The Temporary Expert

Part 1 - Energy Field Guide

After reading through Steve Easterbook's Systems analysis of GMO protests in the UK, I decided to approach the system mapping of Caloric Energy from multiple perspectives, understanding the different points of view and boundaries that could be applied to this topic.

Caloric Energy - Systems

Caloric energy can be described in several different ways and, expanding on those descriptions and their perspective, several systems can be mapped:

1. A system of units, measurements and conversion of energy

Scientists across fields established defined units of measurement that quantify and describe anything from time, distance, scale and magnitude. Energy, for example, is measured in Joules and various kinds of energy and energetic substances can be compared and standardized. Caloric energy, in this context, is defined as the amount of energy needed to heat up water by one degree celsius.

The international system of units does not, however, exist in isolation. It is subject to the progress and politics of science, such as the standardization of the metric and imperial measurement systems that are mutually exclusive and incompatible. The process of measurement itself is also dependent on factors such as scientific progress and environmental conditions, the process of measuring calories involves heating water, which requires different amounts of energy depending on local climate and barometric pressure.

2. A system of food, nutrition, nutritional values and physiological energy

Different foods, depending on their nutritional content, contribute differently to a balanced diet, sustaining the human body in both energy and micro and macronutrients. The way in which a certain food's nutritional quality is measured is usually via it's nutritional density, the ratio of caloric energy to nutritional value, calories that come from foods with low nutritional value are considered empty calories.

The calorie intake of an average human varies by country and is used as a benchmark for the average amount of food we must eat daily. Commercially sold foods must be labeled for their caloric value as well as nutritional value. Only some nutrients are detailed in the label and these depend on the governing health and nutrition policy of the local government.

3. A system of marketing, food industry, capitalism, labor and food politics

The food industry, and health foods as well as fast or junk food in particular, are focused on marketing nutritional value, and the impression of such, in their food products. Terms such as "low calorie", "diet" and "zero calorie" are frequently used to persuade consumers of health benefits or positive nutritional balance in these products. Such terms are now regulated in many countries around the world, defining strict standards for what constitutes a "low calorie" food.

Caloric value also plays a role in the actual ingredients of such foods, as economies of scale made it so that "empty calories" or calories from fats and simple carbs are cheaper. The fact that not all calories are equally priced are at the core of a health and obesity epidemic that impacts low income households the most, as they are often unable to afford high nutritional value food and opt for "junk food" that has more marketing value than nutritional one.

Caloric energy is an interesting subject for systems analysis, as different perspectives and system boundaries relate to science, health, politics, business and marketing. The systems described above are only three top-level and distinct ones, though many crossing systems can probably be identified as well.

A Taxonomy of The Science and Business of Food

In creating a taxonomy of The Science and Business of food (measurement), I decided to set a particular system boundary and perspective that will allow me to focus my guide and direct further research. I want to shine a light at how misleading marketing, use of nutritional terminology and buzzwords, fuzzy food science and an overwhelming range of food quality indices work in favor of large food corporations and against the individual trying to maintain a balanced and healthy diet.

In exploring this topic and forming a taxonomy it became ever clearer that the number of nutritional variables that are “scientifically established” are far more than can be expected of a casual shopper to memorize and consider. At the same time, I was surprised to discover how many terms have become regulated by the FDA due to abuse, misinformation and blatant disregard for consumer health by food manufacturers, these includes “low fat”, “zero sugar”, “low calories” and even “artisanal” for crying out loud!

The Science and Business of Food - A Visual System

An initial taxonomy of Food Measurement Science and Business

An initial taxonomy of Food Measurement Science and Business

Food Deserts, a Visual Study

In order to design a field guide for survival in “food swamps” and “food deserts”, I had to expand and focus my taxonomy of “Food Quality & Measurement” and incorporate aspects of the food business to build a more complete picture of the reality of food deserts. I’ve also begun to study visual references to food deserts, and how how they leverage visual analogies, metaphors and metonymies to illustrate and draw attention to many parts of the problem, from mapping food deserts as an epidemic, using cartoons to link food deserts to junk food conglomerates and provide visual aids to help navigate the knowledge area.

Maps are a very powerful way of illustrating to extent of a particular problem or the reach of an issue. When looking for maps of food deserts in the United States, I found that most adopted a light-to-dark brown sand-colored color scheme, reminiscent of desert colors. It was surprising to see how consistent this color scheme was between different publications and online references and made it clear that color is useful as a strong visual reference.

Many caricatures juxtaposed known images of junk food and desert scenes to drive the point that food deserts can be deceptively full of (unhealthy) food options, and that these can be seen as a mirage to mask the issue and fool those who cannot afford or an uneducated on healthy food and balanced nutrition.

What I loved about these illustrations is that they reclaimed branding and iconography, so dear to the hearts of corporate marketeers, to pose a poignant comparison between fast food chains, junk food and food deserts. In these illustrations, M doesn’t stand for “I’m loving it”, it stands for “You’re feeding me trash”.

Infographics are also heavily used to illustrate the extent of the nutritional crisis in the United States, and provide extended information and breakdowns in a digestible (no pun intended) visual format. While more abstract in reference, these infographics still draw direct comparisons between certain foods and brands (McDonald’s burger is starring here too) and the general issue, using it as an icon for food deserts as a whole.

Finally, I looked from imagery that is familiar to me from Bushwick, Brooklyn and other parts of the city. These images are in themselves a juxtaposition, depicting food stores and convenience stores but showing only low nutrient-density, processed food options. This is one of the trickiest problems in battling food deserts as food seems plentiful and easily available, yet it is not really nutritious - a mirage.

Survival Guides, a visual study

The second part of my visual prep study was into harsh environment survival guides, as I decided to position my guide as a “Food Desert & Swamp Survival Guide”. In particular, I was looking for examples for visual styles, focus areas in survival (navigation, classification, tool making, etc.) and the overall tone of the guide (directional, encouraging, dry, humouristic, etc.).

My first stop in the search was WikiHow’s desert survival guide, which provided a very comprehensive guide to identifying desert objects and fauna, how to pack, how to extract water and navigate challenging terrain. Funnily enough, the packing guide perfectly illustrates the issue at the core of food deserts.

The guide uses many visual techniques to illustrate instructions, from lists of objects, to embedded infographics, zoomed in step-by-steps and follow-the-arrow demonstrations. These are all great inspiration for the guide.

Next I looked for references for the visual style, and found old SAS, Navy and Air Ministry desert survival guides, they all seemed quite dated and ranged from a more lax to a stern and pragmatic tone. I also liked their vintage dated look.

What I learned from looking at these guides is that they are designed for on-site practical use that focuses on both immediate problem solving and long-term planning and preparation information. For example, knowing how to plan ahead for travel in different times of the say as well as how to extract water from plants at time of need.

This applies to my plan for the Food Desert Survival Guide as I want it to serve as a practical how-to at time of need (while shopping for instance) but also provide guidance towards transforming the community and building a more sustainable nutritional environment.

Building a visual style

Now it’s time to start crafting the visual style of my own guide. As I mentioned, I quite like the visual metaphor of a real desert used in infographics and caricatures, as well as the subversion of marketing and branding as warning signs - using the same icons and logos not to draw customers but to warn them. I thought about a few examples of where this visual juxtaposition and combination would be the most poignant.

I started with the field guide’s cover, and tried to pack in the visual references, style and tone that I wanted to follow in the rest of the guide. Here’s a very rough draft that uses illustrated desert scenery and combines it with the fonts and color schemes of American fast food chains:

First draft of the field guide’s cover

First draft of the field guide’s cover

Drafting the guide’s outline

I sketched out a few key pages the guide will feature, with a focus on style and iconography and particular skills I think are important, such as understanding nutritional facts, posing food deserts as an epidemic in terms of mapping and visualization, introduction to long-term skills such as community gardening.