12 notes and ideas on design (and on teaching it in a cynical and cheating world)

(Walter Aprile and Stefano Mirti, in: Hans Hoger, design research, Editrice Abitare Segesta, Milano, 2008)


Keywords: Achille Campanile, analogical & digital, ability to communicate, social skills, demo or die, desire, doubts (in your mind), windows (onto hypothetical world), narrations, raw nerves, new questions, paradox, rapid prototyping, stories, out of breath.


1. Design, lies, videotapes

As we see it, the most interesting design is the one that succeeds in hitting a raw nerve, the raw nerves of the world around us, of people around us, our won raw nerves. It is lie a badly decayed tooth on which we spray a little design as if it were orgeat with honey. A very sweet liquid however, that, as the tooth is decayed, makes us mad with pain.
Design that gives us the creeps, that forces us to think again about things we had taken for granted, that leaves us out of breath.


2. Design and social commitment?

In our disciplinary discourse we often discuss design in relationship to social circumstances; all the more so if it applies to teaching. Perhaps in all sincerity we believe in these social aspects only up to a certain point. It is not a question of resistance or generational lack of commitment. Perhaps the little faith we have in social aspects comes from our knowledge of two centuries of failed utopias and from our horror of excessive simplifications and ever so simple short-cuts.

Perhaps design for special social circumstances does not exist. Let us say that what can exist is good and bad design, and extricating oneself from this is already quite complicated.
What we can do is to look out attentively for the raw nerves in the society in which we live; to look closely at the world; to look for the most difficult cases of decay and to try to work on these.


3. Design as a narration

To use design as if it were a tale, a story, a litmus paper with – as ingredients – our fears, our vanity, our manifest desires and those unmentionable; without forgetting irony and the taste of paradox.
In the first place design is desire. Necessities can be faced if we understand them first of all as desires. Designing a better world was a dream of the last century: why should we commit the same mistakes again?

Perhaps it would already be sufficient a design able to describe the world, able to make visible the most ambiguous and difficult physical and conceptual places: those that nobody wants to think about.
At most, if we want to be really ambitious, a design that tries to open up some daylights towards other possible worlds.


4. Transfer from answers to the formulation of new questions

Design is one of the key ingredients of change in the contemporary world. It creates metamorphoses that modify even the role and very work of designers themselves. We are living in a world in which the designer is not longer asked to supply productive, cultural and social answers to given problems, but rather to formulate new questions. Everybody is able to make the hundred billionth chair. To make us think again, you need to mobilize a different kind of qualification.


5. …and then, what are we going to teach?

To define innovative hypothesis, to work on raw nerves and the question marks of the world that will come, but above all new visions of the world in which we live here and now: theories and ideas that intersect and intertwine with the design of goods, services, analogical and digital communication in its multitude of forms.

A school of design should supply general training in design culture and concern product design, architecture and interior design, equipping the students at the same time with the conceptual, methodological and technical tools most suitable from case to case.


6. Windows to all conceivable worlds

The objective is to train professionals able to relate to the unpredictability and volatility of the contemporary world; able to face consciously the new needs of the world of production so as to open windows to likely new universes.
Plugging in effectively to design offices and industrial companies, or as an even more interesting challenge, supplying that expertise needed to devise the offices and companies of the near future that, in some ways, is already with us.


7. An ambiguity (straddling the analogical and digital)

We are living in a world that places a lot of demands on the digital areas of design. How much autonomy do they have in a wider (and longer) discourse? And what type of person do we want to train? It is necessary to find equilibrium between an immediate applicability and the potential for professional growth. It is therefore necessary to understand around which kind of “core” skills the training course is going to be formed. How important is to know how to draw freehand? And to know how to make a prototype in cardboard stuck together with glue? Is it relevant for the objectives of training a person, who will work in a world which will inevitably be penetrated by digital tools, to know the reasons for a building remaining standing or falling down?

There are design terms, such as obsolescence, maintenance, suability, simplicity, intelligence, that are transversal to the analogical and digital worlds. Buildings, an exhibition, an interior all have a structural coherence comparable to that of a website, for instance. Certain websites do not function any more after three months, and it could be that it is right as nobody would really expect a leaflet to last for ever. Other sites and projects go on for years without any problem. Where is the difference? What can we learn from the world of analogical design?


8. Then, what about the degree course?

The principle effect of a degree course must not be that of making the student acquire a certain amount of training credits and/or knowledge, but rather:
–    acquiring a method of work based on management of resources, the constant evaluation of objectives and tools and on rapid prototyping
–    acquiring the ability (relational qualification) to communicate with people who come from different professions.

In addition, it will be a matter of training designers who understand that the project is a series of connections of cultural, industrial, economic, regional, technological and political elements.
Another basic element is the specific profile of students who study design. We are talking about generational gaps rich in detail and particular elements. The challenge is to transform limits and bonds into richness and potential.

The traditional types of transmission system of knowledge are often in difficult and crisis. The coercive and/or disciplinary methods are destined to failure. Only workshop or laboratory techniques with frequent corrections and a clear on-line presence will be able to function.


9. On rapid prototyping (demo or die)

Rapid prototyping is a typical practice of engineering and design that can be extended to any type of planning project. It consists in producing various unrefined and economic prototypes (both in terms of cost of materials and in terms of time( in the early phases of the planning process when other methodologies limit themselves to studies on paper and screen. Its basis is the communicative and cognitive strength of the prototype (or demo) regardless of how limited it might be.

The basic characteristic of the demo is that it hints at a certain part of the project. It is for the designer to understand which part is appropriate or necessary from time to time. The demo combines in itself a self-verification of the constructive and planning capability and an act of communication towards the client or, if you prefer to speak in terms of participative planning, toward the user. It is the principal tool for involving the user, client or citizen in an effective and comprehensible way.


10.  Who are designers and what do they do?

A designer must have knowledge, experience and the ability to find out on his own or by other means the following:

–    The various levels on whih human communication takes place: cognitive, physical, emotional, social; how the designer’s affect communication in unpredictable ways, how there is no communication without misunderstanding.
–    The characteristics of man as a tangle of daily and exceptional experience, fabricated and spontaneous, usual and nique: experiences and perceptions that take place in a context of interactive, technological and non-technological environment in constant evolution.
–    How one proceeds by background and ethnographic and almost journalistic techniques in order to create credible settings.
–    Various planning processes, various applicable methods in moments of the planning in order to interact with wan dthink aout the project and of how to release the creativity ability of a team.
–    How one interacts with a project just begun, a project in progress and a completed project: how this interaction is adapted to the various contexts it has to be received in: how the consequences, desired and undesired, of those interactions are managed.
–    The state of the art in planning of environments, objects and analogical, digital and interactive systems related to software, hardware systems, work organizations and the possibility of outsourcing parts of the project.
–    The various prossibilities of prototyping and of how they are applied to the various stages of the planning process, maintaining a correct balance between finished and unfinished products.
–    How interaction is tested from an ergonomic point of view, the observation of user behaviour and the behaviour of the planned system when functioning, whether analogical or digital in its hardware and software components.

Obviously the designer is not an expert in everything but is able to find the right experts and communicate with them, understand their point of view, the parameters of workd and put them into effect.
Within the meaning of this, the designer operates in the knowledge that his work, as any cultural work, is not the end-product, but a network node the re-elaborates, re-creates and substantially makes human culture.


11. And the teaching staff?

The following are the criteria we would put forward when thinking of putative teaching staff:

–    Good communication skills: in the first place we want people wo are able to guide a class of committed youngsters on the way to becoming adults in the difficult task of discovering themselves and becoming designers.
–    Ability to relate: the lecturers will constantly work together with other professionals, teachers and researchers of a high level; this ability, this attitude is demanded of them just as it is of the students
–    Diversity: the teaching staff will come from very different professional and training routes, both Italian and foreign; we think that this diversity that is reflected in the teaching methods and specific development of projects is a great source of wealth. The presence in the lecure hall (whether on annual contracts or a visiting professors) of engineers, psychologists, architects, designers, computer scientists and media experts will guaranteee a clear and complete vision of the problem of contemporary planning. The lecturers are significantly different in age. This is another important element.
–    Vision: our lecturers are harbingers of ideas as well as of measurable and transferable technical expertise; these ideas, visions of what a dedisgn project can and must be, are one of the most precious values that we bring to this course of study.
–    Specific technical excellence: each teacher has a proven ability in his field, gained in actual professional practice.


12. Practice makes perfect

We conclude this article by turning to Confucius’ overused, though still relevant, aphorism: If I listen I forget; if I see I remember; if I do I do understand. Any educational course should start with this conceptual element by trying to mix the Anglo-Saxon method with the Italian.

By the Anglo-Saxon model, we mean university teaching based resolutely on an empirical approach, close attention to laboratory work, short and intense projects, numerical and objective evaluation of parameters, visible forms of competition among students.
On the other hand, by the Italian model instead, we mean staritng from generalist and transversal principles based on theoretical lessons and advanced monographic courses, working over long periods of time with stretched rhythms, making students compete in a subtle way that persons from outside normally don’t associate at their well-established dynamics fo business context.

A final word. As Achille Campanile said: “…readers are imaginary people created out of the imagination of writers…


(image on top: Superstudio, Dodici citta’ ideali, 1972)

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