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Design dispatches: McKinsey at Milan Design Week

Guest story by Mark Dziersk, LUNAR industrial design leader

Every year, thousands of designers gather for Milan Design Week, held in the city where some would argue the first industrial designer, Leonardo Da Vinci, did his finest work. Known in Italian as Salone del Mobile di Milano, it’s the largest trade fair of its kind, showcasing the latest cutting-edge products in furniture and design. We were speaking at the event and McKinsey Design sent a delegation of designers there for the week. Here’s what we saw and heard…

Over the past few years, McKinsey Design has created a worldwide network of design studios, thanks in part to the acquisition of award-winning design firms like LUNAR and Veryday. We are bringing design thinking into all kinds of work to better serve our clients across all sectors, whether it’s creating a new product, travel experience or better ways of serving customers or citizens. We attend events like this one to learn, be inspired, and connect with our wider design community.

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The McKinsey Design Team and family, left to right: Emilee Dziersk, Mark Dziersk, Dan Kennedy, Lea Kobeli, Mihoko Ouchi

Our delegation was comprised of two designers from our Stockholm studio, Bryce Booth and Yui Komatsu, and two from our San Francisco studio, Lea Kobeli and Mihoko Ouchi. I was privileged to speak at the Design in the Age of Experience event. My talk on Friday, titled “Dwelling in a sustainable world,” was about the future of the connected home, and it told the story of the work LUNAR did for ecobee in 2014, a Toronto-based smart-technology company. At the time, this connected device was the most sensitive thermostat yet, providing the most control of your home environment with individual room sensors. After the presentation, the next two speakers and I sat for a panel and took questions from the audience. The conversation was lively, as we debated just how smart we really want our Internet of Things devices to be, and how disappointed we become when they are not smart enough.

The scale of the fair is enormous. Spread across multiple venues, this year’s show occupied an area of nearly 230,000 square meters and included 2,500 companies, along with 700 young designers at the SaloneSatellite, a secondary exhibit. Some 350,000 people visited this year, with attendees flying in from more than 150 countries worldwide to see the latest and greatest in design, materials finishes, lighting, and computer technology.

As LUNAR’s creative director Lea notes, it’s not just the sheer size of the fair and number of attendees but also the sense of community that spontaneously arises. “As a first timer, I was blown away by the sense of design oozing out of every corner in Milan, and the flocks of people from all over the globe experiencing design collectively, in the sunny and warm streets, bumping into old friends and coworkers, sharing stories, and ending up at Bar Basso, the design community’s meeting place.”

A huge highlight of the fair is its various pavilions, where companies frequently showcase interactive installations in addition to their latest designs. “Companies are shifting from selling products to selling experiences. This was evident in exhibits by fashion, automotive and electronics brands, in which experience was paramount and products took a back seat—or were absent all together,” Bryce noticed. Mihoko agrees, and says that thanks to a focus on experiences, “For each of us, Milan Design Week is a highly personal and emotional experience. It was gentle, like storytelling to children—full of imagination and discovery.”

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Artist Kengo Kuma’s ‘Breath/ng’ sculpture purifies the air through its high-tech material.

Lea was especially inspired by the installations where the focus is as much on the process as the end result. “They take us on a journey; we entered a series of black rooms, where relaxing sounds and smoke let us focus on what is exhibited in front of us.” This stood in contrast to many exhibits that focused more on trendy, immersive, and Instagram-able selfie spaces. “It’s refreshing to see the experimental qualities of all the explorations, since it’s the process of discovery that leads to the aha moment, instead of the instant gratification we are all getting attached to with one-touch services,” Lea says.

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Image from the Nendo installation

The Dassault Systèmes pavilion in the heart of the fair explored the idea of nurturing the environment. Japanese artist Kengo Kuma’s “Breath/ng,” an enormous, spiraling, and air-purifying installation, anchored the space. This spectacular architectural work made from pollution-neutralizing materials filters the air as it spirals.

Environmental issues were a recurring theme throughout the show, as were the many uses of “smart”—whether it was smart lighting that danced in time with a piano or smart new electric cars. It was fascinating to see the diverse approaches designers are taking in the next generation of smart products.

We left the fair inspired. As Lea put it, “Seeing the vast creativity and constant reinvention of the current status quo exhorts us to do the same re-imagining and reinvention in our own work—and leave fear and hesitation by the wayside.” I wholeheartedly agree. Here’s to exploring, pushing boundaries, and discovering all the possibilities.