13 November 2006
Omar Vulpinari, Fabrica, Italy
Omar Vulpinari, Fabrica, Italy

Until a few years ago Master and PHD studies were the domain of institutions with exclusively educational missions. Students and industry were respectful of their authority to certify the highest academic status and confer superior career potential. But the design profession and its educational needs have changed. Today's information society is dominated by speed and diversity. Production has moved from material to post-material goods like ideas, images, services, experiences and relationships. A society where globalized economy, information technology and communication democracy have dramatically multiplied need and possibility. The current educational system cannot depend only on material production age methods based on centralized military-style models still widely in use.

How is advanced education in communication and design evolving in this scenario? The buzzword may be "alternative opportunities".

Since 1998 I have headed the Visual Communication Department at Fabrica, the Benetton Research and Development Center for Communication in Treviso, Italy. Fabrica is a unique hybrid environment of learning, experimentation and commercial practice sponsored by the Benetton Group. From its opening in 1994 by Luciano Benetton and Oliviero Toscani, systematic networking has been one of its most successful philosophies, making the institution today the central node of an advanced international network of students, teachers, artists, 2D/3D and interactive designers, photographers, musicians, publishers, writers, filmmakers and critics.

I guide a group of selected international student/experimenters that receive a full-expense-paid one-year grant. They benefit from learning by doing on world-class projects and workshops, extensive media exposure of their work and numerous privileged connections. Benetton benefits from the public attention, the extraordinary relations generated from this unique global "think-net" and the innovative spirit that the center spreads out to the rest of the company.

And here is where the future is going: Like Fabrica, design education in the future will be seeded with more alternative education opportunities that will resemble corporate R&D departments focused on present and future social-economical realities. Students will learn by doing. They will acquire knowledge from their successes and mistakes on real market assignments. The curricula will be based on finalized projects, short full-immersion workshops and lectures, and interdisciplinary speculation. Classes will become fast-paced adaptable small task forces. Projects and project leaders will bubble up spontaneously and prosper or fail depending on team interest. Study platforms will be fluidly influenced by partnerships from corporate and governmental partners. The "open source" software development mode based on idea democracy, peer to peer recognition and horizontal hierarchy will prevail. Attention will be given to ecology-oriented studies, where the efforts will address the social and environmental survival emergency.

Bruce Sterling argues in his recent book Tomorrow Now*,"Unfortunately, this speculative situation is not scholarship. Intellectually speaking, it means treading water. When you have no established canon of cultural classics, you have no place to take a permanent intellectual stand. You have no scholastic mastery, you merely have clever acts of opportunistic contingency. These losses are serious."

This is true when speaking about basic, undergraduate education. But at the post-graduate level these methods have already widely proved to be successful especially when the objective remains preparing students for the speed and change driven world mentioned before. Learning to learn constantly and faster along with broadening one s network of relations and resources becomes fundamental.

These so-called school/shop models are also important "cushion" areas between the realms of study and practice, that are much more distant than in the past. They allow young designers to express their most personal creativity and the potential of their still uncontaminated instinct while making important learning and discovery errors on real commissions. This can happen because the assignments come spontaneously from daring client/partners that need and expect unconditioned experimentation, innovating surprises and constructive not-asked-for solutions.

These new educational opportunities, like Fabrica, will not substitute mass conventional studies but will act as influential "boosters" and offer a vital trickle-down effect of what good they have to offer. Their private nature of support will nurture risk-taking explorations that the academic world will also benefit from. And certainly they will offer "distinctive" learning experiences for a society where "new and different" are priority assets to all.  

*Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next 50 Years by Bruce Sterling, Random House, 2002

About this article
This feature was first published in The Education of a Graphic Designer, edited by Steven Heller (Allworth Press, Second edition, 2005). It is reprinted with permission.

About Omar Vulpinari

Omar Vulpinari was born in the Republic of San Marino in 1963 and raised in the United States. Today he lives in Treviso, Italy. He studied communication at the University of Bologna and graphic design at the Cfp Albe Steiner in Ravenna. From 1989 to 1997, he was art director for Dolcini Associati in Pesaro.

Since 1998 Vulpinari has been creative director of the Visual Communication Department at Fabrica, the Benetton communications research center founded by Luciano Benetton and Oliviero Toscani. Here he has directed projects for United Nations, International Council of Nurses, Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Witness, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, United Colors of Benetton, CocaCola, Nikon, Fuji, ArteFiera Bologna, Tim Telecomunicazioni, Istituto Luce, Alessi, Porsche, Piaggio, Vespa, Domus magazine, The New Yorker Magazine, Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica, Edizioni San Paolo, Electa, Mondadori, Mediaset, Fox International, Regione Veneto, World Public Relations Fesitval.

In July 2006, Omar was a workshop leader and presenter at Icograda Design Week in Seattle.