Lab-grown meat: science triumphing over nature, or a metaphor for design?

I was intrigued to read of the first apparent instance of artificially grown meat (as opposed to meat substitute) being approved for sale. In particular, I was interested that the name chosen for this product was ‘cultured meat’, presumably a double meaning.

Various technologies for ‘lab-grown’ meat have been under research and in development for some time and around 2011/2012 I conducted a design project, looking at how such products might be communicated toward potential consumers. I was less interested in the specificity of the topic, as in the general idea of designing for promotion of new and potentially ‘confronting’ concepts and products, as well as playing with notions of engaging with different demographics.

I experimented with a number of potential names, imagery and promotional concepts, as well as playing with slogans. The following are some of my efforts:

Billboard with slogan "First there was natural, now there is better than natural".
Notions of science transcending, even overruling, nature
Billboard with slogan "Because he loves nature! Graham chooses the scientific alternative".
More natural than nature itself: it’s your choice
Billboard with slogan "Gluten free, cruelty free, organic, nature friendly". It's natural, because we made it that way!
Science is your friend: welcome to the brave new world
Billboard with slogan "Who knows what they put in traditional meat these days? I do know".
It’s natural, but with science, YOU are in control

These speculative concepts experiment with themes of design as a simulacral tool (Baudrillard 1994), creating intentionally altered (even hyperreal) versions of an assumed original – in this case, communicating science as triumphing over notions of the ‘natural’. This builds on pastoral recreations of notions of ‘nature’ that simulate notions a lost wilderness (Corbett 2006; Cronon 1995) within much existing commercial food communication. Thus, as Scott Hess declares, it is the increasing predominance of technology which allows, not only the delivery of material produce that was once supplied by nature, but which also provides the contentment of the pastoral dream, by “asserting a reassuring control over nature, perfectly shaped to our desires and conveniences” (Hess 2004).

Carrying out these speculative (even absurd) creative exercises affirms graphic design as an intrinsically defamiliarising practice, altering the way in which the creator, participants or intended audience engage with design. It is a process that Eliot Eisner describes well; “what we seek are new ways with which to perceive and interpret the world, ways that make vivid realities that would otherwise go unknown. It’s a matter, as the anthropologists say, of making the familiar strange and making the strange familiar” (2008).

When I originally carried out these exercises, they were largely done as speculative design experiments. To see if and how such approaches might be used as creative research methods. With lab-grown meat apparently finally nearing reality, it will be interesting to observe how the concept will be promoted, visualised, rationalised and consumed.

Baudrillard, J 1994, Simulacra and simulation, The Body in theory, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

Corbett, JB 2006, Communicating nature : how we create and understand environmental messages, Island Press, Washington, DC.

Cronon, W 1995, Uncommon ground : toward reinventing nature, 1st edn, W.W. Norton & Co., New York.

Eisner, E 2008, ‘Art and Knowledge’, in JG Knowles & AL Cole (eds), Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research. Perspectives, Methodologies, Examples, and Issues, SAGE Publications, Inc, pp. 3-13.

Hess, S 2004, ‘Postmodern Pastoral, Advertising, and the Masque of Technology’, Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 71-100.