How local influences drive design in the digital age // by Paolo Cardini (Part 1)


My wife is a hopeless flea market addict. I’ve been involved in this kind of scouting multiple times, exploring the same spot for years or rummaging through the oddest venues all around the world. "What are we looking for?" I used to ask at the beginning of my career as hunter’s assistant. The deal my wife was yearning for, and still is, was an authentic object, belonging to an authentic person who lived in an authentic place and behaved in authentic ways.

Digital tools expose us to the threat of aesthetic and cultural homogenization.

A few years ago I conducted a research study with my students on the relation between time, time zones, and social patterns. We decided to use selfies, taken at different times of day in different parts of the planet, as the main driver for our investigation. The discovery was quite disquieting. It didn’t matter if the images depicted a South American or an East European teenager; all the self-portraits looked terribly similar, and they all followed the pre-built path of digital self-portrait stereotypes, from foodies to feeties.

There's a global hybrid aesthetic of the data world today. Should we just embrace it, or should we care more about what happens to authenticity? And is our digital reality even able to help preserve what we call authentic?

Cultural hacking is an important part of the process for bringing authenticity back to products.

In 2006 Time’s cover was pointing at YOU as person of the year. YOU represented millions of anonymous contributors to the common cause of the net, who, rather than seeking Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame, are now playing the role of invisible ghost writers. It is true that digital tools provide vast possibilities but, at the same time, they expose us to the threat of aesthetic and cultural homogenization. If we look at the rise of desktop manufacturing, for example, and observe the products coming out from 3D printers, laser cutters, or CNC machines, we can observe a new and impersonal international style. The aesthetic of the fab lab is quite similar to the modernist aesthetic of the machine, where design is a direct representation of technology and there is very little space for local identity.

/FISHBONE 'LEGO // via Hugdetta

/FISHBONE 'LEGO // via Hugdetta

You cannot really say where a website has been designed or where a code has been written or where a piece of plastic has been printed; you can eventually only recognize which kind of tool has been used to shape them. Objects that originate from analog production, on the contrary, are more often connected to local resources and specific cultural nuances. The textile industry was historically based on water-powered mills and located in regions with streams and rivers; paper umbrellas were created to protect nobility from sunlight in response to a social demand for pale skin characteristic of specific cultures.

The emotional relationship we develop with our belongings is important, but how can we deal with authenticity? I’m interested in bottom up phenomenon, where new design approaches foster genuine localism and product de-globalization. Cultural hacking is an important part of the process for bringing authenticity back to products. Middle-Eastern-hacked Ikea furniture or the Icelandic Lego made of fish bones are straightforward examples of physical transformation from global to local, from anonymous to authentic artifacts.

About Paolo Cardini

Paolo Cardini is Associate Professor in Industrial Design at Rhode Island School of Design. His previous appointment was within the interdisciplinary design graduate program at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar.  His work ranges from product to interaction design and from integrated communication to strategic planning.

He studied Industrial design at Politecnico di Milano and Glasgow School of Art and he has been department chair for the bachelor and master courses in Industrial Design at Istituto Europeo di Design in Turin.  

He designs and consults for various international firms and he is lecturing in conferences and design schools worldwide contributing actively to the field with papers and publications.