Rethinking Design Thinking: towards “High Design 4.0”, or Design-beyond-Design.

With his formative years grounded in the academic tradition of Politecnico di Milano and being a founder of the Strategic Design activities at Domus Academy in Milan and a co-founder of the Design Faculty at TU Eindhoven, Stefano Marzano is credited for leading one of the best design organisations in post-WWII, the Philips Design 1991–2011 team, to then taking roles like Founding Dean at THNK School of Creative Leadership in Amsterdam, with Menno van Dijk, formerly at McKinsey, and Chief Design Officer at Electrolux in Stockholm, Sweden. Not to be forgotten, his collaborations with darling brands of contemporary lifestyle and taste-making giants like Nike, Levi’s, Renault, Swatch, Alessi, Cappellini, and masters of Italian design like Alessandro Mendini, Michele De Lucchi, Andrea Branzi, and more. Stefano recently discussed with Filiberto Amati of Amati & Associates and myself his vision of a future beyond design, rethinking Design Thinking beyond the classic notions of industrial design and people-centric design. He sketched his vision of “High Design 4.0” with elements of a possible manifesto, towards new concepts of design for life where utopias will leverage dystopias, and where science will meet humanities, by design.

Marco Bevolo
9 min readApr 20, 2022

High Design was originally designed and developed thirty years ago to be an approach, providing the common grammar across the design communities at Philips since the early 1990’s, as an anticipatory methodology towards preferable futures, by mission and vision. High Design represented a shift from technology-driven industrial design of the 20th Century, to people-centric creative industries. It was captured in a pivotal milestone, the collective book, Past Tense, Future Sense” (2005). Stefano recalls the integral design approach of High Design, the people-focused, future-oriented, multidisciplinary approach combining foresight and design disciplines into Strategic Design processes at Philips during his tenure, as an early manifestation of Design Thinking. In 2007, at the ICSID Conference in San Francisco, featuring Tim Brown among others, Stefano himself was one of the keynote speakers, presenting the book and its key highlights. That might be seen as a key moment for the public articulation of Design Thinking as a cultural discourse. However, the 1990s and 2000s High Design was designed as a research-based, interaction-rich approach for repeatable success, not as a standard process to be adopted in any business environment. Here, Stefano sees the danger of Design Thinking becoming vulgarized in a ready-made system to be presented, promoted and implemented in enterprises without the necessary sensibility for context, geography, and culture. This presents the danger of a shift from authentic and organic capabilities working in synergy, almost by “managerial magic”, versus a formulaic, standardized set of rules and guidelines, that might simply remain alien in an organisational context mechanically adopting them.

From a democratized notion of Design Thinking that runs the risk to be diluted in organizational processes, “High Design 4.0” requires to go beyond industrial design, Design Thinking and the present product and service-driven portfolio. In this respect, the future of “High Design 4.0” lies with the scientific explorations of life sciences, biology and the like. The “High Design 4.0” of the future needs to dare elevating itself between science and humanities, in order to address the life threatening challenges generated by the Anthropocene. The “High Design 4.0” of the future must be redesigned in terms of its ability to connect and contextualize political thinking and religious ideas, in an effort where collective synthesis will be more fundamental than individual genius. Politics is the only area of human activity that can create the necessary regulations and rules to govern technology development, adoption, and exploitation. Of course, this is not the political level of the four-year mandates of Prime Ministers but the contribution of institutions like the United Nations. In this view, religions have the power to inspire unity across divides, nevertheless the actual experience of religion in the last 70 years has not brought much hope, with wars and conflicts spanning the globe over, in spite of and sometimes even because of religion. An anthropocentric view of the world is obsolete, because keeping humanity at the centre, as done in the last 200 years from the industrial revolution in terms of climate change impact and as done also in the last decades of the digital age. Furthermore, the ambition by advanced economies to extend the lifespan of their citizens is not matched by an equitable, fair distribution of resources to the entire planet and its population, including emerging economies and poorer countries. In a sense, the apparent utopia of Transhumanism hits the reality check of complexity in a world of inequality, therefore transforming itself in a potential dystopia.

The necessary mindset needs to be anticipatory, preventive and future-oriented. We need to work towards solutions, however we should not stop at the definition of “preferable futures” by solutions but extend the intellectual challenge of designing the possible threats, anticipating the potential dystopias that might lie within given solutions. At the appearance of the internet, there was not much thinking in preventing challenges like cybercrime, privacy, security and alike. Solutionism, as described by Morozov, optimism and confidence in a better future proved to be the fertile ground for contemporary dystopias affecting or even replacing past utopias. Therefore, risk management will be an integral component of the “High Design 4.0” of the future, whereby the anticipatory focus will shift from preferable, product service propositions to complex, systemic solutions that will include the “dark side” of possible, probable and potential pitfalls, problems, and ways to abuse what designed for other purposes than intended. Investment will be increasingly made into preventive design work as a key component of next “High Design 4.0” processes. Humankind simply cannot afford to continue designing its future without the ability to anticipate what will not work, at times reaching key points of non return where life itself on the whole planet might be endangered in the end, as a direct or indirect consequence.

An example of thinking “High Design 4.0” beyond contemporary Design Thinking and current design practices is the seminar “Biovision of the Future. Design Challenge for a Sustainable and Desirable Life” by La Sapienza University in Rome, where on 29.10.2021, Stefano discussed with futurist sociologists Prof. Roberto Poli and Francesco Morace, with philosopher Leonardo Caffo, with technologists Arti Ahluwalia and Carmelo De Maria, with Mauro Magatti, economist, and with Carlo Maria Polvani, theologist, the challenges and dystopias and therefore the opportunities and utopias of “designing life” thanks to recent and future advancements in life sciences, bio sciences and more multidisciplinary fields. This seminar was followed up by a zoom seminar by Stefano with Dr. Reon Brand, Microbiologist, Virologist, and Senior Director and Socio-cultural trends at Philips Experience Design, The Netherlands, who is the author of the foundational paper, “Co-emerging Futures” (2019). Curator and host of both activities at Saperi&Co, the La Sapienza laboratory under her direction was Dr. Sabrina Lucibello, Associate Professor in Design at the PDTA Department, with Carmen Rotondi, Ph.D. candidate, designed and facilitated this program with the ambition to ground future thinking in biology, sociology, and economy but also in ethics, ecological and generative holism. Hence, the involvement of religion and philosophy in a dialog beyond past and present boundaries of what industrial, service and digital design have been so far.

Design must evolve into new directions like the above, because beyond the 1970’s scenarios of oil crisis and other limits of growth. At this moment in history, the expectation is that further investment in defence will be required to face short and mid term threats deriving from wars, terrorisms, and other dysfunctional dynamics at macro level. In this context, corporations and companies should invest more into the prediction and the anticipation of future dystopias. As a business and design leader, the design and delivery of benefits is not sufficient any longer, as benefits might turn into worst case scenarios, both unintended as well as deriving from abuse. Therefore, leaders must rethink their approach to people-centric solutions, because it might be that people are the worst enemies of people in enacting evil. The ambition of a global society enriched by a cooperative mindset in pursuit of distributing privileges and benefits to all, a new approach will be required, namely the inclusion within the generative, creative, and design processes of the possible and probable “dark sides” of solutions. Some industries are intrinsically able to perform accordingly, e.g. the pharmaceutical industry, but our societies, our politics, our systems are simply too slow in the face of the speed of evolution of science and technology, in order to anticipate any negative impacts, however likely.

Where can we look to spot the future of “Design beyond Design”? Fine arts or Artificial Intelligence, as explored by Filiberto and me in recent publications? Stefano thinks about “High Design 4.0” as creation from the viewpoint of culture, values, models, and tools. Everything that exists around us is enabling us all to develop and experience our common ground in society, by vision and intent. Therefore, Design Thinking might be already outdated for the purpose of conceptualizing the future of “High Design 4.0”. “High Design 4.0” means assuming a generative responsibility, that nowadays has reached the extreme borders of designing life, through bio sciences, life sciences, and other advanced ways to design living objects. Such living objects are autonomous and self generative, challenging the notion of what “human” means. Besides the spreading of Design Thinking within organizations, at the risk of diluting its transformative power, and besides the design of chairs, furniture, and any other object, tomorrow’s “High Design 4.0” will be tasked with the responsibility to take responsibility to address fundamental questions, by sustainable answering for the longer term. This is why Stefano advocated philosophy and theology to partake in the La Sapienza seminars.

At the end of the 1990’s, Stefano coined the slogan: “Design is an act of love”, that stood for what 1990s and 2000s High Design pursued in terms of people-centric innovation. Nowadays, “love” is sometimes mistaken for or -even consciously exchanged with- ego-driven selfishness, whereby the “dark side” of dystopian futures prevails. A large part of society simply does not listen, as we have seen in the climate change crisis that was anticipated half a century ago, if not before. The persistence of war as a method to extend politics for the purpose of conflict resolution is just one aspect of this reality. Micro-criminality is just another side that can be experienced in our cities, as a manifestation of social unbalance, cultural dystopias, and economic injustice. One might seem impatient. One might sound brutal. However, our current challenges, both social and biological, demand a new sense of urgency. From the design of artificial organs to the rise of military robots, will only increase trajectories of inhuman growth. In the face of such challenges, once again, dystopias must be factored and anticipated by design, to become part of new utopias. The separation between the inclusive power or artificial intelligence and other digital technologies and the risks of polarisation and conflict. Organizations, enterprises and businesses are challenged in their role as citizens, where responsibility for the future is shared within cooperation among all stakeholders. As 1990s and 2000s High Design enabled the convergence of humanities, social sciences, and people-centric creativity within industrial processes, new notions of “High Design 4.0” will rise beyond design and Design Thinking as we have known them so far. As a first step, framing and reframing the problems is the necessary first step in addressing and hopefully solving the problems and the challenges of the future, from tomorrow to the next decades.



Marco Bevolo

Italian living between NL and Japan. 1967, born; 1994, Literature and Philosophy; 2016 Behavioral and Social Sciences; 5 books; 20 scientific papers; Keynote.