We asked Gen Z to portray design in their own way

Invited by Domus, a group of Milanese university students explored the city during the Design Week.

Some simply call them zoomers, but the most appealing and popular term is Gen Z. More simply, they are today’s twenty-somethings, the so-called ‘digital natives’, children, both biologically and metaphorically, of the MTV generation. The later generations imagine them to be constantly connected, very tech-savvy and with their smartphones always in their hands, as if they were a natural extension of their arms. They’re almost cyborgs: truth or stereotype?

On the occasion of the unique September edition of the Milan Design Week, Domus, in collaboration with three of the city’s leading universities, launched the idea of a Gen Z Observatory in which young people were asked to observe what was happening in the city through photos, vertical videos and short texts. And we, in a way, observed them - to understand how they look at things, how they tell their stories, in which ways they are unique, fresh, different, ‘young’ in the non-abused sense of the word. Both individually and as a generation.

We suggested six themes for the students to explore: the design of a post-pandemic world, the dialectic between city centre and outskirts, nature, the ideal home, shop windows and colour. What you will find here is a selection of the works that came out of it: there are successful and less successful projects, more or less clever ideas and some suggestions that we hope will be further explored.

A new way to observe

Claudio Larcher, NABA Design Area Leader, says he was pleasantly surprised by the way the students addressed the theme of nature. He explains that what is portrayed in their photos and videos is a vision of a nature in transformation, incorporated into our lives, a reworked nature that is far removed from stereotypes.

“They feel very close to this theme, and they experience it in a design-related way,” explains Larcher, for whom it is all in all “a positive message” when you consider what awaits these young people. Design and designers will play a key role in facing a future dominated by apocalyptic scenarios caused by the climate crisis. For Larcher, the responsibility for design must be given to young people, “because they will be the protagonists of the world in a few years’ time”. A world that will need intensive care.

The responsibility for design must be given to young people, because they will be the protagonists of the world in a few years’ time (Claudio Larcher)

“Cool! Do you know how many stories I can make here?” exclaims an enthusiastic girl as she enters the Hermès installation at the Design Week. This is the anecdote with which Claudio Larcher introduces the fundamental theme of the relationship between Gen Z and the image, in which - he explains - “there is the key of their approach also in the perception of real life”. Compared to the generations that preceded them, they are more accustomed to reading images and to making them their own through mediation, comments Larcher, adding that working on pictures is at the heart of Gen Z’s cultural code, and many young people often have a gift for  taking beautiful ones.

This generation, Larcher explains, surfs through different planes and surfaces with extreme ease. But the consequence of moving around so freely, and finding everything so easily accessible, is that the investment in research, and consequently the sedimentation of concepts, is inversely proportional. “There is a risk that everything is done by emulation, as it basically already happens on Instagram”, and so, if once to visit the Fuorisalone you used to read the guide, “now everyone takes the same photos during Design Week”.  At the same time, this change of approach is not necessarily negative. “I don’t want it to sound like a conservative criticism, this isn’t the case, at all”. And the ability to produce, read and transform images is a value that students can use to launch a career, which for many of them could be in art direction, before approaching the design field in the strictest sense of the word. “I would immediately work with some of them to valorize my work in terms of images,” concludes NABA design area leader.

The encounter with beauty and refinding freedom

“After more than a year of denied or limited university life, "locked up" in digital spaces, nine students of (the degree course in) Communication and Society at the University of Milan accepted the invitation to go out and move around the city to tell us about Gen Z's point of view” writes Angela Biscaldi, associated professor in cultural anthropology at the Political and Social Sciences Department at Università Statale di Milano, who provided us with a brief essay about the project that Domus launched. 

BUBBLE (PLAN X art gallery, via Marsala 7) di Mattia Sormani, Università Statale di Milano
BUBBLE (PLAN X art gallery, via Marsala 7) photo by Mattia Sormani, Università Statale di Milano

“I spontaneously read the photographs and videos they sent us as broader indices of their existential dimension: not so much as documents of a well-known and important event (the Salone del Mobile) elaborated from a particular perspective (that of the young), but rather as the opportunity of understanding something more about the experience of a generation, starting with what that generation considers worthy of attention and social visibility.

In this sense, in the encounter with beauty - of which each of the boys and girls involved captured particular aspects - and in the encounter with freedom of movement, partly rediscovered, some recurring semantic fields emerge across the themes proposed.

These are the long queues to check the Covid Certificate; the sense of limitation and the intrusiveness of the rules written in the signs "maximum capacity two people" and the tracks on the ground that impose a precise physical distance; the hand sanitizer bottles that, as one student writes, "seem to become part of the installations"; the masks worn and then taken off and put on again by visitors and tourists, sometimes filmed in the foreground, sometimes in the background; the sense of separation produced by glass, showcases, plexiglass, display cases and bubbles. Alongside the legacies of the pandemic - and in constant reference to it - we cannot but fail to observe the constant presence of the digital world, around which young people seem to grasp both the sense of solitude (photographs capturing men and women bent over their smartphones, as if they lived in a bubble) and the inevitability of a style of aesthetic and social narration that is essential and gratifying.”

The videos realised by the students

Gen Z deserves more space

“September, let’s go. It is time to migrate, reads a poem by D’Annunzio. No, replies Milan, it is time to meet at an unusual Design Week”, writes Luca Fois, Professor of Event Design at the Politecnico di Milano. He adds that “making any comparison with past spring editions is misleading because of the extreme specificity of this event”.

He then continues: “It had to be done for many (particular and general) reasons and interests of the Milan&Design System, which works well because it was created and then developed from the bottom up. And today, finally, it meets the top of the institutions. I think that this system needs a lot of young people, starting with gen Z, who can play an innovative role in product and service design, and above all in consumption. It also needs a lot of new, alternative values to gain new standards of quality rather than quantity. Large sectors of this generation are capable of influencing the research and strategy of companies which, as we saw in those days, are lagging behind when it comes to innovation”.

Then, Fois goes even one step further and gives his opinion: “This year too, I have done things and seen people, and I have observed many young people, not only students in the ‘sector’, but also young people in their first years of career. I can’t say how many because I don’t have the exact number, but I have perceived a greater awareness when it comes to their behaviour. On the contrary, companies pay little attention to the new generations”. The lecturer then analyses how the Salone was experienced on Instagram and other media.

“Obviously, the role of social media was fundamental, particularly when one thinks of the infinite number of images that could be shared to invite friends to meetings and events in the “area”, where the pleasure of being there and being there together was quite palpable. The locations of the projects done by young people were very well attended but there weren’t a lot of them, and that’s a problem”. Fois therefore hopes for “more space to stimulate and enhance the creative, design, experimental and language contributions of young people, a ‘raw material’ that is little recognised by companies, but which is fundamental for the evolution of a market that is a bit too conformist and, according to many young people, ‘outdated’ and not designed specifically for them”.

This is a fact, explains Fois, that brands will have to take into account. And designers, too.

They have participated to Gen Z's Observatory:
The students from NABA's Design course:
Amerigo Girardi, Erik Mladenov, Nam Truong, Noemi Catalano and Camilla Vaghi, Sara Fesa, Zishan Liu.
From the Master in Communication Design at Politecnico di Milano and Master in Integrated Product Design: Federica Vatri, Greta Pesarini. 
From the Communication and Society, Political and Economical Sciences Department at Università degli Studi di Milano : Arianna Guadagno, Palina Birukova, Federica Saquella, Gabriele Coviello, Giulia Zotaj, Greta D'Addetta, Mattia Sormani, Silvia Babic, Sofia Ciccotta. 

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