Nataly Restrepo is an industrial designer specialized in food design. She works as a food and beverage innovation consultant for restaurants and consumer goods, and is based in Mexico. In this conversation we explore food design and how designing for experiences calls for a holistic understanding.

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Jorge: Nataly, welcome to the show.

Nataly: Hi, Jorge thank you for inviting me.

Jorge: For folks who might not know you, can you please introduce yourself?

About Nataly

Nataly: Sure. So, my name is Nataly Restrepo. I am from Colombia, but I currently live in Mexico. I have a bachelor's degree in industrial design and a master's degree in new eating habits in a school of design of Nantes in France. I work as a food designer and as an innovation consultant for the food and beverage industry. And I also have some educational programs regarding food design, and I am currently also the director of the food design and innovation master's degree in CENTRO, that is a school of design in Mexico City.

Food design

Jorge: What is food design?

Nataly: Okay. Yes. And it's a very common question because also there are a lot of misunderstandings about the term food design. Because most of the people relate food design to the presentation of a dish or the way you interact with ingredients in a visual way. But food design actually is everything — like every designed action — that improves our relationship to food. So, it can be from a product and service, a business model, an object... everything that you can design that has an aim to improve our relationship to food.

Jorge: You mentioned a business model, you mentioned presentation — that's a very wide range of interests. Are your clients primarily restaurants? Who do you work with?

Nataly: Okay. So, I have two types of clients. I work with a food and beverage industry. So, fast moving consumer goods. This means global brands that sell packaged foods like Nestle. PepsiCo, Heineken — those kinds of brands. And I work with them designing innovation portfolios for different categories. And I also have another type of clients that is restaurants and hotels. And for them, I use the service design to design all the experience of the service.

Jorge: Okay. Those strike me as two very different objectives. In the one case, it sounds like they are companies that package or manufacture food products, and in the other, it sounds like organizations that create food experiences. What are the differences between them? Because it strikes me... like, I would expect those to be very different from each other.

Nataly: Yeah. The outputs of every client are super different, but the methodology is not that different. So, normally I apply design thinking to do innovation for food. And why is this important? Because normally when we think about innovation in food specifically, we think of methodologies that have nothing to do with the final consumer.

And this sounds very obvious, let's say. But when you see it in the practice, if you see, for example, how innovation is made in the industry, but most of the decisions are made because they bought a new machine or they want to reduce some costs or they want to optimize some production process or these kind of things.

And that's the way innovation has been done throughout many years in the food industry, specifically. So, when I speak about applying design thinking methodologies to doing innovation in food, it can be like innovation in product or in services that are like the two types of clients I was speaking about. You put the decisions and you understand all the decisions in terms of the user, in terms of the human. And this is very important because when we think about food, food is a very intimate material and it has a lot of impacts: social impacts, environmental impacts, health impacts. A lot of very deep impacts that have to take into consideration the human factor.

And when we speak about innovations made a from a business point of view — only business — is very risky because you start knowing all of the diseases that are related to food issues, all of the environmental impacts, all of the social problems that are a lot issued from the food systems and the way we construct the food systems.

So, this is the main thing: I apply design thinking for products and for services. Obviously, the way I interact with these two types of clients is different because, obviously in one, I am designing the edible products for the food industry, and in the other one I'm designing the experience and the service part.

So, for example, for the product I use more my skills has an industrial designer. And when I speak about designing edible product, it's like a regular industrial designer can design a car or a building or a piece of furniture or something like that that would take into consideration the use, the ergonomics, the texture, the color, the shape — all of these things. But I apply those kinds of things and those kinds of knowledge to an edible product. So, I designed the texture, the shape, the way you are going to use the product, the packaging, obviously, and those kinds of things.

And when I speak about service design for the food industry — so, for example, restaurants and hotels, mainly — I design the experience like the desired user experience and how this experience is deployed in different aspects. So, it can be deployed from the brand, from the menu, on the structure of that menu. I mean, not only the graphic menu, but also the structure and the way you tell the story of the menu through all the ingredients, the space, the interior space, the furniture, the lighting, the layouts of the space, and the communication strategy. So, this service design can be deployed in different aspects that are finally the touch points of the experience.

A holistic discipline

Jorge: It strikes me as a very holistic role. It's looking at the big picture of the experience of interacting with food. Is that fair?

Nataly: Yes, totally. Actually, it's very holistic discipline. And I would say, it's not a new discipline. I mean, industrial designers, graphic designers, experience designers, architects, have been working in the food field for a lot of time, and they have been touching the food from each part of the fields. But food design, what makes it different from other traditional disciplines or other traditional fields of design, is that food design understands food itself. So, we have a very anthropological and sociological approach to food in order to design for it.

It's a very complex universe. You have to understand like all of the imaginaries, all of the notions, their intimate relationships. It has to do with religion, with geography, with the place you are born, with the rituals that you use to do when you eat. So, it has a lot of complexity in terms of symbology and in terms of a lot of things. So, food design, what makes it different to other disciplines is that it understands the complexity of food, and how you can design for this complexity.

So, for example, an industrial designer, obviously can design, for example, a machine for cooking, or tableware, or those kinds of things from an object point of view, but not from a food point of view. The food designer understands what the symbolism of food is, what are the rituals, and how can you apply obviously skills from industrial design to design an object that is very coherent to this complexity and this universe of food.

Jorge: So, in the case of the machine, that is designed around the way that the food is produced. But it sounds to me like you're more concerned with the experience of consuming the food. Is that right?

Nataly: Yes, actually, there are a lot of food designers that call themselves eating designers and not food designers. For example, there's one in particular, that is one of the pioneers in this field that is called Marije Vogelzang, a Dutch designer. And she says that she doesn't consider herself as a food designer because food is already perfectly designed by nature. But she designs more the act of eating. So, that's why she called herself an eating designer, because she's designing the ritual and the way you approach to food through different media. It can be a media throughout an object, for example. That can be the case of tableware. Or it can be an application or an app that allows you to take certain decisions towards your food choices. So, there are different media that you can use to approach food. So, that's why a lot of people called food designers, not food because you are not designing the food itself, but the act of eating.

Working with other disciplines

Jorge: What comes to my mind when I'm hearing you describe this is my own impression of memorable eating experiences. When I think of experiences that stick with me, I think of not just the food, but the environment where it happened, the way that I was treated by the people who served me, for example. And I'm talking now in the case of a restaurant setting, right? And the image that I have in my mind is that there are different disciplines that focus on the architecture of the restaurant versus the chef who designed the dish. So, can you speak to the relationship between the food designer and those different disciplines?

Nataly: Yes, of course. Actually, what makes interesting the food design is that it perceives the perception. It's very repetitive, but a food designer is capable of understanding all of the inputs that give you and contributes to your appreciation to food. For example, a lot of people think that appreciation of food comes specifically from the organoleptic attributes of the food. So, the way it tastes, the temperature, if it's good, if it's tasty or not. And actually, this is almost like only 10% of your appreciation to food. The rest has to do with the environment. For example, if you go to a restaurant and you are with some friends, so, this is also part of your pleasure and your appreciation to food. So, a food designer not only focuses on food itself, that is like the work of a chef, maybe, but all of the inputs that are around this ritual. And it has to do also for example, with the space or the architecture where you're living these experiences.

So, food design can be obviously like a connecting point from all of these disciplines. Actually, food design is right on the middle of different traditional disciplines that have touched food traditionally, no? So, for example, you have the area of gastronomic sciences that you have chefs, you have people that work specifically with food as a material, then you have another area that is like food sciences, that is like food technology, food scientists, physics, chemicals, that are related specifically to the technical part of food.

Then you have another part that is more the social relationship to food, where you find sociologists, anthropologists that understand the human relationship to food. And then you have this fourth part that is more like the communication and the design point of view that is packaging, advertisement, graphic design, architecture, those kinds of things that contribute to the visual appreciation of food. And food design is right on the middle of these four big areas of knowledge. And food design, what it does is it connects all of the knowledge of these different areas and translates them in a coherent product, service, business model, or whatever you're going to do. But it takes like knowledge from all of these different areas and disciplines.

Jorge: In that it sounds a lot like a movie director or the conductor of an orchestra, right? Like the person who is looking after the coherence of the whole. If I'm directing a movie, I may know how to edit the film, but I'm not a film editor.

Nataly: Yes. Totally. That's a very good analogy because obviously you're not doing everything by yourself, no? For example, when I'm working with restaurants, normally I'm the one that creates the concept from a strategy point of view. You said, this is the concept, this is the desired user experience I want to communicate. And then you start working with the different fields that are going to make possible this whole experience. So, you have to work very cool closely with the chefs to make sure that these concept that you created is going to be deployed in the right way.

Then you're going to work with the architects that obviously you are not... I know something about architecture, and I'm capable of doing some layouts or some mood boards to understand the materials and the lighting, those kinds of things. But I always work with an architect that helps me to download like all of these visions that I have on these concepts and translate it into an architectural project.

So, yes, it's basically that the food designer understands the whole picture and understand the deep concept that you want to communicate, and then start working with the different fields that can help you download and make tangible this experience in different things like in architecture, in a menu, in furniture, in the tableware, and those kinds of things.

Recognizing the value of food design

Jorge: Is food design an accepted discipline within the world of hospitality and food production? Like, do restauranteurs know to hire someone like you to help them with this?

Nataly: It's very difficult. And I'm glad that you asked this question, because it's always very hard to understand the value of design in these kinds of processes. It's just starting, I think. I have been working with a lot of culinary schools around the world that are trying to open and include this type of thinking within the methodologies of the creation of a chef, for example, because a chef normally is very creative and uses ingredients to express different messages, but sometimes they don't have these methodologies and these ways of thinking in terms of solving problems.

Design thinking is very oriented to solve something, it's a very problem-solving approach, and gastronomy is not always the issue. A chef sometimes explores different combinations, different textures, just to express a message, but they're not always trying to solve something. Normally, when you think about the creation of a chef, for example, it's a lot of experimentation with textures and ingredients and rituals and those kinds of things, but they don't necessarily have this problem-solving approach that design has.

But nevertheless, I'm starting to work with a lot of culinary schools that are including these types of thinking on their educational programs. So, for example, chefs are all already changing the way they create a concept. For example, the way they create a restaurant. And they are starting to think about different methodologies, and design thinking is one of the methodologies.

I think that gastronomists are starting to understand the value of design in their processes, but it's always difficult to explain this value. I have worked with a lot of restaurants that started already to understand this, and it's specifically, to understand the value of having a concept, like a superior meaning that can be deployed in the different parts, because it helps a lot to take decisions. So, for example, if you have a clear concept, the owner of a restaurant can easily say, "okay, so this is the menu we're going to have because we are answering to these concepts. This is the type of space that I need because it is answering to this concept."

So, more and more, I think I have worked with some restaurants that are beginning to understand the value of design, but it's always a difficult thing. It's always very difficult to sell this approach because it's something that can be very intangible sometimes because you're selling an experience, you're selling that concept that obviously can be translated into tangible things, but it's like a second part of the process. First you have to understand the vision and the superior meaning that you want to create, and it's not always easy for the owner of a restaurant or the managers of a chef to recognize the value. But it's starting to become easier.

Jorge: Yeah. I find that to be an issue in a lot of design contexts where defining the big picture — the concept — precedes all the other decisions and informs all the other decisions.

Prototyping food design

I want to come back to you spoke of the particular problem-solving approach that design brings to the table, pardon the But, I'm trying to picture how you prototype these food experiences. And I'm imagining it must be a lot of fun. So, I was hoping that you would tell us a little bit about how you go about prototyping these experiences. And also, like I was saying earlier, I've had some very memorable experiences in restaurants and it often comes down to the details. And details are something that you don't often see in early prototypes. So, can you talk a little bit about prototyping and the degree to which having all of the elements of the experience come together and evolve as you go through a design process, how that works in this discipline?

Nataly: Yeah, sure. I'm going to divide the prototypes in the two fields that I was just speaking about. Like, one is more product-driven, that is for the food industry, and the other one is more service-driven, that is for restaurants and hotels.

And so, for the food industry, I think it's easier to understand how you can communicate the attributes and the innovation characteristics in a product using a prototype. So, for example, when I work with, I don't know, let's say an ice cream brand that wants to open a market for children that want to eat ice cream based on vegetables. And I'm saying like different things now. So, it's very easy because you start understanding what are the attributes that you have to communicate. So, for example, in a vegetable-based ice cream, you know that, for example, color is an attribute that you can communicate, the texture is another attribute, the fiber is another attribute, the playful shapes is another attribute.

So, you start working with prototypes that are going to mix edible and non-edible materials. So, for example, I have been doing some prototypes that mix Play-Doh with oatmeal or Play-Doh with chia seeds or those kinds of things. Because Play-Doh, for example, is a non-edible material that allows me to explore different shapes of the edible object, and then I can start like exploring the edible part on the edible texture mixing some ingredients like seeds, like nuts, like oatmeal, like a grains or whatever, to give them appearance of the sensoriality of food. So, in terms of prototypes of food objects is I think a little bit easier to prototype, because you can start exploring different things and having feedback of the sensorial part in a very early stage.

For service, it's a little bit different, because I use different levels of prototype to understand how these experiences can be useful for consumers or it can be understood by consumers. So, an early prototype for a service can be just a consumer journey, for example, where you understand the different stages of an experience, and start analyzing what are the touch points that you are going to design for this desired user experience.

So, for example, one of my prototypes tells the story of a person that is arriving to a restaurant in certain occasion, that is going with their friends at certain hour of the day. So, you start thinking, "okay, so this person is visiting this restaurant with her friends, and they're probably going to ask for cocktails." But for example, the restaurant where they are going doesn't have any menu for cocktails.

So, you start analyzing these needs and trying to understand what are the touch points that you have to include in the experience in order to respond to the needs of the consumers and in order to respond to the story you want to tell of these part. So, this is a very early prototype. And then once you start advancing in the process and you start making prototypes way more loyal, let's say, or more... I don't know how to say, more defined and with more specific things, you can do, for example, a pop-up restaurant. And this is starting to be more common in restaurants that maybe you don't have to invest the building of a restaurant, you don't have to invest in the furniture, you don't have to invest in all of the staff of waiters and cooks and whatever. And then you can do like a small pop up in your home, or outdoors, or in a specific place where you can try the experience.

Not only the food, obviously there are ways to prove the sensorality of the menu you are preparing. But what you want to understand is the relationship between all of the inputs that you have in the experience. You want to understand the relationship that the service you have proposed... I mean, the way the server speaks to you, the table where, how it behaves with the food itself, if the lighting is working, if the music is working, if this space and the size of the restaurant is working. So, a very easy way to do is pop up restaurants and we are seeing that more and more.

And right now, I think that because of the pandemic, this is a whole new business model that has been increasing a lot, that is the dark-kitchen model. So, in dark kitchens, you don't have to invest obviously in a restaurant, because the restaurant doesn't exist. It's a virtual restaurant that can be in any part of the city and it only exists through social media or through delivery. And this is also a very good way to prototype because you can start up a new business, a new restaurant, with very few things. You don't have to have a very big kitchen and buy all the machines and all of the resources you need for opening a restaurant, and then you can start testing different concepts. Even in a dark kitchen, you can have two, three, four concepts happening at the same time with different brands and then you can prototype, which is the brand that behaves the best, which is the brand that is better accepted by consumers? So, there are different ways in different levels of the process where you can test and prototype the concepts.

Nataly's evolving experience of food

Jorge: Well, that's fantastic. It sounds like a lot of fun, and it's also making me hungry. I'm wondering, Nataly, how being a food designer has changed your own experience with food.

Nataly: Yes, it has changed a lot because you are always explaining and thinking and talking with the clients about the food choices and how everyone communicates a lot of themselves through the food choices. And sometimes you realize that not all of your food choices are that intelligent and that smart. Maybe you just want to eat something from the fridge and don't think about it. And sometimes I do feel bad because of that, because I think, "no, why am I eating that, this..." And I have to always cook super tasty meals and I feel bad when I don't want to cook because actually I love to cook, but when you have to do it all of the days, and it's also part of your work, you get tired of it.

So, yes, it has changed a lot my, the way I approach to food, because one, I think I overthink all of my food choices, not in terms of health or not, but I do think about the social impact and environmental impact, if I'm taking pleasure of it, if I can enjoy it more, if I want to go to a new restaurant. Those kinds of things, I overthink them a lot.

But it's fun because it helps you to rationalize, to understand way more your eating habits. You are way more conscious about the impact of your eating choices. And I'm not speaking about the health impact, because actually, I don't think a lot about that, because I really like to enjoy food, but more about like the social impact and what is the future of food, and should I start transforming already my habits towards future challenges, for example.

I work a lot with future food, because I give a lot of lectures about future food and a lot of my clients need these perspectives, strategic thinking. So, I'm constantly thinking about the future of food. And actually, my master's degree was based on that, was based on understanding what are the main challenges of the future of the food systems and design our eating habits of the present to be more coherent and more positive towards this future.

So, this is something that I think a lot and I frequently ask myself about, what are going to be the future eating habits? And in my present, I think a lot about that. I think like, I should eat more plants, I should become more flexitarian, I should start like getting more insects for example. And I do make a lot of experiments in my house to start including different ingredients in my daily diet.


Jorge: Well, it sounds like you're very passionate about your work and it's a good thing to be passionate about work that involved something as fundamental as food. Thank you so much for sharing it with us, Nataly. Where can folks follow up with you?

Nataly: Yes. So, I have my personal Instagram, that's my chat communication channel that I use the most. So, you can find me in Instagram. And I have another Facebook page and Instagram page that is called Food Design Education, where I share a lot of courses, masters, readings, some interesting inspiration that is related to food and design. And I have the page in Instagram, and I also have a group in Facebook.

I started a page in Facebook that was called Food Design Education, but I realized that the communication was very unilateral. So, I was the only one that was posting information. And then I am working with a lot of students right now that have a lot of information, valuable articles, and posts. And I wanted to create this space where everyone could share important information. So, I gave up a little bit in the page of Facebook, and I'm starting to create these groups and this community where it's not only me, but all of my students or all of the people that are interested in the food field can share different experiences. So, those are my main channels, like my personal Instagram, that is mostly professional Instagram, and the Food Design Education page in Instagram and Facebook. And obviously in my LinkedIn.

Jorge: Fantastic. I will include those in the show notes. Thank you so much for sharing with us.

Nataly: Thank you very much, Jorge, for the invitation.