Russell Taylor

Director, ItaliaDesign Field School
Senior Lecturer in Interaction Design
School of Interactive Arts and Technology
Simon Fraser University, Canada


Why study Italian Design?

In the tumultuous context of Italian life and its passion's and economic challenges, design emerged and then solidified over the past 30 years or so into a stable economic and cultural driver. Italy as a result has consolidated its place as the most concentrated location for the best that design can offer. But what I mean by that specifically is important. For it is not in its products that Italy truly excels in design. And this is saying something, because Italian design products tend be extraordinary. But they are extraordinary more so as manifestations of a much more extraordinary process and approach to what design is, what it can contribute and what it can be. Imagine Italy without "the design city" - MIlano. Milano is a city made on design, and driven by it. Canadian design and industry can learn much from the successes in Italian design. Canadian design does not work in such a challenging environment as Italian design, nor what they face in often tough economic markets. How do they do it? That's what this study was meant to find out. How do they just "know" that the overly-rigid, specialized, and commercialized way that big industry approaches design is far too limiting, that it misses design's real value and what it can contribute? Design, when used well can vastly improve the social environment, our cultures, well beyond the marketplace, technology and aesthetics. Design and Innovation in Milano are linked inextricably and there is much to learn there indeed. As Venturi learned from Las Vegas, and Branzi learned from Milano, we aim to learn from tutti gli Italie.

Perhaps it starts with that designers in Italy have always been (like myself) trained first as architects, that they think of everything as nested and clustered and contextual to other things, to people. The architectural training is one factor that seems to set Italian designers apart. A design office, a factory in the best Italian hands becomes an applied research laboratory more than an aesthetics service bureau or manufacturing plant. Perhaps it is partly the legacy of excellence in the arts and sciences that all Italians enjoy...and I'm not talking about the historic past that includes Michelangelo and Galileo in the family. I mean a recent design history that includes Ponti, Castiglioni, Boeri, Zanuso, Sottsass, Bellini, Branzi, Mendini, Rossi. Just this: how many luminary designers of such radiance can most countries boast...and then do it by one name?

And I don't mean "rock-star" designers. You have to meet Enzo Mari and Andrea Branzi to know how not about that they are. Of course, you could know that without interviewing them. But it's much better live!!! As a young Canadian design student these guys were my heroes. As a not-so-young-anymore design educator, they still are. Generation after generation, Italian designers just seem to accept that the world still needs changing and they are going to do it. That's why go to Italy to meet and interview these people and that's why do this project, this program. And when I can put twelve students all under 25 in front of a Branzi and let him go, and see in their eyes how they've been changed, that's an even bigger reason. Who knows how much change we can make. What effects that good programs, well-conceived, asking good questions, whose primary goal is just to learn, who knows where that ends. As a design educator I am struck by how powerful it is to give students the idea, the belief, that their work can make a difference. Can contribute. And you do that by putting the best work in front of them in the most compelling fashion. That's what education should be in my opinion.

Our school has a strong international program and contributing to this reality has been a big part of my life in the last five years. To me it was the priority when coming into a school that did not have this infrastructure yet. A good school looks out, not in. In the coming years I see this developing broader and deeper and it is my goal to be an important part of that growth. This program supports that goal. The global economy demands that we do this well. I have been very lucky that my school so strongly supports this initiative, and I have to here first acknowledge that support. Many schools have programs for exchange and study abroad, but we have found that few design schools have a program like this that allows the learning and networking to go so deep. Maybe we won't always have such an opportunity to focus on one country with such depth, but while we can, I aim to make the most of that opportunity. My main goal though is give more than we hope to receive. My hope for this program is to give back to my Italian partners, friends and colleagues through this project. They have given so openly and freely to us. I have to give credit for this important meta-goal to Andrea Branzi who spoke to us about the legacy of Canadians like McLuhan and others who managed to be neither "American", nor "European", but in-between both. A passionate observer of both, with insights to share with both. In this regard, our friend, Milanese designer Isao Hosoe, speaks of the value of being and remaining "a foreigner". I think he means keeping our senses open by not looking at things complacently. I truly believe that by understanding the really little things better we design better and this can make an impact on people's lives. That's why go to study in Italy: they do that so well. My area of research is on design as a process and how design links with innovation and how that is evolving in emergent, specifically urban, interactive contexts.

I see this program, ItaliaDesign, at the moment as a five year research project. It is enormously complex and will take that long to begin to have something of great value to give back. It is a supremely wicked-hard problem. I was astounded how far we got this year and how close we got to that goal. If we keep making this kind of progress each year for five years, we'll have something valuable indeed. Students enjoy this program very much and learn a great deal. That is its primary purpose. But they also believe in its long-tem goals and the notion of creating a legacy for groups who will come after them. I have to commend this year's team for what they have here contributed: it is prodigious indeed. What you will be reading in this site is the result of seven months of work by twelve extraordinary undergraduate students. There is no research grant connected to the project, no one getting paid to do it. What you will see here was done for course credit and the love of the subject, the love of their work and their shared, deep love for Italy.

I have to thank a few people.

First, the thirty nine (yes 39) students who accompanied Dale Evernden, Jim Budd and I to Italy in the first year of our study in 2004. What an extraordinary group that first one was, and how much I learned from all of you. Next, the twelve who went back with me this year and rose the bar. Thank you all, my ItaliaDesign research partners. Then, some of my colleagues at SFU who continue to let me try out crazy stuff; Tom Calvert, Jim Budd, Ron Wakkary, John Bowes, Randall Martin, Jim BIzzocchi and others. I have to thank all of the people who welcomed us into their studios and facilities in the past two years in Italy. Thank you. I hope that we do you proud. Lastly, I want to thank some of my friends in Italy who make me feel that I am welcome and taken care of, almost family, while there: Luigi, Marino, Paolo, Giovanni, Simona Benvenuto, Ale Vignozzi, Michele Rossi, Signora Achille Castiglioni, Raffaelle Saporiti, Isao Hosoe, Pier Paride Vidari, Luca Galofaro, and Tom Rankin in particular.