The field of food design has moved away from a focus on investigation and usability toward the designing of experiences and new systems to make the world more sustainable.

Food Design Conference
Food Design Conference

This is one of the many conclusions that came out of the Second International Conference on Food Design in New York City this past November 5-7, 2015.

Food Design is, simply, the connection between food and design. Food Design is the design process for food and eating related concepts. -- Dr. Francesca Zampollo, Founder of International Food Design Society

The conference defined study and research fields where Food Design could be inserted, and discussed the possible structure of a new academic curriculum for food designers.

In the past, the knowledge and values related to food: the use of recycled materials, linking crop choices to pedalogical and climatic conditions, techniques of resource management and the storage and cooking of food were handed down from each generation.

Today, the transfer of information and know-how requires active user participation: one must become part of a system, as if a co-producer, establishing a strong relationship between the raw materials and the cultural experiences linked to food.

We need new tools and instruments. An instrument can change the way in which we eat only if it is able to change the value that we attribute to food. The food designer knows this well and so starts with researching scenarios where people create a positive relationship with food. In applying methods of design thinking, not only do they analyze usage scenarios, but they also recognize models for constructing ideas that are emotionally meaningful and functional for individuals.

Pordenoen Design School, Photo Credit: Sonia Massari
Pordenoen Design School, Photo Credit: Sonia Massari

For the past three years, I have taught at the University of Pordenone’s ISIA Design School, where there is a three-year curriculum for students who want to become innovators and entrepreneurs. They would love to become great young designers who will eventually work for companies and institutions contributing to innovative design systems.

In my course, I ask students to study today's society and to design inventive and interactive artifacts, imagine new cultures connected to the world of food, and develop their ideas together with the community for whom they are planning.

It is definitely hands-on, project-based learning, combining practice with theory.

Following a long ethnographic analysis, students are directed to incorporate an approach of co-evolutionary design that allows them a continuous enrichment of meaning to the scenarios they outline.

All this happens in a progressive manner: the ideas that emerge are developed through the use of “metaphors” (envisioning) and then are evaluated and considered together with the stakeholders and users. Students are not required to produce intuitive and immediate answers to problems, but rather to identify ways of permitting users to create their own paths and to generate awareness and knowledge, i.e. culture.

This past Spring semester, I asked the second year ISIA students to focus their research and ideas on possible scenarios for sustainable diets.

"The concept of a ‘sustainable diet’ consists of a complex web of nutritional, economic, environmental, social and cultural factors that encompass the entire supply chain, in which farmers and consumers are only two pieces of the puzzle."--Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (BCFN) Foundation

After analyzing and clustering their collected data, the class of seventy students identified seven scenarios. Four students: Melanie DeBon, Samantha Odorico, Alessia Saveri and Sara Zanette decided to concentrate their research and attention on cities and towns in transition and their shared social spaces. They were specifically interested in introducing sustainable and permaculture methods, via vertical agriculture, to the classrooms, hallways and open areas at ISIA Design School.

Melanie DeBon, Samantha Odorico, Alessia Saveri and Sara Zanette
Melanie DeBon, Samantha Odorico, Alessia Saveri and Sara Zanette

Permaculture, a model developed in 1978 by Bill Mollison, consists in synthesizing design, the interaction of the various factors of agriculture, and the use of the landscape itself to create systems that are productive, ecological, stable, self-sustaining and renewable.

Planning, farming practices, environmental management, economic and social dynamics must all interact in a beneficial manner that take minimal space and energy input to result in a long-lasting production system that does not require non-renewable energy sources. The only limit to productivity while utilizing this technique is in the ability to imagine the possibilities.

Green Bag
Green Bag

Their creativity resulted in the "Green Bag," a container within which a small plant can grow.

To better understand how the university’s open spaces and communal areas functioned, the four students, ranging in age from twenty to twenty four years-old, analyzed their own daily activities and differing personal habits, behaviors and ways of life.
Their creativity resulted in the "Green Bag," a container within which a small plant can grow. It can be placed in any common area in the university structure, so that any student could tend to a plant during the academic year.

Once the lifecycle of the plant ends or during the summer months, it would be possible to move the entire bag outside, so as not to dirty the interior or inconvenience anyone inside. During this phase of "rest," compost is produced, something that could be recovered to fertilize new plants.

The unique aspect of the Green Bag is that it can be adapted based on individual needs, taste or context, just by adjusting its attachments, exterior casing or its handles. Because of its multi-functionality, it can be hung on walls, from hangers or even become portable, morphing into a mobile handbag or backpack.

Green Bag in Action
Green Bag in Action

It’s not a new concept to use food design in proposing alternatives that incorporate permaculture and vertical agriculture. For example, the architectural firm Spark unveiled its concept for "the next generation of housing in elderly communities," a complex composed of houses and urban health facilities that is combined together with a vertical farm.

There are also the efforts of “Verde Nomade,” whose name embodies its project’s concept: “Green Nomad.” Plants are grown in plastic boxes or milk cartons, so as to both be able to easily transport gardens to any part of the city and, at the same time, to avoid introducing any pollutants into the ground.

Prof. Manzini at Politecnico di Milano talks about advanced agribusiness to describe a contemporary food system that invests in technological solutions to cope with growing environmental and social problems. It seeks to respond on an industrial level to the huge demand for organic food products. It involves the extensive application of organic and biodynamic cultivation methods and the use of advanced technologies to minimize the food processing of the products (such as Protected Denomination of Origin (P.D.O.) and Protected Geographical Identification (P.G.I.) products).


Manzini also talks about social experimentation. This is the latest dimension of the food system but its future is still a bit unclear. Beyond key dynamics, such as the spread of networks and controversies in support of "natural" food, it regards the general search for sustainable solutions. Except for in a few cases, these social experiments have yet to express a clear and explicit need for design.

The concept of mobility, along with that of networks (new mobilities paradigm), implies a reflection on the multidimensionality of the concept of mobility. This could be also applied to food production.

This is a question that food design wants to answer. As a new field of study using practical applications and design thinking methodologies, as well as relying on the criteria of health and sustainability, food design plans to develop new food cultures. It is a people-centered approach, which takes into account personal habits and, at the same time, complex objectives.

Although the Green Bag final project did not result in an actual prototype, it is interesting that the design students identified the university environment as a place to apply permaculture principles and techniques. The end goal is to make university students more aware of not only consumption, but also of production supply chains. The hope is that other universities find the example of the Green Bag a source of inspiration in making their students aware of a more respectful way of life. It also becomes an opportunity for one to express oneself, in the sense that, being a source of pleasure, the bag becomes a kind of therapy that allows the time to not just "do,” but to "be." Even the aesthetics of cultivating a Green Bag can evolve, because it is not a formal imposed order, but rather a subjective view of nature itself.

Sonia Massari

Sonia Massari
Executive and Academic director at Gustolab International Institute for Food Studies.
University of Illinois Urbana Champaign in Rome Academic Director. Senior Researcher and Consultant at BCFN Foundation. Food&Design She is faculty member at ISIA Design School and SPD



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