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Antoine Lefeuvre on The Web, Worldwide

The Culinary Model of Web Design

A note from the editors: We’re thrilled to welcome user experience advocate Antoine Lefeuvre as our newest columnist. Fluent in several languages, he’s been exploring the globe to feed his passion for internationalization, localization, and helping make the web truly worldwide.

We call ourselves information architects, web designers or content strategists, among other job titles in the industry, including the occasional PHP ninja or SEO rockstar. The web does owe a lot to fields like architecture, industrial design, or marketing. I still haven’t met an interaction cook or maitre d’optimization, though. No web makers turn to chefs for inspiration, one might say.

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Well, some do. Let me take you, s’il vous plaît, to Lyon, France, where people think sliced bread is the greatest thing since the internet.

Just a hundred miles from the web’s birthplace at CERN in Geneva lies Lyon, France’s second biggest city. It’s no internet mecca, but that doesn’t mean there are no lessons to be learned from how people make the web there. Unlike many places in the world where the latest new thing is everyone’s obsession, entrepreneurs in Lyon are quite interested in… the nineteenth century! What they’re analyzing is their city’s greatest success, its cuisine.

If Lyon’s food scene today is one the world’s best—even outshining Paris’ according to CNN, this is thanks to the Mères lyonnaises movement. These “mothers” were house cooks for Lyon’s rich people, who decided to emancipate and launch their own start-ups: humble restaurants aiming at top-quality food, not fanciness. The movement begun in the nineteenth century only grew bigger in the twentieth, when the Mères passed on their skills and values to the next generation. Their most famous heir is superstar chef Paul Bocuse, who has held the Michelin three-star rating longer than any other, and who began as the apprentice of Mère Eugénie Brazier, the mother of modern French cooking and one of the very first three-star chefs in 1928. “There’s a real parallel between the ecosystem the Mères started and what we want to achieve,” says Grégory Palayer, president of the aptly named local trade association La Cuisine du Web. To recreate the Mères’ recipe for success, the toqués—the nickname meaning both “chef’s hat” and “crazy” that’s given to La Cuisine du Web members—have identified its ingredients: networking, media support, funding, and transmitting skills and knowledge. Not to mention a secret plus: joie de vivre. “Parisians and Europeans are often surprised to see we can spend two hours having lunch,” says Grégory. “This is how we conduct business here!”

Lyon’s designers too have their nineteenth-century hero in Auguste Escoffier, the celebrity chef of his age. He began his career as a kitchen boy in his uncle’s restaurant and ended up running the kitchens in London’s most luxurious hotels. Renowned as “the Chef of Kings and the King of Chefs,” Escoffier was also a serial designer: his creations include Peach Melba, Crêpe Suzette, and the Cuisine classique style. He even experimented in a culinary form of design under constraint while in the army during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, using horse meat for ordinary meals to save scarce beef for the wounded, and inventing 1,001 recipes with turnip, the only readily available vegetable on the front lines. Escoffier did much to improve and structure his industry. He was the first head of the WACS, the chefs’ W3C, and revolutionized not only French cooking, but the way restaurants worldwide are run, by championing documentation, standardization, and professionalism.

In his talk “Interaction Béchamel” at the Interaction 14 conference in Amsterdam, Lyon’s IxDA leader Guillaume Berry explained how the life and work of Escoffier could influence web design. Guillaume comes from a family of food lovers and makers. Himself a visual designer and an amateur cook, he is greatly inspired in his daily work by cuisine. “It’s all about quality ingredients and preparing them. I’ve realized this while chopping vegetables—a task often neglected or disliked.” The web’s raw ingredients are copy, images, videos: “Even a starred chef won’t be able to cook a proper dish with low-quality ingredients. Don’t expect a web designer to do wonders without great content.”

Just as Escoffier took Ritz customers on a kitchen tour, Guillaume recommends explaining to your clients how their site or app has been cooked. The more open and understood our design processes are, the more their value will be recognized. Have you ever been running late and prepared dinner in a rush? I have and it was, unsurprisingly, a disaster. So tell your clients their website is nothing but a good meal; it takes time to make it a memorable experience.

Looking back at other industries helps us see what’s ahead in ours. What could be the web’s answer to slow food, organic farming, or rawism? “How many interactions a day is it healthy for us to have?” asks Guillaume. He adds, “Cooks have a huge responsibility because depending on how they prepare the food they can make people sick.” Are we designers that powerful? Oh yes, and more—we destroyed the world, after all.

No, the web industry isn’t free of junk food. When we create apps that make a smartphone obsolete after two years: junk food. When we believe email is dead and Facebook is the new communication standard: junk food. When we design only for the latest browsers and fastest connections: junk food.

If we’re ready to move from “more” to “better,” let’s remember these simple rules from Eugénie Brazier: 1. Pick your ingredients very carefully; 2. Home-made first; 3. A flashy presentation won’t save a poor dish.

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