the Unified Theory of Deliciousness

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This is a counter clockwise spin-off of our ongoing product design miniseries. Up to now we’ve deconstructed product design by focusing on a consumer based pricing model before we start sketching. This then moved towards the power of modern Computer Aided Design a’la Fusion 360. This post will be something that strikes a chord with all designers and uses a chef’s anecdotes about food to describe good design. Check out the rest after the jump.

A Similarity

Recently Wired Magazine published an article by David Chang that I think is entitled “The Secret Code to Unleashing the World’s Most Amazing Flavors”. I’m not sure because the featured image writes out “The Unified Theory of Deliciousness”. One can never be sure these days.

David Chang, folks.

While reading the article I was immediately struck by the similarities of building a flavor profile out of a combination of foods to that of say, building furniture from a collection of raw materials. Chefs and designers are doing the same thing but with different media. Just like with an icon of classic design, like the Eames Lounge chair (look it up, I can’t give away everything), you’ll know a winner immediately when it tastes right.

A great dish hits you like a Whip-It: There’s momentary elation, a brief ripple of pure pleasure in the spacetime continuum. That’s what I was chasing, that split second when someone tastes something so delicious that their conversation suddenly derails and they blurt out something guttural like they stubbed their toe.

That’s when I knew that David wasn’t just talking about food. He might not have known it, but he is describing the sensation when people stumble upon good design anywhere – from paint on a canvas to the curves of a modern sports car.

How to Derail Conversation

If you keep reading you’ll notice that designers aren’t the only ones that get roadblocks. Cooking doesn’t come naturally to David but he was aware enough to notice patterns in his successful dishes. He postures that there are underlying laws that govern if a dish is successful. A unified theory of deliciousness. These laws are sort of described as being strange loops – things in the natural world that folds back on itself. Maybe it’s a Möbius strip or one of those crazy fractal drawings that emits a seemingly infinite number of shapes. Either way, like in food, a strange loop can be created in product design as well.

Luckily, David gives us some tricks to detect those loops. The salt test. For designers, it’s probably a little more visual and a little less salty. It will be the intersection of too much and too little. I think you can really easily see this in 3D space if you make a simple block and try to fillet, or round over, the edges. Play with different radii and you’ll quickly find a spot that just feels ‘right’. Not too much; not too little.

The foundation of the laws in the theory of deliciousness are what comes next. Trust me, they aren’t new either. Proportion, texture, material, geometry – David figures that if he can get them to come together in different ways he can crank out the hits. A product designer can too.

Emotional Response

David then goes on for a while to talk about another key rule – the emotional response. This is huge for me as a furniture designer. I kind of get a feeling that people’s tastes are greatly influenced by what they were surrounded by when they grew up. Not surprisingly, people are very polar about their choices – they either like clean modern lines or a soft homely feel for their space, usually evoked from a like or dislike from what their parents owned. Take cabinets stained a honey oak color. Most millennials hate this choice because our parents all had a rendition of it in the 90s. If you like a minimalist look, chances are that you disliked the clutter in your parent’s house.

These powerful emotions influence our selections and are what lead us to make decisions. What’s interesting about people is that we are so different and see the world from so many ways – just like the Korean guys crying over eating a chicken and dumpling dish while the other patrons probably chewed on in silence. However, just like David says, it’s important to not get too hung up here and turn design into a breakdown of mathematics. The takeaway is creating seamless products that work in harmony with their surroundings.

Isomorphisms

Don’t skip this next part. Trust me.


In mathematics, an isomorphism (from the Ancient Greek: ἴσος isos “equal”, and μορφή morphe “form” or “shape”) is a homomorphism ormorphism (i.e. a mathematical mapping) that admits an inverse.[note 1] Two mathematical objects are isomorphic if an isomorphism exists between them. An automorphism is an isomorphism whose source and target coincide. The interest of isomorphisms lies in the fact that two isomorphic objects cannot be distinguished by using only the properties used to define morphisms; thus isomorphic objects may be considered the same as long as one considers only these properties and their consequences.

For most algebraic structures, including groups and rings, a homomorphism is an isomorphism if and only if it is bijective.

In topology, where the morphisms are continuous functions, isomorphisms are also called homeomorphisms or bicontinuous functions. Inmathematical analysis, where the morphisms are differentiable functions, isomorphisms are also called diffeomorphisms.

sourced from Wikipedia


If you read that and it registered totally and clearly in your brain – you don’t need to be reading this blog post. Thanks for stopping by but be on your way.

Now, for the rest of us, let’s use Hofstadter’s description of an isomorphism:

a concept that can be expressed in different ways while retaining its core form.

The trick about product design is using all of the media and materials available and mashing them together in a new way. We live in a great time full of crazy machinery with the ability to build anything we can dream of. Boom – your new expression is taken care of. Now, just use the laws of the theory of deliciousness to create emotional responses with your consumers are you are all set.

Sounds easy enough.

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