This is where designers can have the most impact: to feed people in an efficient way.
In early 2017, the United Nations warned that the world’s ability to feed itself was now “in jeopardy”. The sobering statistic inspired design editor and writer LinYee Yuan to start MOLD, a platform that hopes to inspire designers to improve food systems through creative, human-centric solutions.
Today, MOLD is expanding with a print magazine about the future of food. MOLD’s Kickstarter-funded first issue begins shipping in June. In advance of the launch, Yuan and the Innovation Group discussed food design, microbes, and the problem with Soylent.
Can you tell us about the mission of MOLD?
MOLD launched in 2014 as an editorial platform to explore the role of design in transforming the way that we eat and drink for the future. A UN report predicted that by the year 2030, if we continue eating and drinking the way we do right now, we won’t be able to produce enough food to feed everyone on the planet. And that was a really terrifying statistic.
Design seemed like a great fit as a tool and a lens for problem-solving. The way MOLD looks at food design is just one of a plethora of approaches to what food design could be. But in my mind, it’s also the most urgent. It’s the space where designers can really have the most impact: to feed people nutritious foods in an efficient way.
Why launch a print magazine?
Food design, as a whole, is an emerging design practice. There’s a broad swath of definitions of what that actually means. Print seemed like the perfect medium to explore what food design is and could be, and look at it in a thematic way. Unfortunately, digital media isn’t really great at clearly parsing out where the boundaries are for these types of things, and print is a wonderful way of doing so.
Where did MOLD get its name?
When I was imagining the platform, I wanted to make it clear that we aren’t a food website. I wanted a word that was a bit anti-food. But molds traditionally are used in transforming so many foods into other delicious foods. Molds are used in creating tempeh, in creating soy sauce, in making cheeses. So it’s an ingredient in a method of cooking that is centuries old.
Mold within a design context is used in industrial processes to create form. And so I wanted to really emphasize the idea that MOLD is a design website. It’s just that the focus is on the role of design within the landscape of food.
Where does the food design industry stand today?
There are a small handful of design schools that have food design programs. But even within these design programs, there are varying approaches to what food design should be.
In the Netherlands, Marije Vogelzang has a very conceptual view of food design. Her program is called Food Non Food. It’s the first undergraduate bachelor’s degree program dedicated to food design. In Milan, the program at Politecnico di Milano is completely centered on industry. So they’re really working on thinking about packaging solutions, transportation, designing new food, snack foods. So those are two very polar approaches to what food design can be.
How do you choose the magazine’s themes?
The first issue is about designing for the microbiome. I wanted the first issue to be a bit challenging. If you were expecting a food magazine with recipes, that’s not what we’re delivering. But I also wanted it to be about design. And this idea really speaks to this specific moment in time, where we actually have the scientific knowledge and the technology to design microorganisms.
There’s a new field in design called synthetic microbiology. There is also all of this new scientific research is coming out that is identifying the fact that everything from our immune system to our ecological and digestive health is all controlled by microbes that live inside our guts. The third piece was this renewed interest in fermentations in the world of restaurants and wellness spaces. Those three things intersect in a really interesting way and speak to a specific design process.
The second issue of the magazine is going to be about more traditional design. How do our utensils and our plates and our cups and our dining furniture influence rituals around dining? And how can designers rethink those things as we prepare to embrace new ways of eating? How can design play a role in shaping those types of rituals that are deeply engrained in culture and identity?
We’re going to be doing a whole issue about new agricultural systems. The space of home hydroponics and kitchen gardens is starting to fill up. But to be honest, almost all of the products that are on the market are not well designed. They do not really consider the end user’s experience in growing living things in their home. In order for these types of innovations to be successful, they need to be successful on a very human level. I hope that designers will be really inspired to see how they can play a role in this movement.
Are there any examples from your research so far that you’d like to highlight?
One story I think is really interesting is about how brands are embracing probiotics and prebiotics in their products. Obviously, yogurt is an early adopter on this. Yogurt traditionally is created using live bacteria that ferment the milk. But we’re starting to see prebiotics and probiotics in everything from granola bars to chocolate.
A story to be concerned about is Soylent, which is a hugely design-driven brand. The story that they tell around their product is hugely considered. But the fact that it’s a sterile product and when they came out of the gate was really purporting to be “all you ever need” has been problematic, and is also why they’ve been backing away from that claim now as they move into new types of products.
Then we have the chef Kwang Uh, who is the co-founder and chef of Baroo in LA. He’s leading a New American revival of fermentation. His restaurant was something so exciting for me. He writes for the issue about his philosophy around fermentation, and why it plays such a central role in the way he cooks. So there are those types of stories as well.
What is probably more interesting than all of these things is that there are websites and services out there that give consumers access to diagnosing their own gut biology or makeup. You can go to the American Gut project and actually send in a sample and they’ll send you information telling you what bacteria dominates your gut. I think that’s the beginning of a larger trend in biohacking that we’ll see soon.
For more on the microbiome, read our Q&A with Viome founder Naveen Jain.