All posts by lgalli

Mac elitism? Technology, luxury etc.

A leveling of class distinctions in Apple products is going to sting people who valued the affectation of elitism that came with using Apple’s top-of-the-line products.

via Gizmodo – When Pro Doesn’t Mean Pro Anymore – MacBook

This review from WWDC 2009 raised my curiosity. The point of discussion is the leveling of prices in the “Pro” range of Macs, especially with the new 13-inch at 1199 dollars. The argument goes like this: showing off a top-of-the-line Pro used to be a clear sign of distinction; pretty much the same with the old Macbook black when compared to the cheaper whites (btw: I am now living with my second white…).

Uploaded on July 27, 2006 by galaygobi on Flickr CC license
Uploaded on July 27, 2006 by galaygobi on Flickr CC license

I have always been intrigued by the idea of elitism and technology, especially mass market technology as it is the case with these machines. The contrast is quite startling: you have the epitome of machine democratization, the personal computer (well, Macs), surged as a symbol of distinction.

Of course it might be argued that something similar happens for so many products and services. The top-of-the-line as sign of distinction. Yes. But I am more interested in the specific case now than the general phenomena.

I guess that there is big value to ripe for a company capable to bring distinction to its products. They could command higher prices, which should bring more margins. This has been historically difficult with PCs, where shrinking margins are the rule I think. I still remember when Dell took over that company specialized in computers for gaming, not only very powerful but also stylish, with fancy cases if I am not wrong etc. (no details from heart, I should check it out again).

I think that the issue might be an interesting subject of research. Scientific study but also market research. Maybe it is already very covered; again, to be checked.

This is also somewhat related to some earlier thoughts on technology and luxury, media and luxury.

In 2002 I scribbled down a few lines about these broader and distinct concepts as I was pondering the idea of “media recluse”, coined in a book about future trends (I can’t remember the title now; and the notes are in Italian, or almost all in Italian… so I will annoy me transalting myself… how bad): “digital divide inteded as the value of media and information… junk media for the poor and premium for the rich, The categories of luxury, value and misery should be applied to information and knowledge, if we hold true that we live in an economy dominated by knowledge and information. Information is equal for all but not everyone has the same access to information… the old ryhme”.

“Media recluse” were described as people that in the future would recede from information and keep themselves shielded from the media noise or the media pollution. A facet of elitism…

Now it come to my mind a paper about luxury in which there is an articulated discussion on technology and luxury; how technology makes luxury “affordable” and move products down the chain. But how down is down? What is the elitist threshold? It might correspond to a certain model of profitability — or digital divide seen from another perspective.

The $300 Million Button and the “registration fatigue”

The $300 Million Button from Jared Spool tells the success story of a web form redesign — a huge success as it brought this additional big bunch of money to the retailer that asked for Spool’s consultancy advice. It is indeed a quite practical point in favour of good UI design, and UX design in general. It seems something still relatively new even in the very advanced US market: people get very surprised (“Spool! You’re the man!” is the message left in the voicemail by the client CEO). The post reports also about the resistance to registration before purchasing from a good number of users. This is quite interesting to me: I guess there are already a number of studies about this “registration fatigue”; but this is also part of the bigger effort of managing one’s personal identity online, especially when it comes to ecommerce: this is not about your various social networks’ identities, but your real personal information, at least for the part connected to your credit card or other payment methods. I wonder what it is the real progress and adoption of the various initiatives trying to deal with identity management in the broadest sense (open id and the likes; I have my account there obviously but I failed to take much advantage of it)

Italian translation of “40 years of Design Research” by Nigel Cross”

“40 years of Design Research” is a short but very informative piece by Nigel Cross (currently president of the DRS-Design Research Society, professor at the Open University, author of many books and articles). Originally written as a 2006 conference address, it has been then published in the Design Research Quarterly (the DRS official publication), where I found it some months ago. I thought that this was very well suited for my Design Methodology module on “Philosophy of Design” at NABA Media Design, and I completed the Italian translation before Christmas. Nigel has kindly given his permission for using it in teaching; he also made me smile as he replied to my final thanks commenting “how much more elegant it seems in Italian!” 😉

CREATE-NET workshop on forthcoming EU research calls

The conference room in Bergamo (picture is mine)
The conference room in Bergamo (picture is mine)

Last week in Bergamo I had the opportunity to attend the two-days 4th technical and funding workshop promoted by CREATE-NET, a dynamic international research institute in Trento;  “the focus of CREATE-NET’s research is on the Internet of the Future, both in terms of infrastructure and service”. I was invited there because of my previous work in FP6 projects (MobiLife and SPICE, both with Neos), links with the industry (I actually extended the invitation to a major Italian publisher) and established contacts with people working there (this time I have been also introduced to CREATE-NET president, professor Imrich Chlamtac).

The workshop was very well organized and to me it has been quite satisfying to join an event like this in Italy for once (instead of Bruxelles or some capital up in the Nordic region — I love the Belgian beer and the Nordic light, but I can not rush there with my motorbike in 45 minutes 😉 (joking… but the relative rarity of these settings in Italy is an issue; I will not discuss it here anyhow).

Talking about content, I enjoyed very much the informal exchanges with a few other attendants interested in the “networked media and 3D Internet” research area of the forthcoming 2009 calls (including friends from some of my preferred examples of excellence in European ICT research like HIIT and Fraunhofer FOKUS). We started discussing after a very nice visualization example of Last.fm listenings made with Vizter (created by super-brilliants Jeffrey Heer and Danah Boyd) from a Tampere Technical University Hypermedia Lab researcher; having just seen an overview of the research agenda brought forward by NEM, a prominent European and global forum on future media and network technologies, we had an initial but intense chat on possible research proposals at the intersection of media management and consumption, social network visualization and other related stuff.

NABA multidisciplinary team wins Nokia NUP-Nokia University program recognition

Fabio Mattia, Rossella Scicolone and Lara Gianotti, students respectively in the Media, Fashion and Graphic Design program at NABA, have won the 3rd placement in the 2008 edition of NUP-Nokia University Program, an annual challenge sponsored by Nokia Italy and addressed usually to Economics and Engineering faculties. Thanks to Alberto D’Ottavi, the NABA Media Design school was invited to join this edition, which in itself has been an achievement, since it has been the first and only design school selected.

Fabio (Media Design) put together a multidisciplinary team inviting two other students from different domains (Rossella from Fashion and Lara from Graphic Design). Alberto and myself have supervised the work. To me it has been especially interesting for the double reason that Fabio was in my Design Methodology / Philosophy of Design class and that the topic of the challenge (“How the Internet device of the future will look like?”) was very much in line with the work done over the last few years on beyond 3G / ubicomp application and services (the service side was also stressed by the reference to OVI in the brief).

The main objective was to develop a concept and articulate it with service ideas and an early business perspective. As obvious, the differences among the various participants were quite evident. Most of the presentations from Economics and Engineering programs were pretty much centred about one or another technology idea, expanded into a bigger marketing picture (some provided even TV spot snippets and campaign budgets), even though others put a considerable effort also in physical mock-ups and benefit analysis. NABA students were drawn instead on a design perspective in which service scenarios and device sketches were perhaps more tied together.

From the educational point of view, I really enjoyed having a chance to practice with the students some of the key issues that I try to teach in my class: design as a team-based, distributed, multidisciplinary work in which intangible, service aspects are related in many ways to physical ones, from the functional, social and esthetical point of views. Furthermore, as the final day was hosted in Roma at Roma Tre University (namely by professor Carlo Alberto Pratesi), Nokia kindly invited the team to bring there some classmates. At the end we were almost 25 people, travelling from Milano to Roma and back to Milano in one day; 9 hours on the high speed train, but it looks like that everyone had a good time… (Friends might wish to check the Facebook photo album).

Buona matita (about social design)

“Buona matita social club” (“buona matita” translates as “good pencil”) is one of the few headlines that caught my attention on a magazine that I was lazily browsing last week while coming back from Isola d’Elba on the ferry (yep, vacatiors are over). The article, signed by MOMA architecture and design curator Paola Antonelli (let me note that she is an Italian), is about the emergence of social design and the idea that there are *not* only “pretty chairs and limited edition lamps” to care about in the field; UK designer Hilary Cottam’s work is reported as an example. Of course this might sound obvious to many specialists but I think it is still very new for the general public.

It could appear ironic, or notable at least, that the story appeared on a magazine entitled “Style” and that it is all about lifestyle and fashion in the most conventional meaning of expensive and sophisticated products, or, well, this is what its several advertisers sell (the magazine is packaged on Friday with the big Italian daily Corriere della Sera and it is mainly addressed to an adult, male and affluent readership; you pay an extra 50 eurocents for it).

Perhaps this is one of the many small signs of the increasing awareness of the themes so much discussed at Changing the Change in Torino, where I did have the impression of a very important but still quite relatively young and specialistic environment (despite the fact that some of the key principle and perspectives have already a quite long history in the design thinking tradition – Paola Antonelli quotes e.g. Papanek and his “Design for the real world”, published back in 1971.  Update 9th of November 2013: see below the memorable 1973 cover, taken from a 2012 Domusweb article, again from Paola Antonelli )

Victor Papanek
Victor Papanek “Design for the Real World” 1973 edition great book cover

“Changhing the Change” in Torino / 2

Conference board
Lots of emerging issues it seems (picture is mine)

I am just back from three days of a very good conference on design and sustainability in Torino (and a much needed Sunday break), even though I have some mixed feelings about certain sides of it. If time allows, I will try to get into the details in separate posts, but as for now I want to scribble down what comes to my mind first.

This is a quick list of likes (see dislikes in the following):

  • Amazing talks from the invited speakers, especially those coming from Africa, India, China and Japan; Bill Moggridge of IDEO did a brilliant job too (his takes on the role of designers as strategists were bold and funny).
  • The idea of including virtually all of the conference participants, be they authors, speakers or simple attendants (like me), in an open round of sessions on “emerging issues” (see one of the preparatory boards in the pic above, on the left) — one of those was the new role of designers in this changing landscape (including very practical aspects, such as “how to make money – or, say, decent living – out of it”; see agan the pic above, on the right).
  • The “call to action” (as it is called in Mark Vanderbeeken post on Core77) often raised in official presentations and informal exchanges.
  • Some concrete, real-world project cases about design and sustainability external to the academic world
  • The open, online publication of all the papers (click “Themes” and then go on; the “login” link I guess will be activated for downloading the entire proceedings in digital format for those that attended the conference).
  • The beatiful, efficient location offered by the Politecnico di Torino at the Istituto di Biotecnologie.

And a couple or so of dislikes (the first is pretty big, the last is very minor):

  • The lack of contrasting views in the overall conference debate, despite the themes under discussion can be regarded as highly controversial (I actually share pretty much of the leading visions there, but it looks like that many others in the world are not exactly of the same opinion… so e.g. why not to invite a very traditional product designer to give a talk? or a scientist with different views on climate change? etc.
  • A large majority of the attendants were from the academic environment — all right, a special kinds of academics perhaps, with a commendable concern for some of the most urgent issues out there and not only for their papers and titles; but the risk of turning the design research debate into yet another “academic industry” was voiced even by Nigel Cross in the conference opening (Nigel Cross represented officially the Design Research Society at the event).
  • The only remark I can made on the otherwise excellent organization: yes, it was possible to connect and recharge your notebook at the library, but the conference rooms had locked power plugs and no wi-fi; very possibly it has been planned like this for various reasons (e.g. is a setting like that not very sustainable?) but still…

Then, quite often I had the impression that speakers were not so eager to make explicit, articulated references to the epistemogical, ethical, political, philosophical assumptions underpinning this or this other position, analysis or proposal (on the contrary, e.g. Roberto Bartholo has recalled Richard Rorty, just to name one case). Of course, I guess that they are all in the papers; anyway, I would have liked having presenters more engaged and systematic on the principles and fundamentals level.

Some good questions about money (picture is mine)
Some good questions about money (picture is mine)

“Changing the change” in Torino / 1

Decided to attend the “Changing the change” conference to be held in Torino next month, from 10th to the 12th. Among others, one good point from the event presentation, with regard to the necessity of rethinking change concept and practices in the face of the sustainability challenge:

If indeed design wants to be “part of the solution” it must, perhaps first and foremost, develop a new research culture and new research practices: open research, sensitive to present contexts, that leads to a better understanding of the great changes underway; that offers designers tools to facilitate movement within them; and that enable designers to be promoters of a radical way of changing the direction of these great changes.

The event is part of the broader Torino World Design Capital, but actually I found it after having affiliated myself with the Design Research Society, which supports it too.