Nataly Restrepo calls herself a “strategic food designer” and is pioneering new connections between food design and commerce. We talked to her about brand responsibility, active information-sharing and the future of food labelling.
Orlando Lovell: Tell us a bit about yourself and why and how you decided to work with food?
Nataly Restrepo: I don’t come from a family who really likes food. So I didn’t have this emotional connection that a lot of designers have because they have grown up in foodie families. I think that one of the things that caught my attention when I started to work with food projects was the complexity. There are a lot of things to think about, like cultural meaning, individual meaning and how people build their identities from choosing specific things that they want to eat.
I graduated in design in 2010. In Colombia at the time, no one now knew about food design and I was pretty much the only person talking about it. It was something that I really liked but there wasn’t a name for it. So I decided to go abroad to study something related as a way to legitimise it. I went to France for a master’s in New Eating Habits at the school of design in Nantes and that was it, that’s how I landed on defining myself as a food designer.
Sophie Lovell: Interesting, that must be one of the very early food design masters. How did you get from there to co-founding your food design agency Kraut Food Studio based in both Mexico and Spain?
NR: I came to Mexico, where I now live, for an internship at a food design agency called Foodlosofia that was maybe the only one here in Latin America. I worked there for five years but then felt it was time for a new challenge. Then I met Julia Varela on LinkedIn. When the pandemic started, we started talking. She was in a similar position to me, starting to think about creating something herself. So we thought — why don’t we create something together?
Julia is a nutritionist based in Spain, she has a lot of experience in marketing for food brands and consumer analysis. I was mostly focusing on innovation strategies, designing edible products and working with big companies as well as restaurants. We realised there are a lot of agencies that do trend reports, consumer insights and consumer analysis and innovation consultancies that focus on creating business strategies, but they don’t deploy their strategies into food objects and food products themselves. So we thought that it would be nice to join the research, strategy and product design parts together.
OL: You describe the beginning of your journey as that of a designer searching for a label, to be authentic. And now, you’ve moved a step further into consulting. Would you still call yourself a food designer in this role, or how has the role of the food designer shifted for you in the last 10 years?
NR: It has shifted a lot. And this is a discussion I’m always having with other food design colleagues. Now I call myself a strategic food designer, just to make the difference clear to food design in an experimental and artistic way. That’s very legitimate as well, but it’s not what I do. I do strategy design, specifically focused on the food industry.
SL: With your Kraut Food Studio you say you help companies “build positive and intelligent relationships between people and the food they eat every day.” What do you think is missing that people don’t have this relationship anymore from a market and brand perspective?
NR: I think what is missing is giving consumers different tools to be able to know what they are buying. They also need to become more intimate with the act of cooking. It is a very natural thing to do but people are very insulated from this relationship for different reasons. Maybe they don’t like to cook, don’t have time to cook or come from a family that doesn’t like to cook – like mine.
Do you know what you were buying at the supermarket or the farmers market? How do you transform these ingredients? And how can you become more creative, when you don’t know what to cook or when you have very few things in your fridge? I think this is all part of building a closer relationship to food because it can give you more mindful inputs to make certain decisions.
SL: How much of the responsibility for restoring this connection belongs to the government and legislation in your view? Or do you see it as a brand responsibility?
NR: A new government labelling legislation came into place last October  here in Mexico. It said that all packaged goods have to have frontal labelling about calorie content, fat, sugars and additives like sweeteners. They have been trying to pass this law for a couple of years because there is a huge obesity and child obesity problem in Mexico. At first, they tried a sugar tax, but it didn’t work, so now there is this legislation that forces brands to put big signs on the labels.
Before this legislation came into place, I was working with a beverage brand that wanted to know the impact of some of these labelling on their products. We interviewed moms who were buying some of the products for their kids with these alert symbols on them and they were saying things like: “I don’t really care if this beverage is high in calories because my kids are running around all day and I know they have to drink more calories”. Or, “okay, I know that they’re high in calories, but I don’t know why I should avoid them”.
I would say the responsibility is shared between consumers and some consumer opinion leaders and brands – because brands can give consumers aspirational education, whereas governments are very retrograde, very paternalistic, and very passive as well. Obviously, the government should make the law, because that’s how brands are going to start doing things otherwise, they wouldn’t do it. But I think brands could have a more creative approach towards the educational part.
SL: Do you see a shift in a sense of moral responsibility among the brands that you work with? Are more brands looking at how they can change their businesses and make healthier or environmentally better products? And do they want to change of their own accord or will they only do it if they’re forced to?
NR: They’re only doing it because they have to; because the policies are going to change or have changed. And, indirectly, they are forced to change things because consumers are changing. Some brands do want to change and some small brands, specifically some startups, are born within this spirit. The only thing that I would say is that we have to be careful with these things when we work as consultants. Do they really do the things they say they’re doing or is it just storytelling or a greenwashing campaign?
I’m currently evaluating some products and projects for the Goula Food Awards. Nearly all of the projects have something to do with social and environmental impact. For example, a Mexican-based whisky called Absalo, made from a local variety of local corn from local producers. It is changing this idea of a global product, which whisky is, and re-appropriating it with some local heritage, with feeling. It was very interesting because the brand had an enormous social impact on corn farmers here in Mexico.
I think it’s a nice way of establishing more horizontal business models. Another project, Chicza, produces chewing gum from trees in the Mayan forest in Mexico. Farmers there collect the gum from the trees and send it to a cooperative. The same families then manufacture the chewing gum, package it and everything. The profits are distributed in the same proportion to all members of the production chain. These are very participatory projects, where everybody can feel part of the project: not just a provider and a supplier but part of the business models and the brand promise as well.
OL: When you talk about these examples, the story is very important to the sale of the product and is something that needs to be shared with the consumer. If we think about going to the supermarket, it’s all about packaging. How do you think communication has to change so that consumers know more about these projects that have better practices?
NR: People are craving more information about everything that they’re consuming – not just food – so I think one of the biggest growth design fields that we’re going to see is the visualisation of data and information design. Maybe we have to start thinking about designing more active information, rather than passive information. We could design tools to interact with data and interact with information to help understand it in a very empathic and friendly way. I would say that packaging is an important vessel for information.
But on the other hand, if we are thinking about circular economies, maybe we’re going to experience a shift from products to services. And it could be that we soon won’t have packaging anymore. For example, I buy my cleaning products and sugar and coffee and all of those things in bulk, using reusable brandless packaging. This packaging is no longer something that I use to identify the brand or learn about the contents. So I would say in this respect that packaging is going to be a little bit less important as a vessel for communication.
SL: I was thinking the other day about the potential of augmented reality for food packaging in a storytelling capacity to help address the complexity issue and share better what people need to know about food. Also to improve transparency with big brands in particular. If you buy an apple, it’s not just about the shop you buy it from, it’s who grew it, what variety it is, which country it was grown in, how it was transported, and everything else, all those are stories that belong to this single product. I think it’s going to be very interesting when we have a more technologically augmented experience of shopping.
OL: You described starting out wanting to work in food because you enjoyed the complexity. And what you’re also describing is that we’re all moving towards more complexity and that we’re embracing it. I feel like sometimes information is totally overwhelming, and there’s so much of it. But I like your view that we are actually looking for more information, so it won’t be a challenge to get the consumer to further inform themselves, it’s just a question of how that information is designed.
NR: Yes, but I do think that information is overwhelming. So maybe we have to be very careful not to reach the point where people shut down because they are overloaded. Every decision I make has a lot of impacts. And sometimes I feel like I cannot do this anymore, I just want to buy some chips and lie in my bed without thinking about anything else.
I do think this part of just enjoying life and just enjoying food is also very important. We mustn’t take away the social and the joyful part of it. Food has to be fun. So I think the challenge for designers is to find the balance between a label full of things that I want to know and a label full of enjoyable things that can give me the pleasure of knowing things as well as the pleasure of eating things as well.
Nataly Restrepo is a food design strategist and co-founder of Kraut Food Studio. She has worked as a food designer in Colombia, France and Mexico for the restaurant industry, farmers and for global food brands including Heineken, Pepsico, Nestlé and Danone. In collaboration with Aprende UX, she created the food design education platform and is currently the director and creator of the Food Design & Innovation Master at CENTRO – Diseño, Cine y Televisión in Mexico City.