Reflections on Design

Part 1: Birthday Cake Design

I knew we would get to a point during the pastry arts program I had to design a cake. Not so bad, since I have been doing this for a while, but it was not as easy as one may think. My classmates keep joking about how I know (or should know) so much about cakes I could skip this part of the program, but when you are asked to make a cake that you never liked to make things can get complicated.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I know too much about anything, but my cake journey started I had strayed from regular looking cakes. There are many talented people that can create a simple yet beautiful cake using only icing and piping tips, but since I always wanted to work with cake that don’t look like cakes, I never really went down that path, so now it was my turn to design and create a birthday cake using only cake, icing and few simple tools. On paper things look simple and really easy. All I had to do was to use the basic principles of design and decorate the cake with a couple of decorative borders, three roses and a birthday message.

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Cake design class exercise

Group discussion after the cake design exercise.

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I decided to work with a chocolate layer cake and chocolate buttercream. I didn’t want to mess with many colours, so I decided to use the brown from the chocolate be the canvas for white roses and pale green leaves. All planned and good to go until I found out I had to make the cake happen under a certain weight limit. And since my chocolate cake base was already on the heavier side, I need to work well with not so much extra icing to cover imperfections. Despite having covered cakes for so many years, having that weight limit was really difficult. But with all things considered I manage to finish my task under the maximum weight allowed. I added all the elements I was asked to include, and the cake looked ok. Did I like the cake? Of course not, but I sure enjoyed the exercise. While the design on paper was pretty well transformed into reality, I concluded that it’s really hard for me to deliver a product that I particularly do not like. But the whole exercise, besides the intended goal of having us use the design lessons and decorative elements learned in class, reminded me of how getting out of the comfort zone can be liberating.

Next time I will definitely use more colour. While the earthy palette of this cake was nice, I will sure explore other colour combinations. And I will practice more piping roses and other flowers. No point in being able to create gravity-defying cakes if I cannot pipe a simple buttercream rose to perfection.

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Part 2: Design Principles

I have worked with design in many different stages of my life. From my marketing background I bring the valuable lessons of how a logo design can be at the same time pleasing to the eye but also convey a corporate image. Having worked with photography I bring the value of creating a good composition. The importance of white and negative spaces, rule of thirds, light, and again colour. From my passion for interior design I bring the use of colours and how to make appropriate choices depending on the room to decorate. In cake decorating I can relate with many of the other disciplines where design is important. Composition in a cake is as important as in photography. Colour of the icing, and how the choice of colour should relate to the season or occasion the cake is make as important in cake decorating as in interior design. Also, with season I can even thing of flowers and nature, how it relates back to how florists will arrange their bouquets, or even how the window displays will change according t the time of the year.

Funny how even though back home in Brazil the transitions between seasons is not as visual as in north America, as there we have pretty warn or cold weather, and the trees and leaves do not change colour as gradually as here, fall cakes there as still decorated with a palette of earthy tones including orange, brown, and green. Christmas is full of green and red elements in décor and in cake decorating, including white to bring a sense of the very dreamed white Christmas, even though Christmas in Brazil is celebrated during summer instead of winter.

Recently I helped a friend arranging picture frames in her living room. Having so many frames in very different sizes and shapes was a complicated task for her and she was getting frustrated. For me, it was easy to let go of the absence of symmetry and create a composition using exactly the difference of the shapes and sized to enhance the whole display. Just as I make happen when I am working on cakes. Symmetry is always safe, but not always necessary.

So many times I come across clients trying to incorporate so many ideas into their cake design that my job becomes guiding them through a process where we can tell a story with their cake design, to fit an occasion or to be given to a special person, without having to clutter the design with every single element initially mentioned it was too important to not be on the cake. But more than an eye for design, trying to convey a client’s message into a cake requires knowledge of the design principles and practice. A good dose of good taste won’t hurt either.