Inspiration: David Chang's Unified Theory of Deliciousness as Visual Theory

As a working photographer it should be no surprise that I am always searching for inspiration.  Recently I’ve realized that I am often more inspired by creators and their thought processes than I am by their creations.

If you research beating creative block the first recommendation is almost always: step away from whatever you’re focusing on.  Take a break and look to the world around you or a totally separate field for inspiration.  Pouring over examples of your contemporaries killing it with awesome work isn’t the answer.  When you're stuck situations that breed comparison can do more harm than good.  Creative thinking is interdisciplinary, it is required everywhere, and can inspire anywhere.  That was one of the first things I was reminded of while reading chef and restaurateur David Chang’s article for Wired.

 Photo by Joe Pugliese

Photo by Joe Pugliese

Chang is of the opinion that there is, what he calls, a Unified Theory of Deliciousness.  The theory is based on Douglas Hofstadter’s idea of strange loops, “occasions when mathematical systems or works of art or pieces of music fold back upon themselves.

When you hit a strange loop like this, it shifts your point of view: Suddenly you aren’t just thinking about what’s happening inside the picture; you’re thinking about the system it represents and your response to it.
— David Chang

Culinarily speaking a dish is impactful because it is reminiscent of something familiar while being entirely new, not just delicious.  Chang triggers an emotional response by tapping into diners' formative food memories while offering them a brand new experience with each bite.

A cornerstone of visual theory is the practice of offering the viewer additional context in how you communicate.  For example, strong visual composition involves similar loops.  Visual loops lead the viewer through the image to each new detail and element, back out to the image as a whole and then back through the details in a new path.  This is the thing that makes it almost impossible to look away.  The emotional loops hold the viewer in a similar cerebral exercise.  Show the viewer something familiar in a new way, or with specific elements that challenge their expectations and you've created their emotional loop.  You can use the viewer's visual knowledge to add depth to your story or message by forcibly shifting their perspective.  You can challenge their beliefs and biases with those emotional loops. I think these loops are additionally important for visual creatives because unlike performers who can see their audiences, we need to inspire reactions and experiences in people we'll probably never meet.

Make sure to check out the full Wired article here.  And if you're interested in some more creative explorations with David Chang, or you just really like cooking shows, I recommend PBS' "Mind of a Chef" which you can also find on Netflix. Enjoy.