by Mona Bavar
"Design is not just problem solving. It is creating and facilitating an interaction to enhance certain aspects of life."
~ Neeraja Dhorde
From a small farming village in India to an industrial city in England, Neeraja Dhorde finds inspiration for her work in the cultures she experiences and the people she interacts with. As a designer Dhorde focuses on projects that contribute to the betterment of society by creatively bringing to light the challenges facing our food systems as well as our environment.
DLISH speaks with Dhorde about Eatable Editions, a series of virtual dinner sessions, our unsustainable food system, as well as new projects she is working on with rural farmers in India and luxury hotels.
Mona Bavar: Can you tell us a little about yourself?
Neeraja Dhorde: I started the journey of food and design from a small village in India - Dongaon. Coming from a family of farmers, the food industry wasn’t a strange domain for me. I grew up with my father discussing food grain varieties and food systems, which, at that time, were everyday topics for me. I spent my formative years with my parents and then went on to study Design & Advertising in Mumbai. There, I started experimenting with illustration, typography and animation, which are in fact, still the pillars of my design practice. When I moved to London to study Graphic Design Communication, my practice shifted into the domain of design thinking and research.
It was a huge creative shift which led me to explore both visual design and design research. The geographies that I have been shifting to influenced me to push the boundaries of design and experiment with visual design, research as well as the food design. After completing my MA, along with working as a communication designer for a brand, I have been working to build a conversational platform for food designers and food anthropologists across the globe.
Food Objectile Morphism - Speculating Micro Worlds by Neeraja Dhorde
MB: Where do you find inspiration for your ideas? What is your process?
ND: It is majorly the places I visit and people I connect with, that inspire my ideas. I have always been influenced by the geographies, their cultures and the people. Every time I start a new project involving food or design, or both, I love to map out the cultural and geographical aspects related to it. I believe that it is extremely important to absorb and understand the grassroots of the subject in order to move on to design. The design process keeps on evolving with time as I learn and come across new methods and ideas. Although, one common aspect that stays is the research part. It is always 60% research and 40% design for me. This approach has helped me to get insights about the subject and successfully interpret it in the visual form. The pathway towards designing a strong framework, I believe, is research.
MB: Can you tell us a little about Eatable Editions?
ND: This is an interesting story. While I was pursuing my masters in London, the pandemic came in, and I travelled back to Dongaon, my native village in India. I was working on ‘Shifting FoodCultures’, my thesis project at the time. While in the village, I started to interact with the local food producing community and created a framework for future food producing systems of the place as a part of my project. While doing that, I was communicating with a number of stakeholders in the food system. Originally, I was supposed to work physically with focus groups which included different contributors. But thanks to the pandemic, it got cancelled and I organised online sessions.
I decided to get creative with these focus groups and called it a virtual dinner party. A small scale campaign was designed and open calls were sent out. We had participants from the US, UK, Japan, India, Netherlands, Denmark, China and France. After a few successful sessions, I realised that people across the globe were willing to connect with one another over food, that too virtually. The worldwide lockdown had encouraged people to socialise online and that is how Eatable Editions was born.
We organise virtual dinner sessions for food enthusiasts, chefs, anthropologists, food designers and food researchers. The rule is simple, join in with a plate of food either native to your culture, or close to your heart. These sessions enable people across the globe to connect over food, and exchange information. We are now working towards expanding the platform to facilitate easy access of the information for people who are interested in indulging in food and design research.
MB: As a designer, what is your objective? What do you want to communicate?
ND: Since I started my design practice, I have been trying to focus on learning and implementing sustainable methods in the food systems. I strongly believe in long lasting designs and sustainable frameworks. Fast fashion, yearly design trends and temporary design solutions scare me. As a designer, my objective is to communicate these ideas of sustainability and timelessness. We are on the edge of getting into an irreversible chain reaction on the planet caused by our own actions. It is of utmost importance that we educate ourselves about what is happening and act on it.
I aim to share my methodologies, study and research about designing sustainable systems with the world. Design for me, is not just problem solving. It is creating and facilitating an interaction to enhance certain aspects of life.
Eatable Editions by Neeraja Dhorde
MB: How can designers, like yourself, help to overcome some of the challenges facing our world today: environment, economy, pandemic?
ND: The role of a designer, according to me, is to create. There are a number of design disciplines to facilitate different aspects of human life. Designers have a potential to design systems and contribute on different levels, influence the decision makers to bring in better changes and educate the world. Different types of designers can collaborate to bring in positive changes in the society today. Through each of my projects, I strive to play my part to contribute to the betterment of the society by giving voices to micro communities, spreading awareness about climate change and decline in biodiversity, and educating people about food systems. We collaborate with chefs, farmers, product designers, environment designers, experience designers and many more stakeholders for creating design based experiences for people. Every designer, whether a junior or a senior, has the potential to contribute and create better systems.
MB: How do you think the ongoing impact of COVID is changing the global food system?
ND: Ever since the pandemic started hitting the nations, a number of systems were misplaced and others had to be taken down. The stakeholders at different levels of the complex food system started experiencing the magnitude all over the world. Let’s imagine the global food system as the tower of Jenga and different blocks as the stakeholders. Remove one block in a wrong way and the entire tower slides down. That is what usually happens in the food systems. While the primary stakeholders - farmers were already facing the adverse impact of climate change and economic slowdown, the pandemic added fuel to the fire. Due to the closure of hospitality industries and other sectors, the usual supply and demand of food produce was disturbed, leaving them suffering again.
This is just one small example of the impact of COVID on the hugely complex and elaborated global food systems. There are many more, which are initiating the chain reaction of changes throughout the globe. As people are adapting to the new ways of living life, new needs are being born out of the pandemic, and to satisfy those needs, new products are coming up in the markets. This new need gives rise to competition, which further escalates to new inventions and upgrades. This endless cycle of consumption, however, makes a huge impact on the planet. The pandemic not only changed our lives, it has left a long lasting impression on the food systems across the globe on different scales.
MB: Do you feel that the food industry is sustainable enough? If not, what more needs to be done?
ND: Definitely not. We have a long way to go to be able to say that the food industry is sustainable to a certain extent. When I visit a supermarket, there is a sea of hundreds of brands who sell just one commodity. The materials used for packaging, methods of manufacturing and processing, transporting and supplying the food materials are shockingly unsustainable. Since the entire food system is so complex, it is next to impossible for just one stakeholder to bring in a positive change. It needs the support of the majority of stakeholders. For example, if the lawmakers bring in strict rules about these manufacturing and supplying processes, there will be a limit on energy consumption, non-degradable packaging materials, toxic chemicals, etc.
Another important factor here is the amount of consumption by the consumers, i.e. all of us! It plays a major role in shaping up the food markets. If we only buy the food materials and ingredients which are necessary, a lot of carbon footprint can be reduced. Again, the action is not to be taken by one particular group of stakeholder in the food systems. It needs collective efforts which can be achieved by education, law and action.
Shifting Food Cultures by Neeraja Dhorde
MB: What are some new projects that you are working on?
ND: I am currently working with a few farmers from India to restructure their selling systems and create a sustainable service to sell their produce. We are working together on the fields to study and evaluate the food produce quality, amount of GMO varieties of food produced in the market and the food supply chain in the region. Our aim is to position their organic produce in the market with an equal value as the branded and processed produce imported from other regions. This project is all about the intersection of design with the food systems. I am working on all the peripheries of design to form this sustainable and local food system.
Another project in the pipeline is about creating a sustainable food supply system for luxury restaurants. We are designing an ecosystem of a supply chain from the farms to the table of these 5 star hotels by empowering the local communities of food producers. This chain cuts off the in-between dealers and agents to facilitate a healthy food supply to these places.
I am trying to explore a number of nooks and corners of the food system and look at it with a designer’s perspective.
MB: Any last words for our readers?
ND: I have been learning and researching about different stakeholders in the food systems and each of them has their own story to tell. All of us are in one way or the other contributing to this global food chain, either as producers, suppliers, manufacturers, agents, consumers, etc. It is extremely important for us to be aware and understand our own responsibility towards the planet while playing our part. I believe that if each and every individual effort matters, and if all of us act responsibly, we might still be able to retain the richness of our planet.
We at Eatable Editions are trying our best to introduce and reform the systems within food industries. It is an effort on a micro scale but we believe that it certainly makes a difference somewhere.
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