The Systemic and The Discreet

Before Fabrica there was Dark Matter, strategic design and systems thinking. In discussion with Dan Hill, we further our understanding of those topics and go from Little Printers in London to bookkeeping in Venice.

AR — Around the office, we talk about the concept of a different kind of designer—one who is more ‘of the world’ than ‘of a specialty,’ who can design or participate in the design of anything. Does that approach and perspective resonate with you? What would be the benefits?

Dan Hill — Big question! I guess in a basic way, of course it does, and I, as a designer, have moved through several different contexts and industries, public and private, large organizations and small organizations, broadcast media, publishing, built environments, cities, buildings, websites, music industry, then strategic design in Finland, then whatever the hell I’m doing now...I often think of myself, and feel like, a designer, but I’m often designing an environment and a process and a system and a culture—which I think is a unifying thought.

As a designer I grew up around interaction with a sensibility in terms of the way that you build environments for other people. That can be a website, like Facebook, an environment people can fill up with their ambitions or foibles or whatever. It’s the same way when I was working in building cities, you took the same sensibilities, thinking of the building as a shell that is then filled up with the life of the people who inhabit it. Often you’re trying to design with them as part of the process, rather than the building as a shell so that the building adapts to that life, much in the same way that a website does.

When you’re running an organization you’re kind of thinking the same thing, again, ‘I’m trying to build a structure and a culture that people then fill up with projects and aspirations.’ I don’t really feel this language of ‘of the world’ versus ‘of a particular discipline or craft,’ that doesn’t necessarily resonate with me. But there is certainly something about a designer not stuck in a craft, a discipline, or a rut. A graphic designer is destined to basically live in InDesign and QuarkXPress all of their life, but then as a designer you can take that sensibility out of that context and put it somewhere else, and that does make a different kind of designer. I think it is something that is perhaps of the moment, or of the last 10-15 years to some extent. It’s more common than it used to be.

That’s what I meant by ‘of the world,’ someone who could sit down at any discussion about design or creating something and have input and an interest in how it works, as opposed to other designers who, if it doesn’t have to do with typography for example, it doesn’t interest them. You can’t work like that as much anymore because there are so many interconnected issues.

Exactly, everything is connected. I wrote this piece about Little Printer for an issue of Domus where I described Little Printer and how when you’re designing it, or when you’re designing the iPhone for example, you have to think about, in the iPhone’s case, how the music industry works. To some extent, you’re recalibrating the way the music industry works, as well as making a product. So this is my matter/‘dark matter’ thing: the connection between those two, or ‘matter and meta’ if that’s the way you want to think about it. I noted in the article that it’s basically quite different to probably how Dieter Rams was thinking when he was designing hi-fi systems for Braun in the 1960s, you know, record player and tape deck, but they never think (at least I don’t think they did) ‘How does this change the music industry?’ but ‘How does the radio signal get onto the radio?’ It’s quite—not simple, because these are beautiful, beautiful products, they do lots of other things right—but they weren’t thinking about the dark matter and the system in the same way. They were thinking maybe in terms of manufacturing and logistics of how to put the thing together, and design it so that it packs neatly into a box and can be displayed on the shelf. That’s what a classic industrial designer would think about.

The difference now is that, again with the example of designing the iPhone, you’ve got to think ‘Oh, bloody hell, we’ve got to make iTunes. We’ve got to make a publishing system to get stuff onto it and then be able to subscribe. Well, that’s record labels, and movie companies...’ In making the iPhone or the iPod you potentially change, radically, the record industry. With making Little Printer, you have to make an interface where you subscribe to the feeds. That means that you have to talk to content partners and so on. It’s a different kind of design, thanks to that interaction and issues around digital media. I think there’s always been a kind of designer that thinks a bit like that, the systemic and the discrete, the matter and the meta, but as you say, probably only a few in the past were thinking it. Maybe architects thought about that occasionally but wouldn’t get to address it often, now I think it’s more common.

I guess what’s interesting about education and learning and practice and so on, is that I’m not sure we’re teaching that well, that side. There’s been a radical shift. You still have the cross skills, in a way you have to be as good as Dieter Rams at making the design bit but you also have to, or at least your organization has to think of the other side.

You mentioned ‘dark matter,’ what would be your definition of that as it relates to design?

It’s drawn from this phrase I borrowed from Wouter Vanstiphout, the great Dutch architectural historian, theorist and designer who was talking about how, to really change the city you’re not going to just deal with buildings, but actually you’ve got to deal with developers, government and communities. These things can be very difficult because they’re not immediately tangible in the same way a building is. Then he made us think through this matter/dark matter thing and look at theoretical physics, which is this idea that matter can’t exist without dark matter. The dark matter is the stuff that enables things or inhibits things.

With the iPhone, it doesn’t work just because it’s a beautiful enamelled piece of metal and glass; there are many deals, networks and logistics behind its creation that either add up or don’t. But you can’t conceive any of that stuff when you’re simply holding the matter in your hands. So, I needed a name to describe everything you can’t see that makes it work or not. It was very easy then to think of that in terms of the city which was often the focus of my work, the fact that some buildings have them and some buildings don’t. That really has to do with the things you can’t see, and not to do with architecture or engineering as traditionally understood, because we can basically build anything we want to now, it’s all there.

With that in mind, you can approach issues critically and constructively. For example, why can’t we make buildings fully out of timber now? It would be a lot better if we could. It would be structurally sound, low carbon, it would be enjoyable environments for people and technically it’s entirely possible to make a twelve storey building out of timber. All of the reasons we ‘can’t’ are not about architecture and engineering as traditionally understood, but rather bylaws and leases and permits and business models and government structures and innovation profiles within organizations or industries, none of which you can see. Traditionally the designers point of view seemed to be out of the arena. If you were an architect it was very ‘Do us a building. Thank you very much.’ Through the process it would change and come out looking slightly different than expected. The reason it looks like this at this end is because of the dark matter. It enables or inhibits. You must actually engage with that as the designer—going back to that comment earlier, if you really want to change the city—by looking at governance and the building code as much as you do the intention of the building or the formal architecture.

You’re opening up Fabrica, with the website for example, and you’ve talked about a ‘legible practice’, of an imperative “to create something others can copy and follow”. It’s very much the culture of the Internet seeping through ‘general’ culture, where sharing becomes more of a natural thing to do than it was just a few years ago.

Yeah, exactly, if you grew up with that. To me, that’s partly what’s underpinning it. Also partly the act of actually writing and sharing and forcing ourselves to communicate as a self-reflexive thing, that’s where the learning bit happens. Like, ‘Alright, I’m working on (what I think is) an interesting project, how am I going to describe this? Actually write a paragraph, or actually take a photo of the salient points?’ That’s when reflecting on your own work is learning in some way. So, absolutely. That’s something that’s core to Fabrica, and core to the way that BERG thinks.

They have a business to run, I have a business to run. Mine’s a different kind of business. I’m interested in solving other things than what they do; in the idea of the direct linking designer to manufacturer to consumer, insofar as the fact that one makes Little Printer and then sells it directly and deals with the manufacturing and all of those bits of dark matter again. Something we now have is an infrastructure set up (to some degree) with the Internet. It’s not just an Internet thing, we see it on Kickstarter all the time, obviously. It’s super interesting that from a learning environment point of view, there’s a change. Let’s say one of my software guys comes up with a great app tomorrow (I hope they do), we can sell that. That’s really different from the way that colleges used to work. They used to own the IP and then the person would graduate and go work for Ford or Rolls Royce or something, and sometimes MIT and places like that would spin those things off and take a stake with them. We have to work out a whole new model here, because let’s say the app goes ballistic and suddenly they have two million users, or generates a revenue of $2m (USD) a month, how does that work? Do we get a set percentage? I don’t know. All these structures are threatened, so there are a lot of conditions, for the way BERG works as well as other post-Internet, post-institutional organizations.

To which degree is Fabrica outside of the Benetton dark matter and how does it then participate back in Benetton’s culture and identity?

Well, this is a ‘moving feast,’ as in, it needs to be worked out. There are no clear sets of instructions saying ‘We want X percent of your work in this area…’ They give us a lot of room to maneuver, they generally just want to see Fabrica doing well (to be determined how you evaluate that, but we’ll come back to that), but that will reflect well on Benetton. Just as with Colors, which precedes Fabrica by a couple of years, there is no editorial intervention from Benetton in what Patrick Waterhouse and his team do. Of course, it potentially does a lot for the brand of Benetton. ‘At arms length but part of the family’ is quite an interesting relationship.

For me, we are formally a separate company, but part of the same Benetton Group that is very wide—Benetton the wider holding group runs all kinds of things you may or may not know about, like half of the motorways in Northern Italy, the Florence Train Station and Florence Airport, the Autogrill network (basically motorway service stations), Hudson News I think was owned by Benetton, so, there’s a lot of stuff there. A lot of Italian companies. Not things you immediately think of it as. So, we can be quite independent in that sense.

Then we do work for Benetton if we work on the advertising campaigns, particularly the ones around social affairs. We also do things like the Live Windows Project which are melanged multi-screen installations in 11 stores worldwide, 60-70 screens in the Milan store, a whole bunch in the London store, another being installed in Almaty, Kazakhstan this week. They’re all controlled from Fabrica, led by Fabrica and we produce the content for the screens, which range from interactive experiences to product campaigns to videos produced by a network of schools and colleges all over the world, on United Nations campaigns, and lots of other things. That and the campaigns keep us working quite directly with Benetton. Benetton is the client essentially.

Now, we often do that on the open market as in the campaigns are often a pitch alongside other agencies, we don’t win them all. Obviously we have a particular instinct and insight into Benetton as our managing board is Benetton. So we can get quite close to the company, but we have to work this one out, because if we get too close as you say, all the dark matter of a large corporation versus this small 60-70 person thing that I have here…Let’s say Benetton wants to do some retail, we of course can do that, in the last year we did a Miami store, working with Benetton architects and so on. But really, the better work we could do for Benetton would be to take a step back from that and focus on how the retail industry will change in the next 5-10 years. That would be a very powerful thing for us to do for them because we’re not caught in the 6-month cycle corporations have to be caught in. We can do this sort of R&D for them a bit. That’s the kind of work I’d like to do, but even then, we work very independently. Hopefully even more so in the future. Let’s say we do 10 big projects in a year, 1 or 2 of them might be Benetton, but the other 8 or 9 would be entirely different institutions, organizations or our own self-directed things.

Your mention of Italian companies reminds me of a Bruce Sterling short-story, Black Swan, in which he recounts a parallel world where the (now-modest) Italian manufacturer Olivetti massively grew to become all that it could be.

It’s amazing that Olivetti exists. There is something unique in Italy. On the one hand it’s quite a conformist, conservative culture, and as a reaction to that it creates these extreme possibilities. To some extent it’s like British culture, you have a conformist conservative culture which then produces extreme eccentrics and aversions to that. You get a very stultified class system and punk. Italy has a bit of that reactive momentum to it as a melting pot, it’s also a hugely diverse country, the most diverse in Europe, I think. Certainly in Veneto, where some of Fabrica’s roots extend from, the rich history of originality and creativity has produced entrepreneurs for nearly a millennia. Venice is an impossible triumph against the odds, it’s somehow in the blood here, the small-scale family business that grows massive is a very Italian story, who then produces or invests in great art, again that’s a story that goes back to the Renaissance, the Medici. There are these things in the DNA that produce all of that kind of stuff, so it’s definitely Italian in some senses, and yet the whole thing is predicated on pulling people from all over the world together, which is then a very transnational or global view.

It reminds me of your Dark Matter talk where you talk about the ‘amplitude of diversity’ and that Finland is very even, or Scandinavia is very even. It feels like Italy is a lot more spiky, and it’s where Fabrica and a lot more interesting projects happen.

That’s a good point, I hadn’t thought of that. You should quote me back on myself more often! I never really made that connection. It’s maybe why America, which is often what I use as the polar alternative in that reference point to Finland, where you get Harvard and Yale and MIT but also terrible schools and complete drop-outs. So you get that spikiness. In Europe, we don’t allow ourselves to drop so far, equally you could say we haven’t then achieved the peaks occasionally.

Certainly in Italy you can say it’s a very diverse nation. And again, where you have things far more orientated around family firms, cities and regions, local organizations, so in that sense, it’s very networked, when you see it at a national level. The nation is only an idea that is 150 years old or so. Your average Italian, I think, is Italian when football is on the tv, but otherwise individually identifies first and foremost as from Veneto or Lombardy, as it really is a diverse place (and of course, ethnically, it’s getting increasingly diverse as well, which is also super interesting). So, you get things like Fabrica popping up, funded by a company, a firm. It’s not a national roll out of Fabrica schools in every city, the more Scandinavian approach.

More companies seem to be creating various forms of out of walls outfits. Think tanks, design labs, research centers. Do you find there’s a common thread, a common reasoning to be found out of those endeavours?

I think companies know that the innovation mantra has been around for a long time now—they still don’t always understand it necessarily but they know they have to do it. So everyone with an MBA is going around like, ‘Aw yeah, we’ve got to do some of that innovation stuff!’ There’s a tendency there, there are plenty of stories about that kind of thing in business. They’ve also begun to integrate ideas of design and appreciate it so again it’s not like its solidly embedded because the design thinking meme has sort of died down quite a lot from what it was a few years ago. I think companies can, there’s no reason why not. I suppose we’ve gotten, in the West anyways, more privatized and individualistic (which, for the record, I think is not a very good thing) and the thought seems to be we can’t rely on the state to produce a steady line of new ideas and educational outcomes (students, new recruits and things) so we’ve got to do it ourselves, again, to me it’s not the best instinct.

It’s kind of funny, I was asked the other day about it. I’ve got this strong interest in social democracy and that kind of solution, and yet here I am working in a learning environment basically funded by a corporation. There’s a real tension and irony there that I enjoy. Companies come to see they could make a difference if they did do that; it would make a difference to their employees, it would make a difference in their products. It means the potential to innovate, so why not? The challenge is that it doesn’t necessarily produce the best results, but time will tell.

Tadao Ando said of Fabrica that “there is architecture of the past and the present; the two put their trust in, and draw inspiration from, each other.” Do you find there is value in such inspiration?

Completely. Although I’d dump ‘the future’ in there as well to complete it.

I’m often drawn to research and think of path-dependency as something to understand but also challenge. The idea of path-dependency is that there is this DNA or spirit to culture within a place, that means that what you do tomorrow will be in some way based on what you did yesterday. It’s why certain things spring up in certain places, it’s why riots often happen in the same cities, in the traditional places for that kind of thing, or the traditional conditions for that kind of thing—it cycles around. But I’m also interested in how we challenge that and interrogate it. Ask it, what happens when we do have to take a sharp right turn? How do you escape a path-dependency? In order to do any of that you have to understand where you came from. For me, again, I think of Fabrica here in the Veneto region, not so far away from Venice. I’m reading a history of Venice right now and there are all sorts of interesting things within that. Just reading about the Italian design scene in the 70s, there are all kinds of clues there which I can then wrap up and spin myths around, if you like, that are useful here. In Venice, they invented double-entry bookkeeping, it’s like, the home of dark matter. Nations and all of capitalism sprung from that tiny act. You couldn’t have it without that way of keeping accounts. Right way or wrong way. That’s where it comes from.

The first university in the Western World, the University of Bologna, was set up to deal with the Italian law system which was already spiraling out of control in the 12th century. I think in Italy there are 100 000 laws, in Britain there are 4 000. With dark matter you can then spin a story around why we’d be a particularly interesting incubator to explore those kinds of ideas. The Italian design scene, incredibly rich in particular, full of stories, histories, characters and amazing products, some that succeeded and some that it’s unbelievable that they didn’t, and you can use those things to create a sense of the future, where we need to go. We resonate because there’s some past there.

There’s nothing more interesting to me than uncovering those stories, and retelling them, and beginning to think, ‘How do you change the stories that we tell about ourselves?’ and in some way come from your past. You have to then be able to step outside of that and say, ‘Okay, well that just didn’t work. Now we have to turn left.’ Even with climate change, we can’t approach it using the same tools we have. Those tools created the industrial age, the one that was the problem. How are we expecting them to create the solution to the thing that it just made? We have to approach these things radically differently. Either way you have to understand these things as systems and cultures with seams in them and possibilities and different courses we can take (and that doesn’t mean taking the one it came from). It’s a design perspective, a heavily-designed research-oriented way of thinking. I don’t expect we’ll get deep into ethnography, perhaps at some point, but something I challenge the Fabricanti to do is to ask, ‘Where does this idea come from? What is it saying?’

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