Still Rethinking Design / 1
Design & Focus
Design Research, Design Practice, Knowledge, Network Society,
How to design in a new research paradigms.
Our contemporary Network Society is characterized by the new paradigm between Knowledge, Time and Space;
where Knowledge and Speed become even more important and critical.
Within this framework, it’s emerging a gap between Research and Practice, which drives to a debate about Design
Levels (Design Research, Meta-Project, On-Line Design), their characteristics and relationships.
This paper would suggest a scheme based on Variable and Time, as an instrument to manage the relationship
between Design Levels, defined through the Project’s Focus.
The Network is an open structure, based on Nodes connected by Links, free to expand itself by the integration of
new Nodes, according with their possibility be connected to the whole system. The Links represent the supporting
structure of Flows, which run throughout the Network.
“The networking form of social organization has existed in other times and spaces”1. In spite of that, according
with Castells, we can note how during the last part of the XX Century the big change of technology, from the
pure data elaboration, to the Network Technology, it brought deep changes within the morphology of our
society. In fact, we can note how the definition of “pure network”, made by Kevin Kelly, “distributed,
decentralised, collaborative and adaptive”2, is adaptable to the technology platforms, as well as to the
morphological model of our society.
Within the Network Society there is increasing evidence of a new relationship between communication, time, and
space: the connections created by the informational flows, which represent the productive base of advanced
economical systems, are not related with the geographical position of nodes.
According with Negroponte, it is possible to say that digitalisation is more than simply reducing costs and
increasing speed: it’s a “change in the distribution of
intelligence”3 within the framework of a kind of virtual
From the designer’s point of view, the changes of the
Network Society, are visible in the emerging of the
1. Product System: product + service + communication,
an hybrid artefact that include all the element4
2. Knowledge economy: the most valued raw material in
our age is the Knowledge, on which it is based the
bigger part of the element which built the competitive
position of a company5.
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Toward a Knowledge Constellation
The way of creating value of the elements of the Network, follows some peculiarities: all the elements, nodes,
flows and the whole network, increase their value with the increasing of interactions. That represents a
fundamental innovation about the relationship between the use of a system and the value of the system itself.
From an economical point of view, that phenomenon evidences the big change of the paradigms of the
competition6: it’s emerging, in opposition to the historical specialized competition, a strong interest on
interdisciplinary collaboration, a sort of “harmonizing”7.
Richard Normann illustrates8 how the positioning along the value chain shouldn’t be the focus of a contemporary
strategy. In fact, in our age the value is a result of a co-creation of different economic factors working not just to
add value, but to reinvent it, on a networking context: the Value Constellation.
Paraphrasing Richard Normann, and considering the
knowledge one of the bigger values of our age, it’s
possible to note how a big difference is emerging with
the rise of the network society: from a knowledge
chain (transmitted just in a linear way from master to
pupil, where position is more important than ability) to
a knowledge constellation (no hierarchic position,
open source, big amount of signal to transform in
The high complexity of our contemporary society needs high complex products: hybrid, multi-logical, multi-local.
Products which, including the characteristics of our age (think about the big question about local and global), are
full of new questions and challenges. Not just competitive products, but products that redefine their markets
and often transcend their original program goals to
create new market.
Within this framework it’s important to underline the
concept of Breakthrough Product (BP)9. Cagan and
Vogel define BP through the Value Opportunities
Chart10 as well as the importance of the so-called
Fuzzy Front End: the part of product development
process that starts with the general goals of the
program and covers the early stages of new product
The integrations of disciplines, the importance of
user’s interests on critical decision making, the
emerging of style and technology, the managing of
the Fuzzy End Front, all that represent the structure of
a Breakthrough Product.
Breakthrough Products are products designed to answer to the needs of contemporary society. Scenario Building,
ethnography, ergonomics, as well as several lifestyle references, are required during the development of such
complex product. Cagan and Vogel underline how, with a “free fall”, product succeeds only by chance. It doesn’t
matter if there is a technology core and capital: new product development is a climb, not a free fall.
Still Rethinking Design / 3
More than an answer to contemporary needs, design
should be a visionary activity finding solution for future
needs12. In front of such new question it’s good to
consider design as a language to provide new answers,
to find solutions (more than one. In fact, in our time,
one solution is usually not enough).
The way of working, for most of the main big Design
masters, was to develop a project starting with a
research, in the same process, within the same
knowledge (and space). The project’s process included
the time to develop a research focused on the project’s
The increasing speed on industrial process, within the
“time to market” concept, it defines, related to some productive aspects, the speed itself as a quality13.
Design is called to give solution almost in real time, pushing the professional job toward a concept of “on line
design”. Nicholas Negroponte14 suggests us how, with the development of the new communication
technologies, a software project could literally move around the world from east to west on a twenty-four-hour
cycle, between different persons, different groups, turning work and rest time according to their geographical
In our time, the opportunity to develop “on line
project” represents a historical acceleration of the
design process. This leads us to have a extremely short
time to give solutions, too short to elaborate an
The need to become increasingly faster in providing
Design solutions, causes a gap between Research
and Practice. On one hand, Research is working out of
a timing, whereas Practice, is working under pressure,
almost in real-time.
This gap is at the same time conceptual and physical.
Indeed, Research and Solutions are developed in
different places, from different people, in a different
time and with a big flow of Knowledge which goes
through these differences.
Starting from the consideration that every project has the goal to develop a solution (that could be relative, for
the following steps), the development of a design solution implies the management of a certain amount of
Information, in order to create a Knowledge. This occurs according with an adequate balance and a filter of two
components: Time and Design Variables.
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The scheme I refers to, it considers Time and Design
Variables as main polarities-axis in defining the Design
Within the scheme, the area of Possible Solutions
could be considered as the place where Design
Variables meet Time, in the right balance. The right
balance between the two components depends
primarily on the project’s focus.
Outside of the Possible Solution Area we would find
projects with too many variables that have to be
managed in a too short time, which drive to the
impossibility to get a solution, or projects with too
much Time, which drive the project to loose the
general focus and to waste energies.
Using the defined scheme, it’s possible to define three
areas. Different areas based on the different
relationships between Variables, Time and Focus.
Different Design Levels.
Design research. It’s the level with the greatest
amount of Design Variables, as well as an adequate
Time to manage them. It’s allows one time to reconsider the discussion’s platforms, or to build new
ones. The main activity within this level is about
Meta-project. This is an hybrid level16, which assumes
the discussion’s platforms - of Research - as base, to
explore the Design potentiality17, without an
immediate productive outputs.
Meta project, as hybrid level, could be considered in
relation with the other field in which the term meta is
used18, that drive us to the definition of “a project of a
Design on line. This level is strictly related to
productive realities. The amount of Design Variables is
adequate to the very short time provided for Design
Solutions. Is the level where design team has to
provide solution to the market.
A proposal: S=K∫(T, V)
The core of the proposal it’s to put in evidence how a
real solution depends on the right balance of Time
On the Time’s axis it’s considered the time of duration
of a project. On the Variable’s axis we have two kind of
relations: on the first part of the axis the number of
variables increase inside the field of the project, in the
second part the number of variables could be extended
to all the fields.
Still Rethinking Design / 5
The scheme it could be read as well in the following
way: S=K∫(T, V), where S is Solution, K is the
Knowledge, T and V are Time and Variable as above
mentioned. On other word, better, on word it means
that to provide a Real Solution it depends from the
Knowledge of the platform in relation, a kind of
mathematical function, with Time and Variable.
At this point it could be interesting to try to figure how
to read the scheme as well, and so a new question it
could emerge: the focus drives the universe of the real
solutions, helping to make clear the limits over which it
would be wasted time or energy; or is this limits,
defined through several probes, which help to define
the focus of a project?
I wish to express my gratitude to: Andrea Branzi, Ezio Manzini, Giulia Birindelli, Ilpo Koskinen, Jan Verwijnen,
Joseph Pine, Pekka Korvenmaa, Peter McGrory.
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1 Castells, 1996
2 Kelly, 1994
3 Negroponte, 1995
4 Mauri, 1996
5 Nordstrom and Ridderstrale, 2000
6 Nordstrom, 2000
7 Negroponte, 1995
8 Normann and Ramirez, 1998
9 Cagan and Vogel, 2002
10 The schedule proposed by Cagan and Vogel, in order to differentiate a product and contribute to the overall
experience of use, takes in consideration the following values: Emotion, Ergonomics, Aesthetics, Identity, Impact,
Core Technology, Quality, and Extra
11 The main point of the Fuzzy Front End are: Identifying (emerging trends), Understanding (holistic product
definition) , Conceptualizing (multiple concept), Realizing (product proposal for Program Approval
12 The meaning of the Italian verb progettare is gettare oltre “to throw further”, thus referring to the action
of building a bridge between present and future
13 Maldonado, 1986 and Branzi, 1997
14 Negroponte, 1995
15 Koskinen, 2001, and Southwell in McGrory, 1995
16 Magnaghi, 1973
17 DA, 1998
18 Meta-language: in logic and linguistic, every language, natural or formalized, which inquires and describes
an other language assumed as subject. Meta-theory: in contemporary logic, theory that it has as subject an
other theory (said theory object)
Still Rethinking Design / 7
V.le Montenero 29 – 20135 Milano I
Architect (Politecnico di Milano, Colegio de Arquitectos de Valencia), specialized in design (practical and
theoretical aspects), has been consultant for several companies.
He is undertaking a PhD in Industrial Design at the Politecnico di Milano (Italy) where, besides to be tutor for
several courses, he’s developing his PhD research (Learning Spaces – Toward an Environmental Learning
System for the Faculty of Design) with professors Andrea Branzi and Francesco Trabucco. With SDI of
Politecnico di Milano he’s involved in design research with the team of professor Ezio Manzini.
From September 2002 to January 2003 he’s been Visiting Researcher in UIAH (University of Art and Design –
Helsinki), within the Product and Strategic Design Department.