The Taste Of This Meal Is Affected By The Room We Sit In

From The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda.

I once met a designer friend in a quiet Paris flat with white walls, white surfaces, and white furniture. A lunch of aesthetically prepared sushi was served. Red tuna, pink salmon, white squid, silvery mackerel, and a sliver of green leaf boldly engaged my visual senses as I took the entire scene into my mind. I reached to my chopsticks to begin, when my friend said, “The taste of this meal is affected by the room we sit in.”

True. With everything around me in pure white including the plate upon which the sushi was served, the thin slabs of raw fish atop the fist-sized mass of white rice appeared to float in space. I could imagine the taste to be very different in an environment that was appointed with different dishes, table, overall decorum and even different people.

The quality of our interaction with what’s in the foreground may be heavily affected by what’s in the background.

I can relate to this and can think of many examples from my daily life. When I am eating, if the tablecloth under my plate is wrinkled, it does tend to irritate me, in an under-the-radar, nagging sort of way. When I am working with my laptop, if there’s clutter around it on my desk, same thing. I also think that if my work isn’t going well, the frustration from that combines with the “background irritation” to make it feel worse.

Apart from being aware that this happens, what else can we do?

If given an empty space or an empty room, technologists would invent something to fill the expanse; similarly, businesspeople would not want to pass up a potential lost opportunity.

On the other hand, a designer would choose to do their best to preserve the emptiness because of their perspective that nothing is an important something. The opportunity lost by increasing the amount of blank space is gained back with enhanced attention to what remains.

… When there is less, we appreciate everything much more.

Maeda asks us to surround something with nothing. Make the background (whatever it is) clean, simple, uncluttered, with plenty of “white space” so that there’s nothing to distract us and the contrast between it and the object of our attention is high.

Interesting advice. I will give it a try.


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