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Venancio: «There is no disconnection between other fields of knowledge and design, since the latter is, in essence, reflective, self-critical, and inclusive; otherwise, it is not design»

The Vice Dean of the School of Architecture, Design, and Urbanism of the University of Buenos Aires (FADU-UBA), Carlos Venancio, discusses the linkage between design and knowledge.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1963, Carlos Venancio was a graduate in the first class of the FADU-UBA Graphic Design program, where he currently is the Vice Dean and head of the Academic Secretary. He also heads the Editorial Project graduate program and teaches the graphic design courses: Typography 1 and 2 in the same institution. With a vast career in design management and education, he founded the Graphic Design program in the National University of Misiones, where he acted as dean and professor. Recognized for his contributions to public education by the National Ministry of Education, he is currently the president of DiSUR, the design programs network of Latin-American public universities. In the private sphere, he co-leads, alongside Darío Contreras, the strategic design consulting firm Marca.

In this issue, the former editor of tipoGráfica magazine contributes in the "Expert Opinion" section of IDA Foundation’s Old&Newsletter #13 with an inquiry of the interrelation between the terms and competences of knowledge and design.

–Can we and rethink or redefine the meaning of design based on knowledge? And re-define knowledge from design’s perspective? Can either one be separated from the other?
–Design is a reflective and intellectual activity that materializes in objective products, which are often misconceived by outsiders as exclusively tangible objects. That trend aims to understand the sum of all through its parts, a very distorted simplification.
In general, the creations of the field’s professionals are very visible when it comes to everyday practices, however, that is not the case with their intellectual production, both in terms of theoretical work and educational contributions within universities, graduate programs and research.
Strictly speaking, design is a strategic line of thought that inputs and analyzes situations, examines audiences, consumers, behaviors, and provides answers to diverse, concrete problems. It is a project-based field, meaning that it preconceives solutions for future implementation. When we devise a project, we imagine and forge the future, we present something that has not been created yet as an explanation of pre-existent issues.
This type of task requires a permanent state of reflection. It is a virtuous process that is constantly questioning itself; that needs the knowledge produced by other disciplines to receive feedback and transformation guidelines; that produces, reproduces, and, also, “consumes” knowledge. There is no such thing as a disconnection between different fields of knowledge and design. Design is, in essence, reflective, self-critical, and inclusive; otherwise, it is not design.

–What cases, actors, products or elements related to Argentine and international culture embody an uplifting experience of that sort?
–I am much more interested in common stories opposed to the grandiose cases of success because the latter are linked more to massive promotion mechanisms than to its actual impact on people’s lives. For example, I recall that a re-designed credit application format, by Total Design, derived in the exponential increment of requests for the service. In that case, the invisible issue resided in the fact that people could not solve their economic needs due to unclear communication of information. I like this particular example because, in terms of design, the product is not very appealing, however, it was incredibly useful and reveals the significance of this discipline when it comes to addressing inequity problems of all sorts: economic, in this instance, but in others it could be social or class inequalities and, even gaps related to gender, age or special abilities.
A gender neutral bathroom, like the one we designated inside the FADU, could be considered a minor design intervention. Nonetheless, in terms of its social impact and transformation potential, it is greatly significant and it becomes an example of visibility, as well as an action aimed at restoring rights to specific groups in our community.
A few years ago, our agency was assigned the task of re-designing Argentina’s greatest and most emblematic brand, one that had already undergone several re-styling processes in response to business and political shifts. The client provided us with material and information, then requested our proposal. When we suggested leaving the logotype and basic identity elements untouched, they were taken aback at first, but then we explained that we aimed at developing a system that could boost their impact and give them coherence (based on the typography, by the way). That is exactly what we did, we adjusted all components of the system. We did not give in to the temptation of designing a new logo: instead, we devised a solution to a problem. That example clearly reveals my personal understanding of design.
Talking about renowned products that have become part of our urban culture, I would like to highlight the design of Buenos Aires signage system, created by Palito González Ruiz and Ronald Shakespear. The concepts behind that work were so powerful and pertinent in terms of its that it became a key reference to create new, similar systems. It has been reproduced time and again in every town and city of Argentina and surrounding regions with some variations but always based on the same core idea. The identification-signage-direction set was so clear that it was almost obvious. Today, we have other perspectives on the matter, less interested in fostering neutrality and uniformity, however, that 1971 project is still an icon of our visual history.
Let’s reiterate the fact that projects without much exposure, such as the design of an individual mini-purification plant or a family pasteurization unit, are as significant or more important than other notorious ones. The university school I work in develops several projects of the sort, sponsored with great difficulty. Design’s revolutionary nature resides there and there is where we should put our effort.

–Has the bond between design and knowledge changed throughout the XXI century as a result of new technologies and new ways of learning, living, consuming, and interacting?
–Design is a “young” discipline. That does not mean its genesis is recent: stone arrowheads of multiple shapes were carved thousands of years ago. Despite this, if we understand disciplines from the perspective of their academic history, our field is newer than others. That is probably the reason why Leonardo is identified as an “engineer” or an “architect” but not as a “designer”, even though he designed the fork, the garlic grinder, and a proto-helicopter. It is only a time-related matter.
Tools must never be confused with the disciplines they serve. Humankind is in constant evolution and is subject to many transformations. Today, as has always been the case, technology defines the most evident benchmarks of this evolution. We are not only changed by technology, we, ourselves, create the technology that transforms us. It is a fishing-related issue. The fundamentals of fishing must be taught instead of just giving away hake filet. That is why I am against teaching specific technologies, in contrast, I support practicing technology-related skills. When I was a student, photocopy machines could not produce amplifications and neither computers nor the internet existed; today, however, I can use almost any technology available to solve the problems that arise.
We can all learn to use these tools. Although, first, we must learn to identify our needs in order to select and use the best available one. The key is within us, not within technology.

–How can we boost the potential of this pairing in order to produce innovative solutions that foster improvement in such areas as social inclusion, cultural diversity, gender equality, environmental care, and access to education?
–That is a political answer and I am delighted to state it here. I am totally convinced that design’s raison d’etre is to transform reality. Since all significant topics related to social transformation must be included in the government’s agenda, the State becomes a fundamental actor in this respect because, in essence, all of these transformative actions aim at improving people’s life standards. Without the perspective of capital gains, the State appears as the only entity fully invested in this issue.
No one is omitting the fact that education, as well as design, are investments. By being multidisciplinary, open to participation, strategic, and transversal, design is made for others. To take it even further: it is the other. There is nothing more innovative than this kind of conviction.
Our duty –or, at least what I consider my personal duty given my position– is to include design every time it comes to deciding upon topics that affect us as a society.