Sunday 16 January 2011

Feeding the Eye: challenging orthodoxy

Visual Athletics Club: Tiger Bap

There is an ephemerality to food and much of the design associated with it: the wrappers and packaging, the advertising campaigns, the branding and marketing of novel products. However, this is an insidious ephemerality, for the effects of the production and consumption of food have far reaching repercussions – on our health, environment – ecologically and ethically. Food is not a mere frippery of consumption: it exists beyond the limits of the physiological and is inculcated into highly personalised relations. Feeding the Eye questions the impact that design has on our reception and attitudes towards food. Design does not influence food policy but it directs and informs our daily food choices. Design is about communication and information; it is neither benign nor neutral.  

There is accountability in the agency of design especially when connected to the basic fundamentals of human existence – food. Food as quotidian, rhopographic does not command the same cultural capital as more monumental design. The culture of defining people as “foodies” or “fuelies” renders food as synonymous with privilege and the profligacy of time. The free market economy model, that dictates UK food policy, panders to a culture of convenience and the subsequent further commodification of food. The commodification and convenience of food is a product of capitalism, not socialism. The massification of retail and the innovations of technology have expanded to produce panoply of food products. Convenience foods and emancipation from the kitchen allow people a freedom of choice but choices that are dependent upon informed decisions. 

Rationales of consumer choice and freedom of choice are dependent upon an understanding of what choices are available. Future food and the maintenance of future food security have far reaching implications beyond technological innovation and the manifestations of the enchantments of design. Food is not an exhaustible resource; the rise in global food prices and diversion of crops for biofuel consumption have sparked food riots. While one billion people worldwide do not have enough to eat, another billion are overweight. With the global population set to increase to 9 billion by 2050 current practices are unsustainable.

Food in the twenty first century is still symbolically and culturally highly determined by economic and social factors. Fashions and trends – the rejection of the global in favour of the local and seasonal, from “air miles” to “food miles” – food is constantly being reduced to the next perimeter of social conscience. Developments in bio and food technology have led to an abundance of food – the “paradox of plenty” has dealt the poorest the least benefits – calories from processed foods rich in sugar, salt and fat, are traded for health. If food packaging design was less spurious and more honest about the effects of the food being marketed on health and the environment, then societal benefits would follow. By actively seeking to subvert information through being typographically illegible or by an over abundance of confusing information, designers actively promote unhealthy eating practices.

Feeding the Eye questions orthodoxy. Food, politics and economics form an unholy menage à trois – a heady and seductive cocktail of appetite, power and greed. The government peddles information with a double handedness – the nannying voice of the healthy eating mantra but all the while allowing the most economically profitable – the food manufacturing industries to dictate and control our insatiable appetites. Until a more integrated social, environmental and health orientated model is adopted as opposed to the laissez faire attitudes of the free market economy – the inequities in resources and the growing global population will put unsustainable pressures upon food security. Future food security is at the fore of economic, political, environmental and ethical debates. Feeding the Eye is a clarion call to a new generation of designers to challenge orthodoxy and locate design within this polemic as a force for good, healthy, sustainable eating practices. 

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