A strong mission, global reach and a passion for cooking — three reasons why this Head of Design put her freelance career on hold for Cookpad.
A human centered design expert and self professed “extreme extrovert”, Elena Gianni heads up Cookpad’s growing Design team.
What’s your background and how did you get into design?
For me, design was a great way to group together all of my different interests and fulfil my desire to shape the future through the use of technology and media. I know it sounds lofty, or abstract, but it is true.
How did you discover Cookpad and what made you want to join?
After six and half years at the New York Times, two of them as Design Director, I decided it was time to leave and embark on my freelance career. I told my mentor and friend, Simona Maschi, Co-Founder of the CIID, that I wanted a role with a business that was working on sustainability, had global reach, a strong mission and good people. She immediately introduced me to Tomo Yasuda, Cookpad’s Managing Director. We had a call on the Friday afternoon, a second call that same evening and by the following Monday, I had joined the team. What was originally a three month contract has since become a permanent role.
“Everyone that joins Cookpad does so because they relate to the mission and are interested in food, so there’s a lot of passion and everyone is very eager.”
What’s it like to work in design at Cookpad?
It’s really exciting! Everyone that joins Cookpad does so because they relate to the mission and are interested in food, so there’s a lot of passion and everyone is very eager. Being a fairly new team means there’s lots of opportunity to shape what design means at Cookpad. It’s a place where you can carve out a space for yourself, depending on your interests and inclinations.
What’s the biggest challenge about working in design at Cookpad?
The global scale! We are designing for people from over 70 countries and personally, I find it extremely challenging to design for a country that I’ve never visited. You have to constantly remind yourself of your biases and be really open minded about gathering as many insights as you can from people who have more experience and context than you do.
Can you explain a bit about your design philosophy?
I studied and believe in human centered design, which means putting users’ needs first and ensuring that all of your designs solve real problems and/or add value to people’s lives. In practice, this design approach results in a hybrid discipline where designers become researchers, prototypers, as well as designers. Lately, the design community has been talking about evolving from human centered design to life centered design, to emphasise a more sustainable approach where designers need to consider the needs of all forms of life, and ultimately the planet.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Some might say I’m a bit of a weirdo but I take an intellectual approach to design. My inspiration comes from studying people. I am fascinated by people’s behaviour, motivation and personal story and I love conducting research to better understand the people I am designing for. I also keep up with current design and tech trends but I honestly find those much less interesting.
What do you look for in a product designer?
With so many problems to solve and so much work to do, I need people who can take initiative, look sharply at problems and find pragmatic ways of solving them. Of course as a designer, it’s important to have great vision and ideas but I also look for self starters who can pursue their ideas and bring them to life. The final thing is a deep belief in our company mission — reshaping the food system globally is a daunting endeavour which requires personal initiative to constantly remind yourself of the goal and find different ways to address it.
“There’s a big difference between saying that you’re making good in the world and actually doing it. For me, Cookpad is one of the very few companies I’ve found that actually does what it says.”
What would you say to anyone thinking about joining Cookpad?
Before joining Cookpad, I was looking for tech companies that were doing innovation and had a strong mission. Those companies are really rare. A lot of companies say that they have a mission — it’s kind of expected because everyone wants to change the world in tech. But there’s a big difference between saying that you’re making good in the world and actually doing it. For me, Cookpad is one of the very few companies I’ve found that actually does what it says and that is really special.
When you’re not designing, what do you do?
Extreme sports and hanging out with friends. I describe myself as an extreme extrovert. You’ll usually find me with friends, having intense discussions about varied topics, rock climbing and lately, trying to organise whatever is the most nature-filled and adrenaline-fuelled adventure available, in whatever country or region I am in.
Do you cook?
Yes, but I’ve lived in New York for 8 years so my cooking isn’t as strong as it used to be. I love throwing dinner parties and I have some specialties that I can make really well. I also like to teach these specialties to people too, especially my ragu. I even developed a vegan version, inspired by my grandma’s recipe, by trying a bunch of different substitutes until I found what works best. I recently taught the meat version to one of my Cookpad colleagues. You can take a look at the recipe on Cookpad.
And, what does your cooking say about you?
It says that I carry a piece of my grandma around with me. When I was a child, she really encouraged me to start cooking and when I teach her recipes to others, I feel like I’m supporting her legacy. You’ll often hear me talking about ‘my inner Italian Grandma’.