Fabrica: Ten Questions for Omar Vulpinari

21 July 2011
Véronique Vienne interviewed Omar Vulpinari for DESIGN>EDUCATION Magazine in their February 2011 edition. Omar explained how he tries to create memorable and artful campaigns that address the most pressing social issues.

Véronique Vienne interviewed Omar Vulpinari (Italy) for DESIGN>EDUCATION Magazine in their February 2011 edition. Omar Vulpinari is an Icograda Vice President.


A new generation of dreamers is coming of age, young people who believe that humanist convictions can shape their future. Omar Vulpinari is among a handful of adults who actively supports their aspirations and efforts. As head of Visual Communication at Fabrica, the Benetton Group's communication research centre, Vulpinari is helping them become the kind of design communicators who will make a difference.

The work atmosphere at Fabrica is unique - some have compared this intercultural campus to the Bauhaus. Fabrica's studio consists exclusively of young designers from all over the world who develop campaigns for clients with a social agenda. The Japanese architect Tadao Ando has transformed an old Palladian villa into one of the most remarkable contemporary landmarks which has become home to Fabrica. The place, and the people working on the premises, expresses, in 21st century language, the values elaborated by architects like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe - values that the late architectural critic Peter Blake had described as "serving humanity and art in roughly equal doses".

In a recent interview, Omar Vulpinari explained how he tries to create memorable and artful campaigns that address the most pressing social issues.


VV. Fabrica is located less than 30 minutes from Venice. Every two years, at the Venice Biennale, the most provocative contemporary artists worldwide exhibit their most recent projects. It's such a stimulating environment, isn't it?

OV. Fabrica is definitely in a very fortunate cultural and geographical position. It is located just north of Treviso so by car it's 30 minutes from the culture capitals of Venice and Padua, 40 from Cortina (the heart of the Dolomite Mountains), and another 40 from Iesolo, the most popular beach-culture coast of the Adriatic Sea. This position makes the Fabrica experience very appealing not only for young international art and design residents that stay at Fabrica for 12 months but also for visiting design educators, entrepreneurs, promoters, and writers. In fact very many prominent artists and designers passing through the region frequently stop at Fabrica for casual visits, lectures and workshops, making the institute a very special and dynamic 'think-hub' in a global network of design-led innovation.

VV. Your visual vocabulary is direct, bold, often unnerving (your Global Violence Prevention campaign or your anti-smoking ads, for instance). You don't seem to be afraid of controversy. Is getting people upset about issues a Benetton tradition?

OV. Truth sets you free, but can also hurt. Our images are about universal realities that need to be communicated and addressed, but in a universal-audience context this can mean displacing someone. Very often our images are direct, and for this reason disturbing, but this is not a stylistic/self-marketing choice. International research efforts in social communication have demonstrated that when behavior change is required through visual communication, the message and its language must be direct and emotionally impacting to be memorable and therefore effective. For example, countries that adopt those disturbing but realistic photographic images of smoke-related diseases on cigarette packs have on average an immediate drop of 20% in tobacco consumption.

VV. Your residents (as Fabrica's grant-holders are called) are young communication and product designers, video makers, photographers, and interaction designers, most of them under 25. And they stay with you for a year or two, maximum. Plus they come from around the world. Yet your centre creates socially aware campaigns that are surprisingly consistent in terms of message and image. What's your secret?

OV. First of all it's natural for any environment doing distinctive work like Fabrica to attract people that are aligned with that nature of work. We are mostly known for our communication design for social concern through our global campaigns for United Nations and for 19 years of publishing Colors - The Magazine About the Rest of the World. Second, our selection process is very sensitive towards sincere care for design as a social agent of change. This also means looking for candidates who have strong image-based communication skills that can transcend perennial language barriers and have a more direct impact in a global multi-lingual context. Third, my being at Fabrica for 13 years now has probably also helped a lot in maintaining consistency of message and image.

VV. Massive change will not happen with old ideas. You are a pioneer in what you call 'lateral thinking.' What makes this approach really different?

OV. 'Lateral thinking ideas' first need 'Lateral thinking funding.' Unfortunately very few governments have effective research funding policies. Italy is definitely not one of them as our university research funds are almost the lowest in Europe, and still falling. Essentially, lateral thinking is about thinking without (or with less) fear of failure. Advancement and creative solutions cannot come from environments that cannot take risks of failing. In the end, the privilege of being able to afford failure first of all requires illuminated governors/entrepreneurs/patrons and their support.

VV. Is providing students with real-life clients and real-life challenges one of the new possibilities you see for people who teach communication design? Is it what 'practice research' is all about?

OV. It's not a new possibility but it's an increasingly relevant one. In a world and market of growing multi-player complexity the designer cannot avoid collaborating closely with the end-user, the client and numerous other stakeholders and professionals in different disciplines (scientists, programmers, business consultants, and more). Therefore the designer's project-based training cannot any longer be focused on the slow-track classroom-simulation basis. Practice research must take the students into the clients' meeting rooms and to the streets of public service. This will not only turn out as a real benefit for the student but also for the market and the community.

VV. Are you foreseeing social networking as a way to promote long-term environmental and humanitarian responsibility? What we learnt from the Obama campaign is that the internet can trigger change — but how do you sustain a new vision over time?

OV. Certainly. I think that social networking is an extraordinary vehicle for long-term social change and will become more so when issues like China's government censorship and Africa's lack of adequate infrastructure are resolved. But because we are in the realm of social networking it's more a question of 'who' will determine the long-term vision. Here is where I see the great importance of the hundreds of thousands of design students we have globally today. If all these future designers embrace the enormous social responsibility they have from day one of their careers, and take advantage of the communication potential of social networking, they will absolutely be able to make a very important contribution to sustaining and spreading a new vision over time. This is my most important mission with residents in Fabrica and also my students at the IUAV University of Venice in San Marino.

VV. I have a bone to pick with you: I don't believe that 'expanded media', which is central at Fabrica, is really going to transform the way we think and behave. I would compare the blending of all disciplines to the Tower of Babel, not to the invention of the printing press. Can you convince me that the world is a better place because I can take photographs with my iPhone?

OV. If anyone can effectively, easily and economically document images, texts and sound any and every instant of their life, anywhere they are, I'm sure the world can be a better place in many aspects. Just think of the citizen journalist phenomenon. Today we have more uncensored information shaping our reality, coming from off-the-street people with phone cameras and blogs than from professional journalists. Another example is the e-reader that is already giving us the possibility of having thousands of e-books in our pocket wherever and whenever we want them. Personally, and I'm not alone, this is definitely comparable to the invention of the printing press.

VV. You are probably better informed than most regarding the numerous problems and conflicts afflicting people around the globe these days. In your opinion, what is the most pressing social issue in 2010?

OV. No doubt that global warming is always at the top of the list. The UNWHO has global warming effects on human health as its current priority, because the Earth will regenerate in time but humanity could be in front of the so-called 'sixth extinction' of life on the planet.

VV. You are vice-president of Icograda, the global body for communication design. What specific impact do you having on its philosophy, strategy and programmes?

OV. Currently I'm leading two major projects: the Icograda Design Education Manifesto 2011 and Iridescent – The Icograda Journal of Design Research. The Icograda Design Education Manifesto 2011 is a core document that defines Icograda's position on design education, taking into consideration the emerging themes of technology, inter-disciplinarity, cross-disciplinarity, design research, entrepreneurship, design management and design thinking. Iridescent offers an international peer-reviewed publishing platform for innovative research with a specific focus on issues of relevance to contemporary communication design and curriculum development.

VV. You told me once that you are not interested in 'design for designers' but that you'd rather champion 'ideas for people.' I want to make sure that I get what you mean. Are you saying that too often designers try to please themselves rather than have a real impact on their audience?

OV. Some young designers are to often influenced by 'designer cool,' and by what other designers can think of their work – often featured out of context on their personal websites. In the name of peer-related approval I see too much work that is not focusing on the essentials of the message required by the client and the user. This can happen not only because of ego-centered agendas, but also because it's very easy to be creative and cool with what is not essential, and very hard to be creative and cool with only the essential. I myself have not been alien to this attitude in the early stages of my career. My experience makes me think it's part of the common personal evolution that all designers deal with sooner or later.


Re-published with permission from DESIGN>EDUCATION Magazine, N. 3, February 2011.

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DESIGN>EDUCATION (or ED> in short) focuses on the youth, particularly high school learners, teachers, tertiary design students, lecturers and parents. ED> aims to achieve a better informed and better equipped future generation of designers who have a clear grasp of the challenging roles and responsibilities required by a new age, infused by technology, yet anchored in the solid values of designing a better future that serves all of humanity.
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