Why it is important to design for ecosystems, and not just for users: Simone Rebaudengo, automato.farm, Shanghai

Designers need to accept how they may have contributed to problems in the past. Designing in countries like India and China requires factoring in a range of eras, explains design expert Simone Rebaudengo.

Why it is important to design for ecosystems, and not just for users: Simone Rebaudengo, automato.farm, Shanghai

Tuesday November 05, 2019,

9 min Read

Product and interaction designer Simone Rebaudengo is based in Shanghai, as a partner of design collective automato.farm. His clients include BMW, Philips, Google Creative Labs, and Dubai’s Museum of the Future.


Simone was earlier at Frog Design, Haque Design Research, Pachube and Mobile Life Centre in Stockholm. He graduated from Delft University and the Polytechnic University of Turin, and has exhibited at Vitra Design Museum, Triennial Museum in Milan, and MAK Vienna.

In this provocative interview, Simone tells us about the evolution of design, variations in design elements across cultures, and trends such as machine learning (ML)-based design tools.

Edited excerpts from the interview below.

YourStory: In a world of information overload and unending distractions, what do you see as the key role of designers?

Simone Rebaudengo: Well, first of all, we should get at peace with ourselves that we are the source of the problem too. Designers love to be the good guys, the ones that ‘solve’ problems. But often our rush to solving problems doesn’t necessarily leave space for thinking whether that was a problem after all and also what kind of secondary problems your ‘solution’ actually brings.

I’m not talking about being more ‘ethical’ in what we do, as that is at the moment the hot topic in the design world, which is ending up in a sort of framework-washing of the problem. I’m talking about just being self-critical and accept the role and part you have in this process.

A lot of ‘user-centred’ solutions to make ‘simpler’ design is at the base of the information overload and distraction that you talk about. When you think of a single user-centred solution, you often lose track of the context and the rest of the other 100 user-centred things designed in the same way to be a ‘successful’ design solution.

And until a successful design is measured by how much someone uses a tool or a product, or how engaged they are, everything will scream for your attention in similar ways, being apps, websites, toasters, and whatever else is digitally-enabled.

It’s also funny to think that the main founders and visionaries of ubiquitous computing in the 1990s were already aware and scared of the issue. People like Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown, while building the vision of the future of all connectedness at Xerox PARC, were also talking about the need of shifting from user-centred thinking to user-centring.

This meant to almost move out the user from the centre of the equation and look at the whole ecosystem around the person as a sort of shifting network of relevance and centrality. Thinking how things fade in and out of our attention when needed, and how we should design things that live at the periphery of our attention.

When you look around your home, some of the most successful products are actually the ones that you forget about.

YS: What design lessons do you think 'emerging economies' like India can share with the rest of the world?

SR: I cannot really talk that much about India as I’m quite unaware of what’s happening there in terms of design, and that’s also why I’m really excited to come to DesignUp this year and get to know more.

However, places like India or China, where I live at the moment, present just such an interesting scale, diversity, and complexity that I think is hard to comprehend and experience if you grew up and live in Europe or US. Your brain needs to rewire in order to try to grok it and probably you will never be able to. So I think, acceptance of the inability to comprehend a different degree of complexity is definitely one key lesson for any designer or person in general.

On the other end, I am very interested in the emerging design languages that might arise from a place like India. If I take again China as a parallel example, simple, slick, and minimal designs that we love so much in Europe, do not really work. Look at any Chinese app, being Taobao or WeChat, it’s far from being ‘simple’. However they are insanely successful at what they do.

A lot of the work that I do tends to look at the future, and what I find especially interesting in any non-western European country is the co-presence of so many ‘times’ at the same time. Coming from Italy, which is actually a country quite stuck in the present, I find it fascinating how large of a delta of past and future you can find in countries that are growing at an often uncontrollable speed.

In the street of Shanghai, for example, you can live in a plus/minus 20-year time span, with a corner of the street living out the informal economy of recycling and relying on the local physical community, and on the other side of the street, 20 year-olds totally immersed in the digital world and rocking the most insanely expensive streetwear.

And of course, all of them are also investing money straight from their WeChat account. So when you design in this ‘market’, you are actually designing for different times too.

YS: How should techie founders deepen their understanding of design so as to offer better products/services?

SR: Look beyond dribble and flashy stuff. For me, especially when it gets to good interaction design, it is about thinking through with good logic the experience a person has with your product – it is less about transitions and animations and more about metaphors and mental models. I would think of the solidity of a design concept in the same way a developer would think of the solidity of their architecture solution.

You don’t want to have conceptual bugs, so you need to work through all the edge cases of experience. That’s why it takes time and why often working at the speed of sprints doesn’t work. So the best partnership for me comes from the mutual understanding of each other’s focus and pet peeves - you want a solid solution and I want a rock solid metaphor for the product.

So let’s take the time we need. And as a founder, I think we are well beyond the ‘move fast and break things’.

YS: What do you see as the connection between art/aesthetics and design, and how can an appreciation of these similarities and differences lead to better design?

SR: The way I see this is mostly about the ability to switch in between these worlds when needed as a designer, and how to connect your practice in both directions without getting stuck in it. I sometimes design objects that are purely fictional and live within the reality of museum exhibitions and galleries, but I design them with the same rigour and details that I would use for an industrial product.

Other times, I work with companies to ship real products and I try to push the limit of ideas and scenarios in the same way that I would do for a purely speculative project in order to get to an idea that goes beyond the expected.

YS: Which are your other favourite design festivals around the world, and what makes them special?

SR: My favourite ones are actually not really design-only related as that allows a bit of more mixed points of view and discussions. My all-time favourite and most inspiring one used to be the Resonate Festival in Belgrade as it was always inviting people pushing the edges of design, art and tech practices, as well as with a great music lineup.

Recently, I really enjoyed THE Conference in Malmo as it has a very different way of curating and mixing up topics and sessions and a stellar lineup; and the IAM Weekend in Barcelona because the organisers are amazing and they always invite and curate a group of people at the fringes of internet and media culture.

YS: What are three books designers must have on their bookshelves?

SR: That’s a tricky question, as most designers that I know, myself included, have a lot of books on the shelf because you ‘should’ have them. But that at the same time, you might never read them. In this category, there is a very long list but I won’t share my secrets.

However, if I should mention three books that I have read that were extremely useful for my design practice in the past years: Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is honestly one of the best design books ever written, so many good and weird ideas about technology.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino is a book that I hated as it was forced on me in elementary school, but I loved it later for the sheer amount of societies and cities that he could generate and paint in a few sentences. And last, I would say that the New Dark Ages by James Bridle is a must-read if you work with technology and design today.

YS: As we come to the close of 2019, what are three key emerging design trends you see in 2020?

SR: Hopefully, we are going to get over the discussion around ethics and AI, and go a bit deeper in the more juicy part of the impact of ML and autonomous systems in what we design and the way we do it.

I think there is going to be a pretty large boom of ML-based design aesthetics, tools, and experiments. Tools like Runway and some upcoming work from Adobe will make generative and ML-based tools even more widespread and ready to be played with.

This will also lead, in my opinion, to two major sub-trends. On one hand, we are going to start questioning the role of designers even more, especially in the commercial 2D graphic world, as more companies, like Alibaba is already doing, will use these tools to create more efficient design pipelines, turning designers into trainers and labellers for generative tools. On the other hand, there will be more of this uncanny weirdness brought by playing with ML and algorithms freely.

Another big topic coming strong will be around the definition of post-user-centred thinking. Partially because it’s an old and sold vision quite globally, but also because complex topics like climate change, social inequality, and autonomous systems might need a less person-centric approach to be thought about.

(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)