School Lunch Menus: Future à la Carte

There’s this special kind of feeling when someone hands you over a brief for a design project. Personally I can describe it as a mixture between anxiety and excitement. You read the topic and you already start thinking about what you’re going to do – products, tools, materials, interactions, branding? But, when you’re learning how to conduct design research, you need to remember to take a step back – your experience is not the only one that counts, therefore, your solutions are probably lacking some serious intervention from the outside in.

Set the table

And then your mentors hand you over your research topic: “Animal Food Value Chain” – think about it. So simple and yet so complex. We could even say that our lives have evolved around and thanks to this topic, and therefore, so many systems have been created due to the need and demand of animals and food.

To narrow down the possibilities and create our focus, each member of the team raised the questions that immediately came to mind, and with affinity diagramming we created patterns that slowly started taking us to a potential area of focus:

What are the factors and actors that influence school menu planning specifically around animal based food products.

The interest was there, we all consider that a healthy diet is key to a good academic performance. But we’ve also learned that various perspectives of what a healthy diet should look like differ from context to context, priorities to priorities. But after we discussed enough about what we know or what we think, it was time to hand the microphone to humans in a school setting.


Tell me about yourself…

When conducting a contextual inquiry, you approach someone and your intention is to know how to talk to them, so that they can tell you their story as it relates to a subject in particular; they’re in their space (be it work, home or car) and you’re there to learn from them. Your conversation has a goal – you want to know what a person in particular has experienced that will guide you closer to uncovering a problem.

So we went on a Contextual Inquiry adventure and approached an Austin charter school’s food service staff – that was Laura, or the coolest Food Service Director that I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing- and believe it or not, we didn’t talk about food half the time.

So far, we have discovered that school food staff not only works with the common goal of feeding children healthy and delicious food to warm their hearts and give them energy. Their goal is to instill them good eating habits and taking them away from potential metabolic diseases that are related to bad eating practices. Their goal is to empower students at a young age, and guide them towards reasonable decision making so that they can continue pursuing good choices and do so all their way to college and adulthood. They think about the children’s future and they cook with that in mind.

What about the beef stroganoff?

Creativity is the fuel of makers, artists, designers, performers, chefs, etc. We’ve learned that cooking might sound fun for some, but it can become quite complex and can even inhibit your creativity when you have to work under so many constraints and government regulations. Laura and her staff seem deeply passionate about what they do. If they could improve the service, they would buy all locally sourced food, they would have more vegetables and fruits for children, and make the serving bar lower so that the little kiddos can have a good look at their bright colors and choose the one they like.

So far, exhaustive and tedious processes make Laura’s job less enjoyable than she would like it to be. We wanted to uncover what were the factors and actors that influence school menu planning specifically around animal based foods? We have gotten our answer fairly quickly. Now the question is, who are we designing for?

Potential of Design in Society: Pixie the Traveler

In Jon Kolko’s Design, Society and the Public Sector class, we aim to study the theory behind the social and ethical responsibility of design. We do this by reading the works of several philosophers, design theorists and design practitioners, like John Dewey, Edward Bernays, Maurizio Vitta, Victor Margolin, Emily Pilloton and Michael Hobbes, and interpret their point of view as it relates to the role of design in society.

Our first assignment was to illustrate these six author’s main positions in the form of a story.

I chose to do this through the story of Pixie the traveler:


In a fiction planet, Pixie is a young traveler that wants to know everything about her world. She is a teacher, so whenever she has time, she will go and visit new places. She’s visited hundreds of places, and met wonderful people, languages, cultures and food.

Until one day,

Pixie went down a beautiful mountain and arrived to the land of the Sepan. Sepanese didn’t greet her like Pixie would normally get greeted in other parts she had been. Some of them hid, others looked curious, others panicked, they clearly did not know what to do with this creature that suddenly appeared from the top of the mountain, a mountain that they’ve never tried to cross before.

With a few clues, Pixie was able to figure out what was going on; the Sepanese were made to believe by their long gone leader that they were the only people left on earth. Seeing someone new that wasn’t part of their hundred year old community was not an easy thing to process for them.

Pixie unveiled the truth to them, she showed them pictures of what she had seen past the Sepanese mountains, she tried to play music they’ve never heard of and tried to cook things for them that they’ve never tasted before.

Education is an elemental tool for those who seek the wellbeing of society as a whole. In “The Need of a Theory of Experience John Dewey states that it is only when an individual learns about the world by experiencing it that he can then look forward to become the best version of himself and therefore, better contribute to society. In “The Why & the How” Bernays mentions that society tends to get attached to retrogressive habits, which is why we’re most likely to need a dramatic intervention of a new idea in our lives to get our minds wondering about things we’ve never experienced or thought of before. Both authors illustrate two dissimilar but connected perspectives, if we theorize that there are two types of individuals in the world, those that opt to know the world by genuinely experiencing it, and those that are ok with grasping a summarized version of the world that was previously prescribed to them. According to Dewey, teachers that are given freedom in the classroom to keep their students engaged and that have an understanding of human behavior can better prepare a student to give back to their society and, to Bernay’s point, give them tools that allow them to self-express and therefore, safeguard themselves against any sort of tyranny.

IDSE102-Assignment1 5-8

For her following crusade, Pixie is joined by a Sepanese friend who is curious about the world. They travel the world together after a long journey, Pixie and her new Sepanese friend, Nan, stumbled upon a landfill of artifacts and a river of what looked like unused gadgets. Without knowing it, they had arrived to the land of the Coseeks.

The Coseeks were well known for always being up to date with the latest technology, but this made them lose sense of what was real and valuable. Huge billboard size screens showing beautiful but artificial landscapes would cover the garbage landfills giving the impression that they were in a harmonious environment.

Also curious about their new guest’s culture around objects – which they clearly lack – Cron, a Coseeker, decides to join them in their final part of their journey.

Society has given more value to physical objects, setting aside the initial intention of function and adding unnecessary features and elements that “allow” the individual to project their sense of self. But this is not without consequence. In “The Meaning of Design” and “Design and the World Situation” there’s a connection between Vitta and Margolin’s point of view as it relates to society’s current state of mass consumption. Designer’s practice appears to have become “inadequate and ineffective” and calls for a culture change in the design practice in order to start investing in a “social change” in order to “make possible a different and more balanced relationship with things”. Ideally, the once product designer then becomes a system designer, evolving his current practice from designing vehicles of communication to designing systems based on complex problems. Designing in the intersection between a system of abstention and a system of capitalism, seeking to integrate human beings into a broader more ecological and cultural environments.  IDSE102-Assignment1 9 - 10

While experiencing the things and situations that life has to offer, Pixie was able to positively impact the life of her two new friends. Being almost opposites, Nan and Cron traveled and saw the world through Pixie’s eyes. Their minds grew bigger and their ideas as well. After their travel abroad, all their learning experiences, Pixie, Nan and Cron felt inspired and decided to go back to their own communities and share their experiences, cultivate their kin and their community. There are certainly things that could be improved there, if only they could see what they’ve seen.

A thorough analysis on the users that are meant to use a product before even start to design it is not enough, pervasiveness is what keeps the implementation of your design alive. This is where both Pilloton and Hobbes’ point of view intersect as they refer to design as a practice that should be scalable – concentrating in one place, “cultivating ecosystems rather than plant single trees” and “test models constantly”. This goes back to Margolin’s call out to designers suggesting that they need not only to design products but consider the entire system when they do so. Design’s potential to address complex problems has become a great vehicle to connect entire societies, share their knowledge, and become a stronger ecosystem together.