In Written Word
The summer evening is dark and pleasantly warm, as I am not used to it anymore. While the music has stopped, the crowd is still hanging in the park 1 walking the geometric pathways carefully sculpted in the vegetation. The meadow is blossoming for the city insects and the brand-new skyscrapers surround the piazza as if they were to protect the quiet. I haven’t been here since my master’s studies, thirteen years ago. This area was a shapeless working site, that didn’t betray any of his future intentions. I want to cherish this atmosphere of suspension, but a sense of perspective inevitably pervades my experience. As I stroll around, it feels like I am going over every single step of the decade-long journey that leads me here again.
I have been invited by POLI.design2 to speak to their Master Students about my own experience and how the discipline developing, being a former student myself. I have been actively reflecting on my work and the status quo of the discipline for a few years now, so putting together the material for my speech was relatively simple. I had only to commit to the written words some of the ideas that slowly took shape in my head over a long time. I thought this was a good forum and for me a good opportunity to start disclosing my opinions. I will publish my speech here, later on.
Many times over the years I have been reflecting on my work. I always thought that this introspection on the discipline was necessary and to be cared for, and deserved more The medium is the message. Social media turn information into noise, the conversation into jabber, opinions into the simplest ontological statements shouting- I speak/post, therefore I am. As I was feeling drowning in this ocean of noise, I less and less participated in social media, until completely abandoning them. Unfortunately, my hiatus also coincided with a more conflictual experience with writing, that became exclusively private. However, I have been missing an outlet for my work, as confrontation is necessary. Hence I decided to redesign my website to record my work, which I am launching on this occasion.
I designed this version of the website to host work-in-progress projects as I am working on them and to host some of my critical reflections on the work and the discipline itself when I think they are ready to be shared in public. I have added a blog section as I want to re-establish a deeper connection between the written word and the long form. For the moment, I am planning to write in English, but there could be exceptions for the Italian language if needed. Even if my stance on social remains the same, I believe there is value in creating a community and keeping readers posted on updates. For this reason, I have decided to experiment with a mailing list, which I want to edit with the same care as the rest of the content on this website. It is a project, likely to evolve over the months after this release.
As I am walking through the evening a comparison with the working sites I used to cross as a student is inevitable. I can see the vagueness of possibility pervading an evening like this one. I can see hopes and dreams, fear of the unknown and genuine excitement as I have found in the questions of students that respectfully approached me after my presentation. I can see the same curiosity, and eagerness to experiment and to start the next project that still keeps me connected to the discipline today. A stronger sense of perspective is inevitable though. What’s been built is informing a clear point of view. A critical mindset is to inform
Greetings to all the design students, and practitioners in the room. Let me first thank the POLI.design staff: what an honour to be here and what a pleasure to be in Milan after these many years. We are living in a moment of great changes, apparently flooded by ideas, but poor of radical and viable alternatives. What a great moment to study design.
Let me introduce myself. I have been, a student of the Master in Strategic Design 11th edition. I am currently working as an Associate Partner at Quantum, a design strategy firm with 10 offices around the world, where I am in charge of developing innovation and design practice at a global scale. These that you see on the screen are some of the brands that I have worked with in the last 15 years, in different capacities, with different remits: from design strategy to new product development, service and experience design, but also work that is more speculative in nature. Tonight I want to share with you some personal perspectives on the design practice, and how they have been influenced by my studies here at POLI.design. I am compiling them in a larger piece of work with the working title of “Reclaiming Utopia”.
Let me start with a funny story. A couple of months ago I was pitching for some work to a new client. The brief was about coming up with new products to rejuvenate their existing portfolio. When I was riffing on how I would have approached the task, I mentioned the involvement of industrial designers early into the process, to make our ideas as tangible as possible. They immediately stopped me - Dimitri, things have moved on. We have to be customer-centric and agile. We will use large language models to come up with many ideas, and then AI generative models to visualize them. Then we will test them overnight with consumers and then iterate according to the results. Working in innovation, I can only praise someone who tries to make things differently. The worst outcome is that you may learn it does not work. However, I told them, a fact that happened just a few weeks earlier to a colleague of mine who works in consumer research. She found that all of a sudden, responses to online studies became very articulate, and even grammar improved overnight. She checked with an online tool and discovered that consumers were using the same technology to respond to questions. …And why shouldn’t they? This story presents a very amusing dilemma: The proponents of human centricity are also creating the conditions for humans to be entirely removed from the game.
I am telling you this story, not to mock the person, which should be instead praised for their enthusiasm but to show you an example of some of the many conundrums you will have to navigate and approach with a critical mindset if you want to remain relevant as a professional.
Ten years ago I moved to London. There I worked as a freelancer, and then in 3 different agencies, including my current one. Since then have become and a British citizen, I had the opportunity to work in 4 continents, with most of my projects having a global remit. In this picture, you can see me in the innovation lab which I set up at Marriott HQ, in Washington DC in 2016.
What I have learned about practicing in different parts of the globe is how various cultural contexts and languages shaped the discipline.
Working in Britain, I immediately noticed an obsession with the process and its codification. All agencies spent great effort in describing how they would conduct the work. These explanations often resulted in very articulate flowcharts, always inspired by the famous “double diamond” presented by the British Design Council in 2005. Funnily enough, it is presented as a process, a precise sequence of instructions, not as a method, a way of doing things. A process reassures the client and is more easily scalable. Commercially a success. The Brits have built a vast empire through commerce. However, over the years I have started noticing the limitations of this approach and started questioning it. All the attention was on “how you should do things”, and not the value of the outcomes itself, be that a product or a service. The process indeed was the product itself. I felt this approach was missing the intellectual rigor and elegance of execution, that I have always admired in Italian design. A product is imbued with culture. At the core of a product, there is a very clear idea of the world, that transcends the project, but that finds the project itself the best attempt at its realization. I was missing a critical perspective in design, and then I started looking back at my studies.
When four years ago I joined my current company, I was asked to shape a design practice for the new office in London, I was very vocal about my dissatisfaction with the status quo of design strategy, its over-reliance on process and lack of vision. The openness to this conversation was one of the reasons for me to join the company.
I took this picture in the first few days in my new job. Where should I start if I have to define a new practice from scratch? I picked these three books from my bookshelf, in a very instinctive manner, without thinking too much. With hindsight, I realized they mapped against the three directions of time: past, present, and future.
If I had to define a design practice, I had to bring clarity to my idea of design, and what a designer is. I looked a the past, or better, the tradition I grew up in. Hence Munari’s book. The chapter “What is a designer” begins with this sentence “He is a planner with an aesthetic sense”. I have always cherished this definition because I think that beauty, harmony, and elegance have an important ethical role in our lives, which goes way beyond appearance. We say “an elegant solution” a solution that brings order and clarity to a problem that is obscure and fuzzy.
I was however aware of the limits of this definition. It had to be updated to a more expansive one, that better represented the present scenario. Hence Prof. Manzini Book’s Design when everybody designs. The territories that he outlines at the crossroads of expert design vs. diffuse design, and problem-solving vs sense-making were extremely helpful in extending the conversation to the non-designer audience in my company. If I were to add another book, this would be Design Driven Innovation, by Prof. Roberto Verganti, whom I also encountered during my Master’s studies, and particularly the idea of “innovation of meaning”.
The last is the book “Speculative Everything” by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby which is about speculative design and futures. It is a book about potential futures, but also about the past and the Italian tradition we have mentioned before as it starts with an historical perspective on radical design, including the work of Archizoom and Superstudio. Italian radical design has always been a great inspiration of mine, especially for a project that I did in partnership with Unilever, the Future of Hygiene, which we presented together at the Epic Conference in 2021.
Let me conclude this speech with the last perspective I want to talk about, which is the practice. and its meaning as a verb: to practice, to exercise, to improve your skills, to get better. On the screen, you see two of my personal projects. The one on the right is a modular structure that I have designed to adapt, grow, and shrink according to the different uses, to be easily repaired and produced as it counts only 6 different pieces in total, including nuts and bolts. I patented it last year. These are projects that I do to experiment, learn new things, and remain hands-on and as close as possible to the discipline.
Over the years I have been having grown very tired of the so-called “design thinking”. My frustration is mostly related to the fact that there is too little thinking and too little design in design thinking.
Too little thinking because in my opinion it lacks a strong philosophical grounding and a critical debate that goes beyond a sterile conversation on method.
Too little design because it focused its attention on the process and not enough on the outcomes. Projects end too often with high-level concepts while leaving to somebody else to deal with the complexity of production, the market, and the society to which these products and services will contribute. Practitioners found themselves very comfortable operating in the perfect world of ideas and avoided committing their vision to the imperfect and complex world of form.
In the meantime, the appreciation for Design that I developed here at Politecnico has grown over the years. Italian design remains a constant inspiration for me to get better, to remain critical and utopian, to translate my vision into something, tangible, elegant, meaningful, and necessary. In a moment of great change, I hope this can be an inspiration for you too.
Design both as a discipline and as an act of creativity has always been close to the concept of utopia. Vision, and imagination, supported by the technical ability and craft were tools to propose an alternative configuration of reality, ideally better than the one we are currently living in. I am thinking for example at the ideals of “democratic art” that pervaded the Art and Crafts movement, but also at the provocative stance of “Autoprogettazione” by Enzo Mari, the playful critique of functionalism of the Memphis movement, as well as the enlighted vision of Adriano Olivetti whose company was not only pioneering in personal computing but was also proposing a utopian organization of the business around a community of workers where everyone could thrive. Looking back at the history of the discipline, design has always been a tool to shape the future toward more positive outcomes.
Reclaiming Utopia in Design - a critical debate to overcome the limits of technotopia and dystopia.
In the last two decades, however, it seems that mankind has lost its ability to imagine better alternatives to the reality we are living in. This is evident in pop culture how Mark Fisher has brilliantly noted in his work on “hauntology”, the nostalgia for “lost futures”. But it is also observable in the design discipline, now dominated by the pervasive mantra of “design thinking”, where too little “design” and too little “thinking” are left. On one hand design as a “tool for executives” (and not as a self-determined discipline or craft) has lost its ability to propose tangible alternatives in the form of artefact, in favour of more either too functional (“what the user/consumer says they want”) or too abstract outcomes (“vague and intangible concepts that very rarely see the light of the day). On the other hand thinking as a “step-by-step process” and not as a philosophical discourse lacks the rigour, depth, and vision necessary to challenge the status quo, but instead perpetuates “off-the-shelf” opinions animating unreconciliable debates on social media, which often only results in a greater divide of opinions and not any alternatives to move forward.
When we look at how the investigation of the future is carried out in our current society we notice two dominant narratives: the technotopia and the dystopia. Both of them are showing their limits when it comes to proposing alternatives. The technotopia is a form of neo-positivism that celebrates some sort of cutting-edge technological solution as the most appropriate answer to the many complex problems mankind experiences. Technological enhancements are seen as inevitable and good “per se”, often framed as “extra-ordinary” if not “magical”. This often results in a biased enthusiasm that celebrates technology and its benefits, while minimizing the negative consequences, often presented as a necessary price to pay. The vision of a company retaining the IP of a certain solution coincides with the vision of society which is shaped by the solution itself. In a world that is silently retiring in the “metaverse” or we’ll be soon uploaded to a server to continue our “life” beyond the decadence of the body, the means are often confused with the end. The novelty of the solution outshines the real benefits, while an explanation of how this solution has made our “life” better is still to be proven.
On the other end, dystopia has become a narrative genre “per se”, dominant (if not the “default mode”) in today’s representation of the future. In this view, any alternative available to mankind is ominous and conceals the elements that will eventually lead to the end of civilization as we know it. The first problem that I see in this view of the world is that it quickly leads to apathy and inertia. If doom is inevitable, why should we even try to imagine alternatives? However, I believe that there is a second and probably more dangerous problem in disguise: the romanticization of dystopia, the birds singing about their own cage. We need to resist the fascination for catastrophe and the “comfort” of a doomed future. If dystopia becomes our default mode of speculating on the future, we will soon lose the ability to imagine better alternatives
The intent of this talk is not to lecture anyone on how things should be done, propose a simple solution to a complex and multifaceted problem, or neither to celebrate the nostalgia of the “good old days of design”. The goal instead is to stimulate a critical yet positive debate where all different voices in the community confront themselves on different views of the future and better approaches to move in those directions.