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Without Design, Innovation Doesn’t Happen: A Conversation with Paola Antonelli

Paola Antonelli in the MoMA  galleries.           (photograph by Geordie Wood)

 (This article originally appeared in the Techonomy print and online magazine.)

Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture & design and director of R&D at The Museum of Modern Art, is a passionate advocate for the importance of design in society and business. She worked as an architect and a design journalist in her native Italy before joining MoMA in 1994. Among many noteworthy shows she has curated there are Safe: Design Takes on Risk (2005), Design and the Elastic Mind (2008), and Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects (2011). She’s given three TED talks, written numerous books, and just began a sabbatical from the museum with the intention of writing yet another. Techonomy’s David Kirkpatrick interviewed her over lunch in New York.

David Kirkpatrick: What is design?

Paola Antonelli: Generally when people ask me for a definition of design, I change the subject. But one of the things I am hoping for in this sabbatical is to come up with a sort of “theory of everything” for design. When I speak of design, I deal with every endeavor that entails a creative process and has a goal. The goal may be speculative, for instance to design a scenario for the future. It can be a visualization, a diagram; it can be a chair; it can be an interface; it can be bio-design, like the form of an in vitro steak–anything you want.

Also, the final outcome of the process needs to involve at least one of the senses. So I usually don’t consider what’s often called “design thinking” to be a form of design. But I consider infrastructure to be, because it deals with our whole individual and societal body. What’s important to me is the connection of design to the world. It moves me when I see designers really trying to make things better.

Why do you want to help people reconceive what design is?

I want them to reconceive what an object is. People don’t realize that design is truly all around us, not only in things, but also in interfaces and in the way streets intersect. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s bad. But it’s made for us. We are the critics, ultimately. I try to expose people to as much design as possible, of as many types as possible, and help them sharpen their own critical tools. I would like people to be more aware of the choices that are made for them. There are design features you should learn about—for instance an object should be designed so that components can be separated at the end of its life. Perhaps you will choose to buy only products that can be upcycled and recycled.

There are impeccable design objects, and some are clearly bad. But there are many nuances. I want people to know that they have to think not only of the form, the function, and the price, but also of how the object was manufactured, where it was made, who was behind it, how it’s going to die, where it’s going to be used, and where it’s going to end. The story behind objects is as fascinating as a movie.

How did you arrive at your own reconception of these boundaries for what’s thought of as design?

Some people think design was born after the industrial revolution. Other people think it was born after Raymond Loewy’s stance as “the first professional designer.” As far as I’m concerned, it was born when we started making our own tools in the stone age. I keep the definition of design pretty wide.

I went to architecture school. And in Italy at that time, it was highly theoretical. When you emerged, you could become an architect, but not necessarily. You could become a graphic designer, or a furniture designer. Fashion designer Gianfranco Ferré was an architect. You could become a chef. When taught in this philosophical, abstract way, design is a universal donor to any field that is about making and constructing, whether in the digital world or in the physical world.

But the amplitude of my viewpoint about design became particularly urgent when I came to New York twenty one years ago, and I realized that the American public thought of design as cute chairs, commercial products, and fast cars.

I started out with an exhibition called Mutant Materials in Contemporary Design, in 1995. That was an attempt to show that even materials can be concocted by designers, and that a shift in the technology of materials had put more power in their hands. In the past, in order to produce a plastic chair a designer had to work with engineers, and a manufacturer had to make a hefty investment to make injection molds in steel or aluminum. But by 1995, resins were available that could cure at ambient temperature, in fiberglass molds, and composites could be shaped by hand by the designers themselves. So the control of materials was no longer only in the hands of big chemical engineering companies.

That was also when we started the MoMA website, in 1995. I learned HTML and I coded the website. Nobody really knew what a website was, so nobody knew who was supposed to sign off–Publications? Marketing? Communications? They gave me a budget of $300 that I used to take taxis to the School of Visual Arts, where a graduate student taught me HTML.


The curator’s office reflects the disorder of a well-filled mind. (Photos by Geordie Wood)

Who are you trying to curate for?

I want to disseminate design to as wide an audience as possible. I studied architecture in a polytechnic, so I’ve always been very comfortable with technology. (I worked as an architect for only six months. I really stank.) I deeply believe that design is the highest form of human creative expression. It brings everything together for other human beings–science, engineering, technology, politics, art, economics.

Children are the toughest critics. They have an indifference to platforms and spaces. They don’t need to distinguish between digital, physical, or in between. I believe that even scent is a form of design, and children immediately understand when I tell them so. Adults instead form separations and distinctions in their minds. One of the most pernicious is the distinction between design and art. That is one of my pet peeves. Several times artists were dissuaded from participating in my shows at MoMA, because their gallerists were afraid that the price of their work would be diminished by appearing in a design exhibition.


You think that distinction is irrelevant?

It is relevant, but it should not be based on the idea that art is higher than design. Art is certainly more expensive than design, however.

How should companies think about design? What’s missing?

Individual designers that work on individual projects. There are a lot of big and corporate design firms that are great–Ideo, for instance, or frog, or Ammunition. But the big companies are missing masters like Hella Jongerius, the most important furniture designer alive. Her work is not only relevant to decorators and design buffs, but to all people who want to know what human beings are like, today and in the future. She is able to mix old and new, to learn from African crafts and metabolize what she has learned in new products, rather than mimic it as a typical Western designer.


What do businesses miss by not employing people like that?

I don’t think they should employ them. They should dream of employing them. They should know about them, and their culture would improve—and so would their products. But you know what? That’s one step beyond. We’ll get there. For the moment I’m happy to see that there is widespread interest. The last Harvard Business Review was about Design Thinking, grrrmph. Missed opportunity, but OK, we’ll get there, to real design, eventually. One day, business schools will yearn for design acting. At least they are paying attention.

Once upon a time, Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby used to work with Motorola. They are the two most important critical designers–they build scenarios that speak about the consequences in the future of our choices of today. At Motorola, they were sort of thorns-in-the-side in residence. These kinds of designers do not report to the chief marketing officer or to the head of product. Rather, they probably report to the head of R&D.

Ideally, this kind of understanding of design should be diluted and distilled and absorbed by the company, not immediately implemented and deployed. One place where it is starting to be assimilated is at Google, for instance in the Advanced Technology and Projects team, led by Regina Dugan, who used to head DARPA. Apple also hired some alumni from the Design Interactions program at the Royal College of Art in London, which used to be run by Tony Dunne and is exquisitely speculative.

The world is changing and becoming much more fragmented. Ethnography is becoming necessary for many business decisions. Designers move in that same direction. It would be really great and healthy for companies to just have the curiosity to listen to professionals who come from a completely other creative space.

Without designers and design, innovation doesn’t really happen. Revolutions happen in science and business and technology and in politics, but designers are the ones that take these revolutions and make them into life. One of the most classic examples is the Internet. It started as lines of code, and only a few people could use it. Marc Andreessen and his team designed the Mosaic interface, and all of a sudden his grandmother could push the buttons and use the hyperlinks.

Design takes something revolutionary and makes it usable. Whether they are advocating for human beings, or advocating for earth and sustainability, designers become t he interpreters and the synthesizers. Synthesis is one of the most important functions of design.

At Techonomy we talk a lot about the urgency of multidisciplinary dialogue. You’re saying design, almost by necessity, has to be multidisciplinary.

The most successful furniture designers of yesteryear, in Italy, knew everything about making. They would spend time in the factory with the workers. It is about the synthesis, about learning more than might seem necessary. It’s never about just designing a shape and letting somebody else deal with it. That’s a very reductive and wrong idea about design.

Beyond her design department responsibiltiies, Aontonelli had been running programs for large groups in the museum's adutiorium which she calls "R&D Salons."

Beyond her design department responsibiltiies, Aontonelli had been running programs for large groups in the museum’s adutiorium which she calls “R&D Salons.(Photo by Geordie Wood)”

Airbnb was started by design graduates of RISD. What do you see in the company that’s indicative of what you’re talking about?

There is such attention to human behavior in Airbnb. [Co-founder] Joe Gebbia several years ago announced to me excitedly that they had decided to change the whole gestalt of the website to talk about neighborhoods, and not just individual apartments. They wanted to position Airbnb as a gateway to communities. That’s a very “design” gesture. It’s about understanding how people behave. It shows empathy and interest in human beings.

You’ve been running a very eclectic and rich series of live conversations at MoMA you call “R&D salons.” Why?

Like many people in the cultural world I have a chip on my shoulder— especially because I did two years of economics school before I came into architecture and design. The product of cultural labor is considered superfluous in society and insignificant for the bottom line of a community. Whenever there’s a crisis, politicians slash budgets for culture, and instead they bail out banks. And I’m sorry, but the financial sector is definitely not very human oriented.

When the credit crisis happened in 2008 I thought it could be an opportunity to demonstrate that the financial sector is not really on our side. I proposed to MoMA an R&D department that would prove that museums and cultural institutions are the true R&D of society. The kind of progress they provide is slower, but a good slow, like Slow Food–more reliable, healthier, and more sustainable. We couldn’t start the R&D Department at that time because we were dealing with the financial crisis ourselves, so we waited two years, but the program is now thriving. It is a lot of R and much less D, but it is important.

Why does that phrase “design thinking” offend you so much?

It’s become too common. For some, especially in the business and tech world, it is a synonym for “design.” People think they’re talking about design, but they’re not. Design Thinking is to design what the scientific method is to science–the steps without the practice and study. You need to study and practice for years to become a designer, just like you need to study to become a scientist. Putting lots of Post-it notes on the wall is not going to make you a designer.

Can Design Beget Violence?

Antonelli: A few years ago I opened up my eyes and realized that design is not always benign. It all started out with the news about the 3D printed gun. I’ve always been an advocate of 3D printing and open source. And here comes this guy, Cody Wilson, who uses open source to let everyone have a gun. I remember how stunned I was, and how angry I was that I was stunned. Because I realized that it was so pollyanna-ish of me.

I kept on saying that designers take everything into consideration and I say all these beautiful things about design. But excuse me. In truth design is a double-edged sword. Then I started reading Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature, which argues that society is becoming less violent. I decided to explore the issue by curating a museum show and I started looking for objects that have an ambiguous relation to violence. My colleague Jamer Hunt and I put together a wonderful exhibition proposal, but it didn’t fly. That happens, but this idea seemed too urgent. And so we decided to create a WordPress site. For one and a half years, ending in May 2015, we published every week a different object that has an ambiguous relationship to design and to violence. Each time, we invited an authoritative and knowledgeable expert to write a small essay. And each time we asked a question to the audience. We called in big favors, so the first writer was Anne-Marie Slaughter, then William Gibson and Steven Pinker himself. People wrote about euthanasia, about female genital mutilation, and about killing animals. The spiral ramp for slaughtering cattle by Temple Grandin had a commentary by Ingrid Newkirk, the president of PETA, and ended with the question “can you really design a violent act to be more humane?” That got more than 100 comments. The last post was about the death penalty, and the writer is Ricky Jackson, a man who was on death row for 34 years before getting completely exonerated.

We finally turned the project into a beautiful book, and the website is still up and as vibrant as ever:

Living in the Mix of Physical and Digital

Antonelli: We live in a mixture of physical and digital all the time. Many physical objects have therefore become gateways to networks and to digital universes.

This [pointing to her iphone] is already the integration. If we lose it, it’s a matter of money or security, but it doesn’t change anything. We get another one and have the same access. So the phone is almost a hindrance. People try to make it pleasant and comfortable by improving the interface. We could get rid of it, maybe with a watch. But if we could just have a beauty mark that does it all, I’d be fine.

When I started acquiring video games for MoMA a few years ago and we installed Minecraft, you would see kids dragging their parents to see it. Minecraft is a great example of a design object that connects the physical and the digital. It’s almost like Lego online. It is pixelated and old-school, and at the same time up to date. It creates a community. It’s shareable. It doesn’t get any better. And it is telling in its success over many other high-end games that are perfectly cinematic and impeccable. Sometimes kids do sketches with a pencil before starting online. It’s quite beautiful.

David Kirkpatrick is the founder of Techonomy.

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