This Post Has Been Artificially Flavored

One of the more interesting displays at Flavor: Making It and Faking It, an exhibit currently at the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn, is the lemon “smelling station” that invites you to compare the smell of lemons against the chemical compound responsible for “lemony” smell. I was first drawn to the display because of the beautifully designed graphics, but once I was there, I noticed that it perfectly encapsulated the idea behind the whole exhibit — smells are strongly linked to our sense of taste and therefore flavor. If a scientist can produce the exact same chemicals found in nature to create certain smells, what is “artificial” and what is “pure”? After getting over the idea that I might not have as big a problem with lab-made flavor as I thought I did, I started to realize that the “science” involved in creating flavors for the food industry is a bit like the processes involved in        graphic design.

Rules are where the fun begins.

The strawberry smelling station offered the first point of comparison. Using various buttons, I could combine various chemicals often involved in the creation of “strawberry” smell. One button was labeled “fruity, ripe”, another “caramel”. When I pressed all the buttons, I definitely smelled strawberries. The interesting thing was that, by only pressing two or three buttons, I was reminded of strawberries that were less sweet or had a slightly different taste than usual. All the same, they tasted like strawberries.

Like the different strawberry smells I was creating, graphic design often involves striving towards less a precise definition than a range of correct answers. We may not all agree on what sans-serif font we should use for a logo, for example, but I bet we could all agree certain ones (Comic Sans comes to mind) wouldn’t work. Projects also tend to be well defined via the “rule” that it be a “logo” or “infographic” from the start. And so designers do not usually experience the equivalent of writer’s block, much as I imagine a flavorist doesn’t struggle much with where to begin when formulating a recipe for strawberry flavor. In flavoring and graphic design, the creativity lies in creating something that everyone recognizes and yet is entirely unique to you.

One of the cool display graphics at the exhibit.

One of the cool display graphics at the exhibit.

Simplicity is often the result of complex thinking.

Two candy machines dispensed identical-looking white pills into my hand. One was vanilla, the other vanillin—the chemical largely responsible for producing “vanilla” flavor. One tasted like vanilla, the other tasted very similar to vanilla, but missing a certain je ne sais quoi. You can guess which pill was which.

Like vanilla, any design that appears “simple”—like the site designs for Google.com and Squarespace, for example—is actually more complex than it seems at first. Complicated decisions need to be made regarding what content—given that there is a limited amount featured—should be present, as well as where each site element should fall in terms of visual hierarchy.

Google.com is primarily geared towards search, as indicated by the central location and scale of the logo, search field and buttons on the page. But smaller links and buttons at the corners of the page add sophistication, heft and hint at other things you can accomplish on the website. Without these details, the site would risk losing a sense of “fullness”. It would appear less refined the same way vanillin on its own doesn’t taste entirely like “vanilla”.

Imperfection can play a positive role.

The coffee smelling station featured two buttons, “coffee” and “stinky, skunky”. Alone, “coffee” smelled like instant coffee or stale regular coffee. Recognizable, but flat. With some stink added (it was actually sulphur), the coffee became fresh again.

While not actually pursuing imperfection in their work, designers sometimes consider the imperfection of certain design mediums and tools, such as a printer with misaligned registration, the blotchy print of a woodblock, or the subtle waverings of hand-lettered type, as a means to introduce humanity and character to an otherwise stale, instant coffee-like design. With the advent of the digital publishing revolution and the clinical “perfection” associated with computer-aided design, designers often seek these sulphur-like elements to make a design come alive.

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While graphic designers are clearly a different breed from the flavor chemists involved in the food industry (a flavor chemist is an actual scientist after all), their work is similar in that creativity is an essential ingredient for success. Maybe in my next design I’ll think of what a flavor chemist might do. I’ll try not to get hungry.

— Diego Rodriguez