Food Clarity Framework

Creating a Universal Visual Language for Food

Could a shared, visual and global language for commercial, industrial, and consumer food terms lead to better collaboration and understanding throughout food systems?

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There are many people doing incredible work globally to improve various food systems but too much of it is siloed within specialized frameworks, vocabularies, and languages, This work is disconnected from others and, therefore, not supportive of wider, systemic solutions. A group of food experts and designers have been devising a visual language to unite various food system stakeholders across the world in order to improve this communication and collaboration. The first phase of this process is complete, outlining how to complete a vastly larger system that transcends languages. In order to complete this system, the Foodicons Challenge will a crowdsourced competition to collaboratively design a large system of open-source icons of key food terms and concepts and frameworks that can be used globally by professionals and consumers, alike.

When we started this project, our hunch was that various popular food frameworks were not so different, despite their vocabularies. At their heart, most food frameworks and initiatives work with the same elements and have compatible goals. In addition, work around the world in every community relies on clear communication that often needs to transcend language. The global food supply cycle touches so many regions, people, and stakeholders, that any one language isn’t enough to communicate throughout. We don’t expect a visual language system to solve every communication challenge but we expect that it can ease communication and comprehension and help people understand how disparate efforts and approaches support similar goals and outcomes.

The goals of this project include:

  • Enhancing trust and transparency throughout food systems
  • Enabling communication and collaboration across food stakeholders
  • Illuminating similarities in various food frameworks
  • Enabling new solutions in labeling, food maps, games, discussions, tools, and challenges

While the first audiences for this system are those in the industrial and commercial parts of food systems, we do expect these icons to be used by many other groups—right down to eaters and other food consumers. From farmers, marine farmers, and those throughout the agriculture and aquaculture industries, to food businesses, restaurants, certifiers, and consumers, consistent communication is an obvious ideal. Constructing a viable system, however, is not without its challenges.

First, our food systems are vast and spread all over the planet. Supple cycles are long, encompassing all kinds of growing, raising, processing, transportation, packaging, and markets. In addition, some stakeholders use different terms to differentiate their offerings, whether this confuses users or makes things more clear—or both, simultaneously. It’s no surprise that terms are misunderstood at all levels.

However, our initial investigations and prototypes have proven to us that visual languages can help, even if not exhaustively. The discussions that these symbols provoke, alone, have been valuable in illuminating expertise from different people and sectors.

Our next step is to use the learnings from our prototype and launch the first round of the challenge to designers worldwide. It will likely take two, three, or more rounds of challenges to fill-out the iconographic system to meet the needs of so many stakeholders but the process for each challenge can be the same.

What would improve food supply cycles?

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We’re seeing major challenges in the design of global food systems. The concept of optimization through specialization will be reconsidered in the future. We now question our dependence upon global sourcing as pandemics shut down entire regions and international trade in favor of feeding local populations. Increased automation in the industrial food system could improve worker safety, public health, and access. The ideal is a fully resilient and redundant food sourcing system that can rapidly respond to changes and threats to the food system.

Currently, specialized food systems, such as the plant-based supply chain or the meat protein supply chain, do not have a language for communicating with each other. Those designing a new, integrated and resilient food system, need a neutral, yet precise tool for conveying the activities within their own separate supply chains.

New communication tools can bridge different supply chains for the purpose of creating more resilience, adaptability, and traceability in a world of rapid change. Consumers need to know how to make their own food choices while having a complete understanding of the practices and impacts of the food they are consuming.

Why do we need a unified language when talking about food?

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I regularly have conversations with people from so many different perspectives (academic, corporate, government, lobbyists, etc.) and I’ve learned that before we try to fix something, so complex, we all need to talk about it in similar ways. The biggest distance in understanding is between players of different sizes: a coffee grower in Costa Rica and a multinational like Starbucks, for example. Their fates are intertwined but there is a complete imbalance in the relationship. Both need to exist and both need to speak with a common understanding of the larger context they work within.

Language is a marketing tool and lots of ingredients have completely different naming paths. Shared definitions and visual language are opportunities for governments to reset the ground rules to communicate more effectively. Because of such large investments in capital needed for new solutions and because Asia has such large populations—and less affluent ones—they are taking the lead.

People have forgotten where their food comes from and this isn’t just inner-city children that may have never been to a farm. Consumers need to own-up to the fact that they play a big part in what is being served and their focused actions can help create a more healthy supply chain, etc. At the same time, we’ve lost a degree of respect for farmers and those that work the land. I didn’t have much understanding of farmers, myself, until I set-up a natural snack company many years ago. The current food system has put them into a situation where they have to compete with factory farms or move increasingly into small niches. Most people aren’t willing to pay premiums for better, healthier food but they will pay much higher prices for specialty items, like fine chocolate, or when they understand the differences in origin, quality, health, flavor, etc. So, anything that helps them  to better understand the food systems, will help them make better choices as well as support better food outcomes throughout the supply chain.