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Sarale: «We barely know anything about the contributions design has given to society in terms of knowledge; patrimonial archives make visible and show the value of those contributions»

Luis Sarale, a Mendoza native designer and professor, highlights the impact of new technologies and territorial work in the development of professional profiles that tackle current social and economic challenges.

Born in Mendoza in 1948, Luis Sarale is one of the most prolific designers in western Argentina. Throughout his near 50 year-long professional career, he has conceived, from his headquarters at Synthesis Designs studio, a great number of projects –mainly in the areas of graphic and publishing design but also some in the industrial field– for both private and government parties.

As a teacher and manager, he has become a protagonist as well as a driving force behind the project developing scene in Cuyo, a key creator of fundamental tools that have successfully connected the academic community to its material and production context. Between 2014 and 2018 he acted as the vice-chancellor of the School of Arts and Design of the National University of Cuyo (FAD-UNCuyo), where he opened in 2008 the master’s program in Design Management for Regional Development, which he co-directs until today alongside Laura Braconi. From 2016 to 2018 he was the president of DiSUR, the Network of Latin American University Design Programs that was created with the goals of adapting curricular content to the global paradigm transformations and supporting dynamic research projects.

In this month of design, he features in our Old&Newsletter’s Expert sharing reflections about the interactions design establishes with human beings, communications technology, and knowledge.

–What is your experience in the field of design?
–I believe that my generation has participated from the best and the worst in the field of design in terms of our contributions to culture, society, and economy during the past five decades. In fact, I have been involved with this beautiful discipline since the 70’s, when I enrolled at the UNCuyo. It was a very convulsive decade that gave way to intense political debates. Within the university, most of the discussions revolved around the design curriculum we wanted to study. Those dynamics empowered us and encouraged us to believe that the practice of design could catalyze social, economic, and cultural changes that could improve our community. Today, I still stand by this utopian idea.

–Why do you claim that design has played a main role in the past few decades?
–In the first place, design has been and still is an agent of transformation both globally and locally, and, due to its object-producing nature, it can be identified as a discipline that creates the different cultural backgrounds experienced by human beings.
Perceived as a socially acknowledged activity, design rose alongside industrialization in the modern era, due to the processes of concentration, specialization, and quick transformation of cultural practices that required practical solutions to the complex problems that derived from that particular civilization model. Design became, then, a tool that mediated between innovation, inherent value, and local services.
When we approach specific, territorial issues from the perspective of design the boundaries among different branches of the discipline are trespassed, stereotypes are broken and re-configured into new, inclusive dimension. At that point, diverse orientations of design (industrial, graphic, multimedia, garment, etc.) come into play dealing with the same topic and trying to accomplish shared objectives that are pertinent to all disciplines involved with strategic territorial development.
Design is a discipline with a technological base and its main focus are objects and mediation systems. It has always incorporated and integrated values associated with other sciences and, by doing so, it has been able to adapt to diverse contexts and to provide solutions to complex problems. This has enabled to envision and to participate from cultural and knowledge fields unknown to us back in the 70’s.
Throughout History, design has been transformed from an object-centered discipline to a human-centered one; that is to say that we do not design mere objects anymore, we design for social development. Our projects incorporate as defining features factors such as empathy and emotion, which has humanized not only the object itself but design as a discipline.

–What features define pieces that possess a fine design?
–If we focus on design’s conceptual structure, which includes its shape, function, and meaning, defining and evaluating quality becomes a very complex task because we can’t ignore the cultural context that surrounds the product.
Of course, it must possess a total coherence in terms of quality between shape, function, and symbolic value. Now, based on classical considerations, we could follow the Gute Form principles, which dictate that aesthetics are central to evaluate the quality of design objects. More complex products demand the further development of quality indicators related to the process, the outcome, and its impact; this is a pending issue of design as a discipline. Despite this, I rely more on the consumers’ assessment and appraisal, since they are the ones that establish a relationship with the product by using it, trying it, and eventually approving of it.

–Is there a unique “Argentine design” identity? Is there a single “Argentine design”?
–I think there is a hidden identity that has not been neither made visible nor valued. I sustain that if we keep identifying ourselves mainly with the mainstream global design model, we are going to ignore all elements that do not fit into that paradigm. It is evident that in Argentina there are several versions of design related to specific local contexts. The practice of design is obviously carried out in a different way in big cities such as Buenos Aires, Rosario or Córdoba than in the provinces, where particular demands and skills define the type of product as well as its quality.

–Is design socially valued in Argentina?
–That is part of a bigger process of cultural evolution that is experienced with different intensity in big Argentine cities than in the provinces. It is remarkable how symbolic value has taken a central role to acquire a “fine design” status due to the fact that the technological and functional qualities of the similar products are comparable, thus, the former becomes a trait that differentiates brands and communications.
In general, there are few documents that provide a methodology to assess in a comprehensive way the social impact design has both in subjects and in different contexts. In the case of market products, some authors claim that the success of a design product can be measured in terms of the investment/profit relation.
However, it needs to be clarified the fact that commercial success is not the only factor that defines good and bad design. Today, we recognize micro and small producers due to the effort that has been carried out by government institutions such as the National Institute of Industrial Technology (INTI), the National Plan for Design (PND), and some universities.

–What is the significance of archives and design patrimonial collections?
–Nowadays we are aware of our historical heritage, particularly due to the work carried out in university Design schools that incorporate research projects to their knowledge production strategies. We know that design is a very accepted, developed, and institutionalized discipline in many countries. However, we barely know about the contributions design has given to society in terms of knowledge; patrimonial archives make visible and show the value of those contributions. For example, the group of scholars I belong to is researching about design’s theoretical and methodological production from the 60’s until today and we have observed a correlate between this kind of production and professional practice.

–Why is it necessary to preserve the memory of design?
–History allows us to view and analyze the paths we have traveled so far, the influences, and the elements that different disciplines have contributed to the culture of design; it also enables us to pinpoint the anomalies and crisis that have originated from different narratives so that we can build upon them new landscapes linked to both objects and communications. Memory preservation has the fundamental goal of organizing bibliographical and documentary information, which, eventually, will contribute to build a theoretical framework as well as a diagnosis of the present state in which design knowledge is regionally and globally. At the end of this process, we will be able to better interpret and value design’s role in current cultural landscapes and production.
We need to prove wrong the claims that understand design only as a tool for innovation and disclose the innate value embedded in products and services. From this standpoint, design has the responsibility to transcend its conception as a facilitator of production, communication, and commercialization of industrial culture in order to build, from an epistemological and complex (that is to say, systemic) perspective, a new paradigm of human development in which the production and commercialization of both artifacts and communication becomes the central channel for communities from diverse regions to survive, live, reproduce, and transcend in a sustainable fashion.
To sum up, preserving the memory of design enables us to expand the curricular content in university design programs and helps us to improve the conceptual/project-related practices within different specialties by incorporating thematic clusters linked to alternative development models of territorial sustainability that take into account the particular cultural profiles of each community.

–What institutional conditions are required to accomplish it?
–Today, the role played by new information and communication technologies is crucial for the development of any institution that aspires to take on the responsibility of safeguarding, preserving, and sharing the memory of the discipline. It is also mandatory to profit from these technologies because they facilitate networking processes and the development of projects with other national, regional, and international actors within the world of design.
Any institution that compromises with such a mission must have a digital platform. At the same time, other key factors arise, such as having the ability to assess whether an object complies with the necessary requirements to be considered as a valuable asset or not. Historical, technological, cultural, environmental, and symbolic contextual elements are also some of these factors, thus, such an institution must have the capacity to address them. In this sense, we must recognize and celebrate the work currently undertaken by IDA Foundation in Argentina.

–Why is it that in Argentina, in contrast with the rest of the world, there are almost no museum spaces devoted to design?
–In general, our society still does not have a deep understanding of design required to conceive it as an integral value. That is yet an unresolved issue that both professionals and universities must address since they have not promoted the perception of design as a development factor that fosters a better living standards.
However, I don’t know if museums, as we know them, are the most efficient format to display the history, prominence, and meaning design has had in the life of Argentinians. I am certain, though, that with the inclusion of interactive and experience-oriented elements, based on communications technology, the role of museums could be enhanced.
As far as I know, the architect Ricardo Blanco has accomplished the interesting task of gathering material to create an Argentine Design collection at the Buenos Aires Modern Art Museum.

–What future challenges will be faced by the design community?
–Design’s big challenge will be to understand its role within new landscapes in which it will not only interact with single enterprises but with organizations that will have their own, particular systems of production relations and with cultural expressions that will be strongly influenced by the hegemonic narratives dictated by information and communication technologies.
Another great challenge, for educational institutions in particular, will be the formation of professionals that possess the necessary skills to contribute to territorial development in a sustainable way. It is definitely an achievable goal, since professionals could be actively incorporated in such a process given that institutions foster the required conceptual, methodological, and behavioral changes while training designers.
Finally, probably the most important challenge of them all will be to have public policies that promote, support, communicate, and include appropriate design actions to boost and transform this field into the main source to appraise national production.