We The Italians | Italian report: Design Economy

Italian report: Design Economy

Italian report: Design Economy

  • WTI Magazine #89 Mar 16, 2017
  • 1520

To understand the meaning of the word design, it is useful to return to the etymological root of the word, from the Latin de-signum, literally "relativo al progetto" ("related to the project"). Seen in this light, design is a modus operandi not only related to solving aesthetic problems, but also to the ability to manage and solve complex problems: from the design of new products, to the identification of new markets, to the search for new meanings.

This meaning is especially adapted to the Italian context. We can say that the history of design can be considered as the best autobiography of our country, the way how in a thousand years from now it will be possible to reconstruct the thoughts, needs, desires, and all the oscillations of taste that have gone through evolution. The Italian design is an expression of that "knowledge" mentioned by Carlo Ginzburg: a part for the whole, in this case everyday objects that incorporate a cultural value even before the economic one.

The development of Italian design runs throughout the twentieth century. In this story the Triennale of Milan is the first institution of reference for design and, more generally, for the Italian and international artistic and creative world. The 50s saw the emergence of an Italian design school; an Italy that was about to become a beauty and creativity factory fueled by the ideas of the great masters, from Zanuso to Castiglioni, from Magistretti Albini to Scarpa, up to today. A world of ideas and products that soon will cross our national borders. In 1954 a series of concurrent events marked the rising of the industrial design culture. First, the X Triennale with an exhibition on industrial design; but also the first international conference dedicated to the same theme at the Museum of science and technology Leonardo da Vinci; and finally the establishment of the Compasso D'Oro Award promoted by the Rinascente and designed by Gio Ponti and Alberto Rosselli. Right under the guidance of the latter arose the first magazine devoted entirely to industrial design, "Stile e Industria." The following years saw the establishment of a Grand National and international design award and the ADI Foundation, Association for Industrial Design. 1961 is the year of birth of another of the cornerstones of the Italian design: the Salone del Mobile in Milan, born from the initiative of enlightened entrepreneurs who understand that the time has come for the Italian design to internationalize.

It is no coincidence that in 1972 the New York MOMA decided to showcase the new Italian design ferments. It consecrates an original "cultural" point of view over the product, by creating objects that interpreted the democratization of innovation, contributing to the emancipation of social classes previously excluded from progress. The exhibition also presented a new generation of highly rated business innovation that still represent a mainstay of the Italian design system.

In less than fifty years Italy sees the consolidation of a unique made by highly design-oriented entrepreneurs, a widespread system of craftsmen of excellence, promotion institutes, journals, a University as the Politecnico di Milano.

Thirty years later, where are we? The international scene has changed, evolved and renewed. New players have entered the design market. China, Japan and South Korea are investing significant resources in building skills and developing supply chains more and more design oriented.

In this new setting, the system of Italian design has become a card in the globalized design with a competitive advantage concerning a system of education spread in the area and businesses able to attract the best national and international designers. We import talents in exchange for technology, efficiency and a great manufacturing experience able to realize ideas and projects. The Italian system of industrial districts is an element that allows production to remain tied to the territories and to the creativity-oriented design that can give birth to unique products that return something to their origins and our traditions. We are good at "doing things", a legacy that we always carry with us, is part of our culture and permeates our daily lives.

Design is in Italy a strategic sector with a great future ahead of him. Our country ranks second in Europe in terms of turnover of design firms, and second as for the weight of the total turnover of the design sector over the national economy. Italian design generates 4.4 billion in revenue, or 0.3% of GDP. There are 29,000 Italian companies, employing 47,274 workers: 1/5 of all European workers. Clearly these are growing data, especially in the last five years, in crisis: + 5.4% for employment and + 12.3% for the turnover.

The numbers, however, do not return the complexity of the design system, made up also of many professionals, working within companies active in other areas, spreading their skills permeating the economic fabric of the country in other areas and in other areas. A system also made up of many SMEs, where by vocation a non-coded search for quality, beauty, sustainability is experienced. All of this demonstrates the ability of design to withstand the impact of the current international economic environment and its ability to re-constitute the means for the strengthening of the offer of the Italian companies in the markets as well as the way to maintain the competitive edge that has always characterized our country. Because today design is an essential element in the project of products that come from the new frontiers of technology: it is no coincidence that Google for its Google glass turned to an Italian company; it is no coincidence that today Giugiaro began drawing even electric cars for large Chinese companies. And since design renews the idea of the project and responds to the needs and vocations of our times, today it conveys into the products also the dictates of the circular economy: efficiency, reduced use of materials and energy, recyclability.

From the spread on the whole national territory of skills and training to the close alliance with all business sectors, until arriving to the unquestioned ability to deliver innovation, sustainability and beauty: we can certainly consider design as the intangible infrastructure of Made in Italy.

This development is without a doubt son of a fertile and varied cultural context that is daily fed by the work of numerous manufacturing quality and service companies, by leading trade journals, by very active industrial associations and by prestigious museums. Part of this infrastructure consists of 13 regional and interregional ADI delegations (Association for Industrial Design) which perform the dual function of spreading the culture of design in the area and bring out nationwide design prevalent in local enterprises through a capillary scouting. 

The city of Milan is at the center of this system. This is where 25% of the Italian design companies are. It is also where we find the aforementioned Triennale, model and reference point - along with the Venice Biennale - for over 250 Triennial and Biennials events all around the world. Milan hosts ADI, promoting among other activities the prestigious Compasso d'Oro Award, which in 2018 will open to the public the permanent collection of the winning entries. And in Milan every year is organized the Salone del Mobile, the third pillar of the system, arrived at the 56th edition, which this year will be promoted with a slogan that emphasizes the centrality of the city of Milan "Design is a state of its own. And Milan is its capital."

The Italian design system is made by schools and training institutes, dedicated to form new Italian young designers, requiring new and specific managerial and communicative skills and knowledge. The number of design students is exponentially increasing: in the year 2015 the human capital released by the Ministry of Education recognized training institutions is of 7940 designers, representing an increase of 7% compared to 2014, especially in Lombardy, Piedmont and Lazio who together make up more than two-thirds of the total Italian students. It is not by chance that Turin has recently been named World design Capital and UNESCO Creative City for the design sector.

Because of the specificity of this sector and its significant role for our country, Fondazione Symbola launched a study about the design world, focusing its attention in particular on the contribution that the sector makes to the Italian economy and the formation of designer. This therefore will be a first synthesis, without limitation, to deepen the knowledge of a complex production system in a continuously positive evolution. It is in Italy, in fact, that the craft tradition and innovation can fully meet, as well as the local dimension and the international scope, and above all as well as quality and beauty. Design, intended as "design culture", is one of the best business cards that our country can show to the world. Here, where companies grow thanks to the wisdom of the territories, communities, their knowledge and their cohesion, Design can be a source of innovation, development and internationalization, emblem of an Italy that does not deny itself but looks in its roots the sap to face the challenges of the future.