The pandemic has had a paradoxical but predictable effect
The first thing we all did when it became clear, in February, that the virus was no longer just a Chinese problem, but also an Italian emergency, was to communicate. Between people, institutions and citizens, companies and the public. It was chaotic communication, seldom designed, with big blunders and rapid advances in terms of knowledge and awareness. But what we did in an obsessive way, to respond to the fear and the isolation, was to get back to the most rooted meaning of the verb, which is “to share in common.” The new development was that we realized how much our communications were already structured in the digital realm, and how their contents and modalities had become sophisticated, ready to approach the challenges of social distancing, at least from a professional standpoint, without causing grave uncertainties.
But design was used to better things, at least in Milan. The FuoriSalone and Salone del Mobile had been a true, dazzling arena for brands, for many years. A collective theater in which Made in Italy had hit the stage, on an annual basis, for decades. With the capacity to extend the climate of values to a very high level, for anyone who wanted to come to grips with a collective happening that was the only one of its kind in the world. This year, though, there was no Salone. And the sector had to cope with an unthinkable voice. The possible fixers, the real Mr. Blacks, have been and will be the communicators. Interni asked them to talk about what has happened, and what will – perhaps – happen from now on.
God save the digital: the slogan for the near future
“We felt very vulnerable, and in that state we have laid the groundwork for innovation, creativity and change,” says Silvia Rizzi, founder of Share. “We were frightened and we thought we were going to lose years of work. I asked my team to operate at 200%, to make our presence felt by companies, to understand how we could help them. We communicators have had to learn to think outside the box, to imagine how to create content and narratives that could exist on platforms that differ from the established ones.” The obvious response was the digital realm: without physical events, remote storytelling becomes the key option.
This is confirmed by Evelina Bazzo, at the helm of Umbrella: “We worked intensely right from the first lockdown, almost on a mission to sustain the publishing system while contributing to the vitality and presence of our clients in new digital projects, immediately introduced by the publishers. The companies also promptly began using platforms that permit dialogue, to present products and create empathy with dealers, large numbers of whom got initially involved.”
Martina Gamboni of Strategic Footprints observes that this has also been an opportunity to rethink roles: “This period has forced us to reconsider the very essence of the act of communicating. Communication, now more than ever before, is the discipline whose tools have changed most rapidly, and these changes are still in progress. Nevertheless, the same fundamental principles still apply: message, identity, culture, originality.”
Serena Capasso of 54Words adds: “Today, communication cannot stand still: it has to evolve, to adapt to the crisis. Above all, it has to change its tone. While by ‘communicate’ we mean ‘feeling together,’ this aspect becomes even more vivid in difficult times. It is better to use an authentic style of discourse, with the aim of reassuring and bringing people together.” The digital realm becomes the premise, the condition without which the encounter with a product will probably never take place: “The world of design cannot avoid constructing its relationship with its audience based on languages capable of combining technology, human relations and the physical dimension, creating customized pathways. These are indispensable preparatory actions, leading up to the encounter with products in the real world,” says Daniele Lombardo of DigitalMind.
The second step towards a different future: staying human
Or, perhaps, becoming more human than before, in a process of storytelling that has effectively already begun. Paride Vitale emphasizes: “One has to sit on a sofa, to turn on a lamp, to touch a fabric. A color cannot be conveyed by a screen, and ideas often come from an exchange of glances, a smile or a quip, or simply one more glass of wine. We have changed but we remain human, so let’s taking the best that distancing has to offer, but also return to constructing, to shaping, to amazing and thrilling other people.” The design community is accustomed to gathering, to establishing physical relations, in order to be able to design houses, spaces, objects. To recoup that atmosphere in the digital realm, the flow of human values has to be clear, direct, paced: “We have tried to get beyond the lack of physical contact by building unconventional projects, something different, new formats, especially in the area of video,” says
Serafino Ruperto. “As never before, we have tried to transmit corporate values and philosophy through authentic stories, also told at times by the clients themselves. 2020 is definitely a point of no return, also for communication.”
Cinzia Roscio: “The emotional and relational component is central in the narration of design and products, no longer seen as means to respond to purely functional needs, but as ways to interpret and grant form to a lifestyle, to express the essence of every person.”
Giovanna Gagliardi agrees: “Emotional impact and trust become key factors, cornerstones perceptible in the world of contemporary design, the two big challenges that have to be conveyed. I believe we need to fully revive them in the processes and flows of communication in which they are transferred.”
Luca Vergani, CEO of Wavemaker, confirms this: “There is a shared characteristic, however, that is starting to emerge in the ad campaigns of the large design companies: the consumer pays attention to companies with values. Companies that concretely demonstrate their emphasis on social factors, prior to economic factors: for example, the recyclability of raw materials, and low environmental impact.” Gabriella Del Signore of Ghénos agrees: “In my view, all communicators should introduce intangible values in the narrative, the ones hidden behind projects, giving new forms to corporate storytelling and forging a new kind of corporate social responsibility.”
The doubt remains regarding how to cope with the transition from physical to digital without getting lost in the real and tangible distance between products and people
According to Nicola Lampugnani, chief creative officer of TBWA Italia: “People receive messages without thinking about what’s in front of them. Podcasts are a very analogic form of storytelling. There is no need to interact, but this makes them a warm tool, to stimulate fantasy. They enable you to create content while narrating an object, a product, to make it become part of everyday life.” But he adds: “The second lockdown has demonstrated that people have a strong desire for interaction and exchange. When it’s all over we will return to physical presence, but with an enormous leap forward; the content will continue to be there, because at this point it is part of our world.” It is still hard to understand the differences between promotional content and strategic content, when communication becomes such a narrative act. “The contents, unlike advertising which works on interruptions, operate on fluidity, demonstrating how the product interacts with life and puts human beings at the center of the story,” Lampugnani asserts. “Fitness apps or online cooking schools, for example, narrate something that triggers an immediate exchange with the consumer. The content is the more sophisticated evolution of the tutorial. It expresses the more emotional part, expanding the potential of products by illustrating all their aspects, which due to the lack of time is difficult to carry out in advertising.” The same considerations are shared by Francesca Noseda of M&C Saatchi PR: “Digital channels, 3D processing and cinema permit us to create spaces in which to place the collections, making them generate experiences, always and everywhere: the time has come to break down the boundaries, to emphasize storytelling to the fullest. Relying on these tools to present products, designers, entrepreneurs and managers of brands can concentrate on individual relationships with journalists and sector professionals, offering an unprecedented, all-encompassing phygital experience of the brand’s values.”
The future is (also) physical
We already know, however, that no one will think it is enough to sit on a sofa and watch a video. For some reason, design is a world that really does need human contact. Maybe because Italian culture is a matter of affects, sometimes in a melodramatic way. Or because getting close to others once again will be a signal to start rethinking a future that is a bit vaster than before. What is certain is that everyone is waiting for a chance to be with others again.
Livia Grandi and Marina Zanetta of Agence 14 Septembre say: “Relationships, encounters and interaction through physical presence are fundamental and indispensable. Digital communication can be an opportunity we should not allow to escape, to trigger a truly intercultural dialogue with various professionals in the world of design, not just in Italy.”
Monica Re adds: “In the passage from physical communication to increasingly digital means, we have lost something very important: the spectacular dimension, like that of interaction with the setting, the principle on which the FuoriSalone is based, in the end. But we should not demonize the digital plane, creating a rivalry between languages. To understand how to narrate design today, questioning our approaches, can truly raise design to the level of a philosophy of life.” Gabriella Di Rosa of Image Building chimes in: “For our clients in the design sector, we have made some projects that are alternatives to the usual communication, conceived to share ideas, emotions and values, also and above all in a digital way.”
And Stefano Citterio of MCS & Partners concludes: “There are details, such as materials and finishes, especially in a sector where things made by hand and processes of workmanship are the true added value for Italian companies, that cannot be digitally transmitted and conveyed.”
So we will embrace each other, once again?
Probably we will, but also with the objective of better understanding how and what to communicate. And hopefully how to look at design in a new way, also as a service, as an opportunity for reconstruction. Nemo Monti asserts that: “The pandemic has created an empty space, which is therefore potentially a territory of freedom for ideas. The lack of trade fairs has led to greater flexibility in the relationship between creation, production and presentation of products. This is a great opportunity for creative minds: to redesign the relations, times and ways with which brands tell their stories to the market.” And Giuseppe Gismondi of Alam adds: “Design will also emerge from the present situation through its digital communication, with greater energy and greater awareness of its identity. The digital realm becomes an integral factor for application in the future, but without sacrificing the relationship with users, which cannot be complete without direct, sensory experience.” Finally, Rudi Von Wedel, with the perspective of someone who looks to the future with tranquility: “Everything must change so that everything can remain the same, Tancredi said in The Leopard. Today we have the sensation of being faced with epochal changes in communication, but actually what has changed, or has gone through an incredible acceleration, is the question of tools, not content. Tools that all the players were already using, for the possibility of reaching a wider audience, or because the whole world was moving in that direction anyway.” And he concludes: “All this, in my view, has to be done in tune with the help and participation of distributors: the stores will function as the physical ambassadors of the communication. This is the truly revolutionary point, the real wager and the real large-scale change our sector will have to cope with, to make the new tools effective for and with all the stakeholders.”