Come for the Hamburgers, Stay for the Design Criticism

Two San Francisco designers find inspiration in a surprising place and learn that sometimes form follows fast food

roosevelts tamale parlor
The Breakfast Burger at Roosevelt’s Tamale Parlor in San Francisco might be an acquired taste for some people. (photo courtesy MINE™)

When I was in college, I went to a small barbecue at a professor's house and the thing that I remember most, other than constantly reminding myself not to get too drunk, is how elegantly he spoke about cooking burgers. After throwing cedar chips over the coals, he explained exactly how the smoke was bonding with the high-quality ground beef to add flavor, infusing the burger with the extracted essence of the cedar, and, by extension, of the natural environment. It was science, it was aesthetics, and, though my recollection can’t do the moment justice, it seemed like poetry. I learned more during that barbecue that I have in some classes. Designers Christopher Simmons and Nathan Sharp of the San Francisco office MINE™ have also found valuable life lessons in hamburgers and are sharing their grill-inspired insights on a new site, “The Message is Medium Rare.”

Nearly every week, Simmons and Sharp serving up burger reviews with a side of design criticism - or, depending on your tastes, vice versa. The project started as an absurd way to prompt unfettered creative conversation in the office but the discussions proved so useful that Simmons started cataloguing their observations and, in short order, MINE™ cooked up a website--named after media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum “the medium is the message”--as a platform to further develop and more clearly communicate their ideas.

(photographs courtesy MINE™)

The presentation is well done. Each review begins with beautiful and/or brutally honest high-resolution photos of a burger, followed by a rating and a review of the experience, and ends with a creative lesson. MINE™ specializes in branding and have worked with both neighborhood sandwich shops and global social networks, and while the lessons imparted by The Message is Medium Rare aren’t specific to any project, they inevitably reflect whatever issues the office might be struggling with at the time of the meal.

"If we’re in the midst of a naming challenge,” says Simmons, “we’ll probably be more alert to the burger name, or the restaurant name, or even the server’s name.” But the team tries not to bring any preconceived notions to the table. “Sometimes the burger triggers a memory of a lesson learned long ago. Other times the burger has so much personality that it asserts its own idea....Essentially it’s an exercise in connecting the dots.” However, “the burger isn’t always the first dot." MINE™ apply their critical insight to every aspect of the dining experience. Although that wasn’t the plan from the beginning, it quickly became apparent that, as with design, "At best, these parts are elements of a thoughtfully planned system," says Simmons, "At worst they are chaotic and contradictory."

"A burger is a bit like a logo in this way—a succinct, iconic embodiment of one or two key ideas. Like a logo, the context in which the burger is experienced is equally critical. Location, price, service, , the description, even the other patrons: all these things matter. A great logo can’t make up for bad service or confusing messages. A great burger can’t either."

Every burger has a lesson to teach.

As an example, take the review of The Breakfast Burger at Roosevelt’s Tamale Parlor ((4/5 stars), top image) introduces readers to the work of designer Alex Trochut, whose idiosyncratic style is, as Simmons writes, "an acquired taste for some." The Breakfast Burger, with its dense patty, grilled bun, and fried egg also isn't for everyone, but those who like it love it. The lesson? Don’t be afraid to embrace a point of view:

“Neither Alex Trochut nor Roosevelt’s Breakfast Burger appeal to everyone. That’s not a weakness, it’s a strength. Trochut’s work can be wild and weird and challenging but it’s always clear. Clarity doesn’t come from minimalism or modernism or focus groups or catering to the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t come from trying to anticipate what your audience wants. Clarity comes from understanding what you want to say and how you want to say it (and why). Greatness, in other words, finds its own audience."

(photographs courtesy MINE™)

The Message is Medium Rare has also found its own audience, much to the surprise of its creators, who were mostly writing for themselves and maybe other designers. But who doesn’t love hamburgers? The blog's accessible and delicious subject has attracted the attention of food magazines and burger blogs in addition to design sites and publications. Simmons, who handles most of the writing, hopes to find a balance between writing for designers --with all the jargon and references that entails--and writing for a more general audience. When this edible experiment is done Simmons and Sharp plan to publish their findings with some additional insight and examples from their own design practice.  Although many of the creative lessons drawn from hamburgers are valuable for designers and non-designers alike, there is a greater lesson to be learned from The Message is Medium Rare: If you look at the world critically and with an open mind, there are lessons everywhere.

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