Design Thinking: Veganism, Constraints & Innovation

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My “frustrated” face

Over the years I’ve handed down a lot of design assignments to students and workshop participants. These assignments range from “ideate something that can happen on a cell phone that would help a new person feel welcome in your city” to “create a time-keeping device that expresses your future career goals.” Whatever the goal of the assignment, the reaction is typically the same: people are frustrated by constraints.

When I tell students that their time-keeping device can only be made out of the six objects in the box in front of them (including a rock and a piece of red string), they immediately ask about adding additional items. When I tell workshop participants that their “welcome wagon” must include a cell phone interaction, they ask about building a community center. Some people – at this exact moment in their relationship with me – probably look at me and think What a crazy jerk. If only she’d let me use my idea it would be so good!

So why do I try to constrain design in specific and often weird ways? Because the alternative is watching people flounder for inspiration, stick to what they already know, or bite off more than they can chew. Providing clear and often extreme restraints in a design exercise is the same as guiding a graduate student to pick a very specific thesis topic: it clarifies the work in the long run and prevents important discoveries from being lost under a mountain of other information. In my experience (and I’m probably biased) by the end of these projects, learners see the value of those tight, strange guidelines they were given.

At this point, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to talk about veganism… Well, here it is. I think vegan cuisine makes an excellent case study of how seemingly extreme constraints can lead to a flourishing of innovative solutions.

For most of my life, I’ve been mistaken for a vegan. A few years ago it was confusing for me, but lately I can see why people would make that assumption. I eat a lot of “vegan food.” I share vegan cooking blogs with my friends. Even YouTube and Instagram are convinced that, based on my viewing activity, I should see ads about vegan shakes that arrive in the mail in tiny coolers or whatever (side note: how wasteful is that?!).

Why – if I’m not  a “real vegan” – am I fascinated by vegan cuisine? Two reasons:

  • It’s really delicious you guys – I can basically have ice cream for breakfast you guys
  • I feel like viewing these sites takes me down a magical rabbit hole of excellent design thinking, when you look at the development of vegan food over the years

Twenty years ago, my high school boyfriend became a vegetarian and convinced me to eat soy cheese. Tasting it, I felt like it really expressed my adoration of him that I would even put the stuff in my mouth. If you ever had that prototypical replacement cheese, you know what I’m talking about; it was bad. Veganism was still operating at the fringes of food culture, and the lifestyle took real commitment.

Looking at the trajectory of vegan food over the years, I’ve developed this (incredibly general and poorly researched) timeline:

  • Phase  I: The “problem” phase. Vegans are people who have given up eating/using animal products. They exist on their own, without support from vegan food creators of any kind. Tofu is considered a pretty out-there health food outside of areas where it is commonly consumed. “Vegan food products” are just food products: vegetables, beans, grains, etc. Products like seitan are consumed in Asian countries, but vegans in other parts of the world must do without.
    • Problem statement? I want to eat food without animal ingredients.
  • Phase II: Let’s call this the “replacement” phase. The first wave of vegan food products are rolled out, and they are aimed at people who want to be vegans, but also eat hot dogs. Tofu dogs, bean patties, soy cheese… And they’re fine, if clunky, and some people like them. I
    • In other words, some people begin trying to solve the problem of Phase I in an understandable, but inelegant way: offering something that’s very familiar to fill the gap.
  • Phase III: The “divergence and innovation” phase. Vegans, including some very serious vegan chefs, get woke. Vegan cuisine splits into two major camps: the “improve the replacements” camp and the “why the f**k we trying to replace that?” camp.

In my mind, we are all currently living in Phase III. In this phase of vegan cuisine we can now clearly see two excellent but extremely different response to the problem statement of Phase I.

Let’s look at the movement of “improve the replacements” first. To me, this is a shorter discussion. That soy cheese I had in grunge-era Seattle? Nobody wanted that. People who wanted to eat vegan food but missed familiar textures and flavors like “gooey mozzarella” and “Big Mac” set out to leverage food science and bend it to their will. They have created so many creative substitutes that the argument “but I like pizza” crumbles before the might of their recipes. These products are now readily available to shoppers in most major cities (and small towns like Ithaca, too). There is also a cult-following for vegan bloggers – like The Edgy Veg – who can make meals that even the staunchest of meat-lovers will enjoy.

Witness: The Vegan Big Mac

But, if you haven’t already guessed, this is not the side of vegan cuisine that I think embodies good design thinking practices. Don’t get me wrong, folks, I am in awe of the people who are making entirely plant-based chicken nuggets. I think this serves a real audience, and brings a lot of value to people who need to change their diet for health reasons but can’t get past giving up meat/dairy/eggs.

As a lesson in design thinking, however, I want to look at the second movement in vegan cuisine. This side of veganism has abandoned the goal of replacing meat – often because they’re not interested in things that taste like meat or cheese to begin with,  and often because they’ve realized that trying to replace meat or cheese poorly just draws attention to what is missing. In realizing that the focus can be on plants, vegans have stumbled on to that magical moment in the design thinking process: when a constraint (you’re only allowed to make food out of plants) becomes an inspiration gold mine.

Instead of spending time and energy on the familiar (being used to meat and cheese and trying to replace them), these vegans celebrate and innovate plants themselves. Their recipes focus on the flavors and textures that can only come from plants. Check out Secret Squirrel (a mix of both camps, if I’m honest) and Jenny Mustard for a few examples. I personally can’t look at Jenny’s site or YouTube without craving what she’s cooking.

This is my favorite, by the way: Jenny’s recipe for creamy noodle twirls on a bed of garlic cabbage. It may sound weird but it is out of the world delicious.

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Photo from jennymustard.com

In much the same way that abandoning the familiar in a design project leads to new concepts, abandoning the pursuit of meat-like experiences has opened the door to recipes that are unique and innovative. The only time I have been genuinely surprised by a recipe, lately, it has come from this second camp of vegans – or from the “plant forward” chefs who have been inspired by vegan cuisine (or are vegan themselves).

A true signal of successful innovation is when it is borrowed back by mainstream groups. I think it’s very telling that chefs like Rene Redzepi and restaurants like Bad Hunter draw inspiration from vegan innovation, and lend inspiration back in return. They’ve realized that plant-based meals can hold their own and that – if done correctly, and in a way that doesn’t struggle to make up for missing meat – diners often won’t even notice a dish is vegan. This idea has been around, but it’s finally catching on in the mainstream of America.

An off-shoot of this way of approaching vegan cuisine? It’s more sustainable (in my book). Soy-based meat and cheese replacements have taken a lot of criticism. There are concerns about the demand for soybeans impacting farmers and habitats around the world. Other people have concerns about GMO soybeans. Focusing on celebrating plants that are regionally available is a more seasonal way to approach vegan cuisine, and can lessen the demand for high volumes of certain crops. By taking the focus off replacing meat, vegan food can also can pressure off these crops.

It took years – decades, really – for vegan cuisine to arrive at this point. With food science churning ever onward, producing new flavors, textures, and even lab-grown meat, this is definitely not the final phase of animal-free food innovation. And it’s a great example of how restrictions have led to truly creative outcomes, given the time to ripen. If you don’t believe me, just Google “aquafaba.”

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Bad Hunter photo by Anthony Tahlier

By the way, we had two dinners at Bad Hunter while we were in Chicago  over the 2016 holidays – one lunch and our New Year’s Eve dinner. You can check out my Instagram to see some photos. Both meals were astoundingly good; trying to express how much I enjoyed it would only lead me into the Land of Hyperbole. Suffice to say: go try Bad Hunter next time you’re in Chi-town.

A note: I am not a vegan. I eat about 80% “vegan food,” but I think that’s misleading. Most of us, if we examine our diets, eat a lot of vegetarian/vegan food. At various points in my life I have been vegan, vegetarian, and a lazy paleo person. I now eat a mostly-plant based diet that is in alignment with my own needs; I have some food allergies (apples and almonds, oddly enough), and dealing with those sorted out most of my health issues. This post isn’t about my personal diet, nor is it intended to be nutritional advice. 

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