11. a big group for a big group

Painters compete during a facsimile match in Dafen Village, Shenzhen City, south China’s Guangdong Province,  Thursday, May 18, 2006.   More than 110 contestants make facsimile of portrait or scenery oil painting in the timed game held in the village which is famous for its oil painting facsimile industry. (AP Photo / Xinhua,   Feng Ming)

The last part of the previous class did refer to two different models (IDEO and the traditional Italian manufacturing cluster). Two different ways to make things with a number of similarities as well as differences.

Before to proceed on with a new family of relations (the big group for the big group) it can be useful to underline a substantial (cultural) difference quite important in order to understand the “how” of a big group of people active in design work.

If we observe the way of functioning of an Italian (Latin) family and we compare it to a Chinese or American one, we see a lot of similarities. The network of relations between these different families is more less similar. Of course there are some differences, but the structural part is pretty much the same (up to a certain degree).

If we move our observation from a family to a bigger system (let’s say a mid-size company), we start to have a lot of structural differences. A Latin (or Chinese) company works in a very different way from an Anglo-Saxon (or Japanese) one.

We are not saying anything new if we note that in countries like Italy, the typical mechanism of the family relations is used regardless of the size of the production system (perhaps, it is no longer a question of family relations, anyway there is a blind faith in the system of “relations). In other words, regardless of the size “relations” are always preferred to “processes”.

The system of “relations” has some clear and given advantages to the world of “processes”.

First of all, it is fast. Without having to take long and laborious procedures of selection, I simply ask a trustworthy person to recommend me a third person of his choice/trust,  in a potentially infinite chain: each person in the chain takes his own responsibilities and cash favors upon the relevance of his contribution.

At the opposite, the system based on an absolute respect to “process” pays for a certain slow start, repaid later by the increased quality of the overall results. The tendency to generate nepotism is obviously greater in the system of relations, which indeed is founded upon them.

Corporate model based on process (Starbucks Corporation) vs family model based on relation (Italian trattoria)

If the goal is to have the best coffee bar in town, the relational system is generally excellent. At the opposite, if you want to launch Starbucks Coffee or McDonald’s or you want to go to the Moon, the relational system calls for all kind of disasters. For an Italian mind, a very noble goal is to set up a business able to make the best car (or motorcycle or coffee or Barolo or focaccia) in the world.. Conversely, also an American can point to excellence, but rarely separates it from the “quantitative” parameters (what’s the purpose to make the best hot-dog in the world if we sell only 10 pieces per year?).

Ducati Sport, 1974 (One of the first Ducati V twin models for which they are famous. 90º cylinders for good balance).

In some countries (cultures), “quality” rules in absolute terms. In other contries (cultures) you cannot address “quality” detaching it from “quantity”.

Advertising page for Toyota Corolla (1970)

For a designer is worth to analyze this opposition and to check how other the various methods of production work.

How do they work in China, what are the differences with India, continental Europe, England, Scandinavia, and so on. Here we are in a crucial moment because we are entering the realm of culture. Some of us think upon a Jewish model, other have a deep Catholic DNA (even if they don’t go to church), and so on.

In this extent the typical commercial (and existential) relation between an Italian and a Jew is rendered in a sharp way in “The Godfather” (part 2). Mike Corleone receives an interesting suggestion from his father (don Vito): “Do business with the Jews, but do not trust the Jews”. Beyond the relations between the Italian Mafia and Jewish one (which operate in the same exact way) it is interesting to spend few notes on cultural stereotypes.

This fact that stereotypes are unacceptable and gross simplifications is actually another stereotype. Let’s say that stereotypes are 65/75% true. Then it is up to you to decide if you experience the world in terms of speed rather than accuracy (we suggest at this point to add a third – relational – factor, selecting your attitude from case to case. Also, is quite important to make a selection in which stereotypes you use…

In terms of design based on cultural DNA, another very interesting project to see is the so-called “Dabbawalla” (used in Mumbai).

Dabbawallas at work in Mumbay

The Wikipedia entry explains:

A dabbawala (Marathi: डबेवाला, Hindi: डब्बावाला), also spelled as dabbawalla or dabbawallah, literally meaning person with a box, is a person in the Indian city of Mumbai who is employed in a unique service industry whose primary business is collecting the freshly cooked food in lunch boxes from the residences of the office workers (mostly in the suburbs), delivering it to their respective workplaces and returning back the empty boxes by using various modes of transport. “Tiffin” is an old-fashioned English word for a light lunch or afternoon snack, and sometimes for the box it is carried in. For this reason, the dabbawalas are sometimes called Tiffin Wallahs.

This whole service design system is based on a number of cultural factor quite impressive: the commuter only eats food baked home. Secondly, you can’t cook the night before. All the dabbawalla do come from the same village, all the service is based on total and complete mutual trust

The full explanation of this fascinating example of traditional design service can be found on: Vinay Venkatraman Stefano Mirti, “Dabbawallas“, in: Domus, No 885, December 2005).

A Mumbai dabbawalla, or lunch-box deliveryman, sorts a crate of tiffin boxes in Mumbai, 15 November 2007. Using the Mumbai commuter rail network, lunchbox carriers or “dabbawallas” pick up hot food from homes and deliver it to some 200,000 hungry office workers in time for lunch. The 5,000-strong army of “dabbawallas,” a century-old service, has long been studied by business schools around their world as a model for their great time management and organisation skills. AFP PHOTO/ Sajjad HUSSAIN (Photo credit should read SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images)

The production of goods such as lard (picture above of the well-know “lardo di Colonnata”) lends itself to the typical production system “relational” Italian.

Even within Europe, the cultural differences from people coming from different countries are incredibly relevant. In the Design School of NABA (where mr. Mirti plays the role of the head of the school), at least once per year there is a meeting called by the Scandinavian students in the Erasmus exchange.  Year after year, the reason to call the meeting is always the same.

In Oslo (Stockholm, Copenhagen …) their  teachers judge the student work using the parameters “it is right / it is worng” His Italian colleague works instead using the parameters “I like / I don’t like.”

If you’re used to the world “right / wrong”, it is quite obvious that the system “I like / I don’t like” is quite an horror. Worse, it seems to be extremely unfair.

We could try to explain the rift generated by  Martin Luther,  Johannes Gutenberg and the invention of the mobile typeface making possible for thousands people to reading the Bible in form of a cheap book rather than having to look at nice images in a church. Yet, south of the Alps, regardless of Gutenberg, Martin Luther and intelligence applied to everyday life, people did keep commission incredible paintings and frescos to Leonardo, Michelangelo and Caravaggio.

Gutenberg press

From this point of view, the last Prada‘s catwalk is the last ring of a chain going all the way to the incredible dressing codes of the Renaissance Vatican cardinals, bishops and popes.

In this extent, the “right / wrong” system is not better or worse than the “I like / I don’t like” one, simply, it is different. Obviously, the parameter giving sense (or non-sense) to our activitis is related to what we are busy doing. Once again, if you are struggling with Werner von Braun setting up the Apollo 11 is clear that the  “I like / I don’t like” model is not really  helpful. Conversely, having to found an empire of fashion-related business for the global teenager, to have on top the head designer of Mitsubishi Heavy Motors (with his engineer-oriented mind) doesn’t get us very far.

In terms of design, the interesting element related on the dual opposition between “relations” and “process”  is not related to fortune telling or predictions (to figure out if Lehman Brothers collapses faster/before than Mediobanca). What is interesting is to have some rough references in order to avoid to stare into people eyes when in Tokyo or to get drunk in a park in Saudi Arabia.

In the design field the cultural DNA of people (either way them being designers or end-users) is one of the most resilient elements in the whole recipe. How to succesfully navigate through it, this is one of the main challenges for us all.

Federico Fellini, “Ecclesiastical fashion catwalk”, in: “Rome”, 1972

Name and things useful + important (to be remembered for the exam):

Apollo program

– Barolo (wines from Piedmont)



Focaccia di Recco (Italian bread)

Johannes Gutenberg


Movable type

Toyota Corolla


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