Never before has the idea of a "revelatory" meal been so literal, but that's precisely the premise behind The Message Is Medium Rare, a project dedicated to the creative wisdom gleaned from a year of eating hamburgers.
"Broadly speaking, designers are either trying to express new ideas in a familiar way, or trying to express familiar ideas in a new way," explained Christopher Simmons, creative director at MINE, the San Francisco-based design firm responsible for conceiving the project and its accompanying blog. "Burgers are a familiar idea. Though it may be humble, a good burger requires an understanding of the medium, technical skill, craft. A great burger is one that meets these requirements with mastery and also expresses a point of view. Great design does the same."
Once a week for the next year, Simmons and a colleague or two (or more — the list of willing participants, rather predictably, seems to be growing) are eating their way through San Francisco's booming burger scene, and taking note of whatever stands out, whether it's the burger itself, a brilliantly designed menu and branding scheme, the service — all of which will eventually be compiled into one fantastic book. The images alone are pretty mouthwatering, but what's especially compelling are the commentaries, easily digestable lessons that could be applied to almost any creative or service-based industry. Read on for more behind-the-scenes details on Simmons' hamburger quest and what to expect.
How many of you are involved in this burger mission?
Basically, there are two of us. Nathan Sharp (a designer who works in my office) and I get a burger together someplace, we discuss it, then I write a review. Since this has taken off a lot of people have written asking to join us for lunch, so we may have some guest posts coming up.
What inspired the year-long project?
We didn’t plan for ‘The Message is Medium Rare’ to be a blog. The original idea was just to make a book of burger portraits—not for any reason except to be a little absurd. We started by photographing a burger a week. Almost immediately we found ourselves analyzing and comparing them. It became too irresistible not to capture these ideas in writing, so we decided the book should include reviews. One day in February I walked into the office and said, “We should make this thing a blog.” We came up with the name in about 20 minutes and had the site designed by the end of the day.
Had you done something similar before?
A couple of years ago a friend of mine wore one outfit for a year. I really admired the discipline of that effort so last year I did the same—one pair of Levi’s, one shirt, one sweater (and one sports jacket and tie). Except for a funeral, a trip to Hawaii, a couple of black tie events, and some skiing that’s all I wore. I definitely found myself having a different relationship to my clothes at various stages of the project. It was an almost meditative experience.
Burgers are ubiquitous. When I was a kid, burgers were synonymous with summer, road trips and McDonald’s. Today, everyone makes a burger. In SF in particular burgers are enjoying a kind of heyday. New chains are popping up, pop-ups are popping up, and just about every restaurant has their own ’take’ on the classic American sandwich. At its core, the hamburger is a very basic concept: a patty of ground beef, grilled, and served between two slices of bread. Everyone understands what a hamburger is. Everyone has an opinion on what makes a great one. The idea that something so simple has so many variations is a perfect parallel for design.
Have any creative “Aha!” moments or epiphanies resulted from the project thus far?
In college, I had a drawing instructor who made me draw the same toy duck for a month. The first few drawings were easy, but as I ran out of ideas and techniques I already knew, the drawings got harder. When I reached my breaking point, they got interesting. We’re only nine weeks into this project, so I suspect I’m still in my ‘comfort zone’. Perhaps an epiphany will come later. Until then it’s gratifying to hear from people who say the project has given them new insight into some aspect of their work.
Do you go in with a checklist of criteria (service, food, decor, branding, etc)? Is anything most important?
I love the idea of “the most important thing.” When we go into each burger-eating experience we ask ourselves, “What’s going on here? What’s the most important thing?” Sometimes it’s the service, the food, the decor, the branding. Sometimes it’s the lettuce or the regular sitting at another table. In each outing we try to discover that one most important thing and have a discussion around that. It’s all very organic, so no, no checklist.
Will you only be doing this in SF?
For now we’re only in San Francisco since this is basically a lunch tactivity. I travel a little for work, so there will be some reviews from the road.
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