Can you taste design?

Eating is a multi-sensory experience, and the design surrounding food – from restaurant interiors to menu typefaces – can have a tangible impact on that. But with gentrification tearing out eateries with an ounce of individuality, is this distinctive visual experience now being forfeited?


For many, eating out is one of life’s greatest pleasures, but it’s never just about the food, is it? A few weeks ago my flatmate posed a question when we were sitting around our table having dinner. “You’re out for a meal. You’ve got food, service and ambiance, one has to completely flop – what are you picking?,” she asked. Obviously not food, right? But imagine eating the best food you’ve ever tasted, but you’re sitting in a sterile white box and the food was practically thrown on your lap. It doesn’t sound too tempting.

While we may not have come to a unanimous conclusion (do these things ever?), the question did raise some interesting points, mainly that ambiance matters – a lot. Many of our memories of great meals were intertwined with how the setting looked and made us feel. The sign that welcomes you in, the menu you hold in your hands, the decorations on the walls, even the website you’ve likely trawled (the day before) to decide what you want; arguably, they all add to – and enhance – the way you taste the food.

Though, right now, it seems we’re at risk of losing this multi-sensory experience. For years, the gentrification and commercialisation of UK cities has been pushing out independent, grassroots eating spaces with unique visual legacies, only to be replaced with cookie-cutter chains that visually rely on the ease of brand recognition as opposed to providing a well-rounded and distinct dining experience. This has only been exacerbated by food design trends that put homogeneity, minimalism, and ‘refined’ design above all else. It begs the question, could these changes not just be ruining our high streets, but the very way we taste and enjoy food?


LOVEISENOUGH: MáLà Project (Copyright © William Jess Laird, 2023)

Since 2013, the designer, researcher and author of Why Fonts Matter Sarah Hyndman has been conducting experiments into how our eyes and other senses “sway our perception”. In particular, Sarah focuses on how typography influences and impacts our senses – she even coined a term for it: typosensory.

Sarah’s typosensory research is mainly compiled through mass participation experiences which she takes to conventions and talks across the UK, and sometimes conducts online. Past experiments have involved testing how the taste of a jelly bean changes when paired with a different font, or asking audience members to vote on what type of coffee they’d be ordering if they were just going off the font being used to present the word ‘coffee’ – the same with wine.

Over the years, Sarah’s developed a few general findings that often ring true when accounting for our limbic responses – “your completely intuitive responses to letter shapes”, she explains. In this instance, very rounded typefaces like your Vag Rounded will evoke feelings of creaminess, and sweetness – in her coffee experiment the most common answer to the rounded, curving type is a frappuccino – while spiky, pointed type like Albertus is commonly associated with strong, aversive flavours, like sourness. In the same coffee experiment the most jagged type is always chosen for americano, or espresso.

“Rounded typefaces will evoke feelings of creaminess, and sweetness…while jagged, spiky type is associated with strong, aversive flavours, like sourness.”

Sarah Hyndman

Though what begins to make things really interesting for Sarah, is when context kicks in, “when you get the social meanings, the next layer which you’ve been learning your whole life”; a few months ago, this tweet highlighted how even just a preliminary glance at the Papyrus-filled menu screams “country pub”. At this trajectory in Sarah’s experiments, it’s clear that in general rounded typefaces are often associated with cheapness, and lacking in depth of flavour, whereas more pointed typefaces are associated with depth of flavour, a more refined palette. It’s interesting to deliberate on why the latter has come to represent higher end, more expensive restaurants – have they been playing on a combination of our limbic and contextual associations; welcoming in those ‘in the know’ with enough cash to splash, and warding off those without?

Playing on associations of the audience is irrefutably a part of the consumer design process, but another facet of Sarah’s work is helping us to understand these associations, and how doing so might help us hold onto our autonomy. In these instances, one typographic choice that Sarah often sees used to promote the idea of “organic” or “craft” is distressed textures – think dark chocolate and small-brew beer. So much so that a few years ago, Sarah recalls a friend of hers saying how much better McDonald's organic burger tasted than the original. In reality, there had been no changes to the recipe whatsoever. What had duped Sarah’s friend was the distressed M logo on the packaging, which was in fact rolled out to represent that the chain was using recycled packaging. Now, here’s a clear instance of those contextual associations kicking in. “I was really intrigued,” Sarah says. “It signalled that if you assume something is organic, it’s going to taste better – your confirmation bias kicks in and you look for proof.”

After years of research, if Sarah were to give any piece of advice to a designer creating the visual identity for a restaurant, it would be to actually try the food on offer. “I’d first go and sit there and eat the food, sit in the space, soak up the atmosphere, see how people are responding to it,” she says. “Don’t try and foist this idea of what good taste is. What is authentic to that place?”

So, what happens when a designer puts these theories into practice at a restaurant level, channelling taste through design? For a Bavarian “neo-tavern”, Yan-Can gave traditional carbacious German foods a twist by rendering them in abstract 3D shapes; while the dusty beige colours and rounded type of the Korean-Chinese restaurant Pei Plus references the “floury folds” of a dumpling.

Last year, the designer Jingqi Fan crafted the identity for the New York-based Chinese eatery MáLà Project. Full of stickers, glitter, mascots and bursting with colour, it’s a bona fide palette cleanser, especially among renewed tendencies toward minimalism. But what makes it so interesting is how much attention Jingqi has paid to emulating the key flavours of the eatery’s trademark dish – Sichuan dry pot. “Design isn’t just about what you see – it’s about what you feel, taste, and experience,” says Jingqi. “The onus is on the designer to extract the most representative aspect of a particular taste and translate it into something tangible, because it will then set the stage for how we experience taste.”


Jingqi Fan: MáLà Project (Copyright © Jingqi Fan, 2023)

“Design isn’t just about what you see – it’s about what you feel, taste, and experience”

Jingqi Fan

Jingqi Fan: MáLà Project (Copyright © Jingqi Fan, 2023)


Jingqi Fan: MáLà Project (Copyright © Jingqi Fan, 2023)


Jingqi Fan: MáLà Project (Copyright © Jingqi Fan, 2023)

Colour was one of the main means by which Jingqi recreated the flavour combinations of dry pot – spicy, mouth tingling and numbing. “It requires stamina when you’re enjoying the dish, so I knew the palette had to be bold.” Jingqi opted for chilli red – the colour of “chilli peppers and fire” – but also a central colour to Chinese culture, often being used to reference luck and joy.

These colours also populate Alexis Jamet’s logo animation for the restaurant. Red calligraphy glides atop an expanse of greenery and soft pink clouds, before the screen is submerged in enlarging floating grains. These could easily be seen as evoking the grain of old film, though Jingqi sees them as mimicking the mouth-tingling sensation, “as it travels around your tongue, humming and pulsing”. Elements of the design even reflect the dish’s preparation. Jingqi commissioned the calligrapher Guo Ming to create calligraphy that leaned toward grass script for the identity, a cursive lettering that is characterised by its “hasty yet controlled style [...] echoing the speed and energy of a chef wok-frying the dry pot on open fire”.

When you step inside a restaurant you should “feel like you're entering another world”, Jingqi says. “I think culture really lies in thought and not in form, the form it takes is merely a vehicle. So if you express culture through a universal language like food, people get to learn something new without even leaving their seat. Think about it like taking a mini-vacation with every meal.” This relates to another facet of Sarah’s research, what she calls “perceptual diversity”, the understanding that everyone’s sensory “map” is different, informed specifically by where they grew up and the visual references that surrounded them. Sarah grew up reading and later researching the Latin alphabet, therefore other scripts will likely have entirely different results elsewhere. And so, when we think of opening our mouths to experiencing new foods, we should be doing the same with our eyes, rather than expecting spaces to sit within a box that Westernised design trends have deemed palatable.

One physical element that ties all of Jingqi’s elements together is the menu; adorned with Lauren Doherty’s illustrated lion mascot, bilingual type and a soft-cover finish, it’s a beautiful cherry on top – one that should be cherished. During the Covid pandemic, while the move toward QR codes was made in the name of safety, there were worries that the physical menu may never make its return, another tactile relic of daily life lost to the swathes of digitalisation. But as quickly as QR code menus hit the scene it seemed they disappeared, to be re-replaced by their dog-eared forbearers; the readiness at which they’ve reappeared showing just how important – and loved – these visual dining elements really are.


Jingqi Fan: MáLà Project (Copyright © Alexis Jamet and Jingqi Fan, 2023)

If you’re on Instagram and you like your food, there’s a good chance you’ve come across the account Caffs not Cafes. Run by the freelance copywriter and restaurant writer Isaac Rangaswami, it shines a light on vernacular food spots across London – the sort of places that you likely won’t see celebrated in mainstream food journalism. At first Isaac created the page to spotlight (you guessed it) caffs; for the uninitiated, think £5 fry-ups, thick-breaded ham sandwiches and vinegary chips. Then, later, he broadened his remit outside of caffs to include other spots with some “commonalities” or a “similar spirit”, perhaps an Indian-cuisine canteen one week, and a family-run Chinese restaurant the next.

What feels so special about Isaac’s in-caption reviews is how much attention they pay to the atmosphere, the smells, sensations, and the physical space of the eateries: their old signage, hand-painted menus, to the more specific features, like a Coca-Cola lampshade, for example. Woven together with drool-inducing descriptions of food, his words prove that the visual aspects of an eatery aren’t just a byproduct, far from it – they’re an integral part of the eating experience.

“There are much fewer choices for inexpensive places to eat that aren’t chains. And even the chains aren’t particularly cheap, are they?”

Isaac Rangaswami

One thing Issac is keen to impress is that he doesn’t believe himself to be ‘discovering’ these places – he’s not really a fan of the term “hidden gem”. Many of these eateries have a long-standing legacy in their local area, with clientele that have been walking through their doors for years. Isaac’s trying to bring such spots (which often don’t have the best social media presence) to a new audience, doing his bit to ensure their legacy lives on against the tides of gentrification. Using tips and tricks from his years in copywriting, Isaac summarises the incentive behind the page as a bit of “free marketing”.

So, what London spots really stand out for Isaac in terms of their design? For starters, there is the all-you-can-eat buffet in Angel, Indian Veg. “A living sales pitch”, in Isaac’s words, it’s covered wall to wall in what can be assumed are homemade posters promoting the nutrition and leading purveyors of vegetarianism. Or there’s the Thai restaurant Marie’s Cafe Waterloo, which wins the commendation of sporting Isaac’s favourite sign. Crafted by “the hand of an individual”, it’s a vinyl beauty with a cut-out graphic sandwich and coffee, complete with wisps of steam. “It’s so clearly of a certain age, as so many signs are digitised now,” Isaac says. The sign has survived two ownerships, becoming an icon in itself. Dating back to the 1980s, Isaac explains that it was previously promoting an Italian Caff, but when the property was bought (soon to become the Thai restaurant it is today) the owners agreed to keep the sign in place due to its sentimental value – Marie is the name of the previous owner’s grandmother. “My primary interest has always been history,” Isaac adds, “and these places bring it to life in a very personal way.”

But when it comes to actually tasting design, there’s one final spot that stands out for Isaac: Scotti’s Snack Bar in Clerkenwell. “What I love about its sign is its really elegant, crisp and cursive lettering,” says Isaac. “It’s this very refined, very neat exterior, very photogenic – it just looks perfect when the sun’s on it.” This refinement, and attention to detail Isaac sees as being directly reflected in the food on offer: “The food is very simple, but the way they treat it is a lot more sophisticated; it’s restaurant quality really.” Chicken escalopes are served with a slice of lemon, and bacon is cut to into neat pieces and then layered carefully to fit the shape of rolls. For Isaac, “that simplicity and honesty is reflected in the overall design”. This observation marries with Jingqi’s desire to capture the fact-paced nature of the dry pot cooking in the calligraphy she chose – what you get on the tin really mirrors what lies within.

Since starting Caffs not Cafe’s Isaac’s developed nostalgia for a time he never experienced, nursing the ever-increasing feeling that he missed a “golden age” in London. Moving to the capital ten years ago, many of the iconic spots that Isaac’s read about have now shut up shop. “I get this impression that central London in particular has become a lot less interesting,” says Isaac. “There are much fewer choices for inexpensive places to eat that aren’t chains. And even the chains aren’t particularly cheap, are they?”

“If you’re interested in these places, dedicate your spare time to actually going into them and spending your money in them.”

Isaac Rangaswami

Now, to truly find “distinctive” eating spots you’ve more often than not got to travel to the outskirts of London. But Isaac doesn’t see it just as a necessity, but a “responsibility” too. This sentiment he says he owes to Jonathan Nunn, food writer and founder of food and culture platform Vittles, who edited the recently republished London Feeds Itself, a stunning selection of 26 essays that digs into London’s food scene through the lens of individuals who actually call it home – a valuable read for delving into the capital’s grassroots culinary culture.

Isaac reiterates a point he’s made many times before: “if you’re interested in these places, dedicate your spare time to actually going into them and spending your money in them”. He makes a good point. It’s easy enough to complain that there are no local restaurants or places to eat for under a tenner left, but if we’re really going to keep these spots alive the simplest way of doing so is actually going and enjoying them – putting your money where it matters.

So whether you believe design can actually be tasted – or not – it’s hard to refute that the visual aspects attached to our culture of dining are irrevocably tied to the way we experience and enjoy food. Greater attention to the nuances and connections between our senses will not only help to create the interesting eateries of the future, but help to maintain those that already exist.

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature and History, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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