well they pretty much all get that right.

So you brainstorm a little more.  What other things could it do?  You’d probably decide to add some cool features like heating pads, or vibrating cushions, or surround sound.  It’ll obviously need a USB port somewhere.  And you’d for sure make it beautiful, with the best materials you could find (double points if they’re locally sourced).  Then, after you finished, you’d take a step back from your masterpiece and you’d say to yourself, “I did it.  I improved the chair.”

But you’d be wrong.

The chair

Last night I watched an incredible documentary on Charles and Ray Eames, an architect and a painter who, in the early 1940s, redesigned the chair.  What was so awesome to me was how they approached the project.  Unlike this post’s straw-man premise, the couple didn’t think about how cool their chair could be, but how far it could reach.  For the project – and for their entire career – their motto was simple: “The best for the most for the least”.  The chair they ultimately designed was beautiful, comfortable, and cheap.  True to their goal, it was so widely purchased that the Eameses almost singlehandedly ushered in a revolution in American design.

The jump from the Eames chair to a revolution in food may not be obvious, but its there.  The food world is lucky enough to be full of talented architects like Charles Eams, all itching to redesign the stale system.  Still, it seems like too many of them are focused on growing food upward, rather than outward.

Consider that over the past 20 years, US sales of organics foods have grown from $1 billion to over $26 billion.  That’s a huge success for the industry.  Yet over the same period of time, US obesity has tripled from 11.6% to 33.8%.  One in three American adults is obese.  In other words, the foodie rich are getting richer as the poor get poorer.

Graphically, I imagine the landscape looks something like this.

Basically, for those with the means and the interest to eat well, the world is increasingly bursting with options…which is great.  I mean, check out how many people are eating awesome stuff.  But the graph clearly doesn’t paint a perfect picture.  And for architects looking to make a change, I figure there are two main ways to do it.

Option 1: Lower the Awesome Food Threshold

These architects are the ones engineering 20 calories out of the skinny Frappuccino, or adding extra fiber to your whole-wheat ice cream sandwiches.  By introducing cooler and cooler food options into the market, they incrementally raise the right side of the graph.  Some of the innovations may be a bit redundant, but as a designer, pushing the upper frontier is a pretty fun place to be.

But how many people do these innovations actually help?

Considering the dismal state of our nation’s health (including the limited access to healthy foods in many parts of the country), the work of these designers may lose some of its mystique.  What the food world needs is more architects like Charles and Ray Eames, people bent on making the best for the most for the least.  In that case, the future of food might look more like…

Option 2: Improve the Base Eating Conditions

…this.  It may not be as sexy, but the most needed innovations won’t happen on local farms or in artisan kitchens.  They’ll happen with frozen produce and over cramped apartment stoves.  Focusing energy on the left side of the curve will allow a huge number of people to view food differently, improving their health and their lives in the process.

Luckily, there are brilliant architects out there working on just this.  They’re people like Mark Bittman, who proves that fast food is no cheaper, no more convenient, and no more delicious than a meal prepared at home.  Or Jamie Oliver, who’s using his celebrity status to budge federally funded school lunches.  Or my recent professor, Dr. Brian Wansink, whose research cares more about the size of the plate than what’s on it.

But I guess the bigger point is that there’s still a lot more to do.  The systems thinking needed to restructure the way Americans eat is a massive undertaking, and demands the collective effort of an army of geniuses, dreamers, and leaders.  There’s no shortage of these people out there right now – they just need to adjust their focus to the left side of that graph.

Watching this documentary didn’t teach me a thing about food, but it got me thinking about the process of change itself.  Revolution doesn’t just happen, it’s designed.  Big picture stuff.  I feel it coming, and can’t wait to bust out of school and really join this new class of food architects – bringing the best for the most for the least.


One comment on “The New Food Architects

  1. Andy Ogden says:

    If you take issue with any of the wonderfully massive generalizations made in this post, feel free to share!

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