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> > archived articles      > write for core! be famous!

An Interview with Gianfranco Zaccai

Gianfranco Zaccai, co-founder of the international design consultancy Design Continuum, talked with Core jr. on August 17, 2001 in Boston, MA.

CJ: Tell us about your background as a product designer; where would you say you received your best training for the profession?
GZ: My earliest and best training in product design (and life in general, of course) was from probably from my family: I was born in Trieste, Italy and we moved to the U.S. when I was 9 years old. I went to Syracuse University, where they have a great design program, initially for architecture, but then I found Industrial Design. Shortly after I graduated I returned to Italy and worked back and forth for 13 years in the medical industry, which provided an excellent design education. At that time the medical field was somewhat hostile to design, so I was forced to produce my own engineering and produce designs that were really practical. I also discovered that a lot of the briefs we were given from marketing weren't based on any knowledge of what people were actually doing, but rather on what the "experts" claimed they were. It gave me a healthy skepticism of accepting something as you get it and beginning your work based on that premise; I quickly learned the necessity of stepping back and doing my own research.

Working in the cross cultural arena, both within a European and American context, added to this. It let me see how the same reality could be viewed differently, without being able to say that one view was more valid than another, that there are legitimately different ways of seeing the same thing. This highlighted the idea that there is a cultural bias, even in areas that you might think are based on scientific precision, like medical technology, there are things that are emotionally driven, but must be taken into consideration in the process of creating a viable new instrument.

In this environment I learned the most important lesson for all designers: Do your own research. Research results provided for you by the scientists, technologists, market analysts, and so on, only cover a limited area. Only really getting in there, down and dirty, for yourself will let you see where people are, what their aspirations are, and how this thing you create will dovetail into all areas of their life.

CJ: Given your experiences with the medical industry, what do you think is a designer's role in developing new uses for an overwhelming amount of new technology, from genetic implants in our fingernails and DNA manipulation for our offspring, to biotechnology's solutions for food production? Any gut reactions?
GZ: He, he....My gut reaction is that you can't stop progress, but there should be an attempt to herd it. Looking at these new ideas, they all have various dimensions of problems, obviously there are ethical issues, but beyond ethical considerations, there are the mechanical and logistical ones that designers must deal with everyday. They have the opportunity to see what the scientist and biotechnologist aren't seeing, there's always the human dimension that design can add some value to, whether it's a value based on creating accessibility or simply having a sensibility to people's desire or ability to embrace new technology.

CJ: We've read that you attempt to create a holistic and integrated design approach within your own company. How do you accomplish this, especially when dealing with designers so wedded an idea that risks being summarily shot down by the group?
GZ: You want to create a nurturing environment by developing and recruiting people from different backgrounds and fields of expertise. You want a dynamic that can respect each other's points of view, that can augment each other's perspectives. A bad idea should be "shot down," but not just because it deals with an aspect of problems that someone is not sensitive or sensible about, or provides a level of inconvenience. You don't want to lose ideas simply because they're presented on what's never a level playing field: in one case the engineer has the upper hand, another time the marketing guy has the upper hand, or maybe it's the designer with the upper hand. It's just like "absolute power corrupts absolutely." So, you have to create a level playing field where everybody has an equal level of authority. Then, you have to get all those guys out of the studio and out of the lab and out of whatever their own environment is and into real life. Get them to develop a shared empathy for whatever the shared problem is.

We all have blind spots and need to be able to use other's backgrounds and sensibilities to avoid being blindsided by them. We want people to respect everyone's talents and creative serendipity and be able to use them together in the most constructive sense.

CJ: At this point in your professional life how much and in what way are you able to take part in actual design projects?
GZ: Well, not as much as I would like!

Actually, I'm very involved in designing concepts, or designing the metaphors that explain the concepts, that are often outside a client's purview. For a recent Smithsonian presentation, I used this as a vehicle for talking about what I think are going to be some future trends in opposition to the ways things've been going, particularly in the area of technologies that solve individual problems, but at a collective burden.

My hypothesis is that the future is not going to look so much like what we thought it'd be, rather, if we do it right, the future is going to look and feel more like the past. Look at the technological increase in tools, appliances, personal assistants, items for the home, and so forth. They provide tremendous benefit, initially, but I think they reach a cusp where the benefits are outweighed by the burdens they create.

Look at this in terms of communication aids: cell phones, wireless internet, pagers; all provide a great boon to the need to be connected, but, by now, we can never just disconnect. The ritual of work has to return to a more tangible and meaningful experience, especially for people involved in intellectual occupations.

CJ: So you see the conceptual designer as one who can direct innovation to avoid such burdens from developing?
GZ: I'm not sure if it's such a practical as an illustrative way. I like to look at what's real and working and make connections to disparate things to see what could be done better, right now in some cases, in the near future in others. It means thinking longitudinally instead of latitudinally.

Look at the problems presented by our need for food. There's the set of issues with food preparation: so much convenience has been designed into the way food is prepared, for people who have less time to actually enjoy it, while the convenience of the food makes it less enjoyable in the first place. But, more important, is the need to nurture yourself and your family. Food, obviously, is a big part of this, but there's something about envisioning a way of living that's much more like the way we used to live, even a million years ago. Then, we'd kill something, throw it on the fire, huddle around, wait, tell stories, eat, throw the bones and other garbage back in the flames, tell more stories; the fire provided more than the heat to prepare the food to feed our biological needs, it also took care of cleaning up the waste the meal created and provided the communal meeting place to nurture our emotional and intellectual needs.

So, I see my role as one of breaking the typical trajectory: rather than developing a new dishwasher that uses less water or energy, make a system that provides for all parts of the ritual, from preparation to cleaning, while encouraging us to spend even more of that quality time with family and friends.

More and more there's the need to help define strategic thinking and illustrate ideas that can make such innovations more viable on the design front. My goal is to introduce, to the public design world, concepts that can become real tangibles, innovating in ways that allow practical and emotionally-engaging, while financially feasible, ideas to see the light of day. All too many crappy ideas see the light of day. We've ended up with this corrosive quality of unchecked technology on our lives; the instruments created to serve us have become our masters.

I can't get dressed in the morning without the cell phone. It has become a burden. If I choose to dress without it, then I'm being rude by not being accessible. If I choose not to answer it, then I'm being rude by not responding. So, one solution becomes another problem and we must root out a better answer. Maybe it's one of shape, maybe it shouldn't be a phone at all, maybe it should be part of your wallet, or maybe it should have different functionality, what response a caller receives, or something else entirely . . .

CJ: What's one of your designs that you're most proud of?
GZ: What I'm most proud of working on, or something I played at least a dominant role in, is the Metaform Personal Hygiene System. I really loved that project and all the various products that are a part of it. Basically, we had a blank slate to research and come up with a system that would allow people to remain independent in their own homes, with personal hygiene as the key area. We were able to do all kinds of research on our own. One of the first things we discovered was that it wasn't about ergonomics or making nice forms, but if you design something expressly made for someone elderly or disabled, then they'll try not to use it for as long as they can, since it stigmatizes them. This makes for a very small market. So, we realized we needed to look at the points of commonality between the very old and the very, very young. In between are the people who may go out skiing, break a leg and also become one of the users. We ended up with a cohesive group of products that directly addressed the needs of all these people.

That was probably the most emotionally charged and satisfying project I ever worked on, and also the most frustrating due to the fact that the client backed out once they realized that they wouldn't have the resources to commercialize it, being so far afield from their core business. Still, every week someone tracks us down wanting to know how to get one.

CJ: Any hopes to bring it to production?
GZ: Well, there's always hope, but lately I've been more involved in outreach and the realization of new paradigms of what products and design services can do. I'm putting a lot of effort into designing an environment internally that can address a wide variety of issues with an appropriate cross-cultural, inter-disciplinary sensitivity. One thing we've been pushing in our own offices is the personnel exchange program, getting people out of their own cultural boundaries to develop the sensibilities of other people and realties of other cultures. The way people live their lives is 95% similar and 5% different. That 5% is what's going to continue to engage us.


Gianfranco Zaccai

At the helm of the IDSA National Conference

Ever expanding medical design technology continues today at Continuum

A nurturing, supportive environment

Striking the hot lanes for design

Windows of design

A temporary solution for food preparation

A break from non-anthropomorphic strategies

A powerful master

A glimpse to true universal design