By Imon Raza

“There is no material that comes as close to human beings as food.” 
- Marije Vogelzang

1.   Introduction

Food is the center of the universe for all living beings on the planet. It is the closest thing to us, as humans. Since the dawn of mankind, we have lived for one thing in majority, food. From caveman to being modern man, food has always played a unique role in our evolution, the civilizations, and ourintellectual development to day-to-day lives. Life thrives on this planet for the abundance and easy availability of food. We humans have evolved from hunter-gatherers to genetically modifying our food just because it is the most important thing necessary to survive. 

It has been a long journey for humans on the face of this planet. Food is the sole reason we evolved from being mere hunter-gatherers to synthesizing food. As our numbers increased and we happen to discover farming, humans began forming societies, great civilizations rose, evolution happened and we never stopped then. We have relentlessly grown to be the largest consumers of food on the planet and obviously one of the largest in numbers. Food has mysterious ways of being an integral part of our lives. A normal human spends significant time of his day consciously or sub-consciously thinking of food. It is the energy source that we all thrive on. Food in recent times has attracted a lot of attention as well as created a lot of problems for the entire human race and the planet.

The author is looking at food design and the experiences related to food. The sensory experiences that make food pleasing to our senses and the essence of food design in contemporary times. Our senses have evolved to provide us with better experience of what we eat and we have otherwise designed our food as well in various ways. Talking about food design, the major take is not the culinary practices rather the experiences to what we eat, how we eat and how we perceive food. Food has made it to our folktales, festivals, literature, films and so many other aspects. It is interesting to see how design has intervened into various aspects of food and its experiences.

2.   What is Food Design?

Food design isfood designed within the classical parameters of design, like ergonomics, functionality, usability, but also within the contemporary ones, including anthropology, sociology, politics, ethics, and with a holistic vision of the production, the market, and the consumer. Food design has strong implications with bodily functions and mental states. Food design is not creative cooking or gastronomy, nor is it event design, although food design, due its new format, could need to be consumed, from a designed context. Food design is meta-territorial and transnational, and therefore can take on any identity. It encompasses the understanding of food and all other disciplines to design new experiences and develop the potential of food not merely as a consumable rather as a design element.

Food has a very contextual aspect to it as well, when looking closely at it; it also acts a very beautiful medium of understanding and decoding cultures all around the world. Looking back at history, it has played political roles to defining new corporate giants to the cause of civil wars. It is something that cannot be excluded at any point of human history. In a recent case, Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, has been accused of using food as a political weapon to starve opposition supporters in the run-up to a second round of presidential elections. He has politicized food distribution by ordering a major aid group, Care International, to suspend operations and accusing it of backing the opposition presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai. This gives us an insight in the socio political and economic potential of food.

3.   History of Food Design

Food design has existed since hundreds of years, but it is in recent times that this has been explored in a contemporary design and experiential context. The man who seems to be the first gastronomical designer was none other than, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), who was also an inventor, sculptor, painter, architect and cosmologist. As a banqueting master at the court of Ludovicoil Moro in Milan, chef at The Three Snails tavern in Florence, Leonardo da Vinci spent much of his time compiling the recipes and comments on the culinary arts in his codex Romanoff(discovered in 1981).  He invented the corkscrew, the extractor fan, machines for slicing and chopping meat, the pepper mill, an appliance for making “spagomangiabile”, the “edible string”a.k.a spaghetti and many others. 

With the exception of Leonardo, gastronomical design as a branch of industrial design had just begun. Knives and fork has been just used only as a matter of two centuries, the aristocracy to distinguish themselves from the lower classes introduced it. For the major part of human history, we have been eating with hands. The emergence of industrial design happened in the mid century, the Bauhaus was founded in 1919 that the beauty of objects themselves, in isolation from their ornamental qualities, began to be appreciated (Knife, Fork, Spoon: the story of our primary eating implements and the development of their form). The Futurist Cookbook, written by Marinetti in 1932, explores the sensual value of food and advocates that the traditional penchant for pasta, “this Italian religion”, should become a thing of the past, a conventional relic. The new cuisine according to Marinetti should be synthetic fats and capsules. In contemporary times the trans disciplinary approach to gastronomy design or food design has been taking into account innovations, processes, system design, social entrepreneurship, interaction design and also sustainable growth. Its reaches have widened and hence a whole new dialogue between the humans and food has been established along with our experience of food as a whole.

4.   Human Senses and Perception of Food

The human body is equipped with five basic senses as to our window to experiencing the world that surrounds us. Sight, touch, smell, taste and hearing have evolved with us over centuries. We as humans adhere to these senses to understand and reflect our environment and immediate surroundings. These senses have not only helped us, but our entire cognition process depends solely on them. We cannot imagine a human being without these basic senses.

When we talk of food, all these senses come into play. They act simultaneously in coordination with one another to give us the eating experience. Food is an area which demands the inter play of all our senses, to present us with a holistic experience and the understanding of what we put into our bodies. Our body systems are closest to food of all other materials we come in contact with, hence a unique relation between what we eat and what we are. Talking at a metaphysical level, our soul, body and mind are directly dependent on what we feed ourselves. Scientifically, whatever we eat, has an effect on our brains and bodies thus defining us at some point. From varying levels of neurochemicals, to our day to day mood swings, to our sexual desires, to being not able to sleep, all depends on what we eat, basically food. Though the mysteries of the human body and mind are not totally solved, but it is evident that almost everything has some correlation to what we eat.

When we talk of perceiving food, it has to do with the elements of color, composition, sound, tactile experience, smell, taste, memory and context. Often we perceive food based on our memories, it is also responsible for developing a lot of our childhood memories. Taste and smell as well help us develop key memories, similarly sound and feel as well.  Food itself has its ways of preserving memories, which sometimes get triggered when coming across it again. There are contextual and demographic aspects to it as well. Food has a major role in our psyche and our behavioral aspects. Our senses and food, looking at their intimate relation through:

4.1 Films and Food (Sight)

When we talk of food, the first thing that bombards our brains is images and aesthetics of the food. In contemporary times, image making plays a huge role in our everyday lives. Now it’s how we see food (might have triggered images of sea food), is a very important phenomenon that determines the position of food items in our society. In a times like now, where food is not scarce and is easy to achieve unlike caveman era, we have developed a wide range of visual language when it comes to food. Culinary arts have for centuries created an immense database of cuisines and visual language (Vogelzang, 2014).

Now, what is that we see that makes us hungry or triggers the desire centers in our brains, makes our mouth watery?

Sight is the only sense that is functional from a great distance; other senses need some proximity to be able to work. So, the first that works and strikes us is the visual. When we talk of visual, it is not merely one image, often a series of images, moving images. Films or moving images and food have a very interesting connection, they have worked wonders together in modern times. It is wonderful to see and feel how a two dimensional medium such as film can evoke such strong desires in us. Food has been always dealt with special care in films, whether it is a coke advert, a McDonald’s cheeseburger or a pack of processed chicken breasts. The portrayal of an image is like setting standards for our eyes, we expect to see something like that and when it comes to consumables, it is very significant. The challenge has always been to break the limitation of the medium to communicate to senses like taste, smell and touch. There have been incredible examples of TV commercials, where these are actually being felt by the viewer, now more common with the inception of 3D films and surround sound technologies. These are used to communicate the senses beyond just the imagery or the aesthetic brilliance, i.e. we feel the crunch and the juicy interiors of a KFC chicken piece or the cold strawberry flavor of a HaagenDazs ice cream melting in our mouths.

Looking at Hollywood, there are films like Chocolat (2000), Ratatouille (2007), Julie and Julia (2009), Eat, Pray, Love (2010), etc., which extensively talks about food and their central narrative, revolves around it. The way films portray food or shoot it, in technical terms is very interesting. We as humans have an inborn sense of materials, just by looking at how a drop of sauce flows from a piece of steak; we can judge the thickness, the feel and the probable taste as well. Color being another very important element, it says a lot of things even before we know. We are culturally and evolutionarily equipped to associate and identify various colors. Food is one area where color cannot be ignored; it is a major element of language of food. We have based on our collective conscious and experiences have color coded our food, like we rarely have blue food, because blue is associated with poison, and there are red foods that are supposed to deliver energy and sexual power, so on.

We now see a lot of food items in films and it has increasingly gotten more and more sensual. With the emergence of new technology, cameras and software, it just got big and more realistic, giving the viewers a more sensual and holistic experience.

Well as far as films and food go, new technologies and systems will keep innovating how we see food and experience it, from digital shopping malls to online food marts, it has began and hopefully will be giving us new and delightful experiences.

4.2 Music and Food (Hearing)

Music has emerged a long long time ago, when we as humans wanted to imitate nature sounds and reproduce them. Music today has reached such incredible complexities along with its refined nature is simply amazing. Legends like Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Lucio Pavarrotti and many like them have gifted the world with the beauty of sounds, hence music.

Sounds are a medium of awareness, a way of understanding our environment and surroundings. Sound and food go a long way back, you can tell if a bread is fresh or not by the cracking sound of it, the sound of tapping a watermelon will tell you how ripe is it and lot other examples. Sound has so much to do with the experience of food and eating that now all the restaurants and fine dine places across world have ambient music playing. It is like we can taste music, our senses align themselves to deliver us a pleasurable feeling. 

Ever imagined how would you feel if potato chips sounded like noodles or having soup sounded like eating a carrot? We associate sound with food a lot, so we say crunchy chips, crispy chicken or sizzling brownie. It matters to us how food sounds and what sounds we make while eating them. Music on the other hand is a complex form of this very association, where we connect food with a piece of music or a note, thus creating an auditory memory. We all have some memories as such, like the sound of the chocolate wrappers, the sound of our favorite cookies in a tin jar and so on. These acts as milestones in the timeline of our memories, their recurrence triggers and unlocks those memories of the past and hence are nostalgic. 

The author often wonders, if his pasta would experience the same if he was having it listening to Mozart and listening to System of a Down. He guess he would have had two distinct pastas, where it was just the same, speaking on a culinary basis.   

4.3 Hands and Food (Touch)

Hands are the medium of transportation of food from its source to our body via our mouths. The tactile experience of food appeals us a lot. The experience trough touch helps us a lot, hot or cold, soft or hard and such attributes related to food. These are very important part of our experience of eating and help us take key decisions. The hands give us the feel of the food and the tactile experiences along with it. The most amazing part is the whole act of eating with our hands and now food design also looking into the hands as a pert of the whole food preparing process. Our hands also grow the food that we eat, nurturing it, harvesting it, processing it and again planting or feeding it. This whole process has a very unique experience compared to the rest of the senses. We can feel the process and where from our food comes, which is a very big question in today’s world.

Food design also questions the origin of our food, in an era where we have processed food; the human contact has drastically reduced. When we look at the growing or handing part of food as well, machines have replaced the human touch instead. This is not only taking us away from understanding our food, but also depriving us of the wholesome experience of food. It is satisfying to handle ones food before it is cooked and consumed. It also sensitizes us to our food environment and relates issues and experiences.

4.4 Nose and Food (Smell)

Nose is responsible for the sense of smell, a very powerful sense that evolved with us for centuries like the rest. We rely on it for our very survival, its helps out to smell out edible from non-edible stuff. Now the sense of smell is not only common to us, but to all animals, they rely on it for their survival to hunting to mating to a lot of other things.

For humans, smell has been a very useful yet elegant sense. When it comes to food, after sight it’s the smell. It is a sense that recently has been incorporated in any technology so far, so it has to come from either synthesized material or the real one. Smell is a tricky sense; it has been very hard for us to understand it, though there are sciences behind capturing it. The world today has cameras that use scentography to capture smell. The future of food design will be enhanced and will reach great heights with such technologies. It is also interesting to see how our sense of smell has guided our evolution through history. From sniffing out herbs to tracking animals, today we create our own smells that please our brains. It is fabulous to see how the world has changed and we have adapted to it.

4.4 Tongue and Food (Taste)

Taste, food means taste. It is the most popular senses of all and the most key one. The author could not find how it became the greatest of all when it comes to food. The author thinks it has to do with the exposure time and how intimately. It is our tongue that decides what and how much of it will enter our system finally. It is the key entry point to our body for any foreign object or matter. Hence it plays a major role when it comes to food as well, it’s like the final test before entering our bodies.

Now when we talk of taste. Basically it refers to the taste buds that define the taste centers for sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. Our tongue has receptors for all these different kinds of tastes and the rest are all a combination of all these.

Food and taste are such interdependent entities that cannot be separated. Since our childhood we are attracted towards anything sweet, anything that tastes good has to be edible. These are hardwired into our brains, amazing to see how kids react to sweet and contrasting sour. It is very much a psychological phenomenon as much as scientific. Since the dawn of mankind food has had played a very significant role, for instance, the biblical reference of the apple being the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam and Eve, that send mankind to Earth. There is not just this but every religion has Gods that relate somehow to food and our desire for food. It is also believed to be a curse on mankind. Even the seven deadly sins in Christianity, gluttony, it is considered a sin if the excessive desire for food causes it to be withheld from the needy. It has always been there in some form or the other.

The desire for food comes from the desire of our senses. In contemporary times we have designed our food as to be more desirable and at times it also turns our to be harmful. But the essence of food design lies in understanding food from a design point of view, rather an approach to enhance its quality and experience whilst checking on its adverse effects. We as the 21st century children, pose the biggest threat from nothing more than our basic necessity, food. It is interesting to see how food design is looking into stories, experiences, sustainability and other such parameters in terms of what we eat. It is and can be the future we should look forward to, making the population healthy and yet not depriving us of our desire for food.

5.   Future Possibilities

The future of food and design is immense. It has the potential to bring world peace or be the reason for World War III. Like in the biblical reference of Apple as the forbidden fruit, food has always been the root of modern problems, economic, political, and social and others. But it is a pleasure thinking of what design and food can achieve in the upcoming years, from 3D printed food to scentography cameras that can capture smell, it can be something amazing. It may be the seed towards a better tomorrow.

6.   Conclusion

Food and design have opened new perspectives for the entire human race. It is one of the emerging fields of study and research. The design intervention in food, has taken the experience of eating to a whole new level altogether. In contemporary times scientist and designers alike are experimenting with food as a medium and as a new language for our senses. Design has intervened at such levels that we have never thought about. Food has been a primary element to our entire race, lot of civilizations has experimented with it to suit their environment and survive in extreme conditions. But the contemporary take on food is very different and has been inspired by art, technology, cultural elements and socio-economic structures. These make the new approach towards food design even more interesting. It has made its way to all known media to mankind in some form or the other, lot of philosophers and psychologists like Fraud, Derida and all have spoken about it in their theories.
Food undoubtedly is the biggest thing that drives the human race and will continue to do so in the coming future at more advanced levels. We would understand food like never before, something our ancestors would have never even thought about and hence food design.

  • D.S Defenbacher. Knife, Fork, Spoon: the story of our primary eating implements and the development of their form. Colwell Press. Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1951. P.40.
  • H. McGrawth. All About Food. Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • M. Vogelzang. Eat Love. Amsterdam, Netherlands: BIS Publishers, 2011.
  • Michael Moss (2013). “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us”. The New York Times Magazine (online). 1(1)                           Available:

Acknowledgement: The author acknowledges to his supervisor, Ms. Gayatri Menon, Senior Faculty Member, Industrial Design, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad for her kind help and guidance while preparing the write up.

About the author: The author, Imon Raza is a Film and Video Communication final year student at National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad. He is currently working on his graduation thesis with the 'Ultrashorts' research group with the Hochschule Luzern, Art and Design, Switzerland. He would like to introduce himself as an artist and designer, who thinks writing as an integral part of expression and hence life.[Read More]

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