Monday, September 26, 2011

Deconstructing Bento: Design Lessons From Umeboshi

So here’s something I learned recently: umeboshi is a type of pickled fruit from Japan. It is commonly called a “plum,” but it’s actually a member of the apricot family. I think this may be the weird, salty fruit served to me sometimes in my ramen from the food court of Mitsuwa, the chain of Japanese grocery stores we have here in Los Angeles. I always thought it was an olive. Why I thought I was getting an olive in a bowl of ramen is probably the reason I’m not a world-class chef. Whatever it was, I’m clearly not ‘international’ enough to appreciate it, ‘cause it was way too tart and bitter for me. Anyway, umeboshi is often used at the center of a traditional hinomaru bento, or simple Japanese bento lunch box arranged to resemble the Japanese flag. The umeboshi forms the red dot in a sea of white rice. Like this:

I think the whole concept of the umeboshi is tremendous. Not only because it’s a cute, clever design based on the Japanese flag, but also because this combination of foods makes up a complete lunch in and of itself. Obviously, there are more elaborate bento, but for many people, eating a little dried fruit with rice is plenty sufficient eats. This has implications not only for design but also for gaining an understanding of food culture. In Asian cuisine, there is often a lot of salt, spices, or other flavors packed into the protein and vegetable dishes, which are meant to be eaten with rice. The rice itself is very bland and is mostly a background accompaniment to the other food elements. It allows the intense flavors of the other food to be distributed more comfortably on the palate, thus rendering something that tastes (in my opinion) like olive-pickled crap on its own actually pretty tasty. Allegedly. I’ve never eaten it with rice, so my judgment still stands….

I’m fascinated with the idea of having a cereal staple that is very unremarkable on its own being dressed up with other, more flavorful dishes. We don’t really do that in the West (with the exception of pasta, which originated in Asia and is traditionally made from rice - go figure). There is bread, but many types of breads can be eaten perfectly well on their own, and still offer a fair amount of flavor. Corn is pretty tasty on its own as well, and products made from corn are often featured as single dishes. Of course, all of these grains are typically eaten as part of a main meal, but I’m not sure any cultures have made as much of an art out of balancing the flavors of grains with other foods as Asian cultures have with rice.

So. How does this relate to design? A lot of ways, actually. Talking about negative space and composition balance for a minute, it’s quite the perfect analogy. Designers concerned with creating simple, minimalistic designs typically focus a lot of their energy and creativity in one or two key areas, and fill the rest in with white noise. The lesson, then, for aspiring minimalists, is to make your designs punchier, more exciting and interesting and flavorful and delicious (or pungent or shocking or gross or horrifying), then temper that punchiness with a lot of emptiness. According to my reading, the umeboshi is actually so acidic that it would eat through the tops of people’s aluminum lunchboxes during the 1960s. That’s a lot of punch - apparently enough to flavor an entire box full of rice. If you allow the starkness of your design to stand alone, and gradually disperse itself within the vastness of nothing, this creates a unique flavor profile for your work, and is a very economical way of creating a classy, minimalistic impression on your viewers.

The hinomaru bento method can be utilized on its own, and also in combination with other types of designs. More common bento have other food elements placed alongside the umeboshi dish, including tempura, cuts of meat or fish, and other fruits and veggies. Minimalism doesn’t have to be about omitting valuable information - if you require a protein in your diet, there’s a way to include it without creating an incongruity with the other things you eat. Similarly, including all the required information supplied by your client into a minimal design doesn’t have to be a big, fat, greasy nightmare. If there is extra information, use it. Add it in - it won’t make the final result less elegant, I promise. Just look at that bento above. It’s awfully pretty, isn’t it? You bet it is.

Another example of Asian rice dishes and their correlation with design is the way they are sometimes eaten. The custom of packing rice into the mouth before taking a bite of something very flavorful is a way in which diners use the rice to create a mellower eating experience. I’ve seen this done with Korean cuisine, and I don’t doubt that it happens in Japanese cuisine as well. I find this a fascinating and very heavily designed method of consuming food - overloading your senses with something bland, which will prepare you for the shock of whatever’s coming next.

I also have it on good authority that the umeboshi is considered a health food in Japan and other parts of Asia. It’s similar to the ‘apple a day’ axiom propagated frequently in the West. So I guess here is where I could talk about being ethical and informative with your minimalist design power. Use it for good, delivering information and a quality user experience that will help your viewers access that information in the most beneficial way possible. It’s okay to have a lot of information, or a ton of things to say. The key is in arranging it all so that people are not overwhelmed, and they have a chance to absorb it in a way that is pleasant and balanced.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Popcorn and the Design of Novelty

Popcorn is over 5600 years old. It seems like such a recent invention, though, doesn’t it? It has that space-age quality that makes you think of the moon landing, robots, and mod furniture. I mean, come on - it’s air-puffed corn. Who even had the technology to do that before the 1950s? Well…the Native Americans. Turns out they were popping corn before they were doing *anything* else with it. Before there was corn on the cob, there was popcorn. Before there was succotash, there was popcorn. Before there was corned beef…wait. Never mind.

Even as decoration, popcorn has had its place in cultural history for hundreds of years. Aztec women used popcorn garlands to decorate their hair for important ceremonies. So why, when we think of popcorn garlands, is the first thing to spring into our heads a rowdy group of kindergarteners decorating the class tree during the holidays? Why does popcorn *feel* so new, when it’s really quite old? The answer lies in clever marketing and design tactics.

Pilgrims See Pilgrim Do

When the Pilgrims first arrived on Plymouth Rock, they observed what the Indians ate. Then they started eating that, while also blending in the recipes they brought over from England. As a uniquely American food, popcorn evolved and took on the hues of the many cultures that arrived after the Pilgrims. Thus we have the multitudes of flavored popcorn - butter, cheddar cheese, caramel, pizza….

Yep. Pizza. That’s what I said.

Behold, the great marriage of Italian and American food cultures at work

Once packaging design became a de facto part of the marketing juggernaut, and popcorn became big business, marketers and designers jumped on the bandwagon and began creating new products based on traditional popcorn, capitalizing further on the idea and spawning even more inspiration from other designers. This is the very definition of industry: someone gets brilliant idea, other people copy and reinterpret that idea, everybody makes a ton of money. Industries thrive on the reuse of old ideas that were once very successful, the theory being that if they worked once upon a time, they might work again after a little freshening up. And guess what? That theory is usually correct.

Making the Old New Again

Popcorn isn’t the only product to undergo a renaissance through clever marketing and design. It happens all the time, when designers rediscover old ideas and become inspired to put their own spin on them, creating something that looks and “feels” new, but which actually isn’t new at all. Take business, for example. People every day start new businesses that are exactly the same as everyone else’s. Like, say, blogging. If you’re an entrepreneur, your business idea doesn’t have to be new or unique, and in fact, it’s often better if it’s neither of those things. I didn’t set out to create something “new” with my blog, at least where the information mechanism itself is concerned. I researched the heck out of my competition (other blogs), and set up the model to simply do what they did with my own special “twist.”

Mood boards are a common idea generating tactic in design. And what is a mood board but a collection of other people’s ideas that a designer finds inspirational or that were researched and found to have been commercially successful? Copywriters have their own version of the mood board, known as the “swipe file.” Ditto illustrators and their “morgue files.” Essentially, mood boards and their ilk are creative professionals’ little daily recreations of the popcorn story. Someone sees an awesome idea, plucks it out of the air, and keeps it safely in their pocket until the time comes to create something even more awesome.
Or…not so awesome.

Concept Architecture

Deciding to create something new from something old is a well-known exercise in the marketing and branding world. It requires careful planning and market research, but it’s done practically every day. Think of all the “remakes” of classic movies you’ve seen over the years. To a nine-year-old, Hellboy or the Incredible Hulk might be entirely new characters (unless his parents were comic book nerds, in which case, rock on). But to someone older, these new films are simply an adaptation of the ones they saw as a kid. They bring their children to these movies to introduce them to something old, repackaged as something new.

In the world of design - a perfectly mundane, non-unique business - people very commonly rip off other people’s designs. The amount of flack one gets for doing this depends on the quality of the final outcome. Any branding blog can snidely connect your work to the work of virtually anyone else, if they’re nit-picky enough. Even work that didn’t inspire you at all can end up under the microscope along with your offering. It can be exasperating, but that kind of scrutiny keeps the design world honest and forces all designers to sharpen their creative skills.

A Practical Approach

If you’re asked to create the design for a product, website, or advertisement, trying to reinvent the wheel is usually less of an advantage than you might think. How many “new” products can you identify that actually have their roots in something very old? Perfume? Candy? How about toothpaste? Similarly, how many designs have you seen that are truly “original” in terms of concept and/or execution? The answer is probably very few, as it should be. People respond best to what they already know. Introducing an entirely new concept out of the blue will more often than not result in confusion and rejection of the product being promoted.

Have you ever heard the term ‘simultaneous invention?’ We humans tend to come up with the same kind of stuff at sometimes, unfortunately, the same time period. In today’s world of patents and trademarks, it often comes down to a race between two originators of the same idea, each one hoping to register and protect it before the competition can catch up. There’s nothing wrong with this human feature of ours - it keeps our technological development as a species moving forward and allows us to all stay current with one another. But if you’re the loser in the race, you might see it as an annoyance or source of frustration. Don’t do that. Why? Because in every missed opportunity, there’s another opportunity for something even better. Challenge yourself as a designer to think of an alternate implementation of your idea, or research a different tactic to adopt. Again, don’t try to re-invent the wheel, but tap into the vast ocean of ideas already tested and re-tested by your fellow humans.
To paraphrase the old saying, ‘good designers borrow; great designers steal.’