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Similarities between design and cooking


Similarities between design and cooking

Introduction and contents

Most of us consume food and design daily. Almost all objects and tools that we interact with are designed. Our houses and everything in them is designed, our cities are designed.

As a designer that loves to cook, I started noticing some similarities between the two.

In addition to being functional (edible/usable) great meal and design should also:

  • Have the right ingredients
  • Go beyond taste
  • Fit into the context

Other similarities between design and cooking:

  • Most people don't bother, but it's getting better
  • Having the right tools makes you enjoy the process
  • Pre-made ingredients increase coherency but decrease diversity
  • Improvisation with the ingredients you have is a way to innovate

Bonus point:

  • It's ok to steal


  • Cooking is design

Have the right ingredients

Ingredients matter - if you are creating a website with bad copy and low-quality images or a dashboard with wrong data, design can’t save it. It's like cooking with ingredients that are not fresh or produced in a way that they lack flavours and nutrients.

We can think about the design ingredients on a higher level also - team communication, strategy, user research, and testing are all important ingredients of good design. There is an interesting article by John Maeda asking what the essential ingredients for digital products are, inspired by the Salt Fat Acid Heat cookbook by Chef Samin Nosrat.

The ingredients for digital products - image taken from the article mentioned above

Go beyond taste

In both cooking and design, a lot of choices can be made based on taste - you might like something aesthetically or you like how something tastes, but that is not enough. The way information or ingredients are organised and presented plays an important part in the overall experience.

Another nice example from John Maeda, mixing food and design:

"In Japanese food, it’s not about the flavours, it’s about the presentation, the illusion of being natural. I learned my basic layout sensibilities by helping him lay out food." John Maeda — Maeda @ Media 2001

He was influenced by Japanese aesthetics and cooking because of his father who owned a small Tofu factory.

Photo by Sherman Kwan on Unsplash

Fit into the context

Context is another important aspect of great design and food experiences alike. Something that works as a fancy dinner would probably fail as a home weekend breakfast. Questions like who, where, when, and why come in handy.

  • Who will be eating/using it?

    Know your audience, and make something that is based on their specific needs and desires.

  • Where and when are they when they interact with it?

    Is it a picnic on the beach, or a dinner at home? Day or night? While commuting or at the comfort of the sofa?

  • Why do they need it?

    This last one is a bit more design-related, I believe. Design solves a much broader range of problems than food, sorry cooks.

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) - Édouard Manet, 1863

Most people don't bother, but it's getting better

Many people don’t really care about the quality of food and design that they consume on a daily basis. The world is still full of junk food and crappy design.

However, in my personal experience, it seems that awareness on good design and eating habits is overall increasing. I see more quality in digital design products and experiences, and more healthy food choices in the cities I visit.

An example of crappy design including a food related topic.

Having the right tools makes you enjoy the process

Chopping vegetables with a sharp, high-quality knife on a large wooden board really enhances the experience of cooking.

The same goes for making sketches with a good pen or designing in a software that is well designed for that purpose. Designing interfaces in Photoshop, for example, is like chopping vegetables with a butter knife: it's possible but not very efficient nor pleasant. Butter knives are great for spreading butter though.

Obviously, having even the best tools won't help if you don't know how to use them, or you don't have an idea of what to make with them.

Pre-made ingredients increase coherency but decrease diversity

Pre-made spice mixes can make cooking faster and the taste will always be good and coherent. However, the feeling of cooking with them is not the same as adding all the spices yourself, and the taste will be rather predictable.

Likewise, Design frameworks and systems are great; they speed up the design process and enable more coherency in the final products. The downside is when using the same framework or system for various products, they all tend to look and behave alike. The space for experimentation shrinks.

When you are familiar with all the ingredients and you mix them up yourself, the taste may be less coherent, but there is more space for randomness and experimentation, which creates more potential for something great.

This Rajmah spice blend makes a very good dish, but the taste is always the same. Reminds me of working with frameworks like Bootstrap. When I do my own mix, it's different every time, because I improvise with quantities and ingredients.

Improvisation with the ingredients you have is a way to innovate

Constraints are not necessarily a bad thing. Constraints, when mixed with improvisation, can lead to innovation. In cooking, that's obvious: sometimes you cook your most delicious meals by improvising with what you have at home.

When it comes to design, it is important to research and understand the constraints of specific technologies, business, and the context where the design will be used. When constraints are set, you have your ingredients and defined space in which you can improvise and sometimes innovate.

Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Designers Steal

In both cooking and design, it is important to have a basic understanding of the technique and to be able to steal and combine. That is the difference I see between copying and stealing. Copying would be following the recipe, design, or code line by line. Stealing is taking parts that you find useful, and creating something new out of them.

Conclusion: Cooking is design

There is a saying that cooking is art, and baking is science. Well, after all the examples above, I think that we can say that cooking is actually a design process, rather than art. In the next article, I will go through similarities between design and baking. Just kidding. Thanks for reading.


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