From Strategic Design to Pastoral Education, and beyond: preliminary notes for an American keynote.
The best design is probably the design you do not notice because it is seamlessly embedded in your life. However, this article is all about design in first place, although ultimately it is about life. As Stefano Marzano wrote in his 1998 one liner that so much meant to my life: “Design is an act of love”, and so this article. In 2025, Philips Design, or the design organization of Royal Philips NV, the Dutch technology maker that invented the CD and the music cassette, will be 100 years old. Philips Design has been graced with thousands of design awards, of press articles, and of keynote speakers, under the tenure of a small series of charismatic leaders, from Louis Kalff to 1960’s and 1970s Knut Yran or 1980's Bob Blaich to Stefano Marzano, whom I met and worked with during his 1991–2011 tenure as CEO. Among thousands of staff members in nearly a Century, some of the finest talent in the worldwide creative industry was nurtured in the Philips studios, from corporate leaders like Pernilla Johansson of Electrolux to Eric Quint, formerly of 3M, to educational leaders like Irene McWilliams or Daphne Flynn, to the visionaries like Oscar Pena or Peter Kentie or the dearly missed August De Los Reyes, the glorious inclusive design maverick who inspired me in a former Medium article. And hundreds of design alumni with massive talent, from Anton Andrews, now at Microsoft, to Marko Macura, now on his own successful studio, and more. For a number of circumstances that went from my 1990 disastrous romance with a KLM stewardess, leading me to learn Dutch basic grammar, to my erratic multidisciplinary decade in the Italian creative industry, I ended up serving in this fine community between 1999 and 2009, from the age of 32, with a half decade coda as consulting Principal Urban Futures at Signify, the former Philips Lighting division. I think it would be foolish not to openly state how in spite of my then “work hard, play hard” mindset and frankly at times unpalatable dialectics, I recall with joy the edge of a global creative community that combined commitment with humor, rigor with care, and the inevitable dose of corporate bureaucracy with true serendipity. Therefore, it might have been the genuine warmth of those memories (where time erases past conflicts and personal allergies), or it might have been my personal sympathy for the organizer and host, or whatever other reason but yesterday, for the sake of Philips Design, I decided to break one of my uncle’s “rules for the good life”.
The basic “rules for a good life” that were passed to me in the early 1980’s by my Italian beloved uncle and godfather, who was as much conservative as brutally provocative in his tips, included: “Never go to a reunion from your old school or your former company”. Together with a couple of other basic guidelines, including avoidance of romantic affaires at work and of unnecessary debt for frivolities, so far this rule has served me well. For example, since I have changed more than 15 companies in my professional life, I have saved a lot of time. Like all rules, of course, also this one has been hardened by transgression, as the very few times I broke it before, I came home sad and disappointed to see my memories of years before were polluted by the inevitability of time taking its toll on beauty and grace. Such was the case until yesterday morning, when I disgraced my Italian godfather’s wisdom to join the Philips Design Alumni event for Asia Pacific organized grassroots by Jeroen Frumau, MBA, former Management Team member, turned entrepreneur in talent management and the nurturing of next generations. Truth be told, my current finances, as affected by Covid-19 as the world is, would not allow unnecessary debt anyway and I am past the age of affaires at any office wherever affaires might happen these days of social distancing, therefore this one specific rule was the only available rule for breaching. And breach it did I.
Even more, in a moment of incurable vanity, I incautiously offered to Jeroen my availability to contribute to this somewhat historical first reunion. As a professional keynote conference speaker, I have been relatively shy to contribute pro bono to events, as I saved my time for paid commissions and paying clients. However, I must acknowledge the key role that Philips Design played in making me a speaker, with my then managers granting me the trust to represent the brand worldwide for a decade as one of the faces of the brand to the public, supported by specialized training in Amsterdam and London. Like in Coetzee’s somewhat unresolved novel, “Elisabeth Costello”, I am now in the challenging position of a writer who committed to deliver a keynote, namely the final contribution to Jeroen’s second instalment of this global reunion, planned on Airmeet.com in two weeks from today, in an evening slot that will serve the American continent where Philips Design accounts more than a hundred alumni.The announced topic is my transition from Philips Design, where I worked on strategic design, to pastoral education, as a lecturer, coach and mentor in higher education but there is much more at stake in this. Because delivering a keynote to this fine community will not only be yet another benchmark of my residual abilities as a speaker but in a lot of ways, a sort of homecoming and also, more subtly, a way to close a loop of 20 years, and counting. It will be a keynote delivered to the self I was in this great past, telling the story of myself now, looking at our uncertain future.
This Medium article will therefore speak of design, education, and the meaning of life, as it will be my memo, that I herewith share with the world, to share with Jeroen later this week. It will not be so poetic and majestic as Italo Calvino’s posthumous “Six Memos for the Next Millennium”, that were actually just five since he could not finish or present them. Also, I can already pre-empt being aware that I will inevitably succumb to Jeroen’s “suggestion” to use PowerPoint slides whereas I always indulge in the theatrical preference to propose a speech without slides, to keep the spotlight on the body language of the speaker. Well, being slightly more mature now than I was at 32 (or 42), I have realized by now that being on a stage as a conference speaker does not make you the next Carmelo Bene or even George Clooney. Therefore, I will prepare my speech in nine slides, in order to reassure Jeroen about my professional ability to restrain my rhetorical enthusiasm to the limited time set by the online mini-keynote format.
As I always tell my students, in writing or in public speaking, like in most public things of life, what truly matters is structure. As my Latin Fathers thought me through the art of rhetorics, the perfect speech is designed in four steps: “inventio”, or the creative act behind the ideas displayed in your speech; “ordo”, or the structural definition of the order of arguments; “executio”, or the theatrical intent in terms of tone of voice and execution; and “actio”, or the actual performance of the body on the stage. What follows is my “inventio” and my “ordo” at the same, since I have a dangerous tendency to make up my speeches as I go, and this is the preview of what will come on Jeroen’s Amaerican virtual stage in two weeks. To overcome the tedious and mysterious workings of Microsoft PowerPoint, I developed the somewhat lazy habit to deliver slides with one keyword in black Helvetica typeface on white background. I made it into a sort of ideology in terms of minimising the power of PowerPoint in formatting our thoughts and ideas but the honest truth is that I genuinely hate to use the software, hence I will once more indulge in my proposition of working with keywords, that also suitable for the expected synthesis and communicative clarity of the digital age.
Brutal honesty, in the way my Italian uncle exercised it, might be very effective as just a short accent in a corporate speech but it becomes a major challenge when it is the key requirement to address your audience. In my life as a conference speaker, I have publicly spoken of a number of topics and themes, from the Philips Design portfolio and research, to my own books and peer reviewed papers, to Asian contemporary art or Italian modern art, the latter in my extended service as board member of ISISUF of Milan. I however never delivered a gig that was supposed to be entirely about my own life and frankly I do not think there will much more opportunity to do so, given that my existential trajectory seriously divorced from any possibility to become a celebrity or be celebrated. In order to diffuse the tension of this unique challenge, I will not open my speech on my own professional and personal transition from Philips Design to academia and education with myself. On the contrary. I intend to leave the task to introduce myself to Jeroen, also because I am curios to hear what he will say. I will instead invest the first 30% of my time and three of my slides to introduce three alumni of my educational work, namely three talents I met in the classroom and who delighted me with their unique personality, even under adverse circumstances. It might feel like what my Latin Fathers called “captatio benevolentiae”, or “winning the goodwill” of an audience by delivering what the audience will love. Thing is, I happen to love the subject of these three opening slides myself, because after decades in education I remain moved by the blossoming of talent in the classroom and in the informal dialog you have with youth in their formative years. I will choose three students whose remarkable talents might have been challenged by circumstances and context, including the tunnel vision of fellow educators at a given time, and I will briefly warm up the audience with the deeper truth and beauty of this remarkable youth that I had the unique privilege to meet, to connect to, and to facilitate in their student success and professional start in the world “out there”. Fact is, while design jobs might be financially very rewarding, the key motivation of educational professionals is mostly intrinsic. Mine lies in the students. When I discovered the educational sector as a natural extension of my strategic design years, I discovered my passion to meet the next generations and make a difference to them, individually, for their future.
“NEXT” will be my first keyword for the next section of three slides, highlighting what I value as key in education. Besides being a seasoned veteran in the foresight and futures research arenas, I also herewith regard “what comes next” as pertaining to the biological existence of my students, who will hopefully all survive me for a long time, enjoying a long, happy, and prosperous life because they are the generations that come “next” after mine. An educator is by definition a professional in future-forming and world-making, as per Ken Gergen’s 2015 plea to social scientists to make a difference in the everyday reality of the world. For me, this means the ability to look into the eyes a young teenager and see a glimpse of the possible adult person that she or he will develop into. As a manager, tasked with both the career planning and the everyday routine of an international team, I have always looked at them trying to grasp the possible future in their personality, in their unique talent, and in their unexpressed potential. Along the same lines, I never regard a student as today’s “client”, in the somewhat perverse neoliberist notion that school is a business. On the contrary, coming into the academic sector after 20 years in the creative industry and in Philips Design, I draw a clear line between “business” as commercial exploitation of transactional opportunities with “clients” and “education” as practice with and commitment to youth who entrusted a key part of their future to me.
The second keyword would provocatively be: “DEVIANT”, as I agree with Italian psychoanalyst, Massimo Recalcati, who in his 2014 “L’ora di lezione” (in English, approximately: “The lecture”) strongly advocated a school that would embrace difference and diversity as richness and opportunity, as opposite to an academic system that serves conservative rules or abides its formative mission, repressing or rejecting the key educational mission to facilitate growth. Just like Nabokov’s Professor “Pnin”, with the years I grew less comfortable with my own control of the English language than I used to be at 32, when I incautiously felt ready to conquer the world. Although I am not an English mother tongue speaker, as the reader surely noticed by now, I am perfectly aware that I might better choose more politically correct keywords I will be there, in two weeks, to share my journey and as much as possible, to tell the truth. And the truth I learnt is that, within education, what urgently needs to be embraced is the deviation from the norm, well beyond the polished words that embody the currency of contemporary dialectical correctness. “Deviation” might necessarily include ideas that are not palatable to you as a lecturer or even ideologies that you as a person outside the classroom do not subscribe to. However, it is within one’s greatest challenges of Socratic dialog in education to acknowledge, valorise, and even inspire ideas and ideologies that go beyond your current norm or what is currently considered as the “normal” social convention.
Thirdly, I will propose the keyword: “CARE”. In my educational work, I have developed over the years into a sort of specialist in two categories of students: the top potentials, who crave for mentoring that lets them express their talents, and the problematic cases, who encountered difficulties above or beyond their self perceived possibilities. The latter students, who often fall behind, are key to me, in that they represent the best potential for transformational improvement. When I was a corporate spokesperson, traveling the world to represent a multinational design firm among the planetary elites of innovation and talent, I did believe that making a difference meant changing the world. In those years, the world was not enough. Nowadays, I have become accustomed with the idea that changing the life of a single student every year by showing genuine commitment and authentic care, means the world to me. In this niche of my academic practice, I reinvest my earlier corporate management skills, becoming the advocate for students who fell out of love with the institution, sometimes inspiring the organization to make exceptions and always trying to inspire the student to see the image of their “next” achievement as a concrete possibility. A Bachelor of Arts diploma might sound like a basic achievement for university standards, but it represents a major milestones for the student that overcomes years of struggles. It might change her or his life not only as a token of access to employment or professional opportunities but also as a rite of passage in self affirmation and in self confidence. In my view, these are the students who are the most in need of feeling that someone cares and honestly, for a number of reasons, I do, invariably.
So, these three keywords, or similar ones I might make up last minute as usual, will tell the story of what I learnt is “Pastoral Education”, namely the kind of academic work where the student as a person is at the center of everything, and the teacher works with human focus. Of course, this is a sort of ideal image but as Polek taught us in the 1960s, the image of the future we choose, helps in making the future we prefer happen. And as Action Research showed us, also since the 1960s, a researcher or a practitioner can be part of the change within her field of practice. I think it is part of my Italian DNA to always seek symmetric balance , or perhaps it is simply a habit that Italian architecture in the city centres of Turin instilled into my brains. Whatever the reason, I will pursue symmetry by choosing three words that naturally mirror the earlier section, like: “FUTURES”, “DIVERSITY”, and “LOVE”. I will speak of how I joint Philips Design as an Italian creative industry professional with an uncertain English accent and a monstrous curiosity and eagerness to learn about foresight, futures research, and strategic design. I will recall how the futures studies we developed at Philips Design in my years, that is 20 years ago, still are among the best speculative design and anticipatory works I know. And I have read and seen a lot, since. I will elaborate on how I learnt about the diversity and the richness of cultures in continents and countries where I had the privilege to work or speak on behalf of Philips Design, from the Americas to Singapore and Shanghai, and I will close going back to the 1998 quote by Stefano Marzano that meant so much to me: “Design is an act of love”. Since I left Philips Design, I worked as much as I could to mitigate my ignorance about design theory and related topics, however that basic sentence includes everything a young design academy freshman needs to really know about design.
And that will bring my American online keynote to an end. Or maybe not, maybe I will change the plot and surprise the audience and the host with a totally different speech, if my heart says so. Or maybe yes, maybe like Coetzee’s “Elisabeth Costello”, I will follow the script I wrote and I just shared, even if not always comfortable to touch on some of the topics. Because at my age and lifestage, any topic might touch on setbacks as much as it inspire success stories, and any word we choose might imply deeds and omissions that contradict them. In any case, acting outside of my comfort zone has been a necessity and perhaps the best thing I have learnt through the decades. Now, tomorrow’s generations are getting ready everyday to make the world, one day, to their own image of preferable futures. I am delighted to be play a role in their dream, although in minimal part. As long as one of my students will remember me, I will be alive in someone’s else’s life and for someone like me, who does not believe in afterlife or reincarnation, that is already an achievement in extending my presence on the planet — and without environmental impact, by the way. The vision we pass on to the future was inevitably forged in our past. Maybe that is the reason why, one way or another, I do not see this intercontinental reunion of Philips Design alumni as the sort of homecoming to which retirement follows but possibly as the moment Virginia Woolf described to close her “To the Lighthouse”, namely: “I have had my vision”. I am sure that my uncle, who surely never heard of Mrs. Woolf, wherever he is in his afterlife, will approve and understand that I breached his rule for good reasons.
So, the time I enjoyed in my Philips Design decade, will continue in two weeks and hopefully in two generations from now, because, just like Hemingway’s Paris of his posthumous “A Moveable Feast”, there is the place where we always go back to, in our mind, “we” being all of us who have had the privilege to be there for some time in our life, maybe for a couple of years or maybe for a professional lifetime: “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it…”.
(This article is dedicated to the memory of my father, Carlo Bevolo, 1930–2004, whose visit at the Philips Design studio in December 1999 was the fulfilment of his dream through three generations of our family)