Cucumber Zoo

cucumber zoo cover sketch

The design challenge

How might we bring food consumption and production to be individually approachable and locally sustainable? This was the question I set out to answer. Fourteen weeks, three design sprints, and countless variations later, I land on the Cucumber Zoo – The Place for Misshapen Veggies. The user experience concept consists of a family oriented storybook, seed packs, and growing guide to accompany a social media game and online sharing community. The toolkit would be placed at point of sale or somewhere between the garden center, toy department, and the produce section of a big box store. Design solutions to complex problems often defy categorization, and the Cucumber Zoo concept seems to do that.

How might we make food production locally sustainable?

Cucumber Zoo is the only garden incubator sold in a big box store for rural families that celebrates strangeness while providing a fun gateway toward growing and eating healthy food.

But how does one arrive at such a strange product, when aiming for customer experience design? And does this product offering really cause food consumption to be more locally sustainable and approachable by rural families?

The first editions of the book and seed packs are given to consumers as free gifts at the checkout counter of the big box store. The book has a story about strange looking vegetables. It is humorous and celebrates weirdness.

cucumber zoo moc cover book
Book cover sketch

The seed packs contain some unknown seeds that would be easy to grow, perhaps in soil or water and could produce some small flower or vegetable. The book has growing and monitoring tips and an invitation to share progress through a social media game on a leading platform. The game provides local and global awareness and competition to see who can create the strangest looking veggies from these seed packs.

Later storybooks are sold with additional seeds and other growing and food production tools that lead people from the “counter top, to the front porch top to the yard” in their vegetable growing journey. The social community supports activities with local to global ‘county fair’ style activities that promote growing. The Cucumber Zoo intervenes on the personal and the systems levels to transform perception and grow diversity through storytelling and easy to grow plants.

storyboard of discovering cucumber zoo on tv
Storyboard sketches Cucumber Zoo discovery

Barriers to food sustainability

After conducting dozens of personal interviews with rural families, healthy eating proponents, and consumers I set about constructing empathy maps, journey maps, and jtbd sketches. One clear insight that arose, is that from a personal level, there were many barriers to healthy eating and growing. From lack of knowledge to information overload and from investment cost to the threat of how others perceive you, many obstacles stand between a person and their desire to grow and eat great food. One of the barriers to healthy habits especially among rural women is one of perception. (Ref: 4, 16)

“If someone sees you riding your bike to work, they assume you must have gotten a DUI.”

Similarly, gardening may be seen as unsophisticated or what “people who can’t afford to just buy it” do. The offering turns gardening from a survival need into a productive pastime. Zoo elevates growing from an activity story about sustaining oneself to a ritual of entertainment and social sharing. Producing and documenting is part of daily life for many technology connected people. The Zoo spotlights growing in a way to make it fun to create and share.

Out of the personas developed through interviews and research, I learned that similar threats of perception are experienced by men. They did not want to be seen as soft, or effeminate. One acupuncturist who lives and works in rural communities related that people come to her for healing motivated by an acute health issue. (Ref 22)

I get these really broken down men who have been working all their lives. I offer them tea and they think it’s an affront to their manhood. I tell them, it’s not going to shrivel your balls…”

The Cucumber Zoo offer seeks to circumvent these gender based fears. It safely places gardening and growing into a fun activity to do with the kids, allowing for any caregiver to have the excuse of their children to allow themselves be soft.

cucumber zoo kit and actions
Storyboard getting fingers in the dirt

It also faces the challenge of self-image and body-image directly. It celebrates strangeness in the form of supplying seeds that grow into oddly shaped veggies. Families then photograph, share and eat these veggies, enjoying the strangeness together and perhaps entertaining communication or perception on what it might mean to be different. Celebrating strangeness may also have benefits at the systems level.

Food sustainability at a systems level

It would be possible with a story like this to develop it into a sort of movement. With the help of a major national or international retailer, a journey like the Cucumber Zoo, if properly geared toward the creator and the maker in everyone, would generate a viable franchise. In order to accomplish this, the production would need to be home grown and authentic. Given adequate development and artistry, the Cucumber Zoo would live somewhere between Harry Potter and the Chia Pet. It would be a compelling story with some real outcomes. The big box store that promotes the story may eventually benefit from having a customer base that is more tolerant of oddly shaped produce, leading to more supply chain efficiency and less food waste, a major sustainability issue cited globally. (See UN Sustainable Development Goals) Meaning, people may become appreciative of misshapen produce and even come to celebrate it. Eventually people could perhaps share their diverse seed with a seed bank or other common resource that would then promote also environmental diversity. (Ref: 7,9,14,18)

storyboard of returning customer
Storyboard continuing circular growth

The Cucumber Zoo prospect came to light after several rounds of research and insight raising. Though offered here as a concept, further development will ensue. For more information view the Cucumber Zoo concept presentation or full summary of research in this presentation.


The following references are used within this article and shared by way of background. All references are used in the above presentation links.

A World of Three Zeroes, Muhammad Yunus
Amish Lifestyle
Personal Interviews
Barriers to health
Barriers to health
CA examples of local urban farms

Farming in the Bay: 10 Urban Agriculture Projects in San Francisco

Circular Design
Co-ops Studies


Consumers Desire for Labeling’_Desire_for_GM_Labels_Is_the_Devil_in_the_Details
Driftless Area
Dubuque Co-op
Family Farms
Personal Interview
Farm Scape
Food Assembly
Frank LLoyd Wright
Free Pantry
Grameen 16 Decisions
http://www.grameen (dot) com/16-decisions/
Harvest Mark
Insights, Nature’s part of the design process
View at
Personal Interview
J. T.
Personal Interview
Personal Interview


Opportunity what is the local market
Pew Research on Organic Foods
Rise of Agrihood farming

The Rise & ROI of Agrihood Residential Farming Communities

Ron Finley

Rural Obesity
SF Urban Alliance

Status of Coops
The Natural Step
http://www.thenaturalstep (dot) org
Urban Farming
http://theurbanfarmer. (dot) co/book/
Urban Farming
http://theurbanfarmer (dot) co/free-extras/
Urban Farming
Wild Edibles App
Willy Street Co-op
http://wwoof (dot) net/

1 thought on “Cucumber Zoo

Comments are closed.