Solving Food Problems with Design Thinking

By Tory Brykalski - In preparation for a new graduate-level course to be offered in Fall 2016, the UC Davis Food Science and Technology Department has launched a new speaker series. Intended to start a campus-wide conversation about the potential for using design thinking to solve challenges related to food systems, sustainability, and health, the series will feature both industry and academic experts. On Wednesday, January 13, Lauren Shimek, Ph.D., UC Davis alumna and senior portfolio director at IDEO, kicked off the series with a discussion of "human-centered design thinking."

As California’s drought continues to affect the U.S. food industry, obesity levels continue to rise, and more than one million people starve in Syria, it is clear that the world faces many complex food challenges. Hunger, security, nutrition, obesity, waste, and resource management—these, Dr. Shimek said, represent just some of the many problems with which today’s food scientists, innovators, and consumers must contend.

For Dr. Shimek, design thinking—and the creativity it engenders—offers new and fresh ways to think about—and maybe even solve—these problems.

Essential empathy

Human-centered design thinking, she said, helps designers to identify what people need and desire. From there, they can determine the viability needs of a given business, before moving on to the feasibility of a given project. Whether you are a large company striving for contemporary relevance, or a start-up tinkering with new kinds of food (and the technologies required to grown them), empathizing with the consumer is essential. 

Design thinking represents a form of collaborative problem solving. For IDEO, it involves collecting groups of people with different backgrounds (anthropology, business, psychology, food science, engineering, etc.) and encouraging them to brainstorm solutions to a given set of problems or challenges. Essential to the process, Dr. Shimek emphasized, is the group’s diversity, as well as the willingness of each member to collaborate with, and learn from, others—consumers included.

Ultimately, complex problems like those posed by food can only be solved with bold, creative thinking.

“There’s sort of a myth that creativity is only for kids, or that it’s only for people in certain industries,” she said. “Design thinking is about unlocking your creative confidence.”

For more information on how design thinking works, explore the IDEO projects linked below. The next talk will take place on January 27, from 4.00-5.00 p.m. in 1207 RMI South. Eric Lopez, a senior design lead at IDEO, will give more details about how the company conducts ethnographic research prior to designing a prototype - what the innovators at IDEO call the “insight and inspiration” phase.

The graduate-level course beginning in Fall 2016 is FST 298: Design Thinking for Food. For more information about this course and the speaker series, please contact Associate Professor of American Studies and Food Science and Technology Charlotte Biltekoff at

IDEO Case Studies








  • Bitty Foods - How can we introduce new and essential ingredients (like crickets) to skeptical consumers in a way that makes sense?

Source: Bitty Foods (@bittyfoods) on Twitter.