Orange and toast on wooden surface

There is more to food than meets the tongue

We need to take all five senses into account when we are designing a service or an experience. The food industry—dining, in particular—reveals this.

What’s this thing in my mouth?

Eating goes well beyond our mouths. One example of this is the type of restaurant in which customers eat in total darkness. The experience is alienating to say the least. First of all, you will find that simply finding your cutlery then using that cutlery to locate the food on your plate (and safely guide it to your mouth) is a very challenging task. Secondly, you will find that the stuff you actually do manage to get into your mouth will hardly be recognisable as any sort of familiar food. By removing our vision, we go from being culinary experts to not being able to identify a piece of broccoli.

Indulging in Tchaikovsky

London-based restaurant House of Wolf showed how even hearing affects our taste. They served a dessert called “sonic cake pop” that came with a telephone number. Guests were instructed to dial ‘one’ for sweet or ‘two’ for bitter. Either high-pitched piano tones or grim, low-pitched sounds started to play depending on what they dialed. You guessed it–the dessert tasted sweet or bitter depending on which option guests chose and which sounds they heard. This opens up great possibilities: imagine replacing the sugar in your morning cappuccino with a sweet Tchaikovsky symphony.

So where does service design come in?

We can learn a lot from the dining industry. If there’s one sector constantly working to master the design of an experience, it’s this one. Dishes are meticulously designed for specific experiences, fast food and haute cuisine alike. Each aspect is considered to communicate a specific purpose, such as saving time vs. spending time. Designing the eating experience is also relevant to many other contexts. For example, how do we set up school cafeterias in such a way that kids opt for a healthy lunch, rather than a happy meal? In what ways can we stimulate people to buy more fruit and vegetables and less processed foods in supermarkets? What can we do to encourage more sustainable and animal-friendly eating?

These are challenges that align very well with service design. From shaping the full experience from growing to cooking our food, to tickling our senses when we finally put the food into our mouths, they can have great impact on a fundamental part of our lives. Bon appetit!

Image: Meat Fruit by Heston Blumenthal, Irene