Milan Design Week, or as the locals call it, Salone del Mobile, is something of a religious pilgrimage for designers, artists, engineers, techies, and anyone with a curious mind, from all over the world.
The annual trade fair, which takes place in April each year, draws some of the world’s biggest brands to the northern Italy for an illuminating voyage into the themes, trends and ideas that are at the cutting edge of design.
Earlier this year, delegates from the McKinsey Design team jetted off to Milan for an immersive experience, sampling the wonders of the event and taking a very active role as part of the design community, sharing and debating with pioneering designers and global brands.
Design is subjective, emotional and inspirational. It’s also fluid, complex and requires time for thoughts and feelings to settle, crystallize and show up in others’ work. Having given some breathing space for those thoughts to emerge, we’ve outlined our top five trends from the exhibition and how they are inspiring and influencing the creative work we do.
1. Sustainable design
Environmental issues were at the forefront with many designers tackling pollution, recycling, and air purification. Last year there was a nod to sustainable design, but this year it was all-encompassing. Instead of being an element of a design, it became the reason for the design. Witness Japanese artist Kengo Kuma’s “Breath/ng”, an enormous, spiraling installation, suspended in the heart of the fair. Made from pollution-neutralizing materials, it filtered the air and destroyed toxins as it spiraled. It was a truly awe-inspiring exhibit. Recycled plastic furniture was also in vogue, perhaps in response to the media and public scrutiny of the dangers to the environment of using too much plastic.
2. Softened tech
As tech products continue to infiltrate our lives, we are seeing designers seize the moment, challenging perceptions of what a consumer product should look like, how it should feel, and our interactions with it. Japanese design wizards, Nendo transformed 10 manufacturing processes into beautiful art forms. Air became tangible, there was a reinvented clay tile, and a ring box completely reimagined.
The ingenuity of these Oki Sato designs and the emotions they trigger was also borne out in hardware, as tech and textiles converged. Everyday household objects were paired with smart phones and virtual assistants to humanize tech and make it part of our homes. This blending of design into the literal fabric of our homes helps bring greater acceptance to the products. It’s industrial design made domestic – a true innovation and something that will influence our thoughts when it comes to colors, material, finishes and curation over the coming months and years.
3. Emotional experience
Brands are prioritizing experience over selling products. It was a trend the tech community witnessed in the US at SXSW earlier this year, with brands striving to create highly personal experiences, where consumers are asked to become an active participant and go on an emotional journey. Tech and emotions have often been divergent in the past, but brands and designers are changing that. We found ourselves experiencing smart products that got us to reflect, think, and even slowdown in our fast-paced world. Experience is paramount and we are already thinking about infusing our clients with this important need.
4. The five senses
The above interactive experiences captured audiences’ attention, playing on all our human senses to trigger an emotional response. One exhibit used shadows, projections, sensors and smells that fully evoked the five senses – a key trend in Milan. With people seemingly craving experiences over material goods more than ever, brands and designers are working overtime to build products that generate an emotional attachment through all five senses. These designs, brands and products will drive more selective and reflective purchasing power from consumers and businesses in the future.
5. Color palettes
Last but not least, color was alive in Milan. Color is essential in the work we do, from visual mock-ups to product finishes and even within retail storefronts. What piqued our interest was the division over palettes, with designers expressing themselves and taking risks. There were bold, punchy, warm tones, but also muted pastel colors that would have been de rigueur several years ago. And pink was, literally, in the pink. It was a wonderful mix and great to see designers not following trends, which is ironically a much needed trend in itself.
Milan Design Week is a truly inspirational adventure. The themes and trends we experienced are helping to build our eye for design and ramp up our library of knowledge, which we share with colleagues across the entire design practice. Shapes, colors, materials, patterns, functionality – they all provide insights and fuel our collective creativity.