In Written Word

Greetings to all the design students, and practitioners in the room. Let me first thank the 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 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.

Perspective 1: place

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.

Perspective 2: time

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.

Perspective III: the practice

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.

Thank you.

Dimitri Berti, 2023