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Golden Ratio: visualization

Timeless concepts & thinkers & institutions (people and things you should know regardless of this class):


Athen Acropolis

Golden Ratio

cathedral (European Medieval)

Leonardo Da Vinci, Codex Atlanticus

Johannes Gutenberg, Movable type

Ryōan-ji rock garden (zen gareden)

Fordism + Ford “Model T”



Marcel Duchamp

Aldous Huxley, “Brave new World

British Museum

Victoria & Albert Museum


George Orwell, “1984

Marshall Plan

Apollo program

Richard Buckminster Fuller

Marshall McLuhan

William Burroughs, cut-up

Andy Warhol

Woodstock Festival



Masters of XXth century architecture (these are names you should know as general culture). These are generally labeled under the name of “the pioneers of modern architecture”:

Le Corbusier, “Toward an Architecture“,  “Journey to the East” (diaries) + some images + “Cabanon

Frank Lloyd Wright

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Walter Gropius and Bauhaus school

Masters of XXth century design (these are names you should know as general culture), please note that some names already mentioned in the category of “architects”, do pop-up again in the “designer” family:

Walter Gropius and Bauhaus

Constructivism (see also Constructivism in art)

Charles & Ray Eames: Lounge Chair and ottoman

Achille Castiglioni

Dieter Rams

Ettore Sottsass, “Design Metaphors“ + Memphis

Paul Rand

Steve Jobs

Some other relevant masters (not important as the previous ones, still pretty cool and interesting):

Isamu Noguchi


Franco Albini

Here a special family: the “radical” designers (key chapter to contemporary design and architecture):




Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Catalog

Rem Koolhaas, “Delirious New York

Some other important designers and architects (it would be nice you get to know these as well):

– Leon Theremin, “Theremin”

Harry Beck, and his: “London Underground Map

Les Paul

Colin Chapman, “Lotus 7



Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Architects and Planners (VSBA) , “Learning from Las Vegas

Cini Boeri

Massimo and Lella Vignelli, “New York Underground Map

Enzo Mari, “Autoprogettazione

RPBW (Renzo Piano Building Workhsop)

Norman Foster

Ron Arad

Jonathan Ive and Apple design team

Zaha Hadid


John Maeda

Herzog & de Meuron

Casey Reas

– Massimo Banzi, “Arduino

Important companies, institutions and products (quite relevant in the history of contemporary design):

Bic Cristal pen

Corradino D’Ascanio: Vespa

– Mikail Kalashnikov, Ak-47 Assault rifle


Toyota Corolla

Harley Davidson




Bell Labs

Xerox Parc


Philips Design

MIT  Medialab :One Laptop Per Child




Torino Geodesign


Designers who have been considered very cool in the last 10 years (very useful to impress friends and to be knowledgeable on “fashionable” design:

Hella Jongerius / Droog

Marten Baas


Concepts quite relevant in contemporary design (alphabetically sorted):

arms industry


car pooling


do it yourself (DIY)

– Dubai (economy of)


industrial cluster

“Lean Manufacturing” (Just-in-time)



peer to peer


service design

social network

Soft power

– stakeholder

value chain

Curious and odd designers & things (people/things/concepts you should know to have nice conversations with your friends):


Shaker Furnitures

Ferdinand Cheval and his world

– Barolo (wines from Piedmont)


Focaccia di Recco (Italian bread)

The kitchen debate

Dungeons & Dragons

– Werner Herzog: “Fitzcarraldo”

Sam Peckinpah: “Wild Bunch

– Terry Gilliam, “Brazil

– Ridley Scott, “Blade Runner

– Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski, “Matrix

some final thoughts

Werner Herzog, “Fitzcarraldo“, 1982

We are at now the end of our journey. In sixteen classes we have tried to classify design intended in several different ways.

We started by individuals and their effect on the world, something we could define as “Klaus Kinski in Fitzcarraldo“: a model where you have a titanic effort in order to achieve any potential goal.

We then spent a fair deal of time observing various talents (usually known as the “great masters” of design: Ettore Sottsass, Charles and Ray Eames, Achille Castiglioni, Franco Albini, or other intelligences who prefer to work in groups (Archigram, rather than the Japanese Metabolist or the Italians Archizoom and Superstudio).

Ettore Sottsass with some of his “Memphis” objects

Charles and Ray Eames: “Lounge Chair and ottoman” and assembly diagram, 1956

Franco Albini, desk for Knoll, 1958

Groups that can be incredibly small and cohesive: the above mentioned “Kinski in Fitzcarraldo” mode we can be replaced with the equally charming “Wild Bunch” (as narrated by Sam Peckinpah).

Archigram (Ron Herron), “Walking City“, 1964

Kisho Kurokawa (member of the Metabolist group), Nakagin Capsule Tower, Shimbashi, Tokyo, 1972

Superstudio, “The Continuous Monument. An Architectural model for total urbanization“, 1969

Archizoom, “No-Stop City“, 1970

Collaborative systems (think about the universe of Dungeons & Dragons and the logic of the role-playing game) and systems based on comparison and competition: card games like bridge or sudoku.

Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson: “Dungeons & Dragons”, 1974

We then passed the cutting edge of research: the Xerox Parc, MIT  Medialab, without forgetting the Bell Labs (not so marginal in the definition of the contemporary world).

In this extent the MIT Medialab is a source of extraordinary toys, games and experiments. Great fun, extremely fascinating, yet from time to time, there is a certain lack of practical results. Paradigmatic of this is the project  “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC) an initiative of humanitarian design with the goal of developing and producing a hundred-dollar laptop for children. The laptop is designed for children living in developing countries, and when it came out it was cheered with hope and  enthusiasm. Oddly enough,  while a remarkable design quality, excellent hardware and software was develope, not much effort was spent to imagine an implementation model. For example. Given the Bolivian grade school system and given one million laptops, how they will cross? How these computers will intersect the daily work of students and professors? MIT Medialab projects often seem designed to operate on a tabula rasa, that is a world of people without practice. These users do not exist (with all the attached consequences).

Nicholas Negroponte, Charles Kane, Seymour Papert, Alan Kay, Mitch Bradley, “One Laptop Per Child“, project, 2005

In our class/journey we intersected the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century as well as important companies and products, (actually we admit we did talk about the Vespa, without mentioning the very important Bic Cristal pen, and the AK 47 Kalashnikov assault rifle).

Vespa Piaggio GS 160, 1962/4 (Vespa has been on the market with various models from 1947 until today)

Décolletage Plastique design team at Société PPA (later Société Bic), Bic Cristal, 1950/today

Mikail Kalashnikov, Ak-47 Assault rifle, 1949/today

By now, nobody should be surprised if we remind that the arm industry is one of the prime movers of technological change (today as ever, since we were living in caves). If you wonder how various inventions have been used over time, the first or second application are typically related to war (being the third generally referred to the sex industry).

In this extent, this is not such a strange phenomenon: you take a group of focused people (dedicated to a specific collective practice well understood and perceived as relevant), well organized, with good resources and highly competitive edges, and you end up being right at the technological frontier. Of course, this was true in the neolithic, during Middleage, in the XXth Century as well as now.

As we have expanded our observation zoom, we moved from the European cathedrals and Medieval toward Zen gardens, Chinese funerals and Nigerian coffins.

Finally, we reached the tools of mass communication, constantly moving back and forth between the traditional analogic world to new utopias (or rather, dystopias) typical of the digital world and the so-called “new media” (do you remember “Matrix“?)

Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski, “Matrix”, 1999

In short, everything we went through during our course was fun to search and organize, and the whole preparation was nice because who writes did learn a lot. Hopefully also the students did enjoy/learn, and this last post is to explain why the class was called: “wobbling solutions”, and why these “unstable” things seem to be so relevant.

Let’s get back to the introduction classes, when we did make the example about the four high-school students willing to enter design and fashion school. By then the observation was related to the possible organization of a school in terms of “how” and not on the typical “what”. If such a thing would happen (to move from “graphic”, “product design”, “fashion”, etc, toward studies for people who want to work on self-productions, corporate world, small-size business, etc), we would probably reconsider who is a designer and what does he do. The traditional designer intended as some kind of “creator” would transform himself in a “facilitator”, using different tools (practical and conceptual) upon different situations and environments.

If we consider the example of the “Turin Geodesign” mentioned before, we have the description of a designer working together with a community of people as well as a company, developing a project whose brief was clearly defined by the community itself.  In this system the project x can be declined in the form of product, service, exhibition, public performance, depending on the needs and desires of the community asking for it.

To avoid any misunderstanding: using the word “community”, we don’t mean necessarily the limited world of charities and/or group of people busy into social and humanitarian activities. By “community” we mean a group of people getting together for some specific needs or desires (in this extent in Torino Gedodesign we used the term: “comunita’ di pratiche”, community of practices). From this point of view, those who get together to feed the homeless are a community, those who go to suppport AC Milan every sunday at San Siro football stadium are another community. To get together to collect coins or stamp, does define a community. Go to to church or to the mosque is another very fine example.

The design solutions found upon this approach are by their nature “unstable”. Unstable because of human desires that moves and change progressively refining them on a constant and endless process.

Solutions need and are subject to a number of adjustments. A succession of unstable solutions, having this clear understanding that once we reach a solution, tomorrow we will have to start again, working on the next refinement. At the same time, the unstable base of our solutions relies on the contact with the community of users and with the deeper understanding of its practices: the only possible source to correct and improve the whole mechanism and make it better. A little by little the project is not anymore a “final” episode (as it used to be). The project is an endless process of continous solutions without a given and/or final deadline.

By accepting this approach, we have only two fixed anchor points (the size of the group designing and size of the group for which you design).

Everything else is highly unstable, and this is the reason why this class uses the size of these two groups as a general structure for the various classes.

Ruggero Pierantoni, in his essay on “Le gioie della sincronia” describes the passion of totalitarian regimes for the elections (fake, but effective in their own way) to spread the importance of acting in synchrony as a mean of persuasion, of exaltation and of discipline. Crossing the symbol of the Italian Communist Party when voting, going to church on Sunday or bring waste recycling. What you do doesn’t really matter as long as what you do is done together with a mass of people, in sync.

We like to end these sixteen classes remembering Pierantoni’s final note. This happy and terrifying mass acting in total synchronycity (Internet, Woodstock, Nuremberg) is always at risk of splintering because finally “…no more than twenty men who conquer Cuba, few enter the Bastille […] a man or a few more kill President Kennedy in Dallas, a man wins the naval battle in Azio […] within a split second everything can fall apart”.

And this brings us, to our beginning: the few, the individual, you the reader. Exposed to a series of arguments, ideas and thoughts. To be taken, overturn, thrown away if you don’t need them.

We started the first class listening Lennon and McCartney singing “Paperback Writer“.

For the sake of symmetry (although imperfect) we end with Marcel Duchamp. The great American artist, thinker, chess player reminds us not to forget that “there is no solution because there is no problem.

A great way of looking “how” things are made.

Or maybe not?

Marcel Duchamp: “Marcel Duchamp author d’une table”

Name and things useful + important (to be remembered for the exam):

Franco Albini



Bell Labs

Bic Cristal pen

Achille Castiglioni

Corradino D’Ascanio: Vespa

– Marcel Duchamp

Dungeons & Dragons

– Charles & Ray Eames: Lounge Chair and ottoman


– Mikail Kalashnikov, Ak-47 Assault rifle


– Memphis

MIT  Medialab :One Laptop Per Child

Sam Peckinpah: “Wild Bunch

Ettore Sottsass


Xerox Parc

– Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski, “Matrix

16. the mass for the mass

Michael Lang, John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, and Artie Kornfeld, Woodstock Festival (1969)

Our classification matrix, as all arrays, has to be fully satisfied. We have now one last case to be analyzed: the designer active in the “all for all” case.

The “all for all” case in particularly difficult because it is not so easy to find situations where large quantities of undifferentiated people work for the benefit of … other large groups of people. A quick analysis shows that within these masses you always (well,  almost always) have defined power structures controlling, channeling and guiding the work of the “all”.

Fiesta of San Fermin in Pamplona, Navarra, 2007. That’s the world’s famous, annual bullfighting party, brought to fame in 1926 by the then lesser known author, Ernest Hemingway, in his novel: “The Sun Also Rises”.

Although we all know several examples of this kind (Woodstock rather than the big football game in the European Champions League or the like), it is pretty clear that this mass has to be channeled, organized, motivated and so on.

Francesc Mitjans Miró, Lorenzo García Barbón, Josep Soteras Mauri, “Camp Nou“, Barcelona, 1957

Once this said, we can agree that the process of organizing a football match at Barcelona’s Camp Nou is inherently different from the organization of the Nazi rally in Nuremberg in 1934 (as rendered by Leni Riefensthal in “Triumph of the Will“, 1935).

Screenshot from: Leni Riefensthal in “Triumph of the Will”, 1935.

FC Barcelona is an atypical football company, owned by 170,000 shareholders who are the same people who fill the stands of the stadium during the season. To the eye, the final effect (product) is similar to what we saw two years ago at the opening of the Beijing Olympics stadium. Obviously, being an happy fan and shareholder of the Catalan crowd is quite different than being a pawn directed and commanded by the Chinese Communist Party propaganda apparatus.

Beijing Olympic Games, Opening Ceremonies, 2008

Woodstock Festival (1969), original billboard

Even if the digital world, the category of “everyone for everyone” looks to be essentially empty.

This is the case of online collaborative environments (Wikipedia being the classic, but the same could be said of Amazon where readers can significatively contribute with their reviews). On this subject Jakob Nielsen reminds us of an empirical law that can be summed up as: “90/9/1”: 90% of users use the information but don’t contribute, 9% contribute occasionally, and 1% contribute very often. If you check the datas,  the majority of contributions in system like Wikipedia or the like (articles, reviews, postings…) is made by the 1% of users.

The distribution becomes more unbalanced (95/5/0.1) if we talk about blogs. In front of (over) a billion Internet users (who read) there are only 55 million blogs (5% of all Internet users). However, there is only a 0.1% who writes every day on his blog.

In the case of Wikipedia, the distribution becomes closer to 99.8/0.2/0.003 (much more extreme).

How do you keep track of the bubbling mass of information that is Wikipedia? This chaotic-looking mosaic is one attempt to show which topics are contained in the online encyclopedia, and those most hotly contested. (Bruce Herr, Todd Holloway, 2007)


As explained before, to get very close to the “all for all” system we should look within the various folk and religious festivals like the Carnival of Oranges in Ivrea, or the bull race in Pamplona or the complex mechanisms behind the organization of Palio in Siena (where the whole city is involved in the year long preparation, followed by the incredible celebrations if your “contrada” wins).

Carnevale di Ivrea (the battle of oranges)

Palio di Siena

Or even closer to the true meaning of “all for all” is the typical example of political rallies where large masses of people are together to multiply their strength and the communication of their values. The fall of the Berlin Wall is paradigmatic in this sense (the kind of operation where the final result could be accomplished only by “all” the people). Of course, like any other project belonging to the previous families, also within this category you do not always reach the desired final result (Tien-An-Men carnage for all), or generate unexpected consequences.

The fall of Berlin’s wall, 9th November 1989

Nicolae Ceausescu goes to the balcony for what will be his last speech in front of the huge Rumanian crowd. He is working on the “one for all” system, hoping to trigger enough enthusiasm and energy to transform the whole rally into a galvanizing “all for all” moment. Horribly (for him), everything takes an unexpected swing and the whole rally transforms itself into “all against one”, with the dire consequences (for Ceausescu) we remember.

Nicolae Ceauşescu flees Bucharest by helicopter on December 22, 1989

It is nice to finish this chapter pointing to the well-know example of on-line anonymous altruism (also called: pirate file sharing). Using a protocol like BitTorrent, for example, there is the possibility to force the user to share his files, and to limit his ability to download data in proportion to his offer (basically a forced “do ut des”).

BitTorrent: how does it work?

Curiously, The Pirate Bay (the largest BitTorrent server), has no control over what users upload and download, and relies on the “good heart” of people. The rules of the game, however, are partly dictated by the interface design (if the interface makes it easier to share data a great number of non-technical user will share them not because of altruism but simply as a default choice).

The available numbers do suggest this policy: in this moment (12.24 GMT on 01/18/2010), The Pirate Bay backs over two million files shared by 22,078,666 users out of which 12,577,018 have finished downloading and are just sharing their (purely altruistic behaviou); with 9,501,648 users downloading and uploading data at the same time (mixed behavior). This means that we have more  than half of people acting completely altruistically.

The typical pirate activity processed via Internet (and you reading these note could easily be within this category), contains many elements of interest to the designer: it shows us that altruism (if there were doubts about it) is likely when it is easy and passive, while it becomes  not-s0-likely when the choices  are multiple and it requires a visible commitment of resources.

The Pirate Bay homepage

Name and things useful + important (to be remembered for the exam):


peer to peer


Woodstock Festival

15. the mass for a big group

Giotto, “Matrimonio della Vergine”, in: Cappella degli Scrovegni, Padua, 1303

This case, very interesting, has as a typical example the construction of museums. A typical European museum (meaning a public one) is typically funded by the State through taxes. The State, however, does not make a public consultation to determine if the majority of the citizens will ever go to see an exhibition or if they understand the great relevance related to the possession of a public collection of Impressionist masters or Egyptian mummies.

The state acts in a “paternalistic” attitude: it is typical of fathers to decide that to go to school is important for the child, even if the child doesn’t like to go or doesn’t understand how important is it. In this extent the mechanism behind the setting up and managing of a museum is similar to other public services provided by the public authority (theatres, stadiums, parks, hospitals, etc.).

Apollo 10 spacecraft in the Science Museum, London

From a designer point of view, the most interesting aspect of the whole project is the one related to the wide number of “stakeholders” involved in the whole process. If you are Jonathan Ive (the head designer of the iPhone, iPod, iPad, etc.) the task is complex, but a lot of things are semplified by having just one final decision maker (Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple) who assumes full responsibility for the entire decisional process and also supports the designer in terms of internal consesus building (within Apple itself).

Jonathan Ive and Apple Design Team: “iMac“, 1998

At the opposite, if you are Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown engaged in the design of the new Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London on top of the normal design issues you have to deal with a number of various stake-holders + their conflicting objectives, goals and agendas.

In first instance you are dealing with the director of the National Gallery, with various spontaneous committees, town-planners, lovers of art, the media, Prince Charles, and countless others who make the design of such artifacts comparable to the war fought by Americans in Vietnam (invisible and merciless ennemies nested everywhere, your hands tied because of hidden political reasons, no clarity on the objectives, the total inability of decisional process, etc.)…

Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, “Sainsbury Wing” of the National Gallery, London, 1991

An extraordinary example of this kind is Maxxi, a recently opened museum in Rome (being Zaha Hadid the architect). As much as it may seem paradoxical, the museum was built from scratch in the absence of collection. Not even masters of Surrealism like Louis Bunuel or Andre’ Breton would have conceived such a thing: to decide to build a museum (and to have an architect actually doing so), without having the faintest idea of the content of the museum itself (by the way a contemporary art museum: an area that has not a  very clear definitions of what a museum is and how it should work).

Zaha Hadid, “Maxxi”, Rome, 2010

Another interesting example (of completely different nature) of  the “all for many” group is that of the potlatch. This term indicates a form of celebration in which a group makes gifts to another. These gifts, which commit the entire donor group are huge and self-destructive: the group receiving the gift has to reciprocate with a bigger one, until one of the two groups collapse for an exhaustion of resources (one of the groups win when the gift – given the quantity and quality of objects – it is virtually impossible to be repaid).

Indians arriving for a Potlatch, Alberni Area, Canada, c. 1890

For Canadians and Americans officers (the potlatch took place in the Northwest American tribes) the potlatch was a phenomenon to be repressed, Mauss (in his essay: “The Gift“) noticed that this kind of practice was found in several different social groups, recognizing the formalized gift as the real origin of all the various contemporary transactions.

Without going as far as the Nort-American Indian tribes, we can look at the typical Italian (or Mediterranean) marriage: the families involved have to go through a very complex and expensive process generally implying various kinds of debts, mortgages and loans (based upon a very strict code). To have a son (or a daughter) married is a celebration overlapped with very important social, economical and cultural elements. A whole universe that can be read and interpreted through the lens of the “potlatch.

October 1948: A shipment of flour on its way to Austria from New York; tags read ‘For European Recovery supplied by the U.S.A’, as part of the Marshall Plan.

The gift is in a collective sense, is the mechanism behind the project “Torino Geodesign“, developed with 50 Turinese communities in 2008 (Torino Geodesign was a project within Torino 2008 World Design Capital. Developed by Stefano Boeri, Stefano Mirti, Lucia Tozzi with the logistical support of Id-Lab).

Torino Geodesign: the opening of the exhibition, april 2008

Here the introduction to the whole project/proces:

In Turin, groups of citizens worked for over a year with top international designers and artists, and with manufacturing companies, to create 48 designs based on their desires.

Turin became an open-air workshop for intensive experimentation, pouring energy into public and private spaces, historic neighborhoods and social housing, on the river, in the streets, in schools, prisons and hospitals, New relationships networks were spawned, applying the concept of design in all its many facets.

With the Geodesign project, Torino 2008 World Design Capital has launched a process that will go on well after the exhibition is over, having put mechanisms into action that the city will take up and that will continue to evolve on their own.

Torino Geodesign: the mapping of the various communities on the city map

The project questioned the traditional design system (a designer who does make a project for a company later commercializing the new product for the mass market), suggesting a totally different approach.

In first instance there was the selection of about fifty communities of practice (groups of people united by an interest or activity, desire or need).

Communities were selected on the basis of a given multeplicity. Some communities were made by Italians, others were groups of immigrants; some communities were group of (economically) rich people, poors and so on. Each community was quite different from another, altogether they did represent the whole city in a reasonable complete way.

After the communities were chose, a series of meetings started, trying to understand with the actual people belonging to the various communities about their specific needs and desires. Albanian students wanted to make a magazine for non-Italian university students, the people of the circus schools wanted  a quick-to-assemble structure to be able to have an “instant” circus in the nice public squares downtown.

Each community generated “something” to be reached via design. A magazine, an object, a structure and so on. 48 communities with 48 different projects.

Ico Migliore, Mara Servetto: “Pop-up Circus” (for Torino Geodesign), 2008

Later on, each community (with its project) was paired with a specific designer (with the needed expertise) as well as a private company able to produce the specific thing. Henceforth an horizontal system was set, where the three different actors (communities, companies, professional designer) collaborate to reach a solution potentially correct and perfect (as the community giving the brief is involved in the project).

It is also important to underline a further constraint related to the various projects developed with the communities: each community was asked to focus on something potentially interesting for the whole city (and not only for the community itself). The rowing club on the river Po (one of the communities) in this extent was quite perfect from the right start: they wanted to develop a mobile/temporary dock for some competitions related to their activities. An excellent theme because the same system of temporary dock could have been used by all the citizens, regardless if they were involved in the rowing activities or not. In this sense each community was asked to imagine (and develop) a “gift” to the whole city.

Upon our grid we are talking about “small groups” (the specific community), but once you sum up together the 48 communities, companies and professional designers, you automatically reach the “large group” condition.

Fratelli Adriano, “Sentieri Urbani” (for Torino Geodesign), 2008

Objects that can be transformed, disassembled, objects that are lightweight, multi-purpose, assembled and self-built. A great many of Geodesign’s designs respond to age-old demands for easy handling, easy maintenance, low cost and flexibility. At some point, a wave of the postmodernism with a more reactionary bent had simply decided that these things had gotten boring, and worked in the name of a gleeful return to decoration and luxury, or at least a mediocre imitation of yesteryear’s conceptual art.

Things need to be continously reinvented, readapted and reinterpreted. Some once-inexpensive materials and procedures have become very valuable or rare in the post-industrial era, or just no longer work. At times, obsolete objects and habits need to be brought back, when they have been cancelled out by a design of a society too aseptic and little interested in community life, as seen,  for example, in public urinals and kiosks. Or other times, desires are taken up that had never considered before, such as for Fukasawa’s travel partition.

These pages show us the results of the 48 workshops. They present a showcase of prime examples, products and installations in the public space or communication projects that created complex alchemies out of relationships between extremely diverse situations, ideas and people.

The order is shown on the map; starting from Porta Palazzo, Geodesign’s symbolic epicenter, we move counter-clockwise on the route of the city’s places where the projects are clustered and then back to the start.

(from the “Projects” section on “Torino Geodesign” catalog)

Marti’ Guixe’: “Bocce colorate” (for Torino Geodesign), 2008

Vered Zaykovsky: “New Birimbau” (for Torino Geodesign), 2008

Torino Geodesign is a good example of user involvement of the highest level. It is infact possible to draw a line from simple and elementar marketing tools (focus groups and the like), through more sophisticated tools like context-mapping and cultural probes (where you try to understand the life and the value of the user), until you reach a “co-creation” stage. In this way the designer is not anymore a creator, but rather a facilitator, working closely with people who aren’t simple users or source of verification and confirmation to interviw: they become (together and thanks to the designer), some kind of co-creators and designers themselves.

Thinking to the stretched analogy between “potlach” and “co-creation”, the designer is now busy into some curious practical and empirical activities apparently positionated quite far from his everyday life (exploring – as it was in Geodesign case – some world that are close to him geographically, but actually quite remote in terms of imaginery and cultural and social values). Of course the designer is not an anthropologist, henceforth he will have to go through his fair share of mistakes. But this actually it doesn’t matter: the designer is not (and he should not become) an anthropologist or sociologist. He is just looking for new inspirations and ideas: his world does not end with a book but rather with a project. Under these circumstances the designer is allowed to transform himself in some kind of conceptual outlaw, free to roam in the endless spaces of unexpected cultures and imaginations.

As it happened in the other classes, here a final question for our student: who is the person the most faraway (from you) person whom you met today? Why was he or she so different from you? Because of what he/she was doing? Because of some hypothesis of yours? Because of the true (or supposed) essence of this person? What are you assuming about this person? And (last but not least), what are you assuming about yourself?

A cultural probe created by Robert James Djaelani

Name and things useful + important (to be remembered for the exam):

Apple design team

Zaha Hadid

Jonathan Ive

Marshall Plan



Torino Geodesign

Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, Architects and Planners (VSBA)

14. the mass for a small group

Reconstruction of Athena Nike (“Athena the victorious”) temple, Athen Acropolis, 427 BC)

Here we have a similar mechanism to the one we have seen in the class before, simply the whole design process is not meant for just one person but rather for a small elite. Phidias sculpting the golden statue of Zeus in Olympia is one of the finest (and most impressive) expressions of collective effort to glorify an individual (regardless the individual is a real person, dead, alive, invention).

Reconstruction of the chryselephantine statue of Zeus at the temple of Olympia

The hundre thousands workers (spread on a work lasted for centuries) allowing the Khmer civilization to build the complex of Angkor Wat, as a lasting glorification of the entire civilizations could be considered what we mean by “the mass for a small group”.

Angkor Wat ruins, Cambodia, c. XIIth to XVth century

It is obvious to note that moving from the Zeus temple to the whole archeological complex of Olympia, we reach a similar condition to the one of Angkor Wat (the mass working for a small group / selected elite), replacing the classical Greek cosmogony with the Khmer one).

Remaining in ancient Greece, the correct example of the mass for one persone, it would be then Delphi: a complex architecture/environment built in its wholeness for a single person (the famous oracle).

Delphi (Greece), the site of the Delphic oracle, c. 6th century BC

In the above mentioned cases, we have labour as a byproduct of some kind of coercion (physical rather than psychological.) To find some contemporary reference we could go to the Arabian peninsula: these countries are based on an economy based on an extraordinary amount of foreign labor at all levels, for the benefit of a local minority of citizens who enjoy the fruits of an economy developed very rapidly.

From this point of view it is interesting to note that there isn’t such a big difference between the Pakistani or Bangladeshi truck driver and the Western architect busy in the building site of some fancy skyscraper. In both cases these are people who sell their work at an higher price they would be able to sell it back home.

Nakheel Properties, “Palm Island” artificial complex in Dubai, 2001/on-going

From this point of view is also interesting to think for a moment on the multiple ways we could analyze the contemporary post-Fordist production system. On one side we can say that a corporation is a large system (because of the hundreds of thousands of people working in). At the same time we could say that a corporation is an apparent “big group”: its true nature is to be a “small group” of people (the shareholders who own the company rather then offshore investment funds) taking the benefits of a big labour force.

Detail of a map generated with “They Rule“: visualization of the power structure of the most important American companies and corporations (2004). From the website: “They Rule allows you to create maps of the interlocking directories of the top companies in the US in 2004“. More on: “about they rule“.

To build a Medieval European cathedral you need substantial economic resources, thousands of people working for time measured in centuries (by the way: time and its variables would be another extraordinary prism through which to view the world of design: but this would end up on another course and we leave it for another time…). To build a cathedral implies all kind of different and sophisticated skills to reach a final product meant to celebrate the church (as an institution) as well as the community part of the construction process.

Giovanni Pisano, Giovanni di Cecco, “Cattedrale dell’Assunta” (Siena’s cathedral), XIIIth / XIVth Century (as seen from outside the city)

To some extent the construction of an F-16 Lockheed Martin could be compared to the Medieval cathedral (obviously not in terms of final outcome but in terms of process). After years of research, prototyping, complex engineering, you achieve the desired goal. Here as well we have a number of complementary skills in action, with obvious similarities in terms of symbolic value. Symbolically speaking, the Piazza del Campo in Siena could be intended as a Medieval symbol for the Tuscan city in the same way the F-16 warplane (or the Apollo 11) is to the XXth Century United States.

NASA, Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 space suit

Once this has been said, yet there is a not so marginal difference: the square in Siena was designed for public enjoyment and collective rituals (both in its everyday use as well as in special events such as the Palio). At the same time the F-16 is the flagship weapon produced and commercialized by a corporate company owned and ruled by an incredibly small number of people.

F-16 assembly line

In this extent, we could say that one of the most important skills of the contemporary “prince” (using the well-know category described by Nicolo’ Machiavelli in its: “The Prince“) is to be able to convince the majority of the citizens that this “all for a small group” mechanism is actually a real “all for a big group” (or even: “all for all”).

The history of military forces is plentyful of examples like these, and we can say that what used to be the Soviet empire collapsed precisely for this cause. In terms of absolute symbolic value it is definitely true that a MIG-21 is as powerful as the American home cooking appliances of the mid  1960’s (or probably even more). A car per family is a good symbol as well as the Sputnik orbiting around mothership Earth). Finally if all these things do not bring any real value for the everyday life of the masses, the system in its wholeness is bound to collapse.

Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev in the famous “kitchen debate“, July 1959

It is interesting to imagine a contemporary shopping mall, five hundreds years now. Will we use it in the same way we are using it now? Will it be a ruin like Angkor Wat or the Foro Romano in Rome? Will it be transformed in some kind of futuristic Diocletian Palace (hybridized in all possible ways, transforming it completely compared to its current use)?

Piazza Anfiteatro, Lucca (generated by an ancient Roman amphitheatre transformed and reused in the following centuries).

Name and things useful + important (to be remembered for the exam):

Arms industry

Athen Acropolis


Economy of Dubai

The kitchen debate


Laika ready for her last voyage in Sputnik 2. (1957)

13. The mass for the single person

Ariang Festival, Pyongyang, North Korea, September 12, 2008.

We reached now a point where we are exploring our original 4 x 4 matrix in the lower parts of the system, where you have big groups of people (or a whole mass) working for the benefit of a single person or a selected group.

The very extreme case is the one where you have a whole society working for a single person. Of course we all know this is rarely true: the king has a court, the tyrant has always a close circle and the like.

Having to focus on the case-study where everyone works symbolically for one person, we generally tend to think to the Egyptian pyramids, where a huge amount of workforce is busy for years on the construction of a single huge building. Going further, we can also point to the huge tomb built for Qin Shih Huang Ti, First Emperor of China.

The Great Pyramid of Giza (built c. 2560 BC), and the Sphinx (built c. 2555 BC to 2532 BC)

Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (also know as “terracotta army“), Xi’an, Shaanxi, c 210 BC

We can also observe that the “individual” can be a real person or an immaterial entity as it happens in religious festivals dedicated to specific saints. Think for instance to the incredible North Korean choreographies made to please an audience of one omnipresent person/entity (curiously called: “dear Leader”).

Workers and students celebrate Kim Jong Il and his father in the Arirang Festival in Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium (2005).

In our view this system (mass for one single person) does not necessarily imply a totalitarian system. The Cathedral built and dedicated to Padre Pio in San Giovanni Rotondo was funded voluntarily by legions of faithfuls, just as it was for St. Peter Cathedral in Rome some centuries before.

RPBW (Renzo Piano Building Workhsop), “Padre Pio” Cathedral in San Giovanni Rotondo, 2004

Bramante, Raffaello (with Giuliano da Sangallo and Fra’ Giocondo), Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane, Michelangelo, Maderno: “St Peter’s Cathedral” (1506/1626).

If we think for a  moment we can agree that  “many people working for the single” is not necessarily synonymous with some lost Asian republic belonging to the former Soviet Union or South American juntas.

The mechanism of the cathedral dedicated to a specific saint is often declined in the form of a religious festivals (a whole list would be a too long work): moments of real collective celebration, giving to the “single” an excuse to release an enormous energy made out of skills, talents, money and social values.

The crowd in piazza del Campo (Siena), waiting for the “Palio” to start


The possible examples where a local tradition (religious or civil) becomes a complex web of various interests, activities, service is actually quite long. Think for instance to the “taranta” music tradition (putting together psychosomatic disease and music therapy) a typical case of social function fulfilled by a curious mix of evil and ritual.

Even today if you go to the Lecce area, you may find this delicious mix of ethnographic and anthropological local tradition mixed with fascinating languages of Hellenistic origin and mysteriuos dolmens.

Musician playing traditional “tarantella” to cure a “tarantata” woman (c. 1950’s)

Another interesting example where we can observe the mechanism of  the “all for one” system is the social network related to various kinds of hobbies and crafts.

The first class (one for one family) analyse the “bricoleur” character and the changes happened to him because of new technologies. Nowadays, thanks to digital technologies he finally reached the ideal condition where he has millions and millions of others people at his service with all kind of expertise, and advice.

Beta tools: the bricoleur always wants/needs the best

The digital revolution has generated a certain number of these phenomena.

We were used to be in a TV universe where each single person is thought to be equal and willing to watch the same exact program like everyone else, to a new system (think for instance to Twitter) where we have again a mass of users (exactly like in the previous TV system), each one assuming to be a “specific” entity.

In the TV world each user is the same and he/she is aware of this. In the Facebook world, each user is the same and he/she is not only not aware of this, but believes to be unique. From this point of view Twitter and Facebook are very clever because they do work as mass-media, but they address the specific desires and needs of an individual. The single person might have the perception to be really campaigning for abandoned dogs or being part of a special group producing a specific content. Yet, finally, the medium is so strong that swallows everything and everything becomes the medium itself.

Facebook and Twitter: two of the most succesful contemporary service design. Social networks are products of very sophisticate design skills

In this extent Marshall McLuhan (the medium is the message) reminds us that in the Facebook world everything becomes nothing more (if you prefer: nothing less) than a videogame.

“The medium is the message” shirt by Obey

Obviously this game has a paradoxical effect close to magic. If we were to ask to any twitternaut:  “Given the 4 by 4 grid, to which family do you belong?” He would probably reply to be part of the “one person for the big group”. He is not grasping that the dynamic is exactly the opposite. He is a little cog of the “big group for the individual” mechanism.

From this point of view, if you have to manage, organize and run the life of a moltitude of people, it doesn’t make such a big difference (in terms of “how”) if you have them building pyramids, to have them sit in front of a TV set or you give them a Facebook account.

It is the ethernal duality between the personal subjectivity and the overall culture we live in. Is the writer a person who add his personal contribution to the general culture, or is the general culture expressing itself using the writer as a tool/medium (obviously, we tend to imagine the second hypothesis as the correct one).

Think to the heroin junkie in some Western cities or the jobless Japanese salaryman who spends hours and hours in a pacinko parlor. These two persons, are they freely choosing what to do with their life, or are they innocent victims of sophisticated instruments of social control?

Salaryman on his way back home after a long day at work

Without going too far: how to explain the incredible success in Italy of an odd device like the bread machine? Italy is a country where you have an excellent (and cheap) baker at the corner of every block. You flood the market with a machine producing a low quality bread, in a country where you can buy an excellent bread at a very cheap price, and people love it and the thing becomes a great success.

In what imaginary world does the bread-machine user live?

William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, cut-up page from “The Third Mind“, 1977

By the way, if you are fascinated by these themes, you should definitely read some of the famous novels written by two experts like Williams Burroughs and Philip K. Dick.

Absolute beginners should start by Philip K. Dick: “The Man in the High Castle“, continuing with “The Naked Lunch” by Burroughs (eventually proceeding on with: “The Soft Machine“).

Whisky Tumbler used by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) in “Blade Runner” (Ridley Scott, 1982). Designed by Cini Boeri for Arnolfo di Cambio in 1972. Quite interesting to note that the house where he lives is the mesmerizing Ennis-Brown House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1924…

Cini Boeri on her “Ghost” armchair, Fiam, 1987

Name and things useful + important (to be remembered for the exam):

Cini Boeri


– William Burroughs, cut-up


Marshall McLuhan

– Ridley Scott, “Blade Runner“, 1982

service design

social network

12. A big group for all

Ford “Model T” Advertising (1908

A few years ago, Aldo Bonomi classified contemporary production activities into four categories:

“Today there are four major types of productive systems: there is a capitalism founded on the supremacy of the virtual, which is American, in which commodity production is carried on within communication and symbolic realm. Work involves the making and transformation of what I call “long life”, including DNA, memory, and the symbolic level.

But there is still a portion of capitalism based on the primacy of the mass: I think obviously to China , where the production model has all the features of post-Fordism. There is then a third level, typical of our capitalism, based on the sophistication of the original universe of manufacturing: the level of total production in which the form of production and the symbolic interact simultaneously.

A fourth level, finally, is the one of informal economies, quite relevant for the survival of many people in Latin America or Africa, depending on the economies of gift.

Capitalism today does not think only in terms of value chain. This means that the production system has to include the desires of the user-customer in order to win. This means to incorporate in the production system of goods elements like desire, reaching the core essence of man. Capitalism has included the human dimension inside the products, transforming itself into some kind of  “personal capitalism”. Yet, if someone thinks that because of this the conflict has been removed, of course he is wrong”.

(Interview to Aldo Bonomi by Guido Caserza: “La questione capitale”, Il Mattino, 8th January 2008).

Simplifying Bonomi’s classification, we can say that we can read the contemporary production of goods in three different ways.

Some people make things in order to survive (the previously mentioned examples of people who are forced by poverty and various circumstances to build a house where to live). Then there are those people who produce “hard” goods in the traditional Fordist mode (or if you prefer post-Fordist). In this moment there is a worker in a Cambodian ice factory committed precisely to produce ice blocks to meet the need for refrigeration of a world in which the refrigerator is not yet fully established.

Cambodian ice factory, 2007

Finally, there is a third category of people that makes objects and artifacts whose meaning is symbolic in the first instance (whether digital objects or artifacts rather than analog). And in some broad extent, these people are us (if you’re reading this blog, we can assume that you belong to this third category).

Ettore Sottsass (Memphis), “Carlton” room divider, 1981

Ron Arad, “Ripple Chair” (for Moroso), 2005

Compared to other periods of human history, we live in a world where these three ways of production do coexist and overlap (more or less smoothly) at the same time and in the same place.

I am now writing in an apartment in the northern outskirts of Milan. Downstairs there is a large open space where a large group of designers develops its activities together with a rapid prototyping service for large scale (specialized in making 1/1 scale models for the automotive industry). Within a few kilometers we have great stretches of warehouses where against all commercial logic there is a  continuous production  of low value added goods such as mosquito nets,  children rooms and mechanical tools.

Finally, a few hundred meters from our position there is a gipsy camp, filled with people engaged (to our eyes) in incredibly exotic activities: building constructions, home-made stove, clothes, various DIY processes, without forgetting the breeding of various animals).

Children in an Italian gipsy camp (2009)

Anyway, given the scope and goal of our class,  we therefore focus on people who work producing symbolic value.

Let’s start from Ikea, a Swedish corporate company producing for the mass. The same goes for IBM and other endless well-know companies. What is interesting to us, is this skill of some of these company to work perfectly on the symbolic level, becoming a global force able to trigger personal needs and desires shared by the vast majority of people living around the world (regardless of latitude, longitude, socio-economical and cultural factors) .

Ikea smart packaging: one of the keys of their success

For instance, if we take core values of an Italian family of the 1950s and we cross them to “what and how an house should be”, we can easily agree that upon that standard, Ikea’s product would have not been considered “good enough”. At the opposite, nowadays Ikea’s furnitures not only works fine and are well accepted, but they also are synonim of “intelligence”

What happened? How does it work?


Ikea did open its first store in Italy in 1989. What happened in this 20 years to make them perfectly accepted and a succesful cultural and business model (in Italy like in the rest of the world)?

Ideal living room from the Italian 1950’s


If we are going to observe the most successful cases (the so-called “best practices”), the design strategies are always very clever and subtle, using various elements and different tools.

For decades, the big corporations have operated in what was once called “first world”, whereas other markets were not considered of  any relevance

At a given moment someone thought that even in a remote village in India the idea of being able to get  shampoo could have been attractive and worthy of financial investment (however small). Obviously though, the spending power of an average rural Indian family is not comparable to a Luxembourg one (to make an example of a rich country).

Given the brief, someone invented the monodose shampoo. For a few cents you buy enough cream to wash you hair once. Of course, using this system, the profits are laughable, but if we compare India’s population (one billion two hundred million people) with that of Luxembourg (five hundred thousand people) the whole thing starts to make quite sense.

Commercially speaking, it is true that a person living in Luxembourg earns an average of  113.000 U.S. $ per year (111 times its corresponding Indian fellow who gets  $ 1,017 per year). But since we have 2400 Indians per Luxembourgers we easily understand etc.etc.

This type of reasoning can be extended as much as you want. If you are the marketing director of Philip Morris and you want to increase the sales of your company, the idea of selling loose cigarettes is a great system. By the way, this is the same mechanism used by Muhammad Yunus to win the Nobel Prize for Peace (replacing shampoo or cigarettes with access to credit – technically called “microcredit” or “microloans”).

Benetton ad campaign promoting microcredit

This way of doing things is actually quite interesting and fascinating for our purposes.

If we want to improve the life of African farmers, what are the really effective ways?

One solution may be the send some missionaries (religious or secular, it doesn’t make a difference) building water wells and community centers (typical activity of a small group – like a NGO –  for a larger group or for all).

Community well in a Mozambique village, 2008

Another method is to have the Nokia selling its cell-phones at a very low cost. Low to have at least one person per village able to buy the tool generating (as a byproduct) a phone equipped village (with all the given andvantages).

From this point of view, oddly enough, objective economic indicators tell us that in order to improve the condition of women in rural India (if you are a woman, rural India is one of the worst places in the world where you can be), dozens of government programs + United Nations didn’t achieve much.

At the opposite, the arrival of television in this backward world makes the lives of local women much better (according to the most classical parameters: mortality rates, schooling, etc.). If you are interested to get the details of the “how this can happen”, please refer to: Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, “SuperFreakonomics: Global cooling, patriotic prostitutes, suicide bombers and Why Should buy life insurance“, William Morrow, 2009.

Indian villagers busy with their cellphones (2009)

Here below another interesting point, made by Martin Feldstein (Harvard Business School), in an article published on the Wall Street Journal (February 16th, 2006):

The government’s microeconomic policies have been less successful than its macroeconomic reforms. Energy remains a major weakness, with too little building of electricity generating capacity and a distribution system that wastes much of the electricity that is generated by a combination of free electricity for poor and agricultural households and the outright theft of electricity that is permitted by low-level bureaucrats in state energy companies. The results are electricity shortages, brownouts and the ubiquitous small generators in shops and homes be-cause the state electricity supply is so unreliable.

In contrast, telecommunications is working well because of widespread use of privately sup-plied cellphones, now at 75 million users and rising at 3.5 million per month. It is ironic that cellphone service is widely available at low cost because it was regarded as a luxury and there-fore left to the market, while electricity is hard to obtain because it has been regarded as a necessity and therefore managed by the government.

This kind of paradoxes can be found in any field, ranging from the American corporation, to the UN humanitarian programs all the way to the Bolsheviks heading for the Winter Palace.

Mao Ze Dong famously stated that the revolution is not a dinner party. On this subject Antonio Gramsci has a different take and points out that the revolution should not be done with guns but in a much more subtle way. The succesful revolution (Gramsci argues) deals with a long journey bound to take the various centers of power (schools, universities, newspapers, publishing houses, etc. ) from the inside, without any violence or armed struggle.

This strategy is defined “cultural hegemony”, a concept describing the cultural dominance of a group or class imposing on other groups, through everyday practices and shared beliefs, their views until they are internalized, creating the conditions for a complex system of control.

Obviously, the history of the twentieth century tells us that whatever you use a rifle or you become the dean of the university in your town, at the end Communism does not work. But what is important for us (in this course) is the mechanism in itself, not the ultimate goal.

Back to our original example, Ikea wins because it becomes culturally dominant and able to rearrange the shared set of values referred to the family house and its representation. Interesting to notice that the impact of  Al-Jazeera television network in the Arab world looks like a Gramsci-like case study (to win you wars you don’t need an army, you need a TV). This system is also know as  “soft power“, in the sense that “power” is always and primarily a function of language.

Another interesting element of the recipe is this ability to take previous system and models and apply them today in unexpected ways.

Enzo Mari, self-made bed using his book: “Autocostruzione

For instance, in the early 1970’s Enzo Mari did publish “Autocostruzione” (self-construction), a book where he taught everyone how to build his own furniture at a minimal cost. Upon our grid, Mari was working following the “one for all” model. That said, Mari proposal (although very important in the design world: you don’t design a new expensive chair, but you rather teach people how to build their own chairs), didn’t achieve nothing and didn’t change the world of a fraction of a millimeter.

Interesting to note that some twenty years later, Ikea (the typical Capitalistic corporation, the real ennemy for politically engaged designers like Mari) did use his same exact system to market its furniture to the middleclass masses of the whole world.

This is one of the most elements not to be forgotten. Aldo Bonomi reminds us that capitalism has managed to acquire the ability to listen and understand the desires and needs of the individual.

If we go the way around, what can the single person learn from those large extended structures?

Name and things useful + important (to be remembered for the exam):

Ron Arad



Ford “Model T”


Enzo Mari


Value Chain



Soft power

Ettore Sottsass

11. a big group for a big group

Painters compete during a facsimile match in Dafen Village, Shenzhen City, south China’s Guangdong Province,  Thursday, May 18, 2006.   More than 110 contestants make facsimile of portrait or scenery oil painting in the timed game held in the village which is famous for its oil painting facsimile industry. (AP Photo / Xinhua,   Feng Ming)

The last part of the previous class did refer to two different models (IDEO and the traditional Italian manufacturing cluster). Two different ways to make things with a number of similarities as well as differences.

Before to proceed on with a new family of relations (the big group for the big group) it can be useful to underline a substantial (cultural) difference quite important in order to understand the “how” of a big group of people active in design work.

If we observe the way of functioning of an Italian (Latin) family and we compare it to a Chinese or American one, we see a lot of similarities. The network of relations between these different families is more less similar. Of course there are some differences, but the structural part is pretty much the same (up to a certain degree).

If we move our observation from a family to a bigger system (let’s say a mid-size company), we start to have a lot of structural differences. A Latin (or Chinese) company works in a very different way from an Anglo-Saxon (or Japanese) one.

We are not saying anything new if we note that in countries like Italy, the typical mechanism of the family relations is used regardless of the size of the production system (perhaps, it is no longer a question of family relations, anyway there is a blind faith in the system of “relations). In other words, regardless of the size “relations” are always preferred to “processes”.

The system of “relations” has some clear and given advantages to the world of “processes”.

First of all, it is fast. Without having to take long and laborious procedures of selection, I simply ask a trustworthy person to recommend me a third person of his choice/trust,  in a potentially infinite chain: each person in the chain takes his own responsibilities and cash favors upon the relevance of his contribution.

At the opposite, the system based on an absolute respect to “process” pays for a certain slow start, repaid later by the increased quality of the overall results. The tendency to generate nepotism is obviously greater in the system of relations, which indeed is founded upon them.

Corporate model based on process (Starbucks Corporation) vs family model based on relation (Italian trattoria)

If the goal is to have the best coffee bar in town, the relational system is generally excellent. At the opposite, if you want to launch Starbucks Coffee or McDonald’s or you want to go to the Moon, the relational system calls for all kind of disasters. For an Italian mind, a very noble goal is to set up a business able to make the best car (or motorcycle or coffee or Barolo or focaccia) in the world.. Conversely, also an American can point to excellence, but rarely separates it from the “quantitative” parameters (what’s the purpose to make the best hot-dog in the world if we sell only 10 pieces per year?).

Ducati Sport, 1974 (One of the first Ducati V twin models for which they are famous. 90º cylinders for good balance).

In some countries (cultures), “quality” rules in absolute terms. In other contries (cultures) you cannot address “quality” detaching it from “quantity”.

Advertising page for Toyota Corolla (1970)

For a designer is worth to analyze this opposition and to check how other the various methods of production work.

How do they work in China, what are the differences with India, continental Europe, England, Scandinavia, and so on. Here we are in a crucial moment because we are entering the realm of culture. Some of us think upon a Jewish model, other have a deep Catholic DNA (even if they don’t go to church), and so on.

In this extent the typical commercial (and existential) relation between an Italian and a Jew is rendered in a sharp way in “The Godfather” (part 2). Mike Corleone receives an interesting suggestion from his father (don Vito): “Do business with the Jews, but do not trust the Jews”. Beyond the relations between the Italian Mafia and Jewish one (which operate in the same exact way) it is interesting to spend few notes on cultural stereotypes.

This fact that stereotypes are unacceptable and gross simplifications is actually another stereotype. Let’s say that stereotypes are 65/75% true. Then it is up to you to decide if you experience the world in terms of speed rather than accuracy (we suggest at this point to add a third – relational – factor, selecting your attitude from case to case. Also, is quite important to make a selection in which stereotypes you use…

In terms of design based on cultural DNA, another very interesting project to see is the so-called “Dabbawalla” (used in Mumbai).

Dabbawallas at work in Mumbay

The Wikipedia entry explains:

A dabbawala (Marathi: डबेवाला, Hindi: डब्बावाला), also spelled as dabbawalla or dabbawallah, literally meaning person with a box, is a person in the Indian city of Mumbai who is employed in a unique service industry whose primary business is collecting the freshly cooked food in lunch boxes from the residences of the office workers (mostly in the suburbs), delivering it to their respective workplaces and returning back the empty boxes by using various modes of transport. “Tiffin” is an old-fashioned English word for a light lunch or afternoon snack, and sometimes for the box it is carried in. For this reason, the dabbawalas are sometimes called Tiffin Wallahs.

This whole service design system is based on a number of cultural factor quite impressive: the commuter only eats food baked home. Secondly, you can’t cook the night before. All the dabbawalla do come from the same village, all the service is based on total and complete mutual trust

The full explanation of this fascinating example of traditional design service can be found on: Vinay Venkatraman Stefano Mirti, “Dabbawallas“, in: Domus, No 885, December 2005).

A Mumbai dabbawalla, or lunch-box deliveryman, sorts a crate of tiffin boxes in Mumbai, 15 November 2007. Using the Mumbai commuter rail network, lunchbox carriers or “dabbawallas” pick up hot food from homes and deliver it to some 200,000 hungry office workers in time for lunch. The 5,000-strong army of “dabbawallas,” a century-old service, has long been studied by business schools around their world as a model for their great time management and organisation skills. AFP PHOTO/ Sajjad HUSSAIN (Photo credit should read SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

The production of goods such as lard (picture above of the well-know “lardo di Colonnata”) lends itself to the typical production system “relational” Italian.

Even within Europe, the cultural differences from people coming from different countries are incredibly relevant. In the Design School of NABA (where mr. Mirti plays the role of the head of the school), at least once per year there is a meeting called by the Scandinavian students in the Erasmus exchange.  Year after year, the reason to call the meeting is always the same.

In Oslo (Stockholm, Copenhagen …) their  teachers judge the student work using the parameters “it is right / it is worng” His Italian colleague works instead using the parameters “I like / I don’t like.”

If you’re used to the world “right / wrong”, it is quite obvious that the system “I like / I don’t like” is quite an horror. Worse, it seems to be extremely unfair.

We could try to explain the rift generated by  Martin Luther,  Johannes Gutenberg and the invention of the mobile typeface making possible for thousands people to reading the Bible in form of a cheap book rather than having to look at nice images in a church. Yet, south of the Alps, regardless of Gutenberg, Martin Luther and intelligence applied to everyday life, people did keep commission incredible paintings and frescos to Leonardo, Michelangelo and Caravaggio.

Gutenberg press

From this point of view, the last Prada‘s catwalk is the last ring of a chain going all the way to the incredible dressing codes of the Renaissance Vatican cardinals, bishops and popes.

In this extent, the “right / wrong” system is not better or worse than the “I like / I don’t like” one, simply, it is different. Obviously, the parameter giving sense (or non-sense) to our activitis is related to what we are busy doing. Once again, if you are struggling with Werner von Braun setting up the Apollo 11 is clear that the  “I like / I don’t like” model is not really  helpful. Conversely, having to found an empire of fashion-related business for the global teenager, to have on top the head designer of Mitsubishi Heavy Motors (with his engineer-oriented mind) doesn’t get us very far.

In terms of design, the interesting element related on the dual opposition between “relations” and “process”  is not related to fortune telling or predictions (to figure out if Lehman Brothers collapses faster/before than Mediobanca). What is interesting is to have some rough references in order to avoid to stare into people eyes when in Tokyo or to get drunk in a park in Saudi Arabia.

In the design field the cultural DNA of people (either way them being designers or end-users) is one of the most resilient elements in the whole recipe. How to succesfully navigate through it, this is one of the main challenges for us all.

Federico Fellini, “Ecclesiastical fashion catwalk”, in: “Rome”, 1972

Name and things useful + important (to be remembered for the exam):

Apollo program

– Barolo (wines from Piedmont)



Focaccia di Recco (Italian bread)

Johannes Gutenberg


Movable type

Toyota Corolla

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