I guess many designers don’t cook.

If you’ve been keeping up with posts on That’s Flawesome [and if you haven’t, why not?? <shameless self-promotion> Also, like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! </shameless self-promotion>], you probably noticed that many of the posts critique product design concepts that are to be used in the kitchen, to aid in cooking and meal preparation. We’ve talked about spoons that can taste for you, a foldable skillet/pan that’s made out of felt, a USB-charged portable induction burner, an apparatus to specifically help you when you want to flambé a dish, and a really flawesome product that creates different kinds of sauces…and places the sauce either in a perfume bottle, or puts ‘sauce powder’ into an artificial egg. Yeah, I can’t even get my head around that one.

And there are so many more cooking product concepts I could tell you about…or maybe I should just tell you to look at the semi-finalists of this year’s Electrolux Design Lab competition. More than half of the semi-finalists chosen are products to aid in cooking. The products can almost be separated into two groups:

  1. products that aid in the actual creation of food dishes
  2. products that augment the experience of cooking.

As designers, we are told over and over again in school, and in our professional lives, to design an experience, or to find unmet needs and design to answer those unmet needs. And these statements are exactly what designers should do. However, it’s necessary for the designer to really understand the experience, to really know that the unmet need they’ve focused on actually exists. Sure, you could get this understanding through observation, or through interviewing those who are immersed in the activities of the experience. But I feel the only real way for a designer to understand what it’s like is to immerse oneself into the experience. In this case, the designer has to cook, or attempt to cook.

Taste is subjective

I enjoy cooking, plain and simple. I’m a designer, and I like to cook and bake. To me, cooking/baking and design are two things cut from the same cloth: they are both an equal mix of art and science. In industrial design, we try to marry good engineering with an experience that resonates emotionally with the user. In cooking, we do the same thing, just think of ‘engineering’ as ‘ingredients/technique’, and ‘an experience that resonates emotionally’ as ‘eating delicious food.’ I wrote a post about a spoon that tastes for you.

When I first saw that product, I thought “Why would I want a spoon to taste for me?” I just couldn’t understand it. I’m the one cooking, and I’m cooking for me, so I think I should taste the food to see if it’s to my liking. I read the description of the Tastee, and it said, “Do you wish you had the sophisticated palate of a professional chef?”

Actually, no, I don’t.

I might wish I had the creativity of a professional chef, to have the foresight to pair ingredients with each other. Or I’m much more likely to wish I had the skills, technique, and time management of a professional chef; they know how to work efficiently, and understand timing and how to make sure things turn out great. But do I want their “sophisticated palate”? No, because I don’t want to taste how others taste. Basically, I like the things that I like. It’s one of the things that makes me…me. It would be like saying “Don’t you wish you had the musical taste of a musician?” or Don’t you wish you had the same taste in movies as a film director?” Those statements sound stupid. It’s almost as if someone is saying, “Hey, I know the things you like suck. These professionals like much better things than you.” That’s ridiculous! Yet, this is an idea that’s found in a lot of the product concepts: the idea that taste is something that is learned; taste is something that you only gain from years of experience. And that’s utter bullshit. We know from an early age what tastes good, and what doesn’t. Just ask any baby when he or she eats some mashed up and strained peas. If the baby spits it out, he/she probably doesn’t like it. Give him/her some applesauce, and I’m sure the baby will eat it all up. Our tastes change as we grow older, and, besides the effects of physiological changes, a lot of our tastes change because we have new and different experiences with food. But we should never discredit our own taste as being lesser than someone else’s taste.

At first, I thought that maybe the ideas behind the Tastee were isolated, that no one else really thinks this way. But then I saw this Electrolux semi-finalist:

 

The Ingresure by Jongwoo Choi
 is exactly the same product as the Tastee, only in a different form. From the description:

Professional chefs have an intuition for flavour that takes years to perfect. For the rest of us following a recipe is usually the safest way to get a dish right but the true test is always in the tasting. So, let Ingressure taste for you.

Zheng recently wrote about the MiX by Lishuai Dong.

Just reading the “Key Insight” above shows the flaw in this designer’s thinking. It basically says [in poorly written English] that chefs know much more about adding the correct amounts of ingredients than “us”. I’m not sure who “us” refers to, but I’m guessing it means “people who have never eaten anything in their life”. It makes it sound as if a chef is some supernatural omniscient being that understands cooking and seasoning in ways us mere mortals could never fathom.

KNEEL BEFORE RAMSAY!

And I found another example, on the Electrolux list of semi-finalists:

The SaltSpoon by Barbora Adamonyte isn’t quite like the other two products, but the same flawed idea is there.

A handy little tool for the modern kitchen. Easily add accurate amounts of salt to your soup or sauce using SaltSpoon’s built-in dispenser.

The ideas behind the SaltSpoon are a) you don’t know how much salt to add to the dish you’re cooking b) there is a known, quantifiable amount of salt that makes or breaks a dish. The SaltSpoon, supposedly, accurately dispenses the correct amount of salt for your dish to taste perfect. But…there is no “perfect amount” of anything that makes a dish taste good, because we all have different tastes. What you could consider way too salty for you could be perfect for me. There are no absolutes in regard to taste. Just eating a lot of different foods, and talking to other people about food they like will drive this point home. I really don’t understand what makes these designers think otherwise.

 

Cooking is an experience in itself.

It seems many of these designers seem to be under the impression that cooking involves one thing: taste. They conclude that professional chefs know what tastes good, and that’s why they are so good at cooking. That’s kind of an insult to these chefs, and to anyone who has attended any type of culinary institute, or has cooked in a restaurant, and an insult to anyone who cooks at home and does a pretty good job of it. Much of cooking involves knowing how to…cook. Yes, knowing how to season food is part of cooking. But most of cooking involves preparation of ingredients, and understanding how to…cook. It’s funny, I can’t explain it another way besides saying “cooking is cooking”. That’s what cooking is! Anyone who has ever attempted to make any dish in a kitchen knows that cooking doesn’t only involve seasoning. I can make a pack of Top Ramen, and have it seasoned perfectly, but it’s not going to taste good if I put the pot of ramen on the stove without putting water in the pot. I can season a steak perfectly, but it won’t taste good if it’s burned to a crisp. Cooking isn’t seasoning, it’s…cooking. You prepare your ingredients, you do things to the ingredients, you add more stuff, you…cook. And you know what? Cooking can be learned. Just like drawing, or using Photoshop, or playing the piano, anyone can learn to cook. You just have to spend the time. Professional chefs are good at what they do because they invested time to learn how to cook, not because they were magically born with an innate sense of taste.

It’s obvious to me that none of these designers creating these products cook at all. If they did, they would understand that cooking is more than just adding the right amount of salt, or creating the perfect sauce. Cooking is an experience. It’s very technical and it involves all the senses. You have to pay attention to everything that is going on while cooking. Is the skillet hot enough? Are the vegetables chopped to the right size? Does that feel tender? Does that meat look browned enough? Can you smell the herbs and spices in the hot oil? In cooking, you have to be aware of everything that is going on. Honestly, it’s a lot of work, but very rewarding because you get to eat delicious food [hopefully].

Those that don’t cook, however, don’t see cooking as work, or as an activity that’s engaging. Some designers feel that cooking needs more interaction, and needs to be more experiential…because I guess it’s not…?

The Tide designed by Anne Berit Kigen Bjering
 assumes that cooking is boring, it’s mundane. How do you make something so boring much more exciting? With music.

What does the music of cooking sound like? Can a soup sing? Can mussels play Mozart? With the Tide the sound of food comes alive as you’re cooking to help put you and your guests in the right mood for dinner. Specially designed stirring utensils sense the motion of you cooking combined with the consistency of the food and translate these into music that compliments the complete feeling of the meal.

I think I have enough to worry about while cooking, than to be distracted by the music that’s coming out as I stir the stew that I’m cooking. As before, I thought that maybe this was an isolated idea, and that other designers did not think this way. Then I discovered the Julienne by Florent Corlay.

What does the Julienne do? Is it a pot? I’m actually not really sure, but it involves music and a light show.

By enabling guests to sense the evolution of the meal, shown through changing music and shifting ambient light the progression of the food‘s journey from simple ingredients to a delicious meal.

Moreover, the host or hostess can understand the cooking state while listening to the music and watching the diffused light, thereby allowing them the opportunity to relax and enjoy time with their guests.

Do you know how people “understand the cooking”? By looking at the food…while cooking. I guess the idea of this is to listen to the the music, look at the lights changing colors to know when the dish you’re cooking is done. Or you could stay in the kitchen and keep an eye on things. Of course, that means you can’t enjoy time with your guests. Here’s a thought: have your guests sit in the kitchen with you. But I digress. The only thing these two products show is the designers’ lack of understanding about what cooking involves. Cooking is an experience. Yes, I’m sure there are ways to enhance this experience, and make it better. But making your food play music, or having the lights change color isn’t the way to do it. Just off the top of my head, one way to enhance the cooking experience, in my mind, is to make ingredient preparation easier somehow, or to have pans/pots heat up more quickly, or to have people who know what they’re doing help me. I came up with these ideas because I’ve immersed myself in the activity of cooking many times, and understand the needs of someone cooking. Only someone who has never observed or participated in cooking would come up with ideas like attaching lights and sounds to cooking to enhance the experience.

 

The take-away

As designers, we need to solve problems that we find, and create excellent experiences for users. But we don’t do this by totally making up problems to solve. We don’t just assume an activity is boring, and needs to be augmented. We need to do research. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of our users, and be empathetic to what they experience. We have to make sure we understand what’s going on, that we have a problem that needs to be solved, before we start applying solutions. The other day, Zheng said, “You know, I feel bad sometimes, because I’m sure many of these designers are students.” This is true, many of them are students, and don’t have the experience to recognize when something is not correct. But I replied, “If we came up with these concepts while we were in school, our professors would have failed us.” This is also a true statement. Our professors were assholes, but the good kind, the “tough love”-kind. If something we designed was off, we heard it from them, sometimes rather harshly. Perhaps the professors for some of these designers don’t critique as honestly as they should. That’s too bad. Looking back, the incredibly honest critiques we received from our design professors in school helped us immensely. It taught us that we really need to understand what we’re doing, because what we’re doing is not just making a cool looking object. What we’re doing is helping others, by solving problems that they have.