Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Design: the "connective tissue"

It was in the mid-eighties when I discovered that the activity I now call "design" had a name, and that you could do it for a living.
Despite having spent almost 30 years involved in it one way or another, to this day I freeze for a moment when someone asks me "What do you do?"
Either this means I spent a long (long) time doing something I don't understand (and considering I made a decent living at it that would be remarkable in itself), or I don't trust in my ability to convey the nature of it in a few words. Instead I try to find an easier, faster, more acceptable way to handle the question and move on with the rest of our lives, secretly resenting the fact that I failed, once again.

The problem is that "Design" is a term open to a variety of interpretations, and everybody expects it to get more specific, or else they'll attach to it whatever preconceived notion they have about it.
"I'm a designer" means virtually nothing to most people, but saying for instance something like "I'm a graphic designer specialized in infographics" immediately clarifies what your role in society is: your counterpart can now picture you creating pretty graphs on a computer, wearing eccentric shoes that perfectly harmonize with your outfit, and the fixie you rode to work, and ... (add to the list of stereotypes here).
We can't help it. We function that way. We have to picture things to understand them, tell ourselves a story about what we see or hear.
All this however says very little about the profession, it describes the output (in this case infographics), and something about the appearance of the individual. The end. Beyond that point we're back in fuzzy-land, and what a designer really does is a mystery.

For most people the label "designer" is some substitute for "artist", but a bad one: one that on one hand is not good enough to play in the big leagues ("true" art), and on the other hand is too much of a coward to die trying through a tormented bohemian (but “oh so romantic”) existence.
The truth is that, although there is “art” in design, there are a multitude of other characters that need to be factored in, which depending on the specific design task can include system thinking, customer empathy, storytelling, business constraints, manufacturability, building code requirements and so on and so forth.
The image of the whimsical, clueless but creative professional starts to fade, leaving in its place an individual that balances requirements of many different kinds, coming from several directions, and explores and iterates to find a solution that can harmonize them.

Granted, some design activities lend themselves more to the expressive aspect of design (fashion design is one that comes to mind), while others are more grounded in hard constraints and functional solutions (i.e. designing medical devices).
I like to think that this sliding scale merely changes the balance of priorities: a fashion designer still needs to know how garments are made, and what makes sense for the business, and who is the target customer he/she is designing for; likewise the designer of medical devices still needs to know how we perceive shapes and colors, to try and combine them into a solution that works better, whether it means easier operation for a nurse or a more welcoming sensory experience for the patient.
This is probably why often designers, particularly in Europe, resist a definition: they resent being painted in a corner by a descriptor that hides the complexity of their work, that focuses on the output alone, knowing that what they do can be applied in so many different ways.
And it has been: over the years we've seen designers adapt to all sorts of projects; the same professional that once designed your letterhead has now revamped the user interface of the latest app you installed, created the bag that you keep your iPad in, and redesigned the customer flow in the sandwich shop where you're grabbing lunch.
Dave Kelley, founder of IDEO, tries to explain how this is possible in the infamous "shopping cart video", when he says "we're not expert
at any given area, we're experts in the process...". However I prefer to use the word 'Journey' over ‘process’, which to me sounds too repetitive and immutable, while design is always a bit different.
In all this mess, of different specializations, activities, and outputs, what is the common thread? How can designers apply their craft across all this?
There has to be something, common to the different design disciplines, that explains this phenomenon without needing to focus on either the output or the specific operations performed, something that can capture the essence of what 'design' is.

I should not attempt this. After all I said designers resist definitions. Definitions kill ambiguity and ambiguity is where creations take form. However design has been a hot topic in business for a number of years now and after having read countless definitions and explanations (often by people that have no direct experience of it), I feel like I'm allowed to give my interpretation, one rooted in many years in the trenches of a rapidly evolving profession.
Designers connect the dots to get to a coherent picture
I believe designers seek harmony: they gather information from different disciplines, from end users, from business leaders, from current cultural or social trends, they speak the different languages needed to collect this info, and they work with experts in different fields to deliver something of value that harmonizes the different parts.
We create connections, links, synergies, between products and people, between corporations and society, between vision and reality.
That's why I like to say that design is the connective tissue.
Of course this is just my point of view but I would love to hear yours too, my main goal in writing this is to start a conversation.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.

Monday, November 11, 2013


Today, in a seemingly random event, I was reminded of this Pink Floyd song, and the few verses it opens with:
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day 
Fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way 
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town 
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way 
“ Time” – Pink Floyd 
I'm glad not only because it reminded how great a song it is, but also because these few lines are pretty deep, and I often find myself dealing with them.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

The power of surprise

It's amazing how powerful surprises are, they can drastically affect the balance of any situation.
Case in point, check out this video from one of the thousands of TV talent shows: the painting is obscure and mysterious to the audience until the very end, and while it's a pretty impressive painting for being created in a minute and a half (and in those conditions), the public's reaction would have been much more tame if it wasn't for the final plot twist:
By further confusing the audience, the artist almost makes them give up, and accept a weak result: expectations have been tamed to the extreme.
And then: Voila'!
The excitement for being back in the world of wonder, after having given up hope, swings the needle all the way to the other end, well beyond the normal reaction to the painting itself.
This neat trick took his act from "oh, wow!" to a standing ovation... it's amazing how many shapes storytelling takes.


Monday, August 5, 2013

The Promised Land

I stumbled upon this image from a 1876 propaganda campaign, to convince people to move to California.
I guess in the long run it worked pretty well...I wonder why it was so hard to convince people back then: wasn't it just as beautiful?

Monday, June 24, 2013


My kids really wanted Panzerotti, but those are supposed to be deep fried, and I wasn't keen on the idea.
I made my own version instead, sort of a "mini calzone". Fairly easy too...
Big success...


Tuesday, January 22, 2013


Ever since coming to the USA I had to adjust the meaning of the words "design" or "innovation" in my vocabulary, apparently our cultures (Italian and American) are far enough to require these adjustments. However, I never really bought into one of the accepted "truths" in this business, that sounds more or less like this: "P&G is one of  the most powerful corporations when it comes to Design and Innovation".
Then you see things like this article.

Really? That's how low we've taken the bar for "innovation"? I'm glad the article points out that this is weak, and late, I still believe that even the "good" innovations in this pattern deserve a better scrutiny.
As far as In can tell, these"innovations" almost never have a real positive effect on people's lives, although I admit sometimes they do fatten wallets...is that still a good measure?


Sunday, July 15, 2012


I stumbled upon this, and happily repost.
Further proof that "how" is often times more powerful than "what"
Laughing Squid: Gorgeous Watermelon Dragon Sculpture Carved From 14 Watermelons

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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Beutiful wheels...and thoughts

Paul Bunditz hit home again, with his beautiful bikes, carefully crafted with tremendous quality. I recommend that you check out the website here, and even more so his thoughts here
One of my favorite lines: "There’s no objective measure of good taste. Love transforms crap into wonder."

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How to get things done

Today I stumbled upon an article on Steven Sinofsky, the man that is turning Microsoft upside down (in a good way). I particularly enjoyed this part:
"...So Sinofsky told them how he does things. Plan first, then build. Eliminate most middle management. Deliver exactly what you promise, exactly on time"
Makes sense, right? Then why is it so hard for most corporations to grasp this concept?
You can read the whole article here if you want.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


This is the trailer for an amazing documentary, the full movie is free and can be watched here.
If anybody you know sees this, all possible outcomes I can imagine are good.
Please share


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Geek Hour

Ok, I confess it: I'm a "weregeek", it's like a werewolf but turns into a geek instead of a wolf.
Every designer is, to some degree, a geek; this isn't something I figured out on my own, I once heard Mark Newson (one of the "coolest" design personas out there) say that he was one, and it got me thinking. You have to be, to become totally immersed in something and discover...
Which is why, even if I doubt this is what Mark Newson had in mind, I'm not too ashamed posting a couple of shots of what I did yesterday evening (Uber-geek)
I find a strange, perverse pleasure in disassembling something beyond my reach in terms of complexity, something that no longer works, and somehow find a way to solve whatever the issue was, reassemble, and enjoy the new life of the object.
In strict financial terms, the time I spent doing this was probably worth more than a 7 year old mac anyway, but there's something very zen in getting lost completely in a task like this, and that's where the real value is.
Plus, I'm keeping it out of a landfill for a little longer. That's also worth a lot.
And I'm now my son's hero.
By the way, it now works as good as new :)


Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Well, I haven't been updating my blog a lot lately.
Truth is, the last few months have been times of change for me, or at least times that will lead to change.
I'm in the middle of a personal transformation, that hopefully will lead to a better me, and perhaps a better life (not that mine is so bad after all).
As you can imagine, because of this, my mind has been racing with a lot of thoughts, and a seemingly total lack of direction. As a result, every time I've tried to sit down and write my thoughts I've been overwhelmed by all this, and ended up writing nothing.
Well, today I'm trying something to break this dry spell.
Recently I was watching TV with my kids, and I stumbled upon a show on Victor Borge. I had a blast, and my kids (5 and 8) were also laughing hysterically, which of course made me question once again the value of Spongebob & friends versus what used to make our parents laugh.
I decided to post a short clip from Victor Borge's immense body of work, to see if the lighter mood of this video breaks the spell of my overwhelming thoughts. Enjoy.