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Michela Ventin

After reading Daniel Santos’ interview for Design Decode my brain was on fire, but I wasn’t surprised by his answers — when it comes to Daniel, my expectations are always high. What really struck me was the quality of the questions.

I was pulled into the other interviews, and again and again, I found great questions (and designers) — and since then, Design Decode has become one of my favorite online publications. My curiosity didn’t stop here, though.

I started exchanging messages with Michela, Design Decode’s founder and one of the interviewers, which led to deep and insightful conversations around society, philosophy, and design.

One day Michela invited me for an interview for Design Decode, but too many things were changing in my life at the time, so I asked for a rain check. The decision was bitter-sweet for me; on one side, it was the right decision; on the other, I wanted to open our ongoing conversation to others.

As many things in life, sometimes the answer lies in redirecting the flow of things, so I decided to interview Michela, i.e., interview the interviewer.

Michela is a private person, so she didn’t answer my first question (What’s your story?). Instead, she asked me to introduce her.

I could go on and on about her role as Co-Founder and Coordinator of the Design Research Lab, the countless projects she ignited, how she’s constantly pushing things to their limits… but I decided to diverge from that path.

I usually say that designers are going to rule the world until philosophers replace them. Well, Michela is a bit of both, so let’s forget about the facts and focus on the power of the written word.

Bird’s Eye View

You’ve had to overcome many obstacles throughout your life. What fuels your willpower?

Obstacles have been very important junctions in my life, and this unites me to many other people who, in various capacities, have faced and still face obstacles of very serious importance and impact. Awareness of this commonality equips you with humility, not wanting to consider one’s obstacles is something extraordinary, unique, worthy of attention — even in discomfort, no one wants to be ordinary — and predisposes change. In my case, the obstacles have never been a coincidence, but the consequence of precise choices. The questions remained the same for a long time: convention or revolution? comfort or chaos? Do I have to change or not?

Usually, we don’t discover the wisdom of our reflections because we don’t allow them to finish their work. We try to suppress them because they disobey social standards, beliefs that we share, or insert them into a premature action, without realizing that they are part of a creative process. To guide them, we follow the pragmatic direction, we create juxtapositions, we compare with what happened in the past, with the way reality worked at the beginning.

But the new does not need the weight of the past. It’s not about collecting everything I know about me, everything I have learned, and applying it. It is exactly the opposite. It is about learning to stay in the realm of doubt and uncertainty, to live with the resulting discomfort, and with exposure to risk for a time that is usually much longer than we had expected.

Arthur Rimbaud used to say: “I end up finding the disorder of my spirit sacred”. In the constant negotiation between exposure to vulnerability and return to habits, we learn to avoid the trap of conditioned thinking, to discern what is sincere from what belongs to the “circus” of sincerity, to reflect beyond our formal organizational boundaries. The process of harmonic agreement between rationality and intuition is the new creation.

Where do I get my energy and inspiration from? I have this life that I love passionately, that I respect, of which I am grateful for. I tell her “yes” every day. I hope, with courage and grace.

It’s clear you have a passion for philosophy. Can you share some thoughts about it?

At best, philosophers are passionate about philosophy. It is also my case, even if it is not they are exclusive and my philosophers are not just philosophers.

Philosophy is a perennial field of investigation, even of very serious errors, but its intention is always honest. If and when imperfect, it is still an imperfection of quality, of intensity, that stimulates the conscience to be attentive. In this, it is deeply connected to the limits of human activity that, in an attempt to reach perfection, proceeds through an infinite accumulation of imperfections, but constantly trying to understand which of the imperfections remains the best, favoring the emergence of a critical attitude. And I find it encouraging. It could seem arrogant, incomprehensible, but if you allow her patience and training to be able to be appreciated, it becomes essential because it is not ephemeral. It never stops at beautiful dialectical syntheses, but it is always praxis.

My interest in philosophy lies in its asking the question of truth — starting from awareness that truth has the structure of fiction — and of “who tells the truth”. Which involves shaping oneself in this path and thinking, which is no longer able to accommodate itself passively in the usual reflections, he insinuates himself as a kind of spoilsport. And when you start to feel at ease, the thrust of thought that wants to evolve calls safety into question as if it were a form of ignorance.

However, this constant cycle of discomfort has the potential of a creative gesture that breaks with the starting conditions and builds a new problematic field within which multiple simultaneous alternatives can coexist that hybridize and yes they question in a constant bumpy path of investigation that refers more and more and always better to a structure of thought that is anything but confused and unsystematic.

I am not referring only to the logical philosophy that has given us the technique of negation — each statement by which we think we have grasped, or defined, or designated reality is nonsense — for which the whole purpose becomes to put the experience in order by obeying the principle: good is logical, evil is bizarre. For this type of approach, the realm of indeterminacy is embarrassing, the contemplation of intellectual limits is a real humiliation. But it is in the investigation of the limits and contradictions that philosophy, rejecting the simplistic and seductive use of narrative, opens up to the sense of wonder of discovery. And it is this sense of wonder that you have every kind of depth and subtlety becoming the real driving force and vital necessity of thought.

Learning, Reinvention and Design

What does learning mean for you? And how do you learn?

We are prisoners of our personal view of things. And we equip our vocation with the ability to discover clues, to suspect, to interpret, to grasp mysterious links between what we select to reassure it — we love to be right. We look for the meanings behind appearances and we risk falling into the trap of giving meaning to fictions or using those fictions as meaning. We would like to be incorrigible, but in the delirium of incorrigibility lies the hallmark of paranoia. Where does the delirium end and where does the revelation begin? What’s important is to understand oneself, but there is no universal how. The motivation could be universal: gear up to be free.

I have a bulimic attitude to knowledge, driven by an equally bulimic curiosity. It is a struggle that continues between what I think I know and what I want to know. The question “What do I know?” from Montaigne is paired with the Kantian question: “What can I know?”. I proceed by opposites, I seek and desire tension between disciplines that seem to contradict, or between arguments of the same discipline that defends contrary theses with impeccable logical processes. And, in this one and only apparent discord, I find the principles of harmony and reconciliation.

I tend to think that the wider our knowledge base, the wider the possibility to generate meaningful combinations. If we add knowledge in related disciplines and in those distant, the wider the possibility of learning to learn becomes. I select the questions which are fundamental to me and I keep thinking about them. It is an indispensable vertigo.

But it couldn’t be otherwise for me. The history of my family, the places where I have lived have fueled my aptitude for the coexistence of contrasts in a kaleidoscope of elements that have always fascinated me, and that have been a kind of intoxication. Not having roots, belonging, meant for me having to understand how to transform a lack into one possibility: since nothing held me back, everything was explorable.

After all, breaches have been opened within all closed paradigms supporting the value of relationship between the increase in disorder and the increase in complexity. With the awareness of the final incompleteness, the knowledge of not knowing, the only element of civilization of which we should encourage infinite growth is knowledge. I appreciate those who try to direct it, also thanks to the pluralism of virtues in practice — humility, responsibility, respect — in the areas of ecological transition, ethics, social justice, political commitment.

How have you reinvented yourself throughout life?

Each subsequent level of life requires a different you.

I reinvented my profession, and this was initially purely technical, associated with time and needs in which one included the other. The coercion of necessity is experienced in terms of time and is always annoying.

When we are under the yoke of necessity, we are not susceptible to persuasion. Every thought and action is directed to serve a purpose through reasoning, forcing the images of our fantasy to strict guidelines. All that is irrational, irresponsible, indirect, is considered a deviation from the path. But life becomes more difficult when you try to make it easy. Easy has a cost.

For different reasons, I understood that I still had to trade mental security for acceptance of the risk. In this process, the first source of misunderstanding lies in considering the imaginary as reality, what is subjective with what is objective, and this leads to a form of delusional rationalization where both the excess of logic and the excess of affectivity are interconnected. Logic justifies, masks, and organizes subjective interests. When we are in a situation of ambiguity or uncertainty, the intention is to contain and reduce the hyper- complexity. But there are no shortcuts: it is only in the territory of the uncertain that one discovers and is created.

It was a question of knowing, evaluating and overcoming the dualistic normality-abnormality model. We define what is normal in the sense of regular, in the statistical sense and in the ideal sense, but we attribute valuing judgments as being normal. What is singular has become wrong, what is unusual and irregular has become reprehensible.

In my case, the rigor was followed by adaptability. To the elimination of what was useless, the awareness that is always open, therefore evolving, to multiple dimensions, contradictory, regenerative, which remain essential for me.

What is design for you?

Design is still a possibility that moves within one of the most popular terms: new.

New era, new balance, new concepts, new challenges. But this new still draws on our memory and our culture and a limited number of words and signs. We reproduce speeches. But the new only emerges when an element is able to free itself from the bonds that are holding it back and become part of another wholeness. And the design has been self-retaining inside for a long time of the satisfaction and usefulness of declaring oneself a universal force for good and being able to resolve every problem alone.

That’s why, with awareness that traditional forms of design knowledge and practice are unsuitable for addressing the current complex and interdependent critical issues and that the approach to problem-solving based on a defined goal and on mapped problems and solutions has reached its limit, design is facing and redirecting not being able to propose itself as a Promethean producer of solutions and is embracing the radical and immense challenges posed by the need to know, from the need to act and the need to hope.

In the current coexistence of alienation from the performative society, alienation in the context of communication, and social alienation, if we really want to live up to the new we will have to be radical in supporting design with respect to the possibility it offers to assist the gradual shift from the strategies that govern the world, into a maze of growing, complex power games, to the processes of real democracy. I confirm and support my interest in design that privileges the dynamism of distributed roles, divergent knowledge, the ability to be reactive quickly and creatively to constraints, resource problems, challenges and opportunities.

It will be more and more a question of not idealizing the identification of a perfect paradigm, but of being bold in the pursuit of a new approach to learning and unlearning, to compete against ourselves by integrating singularities, indeterminacy, reflexivity and creativity for one real civilization of conviviality.

Past and Future

Can you share some of the major lessons you’ve learned in life?

I have learned to trust my intuition that, in all of us, feels the directions to take, understands underlying motives and intentions. It is a formidable psychic tool that gives acute awareness and that must be practiced by freeing yourself from banalities, purifying thoughts and feelings, choosing good boundaries. It helps us understand when something must die. And not to interfere with what dies.

I have come to appreciate uncomfortable and failed conversations, lost connections, confusions. To give value to what is not said, to what is hidden. I hope to always learn and to understand better at a different level of being.

Which big questions do you have on your mind currently?

Heraclitus was right, it’s all a flow: there is nothing permanent, nothing fixed, nothing stable. Today, the new flow is the persistence of the unexpected in the direction of the extinction of mankind and life as we know it.

Yet, although preventable and non-preventable change affects everyone, many of us do behave most of the time as if things remain more or less the same. Unfortunately, the change of character that keeps telling us that we don’t have to worry about too much, that society will change, but not so rapidly, that the climate will change, but not too much, and probably not in a catastrophic way in my life or that of my children, is difficult. The false narratives of progress require neither awareness nor commitment.

What do people expect now that they didn’t want before? Do they know how to think about it with a critical approach? Are they experts in the dynamics of power? In fact, are they just adapting? Every question must necessarily refer to an ancient guiding criterion: integrity.

How do you face the future? Do you make plans for it?

I have chosen to design in often hostile contexts as a political act and to support — at best hypotheses to reinvigorate — the vision of a conscious and committed humanism through actions.

We tend to polarize choices: on the one hand, pessimism and apathy, assuming that they can’t do anything and help to ensure that the worst happens. On the other hand, celebration and galvanization to seize the many opportunities that refer to absolute determinism and its tools. In both cases, we take care to comfort our positions with the recourse to ideologies.

Instead, it would be useful to consider that, by overcoming the false utopia/dystopia dichotomy, we could potentially be in the early stages of the largest collective awareness movement never seen before. For a brief moment, we can understand ourselves and the world differently. And not have more time to look good without being good.



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Gustavo da Cunha Pimenta

Gustavo da Cunha Pimenta

I help businesses and people to act on their ideas.