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Paola Antonelli is an Italian-born curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and one of the world’s foremost experts on contemporary architecture and design. She received her[…]

How do we use design – and brands – to identify ourselves?

Question: How does design inform our lives

Antonelli: See the way the word “design” is used in different parts of the world varies a lot.  Where I came from . . .  Where I come from from Italy design is normal, right?  So I grew up being the daughter of two doctors who didn’t have really a training in the arts.  But I grew up with all elements in furniture that’s so called of “good” design because that’s what you would find at the store at the corner for a normal price.  So it was just part of life.  Here in the States interestingly, the word designs assumes all these connotations of luxury, costing more, looking better, possibly non-native.  You know if it’s European then it’s more chic.  So it becomes this synonym for added value that sometimes leaves me really perplexed.  As far as I’m concerned everybody has design in their lives.  You’re wearing headsets right now that are design.  Are they good or bad?  Up to you to judge.  We can talk about it.  But we’re surrounded by design.  That’s why I find it really very, very, very important to help the public, to help people, to help the buyers hone their critical capacity, their critical tools.  Because ultimately the critics of design are the people that use design.  I can help.  I can give some pointers.  I can give some tools.  But truly design is in everybody’s life and it’s for everybody.  So in other words people use design.  Design is part of their lives.  They don’t know it yet.

Question: How do we use design to identify ourselves

Antonelli: You know we make design choices every second – you know ranging from the type of cell phone we use, or the tie that we wear, you know the shoes.  Design is so enormously varied that we make design choices even when we use the desktop of the computer that we use . . . the computer that we use.  And of course all of these choices are connected not only to functional determinations and reasonings, but also to stylistic reasonings and to meaning.  You know meaning is one of the biggest achievements and additions to the analysis of design over the past 25 years.  It’s not anymore just style or looks, but it’s meaning – what something means.  So our choice of a PC versus a Mac is very strongly identified.  And even now you know it used to be creators could only use Macs because the programs were only for the Mac.  No more.  You can have platforms that help you simulate the different operating systems on either computer.  So hey, it’s really a choice.  There’s a study in England that says that people – especially young people – use cell phones as identifiers.  You know all cell phones . . .  Here in the States you still choose cell phones based on which company you will use because then you will have more or less dropped calls, which is really, you know, the Paleolithic age of cell phones.  Elsewhere in the world where you don’t have dropped calls, you choose cell phones based on how they identify you.  So you first have the cell phone.  Then you personalize it with different colors, etc.  Then you have the ringers.  So it becomes truly an identifier.  So that’s just one example, but I think that all the composition of objects on us and around us is a very personal composition and speaks about us.

Question: What role does branding play?

Antonelli: Well branding is omnipresent.  And even the companies that say, “No branding” are branded.  __________ is the biggest example.  You know ___________, no logo, and then it’s _________ everywhere.  So it’s kind of inescapable.  Sometimes I find it really funny when people like to have actually the logos all over them.  You know it’s kind of weird.  I know people that buy basketball hats, baseball hats and then they put stickers on the . . . on the NYU or anything else so it’s not to be identified.  But truly of course there’s the brander’s signifier for a style.  But also there’s the brander’s guarantee of good design.  And you know in some cases like Apple it means something that also has to do with good design.  So I really think that brands are inescapable.  And instead of seeing them as enemies, one can see them as allies to understand more about design.  So the fact that corporations feel responsible about their brands is something that will maybe also force them to act more ethically and to produce more and more better design for the people.  I think that some brands, for instance – I’m sorry I’m talking about Apple again, but it’s a good example – have elevated people’s threshold for design, so they also serve some kind of public mission.  You know they taught people that you can demand good design.  You don’t have to accept whatever comes your way.