four time four is sixteen (wobbling solutions part 3)

Martino Gamper, “One hundred chairs in one hundred days in one hundred different ways

The traditional practices of industrial design (11) focuses on the shape of the object, its materials and its productive process. It is generally based upon various branches of engineering. Once you add ergonomics to industrial design the field starts to expand: the human body appears, with its dimensions and its limits. Ergonomics and physiology become relevant.

Widen the scope and you arrive to the present situation: objects become interactive, computers disappear into the objects. Interaction design, computer sciences and various branches of psychology have to be added.

Moving the camera further backward, we see the objects as nodes within networks. The background becomes foreground (and viceversa): objects become touchpoints, part of complex services. Some more computer science, without forgetting marketing and business management.

Can we broaden our angle of vision even more? But above all, is it useful and does it make sense to look at a wider field?

If we accept this challenge, we will notice that these levels of organization and activity of objects, services, environments and human are governed by practices that are probably best studied by sociology (and science-fiction, someone would say) (12).

In this progressive widening of perspective, all the design techniques we mentioned before still apply to their specific level (you may design a complex service architecture, but the underlying layers of computer-human interaction and ergonomics still apply). Climbing up to the level of practices has the great advantage of distributing properly the various disciplinary responsibilities.

How do we communicate the results of a practice-driven research? (13). This is currently the domain of technical reports and PhD theses, whose audience is the research community. If our research on practices wants to have a broader effect, it has to be concise and highly impressionistic. We will have to rely on media able to transfer knowledge in both an explicit and an implicit way: videoclip, documentary, fiction, photography and the like.

It is an apparent contradiction that we have chosen to share our ideas in the form of a written text. McLuhan and his “the medium is the message” is one of the few truths we carry from the twentieth century into the twenty-first. We are perfectly aware of the power of a two-minute clip on YouTube: such a product would have allowed us to reach a much larger number of so-called “contacts”, yet the “youtubiness” of it all would have taken prominence and this was not what we wanted (14).

> more on Marshall McLuhan

Finally, before entering the sixteen families of our grid, we would like to share the conditions of relevance for our selection and classification (15). The families of items collected by us always refer to “objects”, whether they are analog or digital. Of course when we say “object” we say it in a philosophical sense: Bakelite glasses are an object, a bike-sharing service is another object, the content of a tape cassette with Commodore 64 software (do you remember?) is again an object.

> good old times…

We like to start from contemporary situations and environment (mostly having to do with “everyday” life) and then go back in time to see if there were other places and people busy with similar problems. After grouping these findings into the sixteen families we mentioned above, we went further in our reflection and we let ourselves be led to some curious results springing from our classification exercise.

So far, we have mostly focused on the relationship between the “how” and the “what”. Perhaps it could be useful to be spend some few words on the “why ‘” (i.e. what are the objectives of our course).

Why on earth devote all this energy to re-classifying the knowable universe of material culture?

Walter Aprile and Stefano Mirti (who did shape this course) have been working for years in the realm of teaching. Hundreds of minds from every nation, race, age or background. Years and years of teaching in schools of all levels under many different climates (16).

During the past ten or fifteen years, the circumstances have led us to focus on “higher education” (which dealsl with students aged between 20 and 35). All schools we know are organized around the concept of “how”. And since they don’t work at all, we started to have doubts about the effectiveness of school systems as they are organized.

Let me introduce Donkey Kong and the  Nintendo world…

Imagine four students. Alfredo, Barbara, Charles and Diana.

Alfredo and Barbara are in design school. Charles and Diana are enrolled in a school of fashion.

The dream of Alfredo is to go to work for Nintendo, designing interfaces for the Wii. Not so far from the dream of Diana (aiming for the marketing and communication department in Issey Miyake company in Tokyo). Meanwhile, Barbara is in love with the conceptually sophisticated self-production of Martino Gamper, while Charles would like to start a small company with some friends to explore the Sardinian regional textile tradition and cross it over with contemporary ingredients (Charles is a great admirer of Antonio Marras).

Pleats Please…

Under the current dominant mode of knowledge transmission, these four people would be grouped according to principles related to the “thing” (do you want to study graphic or fashion? design or visual arts?). Still, the empirical experience tells us that in terms of transmission of knowledge, the relevant bit has to do with the “how”. Everyone knows that Alfred (Mr. Nintendo) should be in class together with Diana (Ms. Miyake, ie. the corporate world). There should also be another classroom where Barbara (self-design) sits next to Carlo (fashion as limited series of textile handicrafts).

Being teachers really shaped our thoughts. Thousand of doubts and uncertainties assail us every morning as we try to transfer knowledge from older generations to younger ones.

Antonio Marras’ world

As you might reasonably expect, the following classes have been organized around sixteen design “situations”. Almost all of these situations is integrated by some weblinks and the usual bibliography of paper sources. Our kind reader is invited to leave this book and move on to read other stuff every time a reference tickles his fancy..

Throughout the text we present some hard questions. These are the questions that come to our mind when we look at the world through this particular set of sixteen glasses. These questions generally don’t have precise answers, and when we do not have them, we are fairly unsure about them (be warned that when our answers look convincing and appropriate, this is the moment when we are lying). Our sympathy goes to the designer who is able to come up with new questions and never considered issues (compared to his colleague who works producing accurate and detailed answers to given questions).

At any rate, we are more proud of our questions than of our answers. Here is the first question for you:

Imagine you go to restaurant with your friends, to have dinner. You arrive and you are shown a kitchen where you are told you’ll have to cook the dinner by yourself. And there is more: you’ll also have to set the table and serve yourself. Once you have eaten you will have to clean up everything, and – of course – you will have to be very happy to pay for the whole thing. The restaurant will give us only the ingredients and a series of simple recipes in iconic format.

A strange restaurant indeed.

If you think for a moment, it is not so strange. This is what Ikea does with furniture: Ikea has created a new set of behaviors for us. We are all happy to transport the things home, assemble them on our own, and feel incredibly smart and contemporary because we have paid a lot of money and performed a number of operation previously performed by a vendor. Ikea, in other words, has relalabeled what used to be the work of porters and movers as a part of acceptable middle class living.

Why does Ikea manage to pull of this magic feat, and others cannot? Where is the secret?

Odd intro to Ikea world


11. For the ones interested in this topic, the best introduction to the world of industrial design is: John Heskett, “Industrial Design”, Thames & Hudson, New York, 1985.

At the same time we shouldn’t forget the recent book by Richard Sennett: “The Craftsman“, Yale University Press, 2008. Sennett comes up with an amount of very interesting questions (and convincing arguments) related to the supposed relevance of industry as we know and its production models. A very interesting text that helps us understand how the newest technologies could bring the idea of “craftmanship” at the center stage. Sennett says: “The mistake that the economy is paying is to have based itself on a short term vision and a model of organizational flexibility, instability and speed to adapt to change. This is also what happened with the management of human capital: no resources have been invested in knowledge, and the workers during these recent yearshave been able able to acquire only a partial experience, working in fragmented and unstable companies. In my book “The Craftsman” I highlight the difference between those who just know how to do something and are content with that, and those who possess a craftsmanship that leads to continual improvement. Today this vision has no place in large organizations”.

(published in: “Il Sole 24 Ore”, 14 January 2008)

Richard Sennett, “The Craftsman

12. We are convinced that science fiction is essential reading for designers. R.A. Heinlein defined science fiction as “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on knowledge of the real world, past and present, and a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method”. Of course, this definition works for Heinlein science fiction writing (as well as H.G. Wells and J. Verne), which we call “hard” science fiction – his successor today is perhaps Greg Egan. But we also find science fiction of a more “social” nature, from Aldous Huxley all the way to Philip K. Dick and Margaret Atwood.

This genre is based on speculation about the society and the behavior of humans. A good reference is also, of course, James Graham Ballard, who stated that he was more interested in the “inner space” of the human mind that in the “outer space” of interplanetary vastities. We recommend “Myths of the Near Future” and “The Wind from Nowhere.” “Empire of the Sun” is very readable, but atypical. Designers definitely need to read science fiction (in large doses) to accept the the world as everchanging. History teaches us that everything changes, sometimes very quickly. Science fiction tells us, indirectly, how can we imagine the future.

The direct application of science-fiction to design produces the critical design, another of our passions – but we stop here, so that this note does not become a different book.

Margaret Atwood, “Oryx and Crake

13. This question has been answered by F. Sleeswijk Visser in her dissertation: “Bringing people into the everyday life of design”. It can be downloaded from:

14. In a world that is getting more and more global, it is useful to remember that Aprile and Mirti are two typically decadent European intellectuals, their minds having been totally corrupted by traditional media and thus completely out of place. Despite the perturbing, insistent availability of the galaxy of contemporary media they are avid readers of newspapers made of paper as well as books (more paper). They are always suspicious (but fully up to date) on digital culture, they blog lazily and lazily visit Facebook, Twitter, and other various tools of Evil. Once the confession has been made (don’t forget they come from a Catholic culture), with an open Darwinistic-oriented attitude, they are confident that some talented geek student will have the desire and pleasure to pour the content of this book into YouTube videos.

15. Geographers give us very useful warnings about descriptions. First of all, we have to be aware that a full description is completely impossible, because it would be infinite. Because of the infinite amount of details that could be observed in the world, a description must be in fact a selection. The parameters of the selection are what makes the description meaningful.

In an ideal process we start from the goals, from which we take the filtering parameters. Once we have the parameters, we can start observing. The nineteenth-century explorer who goes up the Nile searching for its source would pass by the Pyramids without noticing them, because of their irrelevance to him. From this point of view, the description is not only an analysis but it is a 100% “design” activity. These issues (as well as subtler ones) are discussed at lenght in: Giuseppe De Matteis, “Le metafore della terra. La geografia umana tra mito e scienza”, Feltrinelli, 1994. Similar consideratins apply to science, or even to very simple observation activities: every experiment, every operation related to data collection is supported by a hypothesis defining clearly what is data and what is noise.

16. Aprile’s first job has been as a teacher at Espero, an educational spinoff of Apple Italia. After a strictly technological interlude of a few years in Pittsburgh, PA and Mexico City (respectively machine translation at Carnegie Mellon and system administration for a distance education project called RedEscolar) he spent several years tormenting students at Interaction Design Institute Ivrea. He has done the same in many other places, from Sardinia to Southeast Asia and Jordan all the way to other exotic places like the Politecnico of Milan and NABA. He has spent the last two years teaching and researching at the Delft University of Technology, Netherlands.

Meanwhile Mirti began his teaching career with five years in a junior high-school on the outskirts of Turin. After that, he can mention eighteen months spent dealing with the Information Design students of Tama Fine Arts Academy in Tokyo, and the five years at Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (where he met Aprile). Currently he is the head of the Design school in NABA, Milan. Like his colleague Aprile he loves to travel and see new places and people. He has led many workshops, seminars and all kinds of activities in places like the Architectural Association in London, the Design School of Bezalel (Jerusalem), Bangkok, Seoul, New York, Doha …

Terry Gilliam, “Brazil” (or, Orwell vs Huxley…)

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