L’Ecole de design Nantes Atlantique moved into its new premises in September 2022. The new building was designed by the architects Marc Mimram and Gaelle Pesneau in collaboration with the design firm Jouin-Mankku. 116OO M2 dedicated to design and educating people in creation and innovation. Nantes Métropole, the Pays de Loire Region, the European Union and the Nantes Saint Nazaire Chamber of Commerce financed this project, the largest French investment budget in the field of design for 30 years after the creation of the Cité du design in Saint-Etienne. What are the school’s stakes and ambitions? Desire, entrepreneurship, social responsibility, the human-machine relationship, and finally diversity in place of inclusion and globalization, are all part of the new educational project.
“Desire is the only driving force” Aristotle
The designer’s job is to represent tomorrow, to give it form, meaning and beauty. It is about making products and/or services real and objective, desirable and acceptable.
Beauty is only ever inscribed in the meaning that we want to give it. What is beautiful is only what we have decided to be so. The same is true for ugliness. To believe that there exists an absolute beauty or ugliness is absurd. Only the idea that one makes of it is worthwhile. To say that Malevich’s “White Square on a White Background” is beautiful is a conceit. This work is only beautiful because the viewer can decide this willingly. It is up to the viewer to find the work beautiful or ugly, or a sham. “In the middle of the greatest desert, hides a well” said Saint-Exupéry. In the middle of the greatest desert, if you take the trouble, you can see the greatest of beauties. Beauty is only what makes sense. Others will say that beauty is born from the pleasure it arouses, from the emotion it provokes. It is indeed a matter of sense and sensuality.
As for desire, whether it is sexual (Eros) or pious (Agape), it originates from lack. We desire what we do not have and all the more ardently as we lack it and would like to possess it. To satisfy one’s desire is to want to free oneself from lack and to undertake to fulfil it. This is our humanity: its reason, its exaltation, is in this capacity to desire and to decide which are the conditions that will enable us to overcome the frustration of what we do not possess.
Love is all the more passionate, all the more romantic, because it is never totally free of the frustration of never entirely possessing. If you possess definitively, if by any chance you are no longer lacking, then the desire dies out. As soon as you no longer lack, you no longer desire, and boredom sets in.
It is desire that makes you human, that makes you surpass yourself: it is the lever, the driving force of all actions, but also that of all elevation and transcendence. It is the only driving force. It gives the impetus towards a different future, a future which fulfills us. If Utopia has a meaning, it is that of projecting an ideal world, a place where all desires and all pleasures converge. It is a good thing that the island of Utopia does not exist because attaining it would be desperately boring. The only thing worthwhile is to desire it deeply and have it always escape us.
From idea to action, entrepreneurship and from “design thinking” to “design doing”
The designer’s mission is to speculate on what he lacks, and, by extension, what everyone lacks. Building tomorrow’s world means making up for the shortcomings of today’s world. The radical transformations in the technological and socio-economic contexts call for this constant reflection on the future.
How we want to live tomorrow is the preeminent question. And the designer has to “take matters into his own hands”. “Design doing” must replace “design thinking”. Because it is not about thinking and imagining the future, it is about building it. Creating, dreaming and designing are no longer enough, we need to build, to move from morality to ethics. “Morality makes us feel sorry for the hungry” says Levinas, “Ethics obliges us to feed them”, to define what is a matter for God or for humanity. The creative designer must become an entrepreneur. More like Prometheus than Zeus.
The entrepreneurial mindset of the designer is a central concern of training institutions. An idea is worth nothing, even the most desirable one, if it is not tested by the markets and/or society in general. It is not a question of turning all designers into company managers, as the latter have specific skills that not all possess. But it is about multiplying interactions, sharing with companies, and in particular start-ups, whose model of creation, agile decision making, and simple hierarchical structures make projections to strategic and project management levels possible.
Design schools must change: it is no longer a question of training creatives, but rather creative professionals. Creation is just a means to invest in tomorrow. The quality of the end-of-studies projects is only “smoke and mirrors” if the projects are not developed, if the rates of professional placements – in companies or as freelancers – are inadequate. Too many end-of-studies projects end up in the trash after graduation, when they deserve to be developed. The only thing that matters is that they are tested by the market or by society. Being a designer is not about imagining tomorrow, it’s about building it.
A tremendous playground for the designer at a time of great societal upheaval
Two changes in socio-economic contexts will profoundly modify our environments: the emergence of a societal responsibility of consumers who have become citizens, and the reshaping of the human-machine relationship as soon as robots equipped with artificial intelligence are more intelligent than the humans who built them.
The consumer society on which wealth generation is founded operates on the principle of market renewal. Each time a white goods company sells a dishwasher, it generates added value, as much wealth as it redistributes in part, first to its employees, then to society in the form of taxes, and finally to the company’s owners. The company develops as soon as it regularly sells new products that replace the old ones. The essence of capital development is linked to this perpetual process of renewal.
The emergence of an environmental and social conscience incites us to adopt another model, that of resource saving, sobriety and sharing. A dishwasher should be able to function for many years, and be repaired, to avoid having to change it. It is a question of safeguarding the resources we need to save the planet. Similarly, since social networks make it possible, the same dishwasher should be shared between several families in order to optimize its performance. If the dishwasher works for an hour a day, it must be shared with 23 families, thus heralding profound transformations in our habitats and our life in society in general. For the designer, the playground is vast and conducive to all kinds of speculations about alternative pathways.
Gradually, the consumer society will be replaced by an economy of contribution, where each consumer will make a moral as well as an economic choice, every time he buys something, as long as he is encouraged or forced to do so by law.
Businesses must adapt in order to continue to develop. For many, the challenge is to move from product to service, to innovate around a new industrial paradigm: “what else can we do with what we know how to do” is the new industrial paradigm, that of innovation.
Corporate Social Responsibility is a sham if it is about making people believe that the company sells products out of duty rather than out of interest. No one believes the head of a capitalist organization who claims to take care of his clients and his markets out of moral duty. One should not count on the kindness of one’s butcher to get good meat, but rather hope that he looks after his own interests, Adam Smith reminds us. A company has never sold anything out of duty, always out of interest. To try to make the company as a system more ethical is a mistake. Don’t believe the company director who tells you that he loves you, unless you want to flog yourself when you are rejected. The company has an economic virtue, not a moral one. However, and this is the essential point, all companies will have to adapt to a new client awareness of a desired and planned sobriety. The designer’s responsibility is directly involved in this transformation, and it is advisable not to distrust anyone or any structure. Once again, it is a question of building. The designer is the artisan of societal responsibility. Designing and building tomorrow means making it simpler, otherwise we will have to set the limits definitively, those of life on earth.
Global warming, squandered resources, carbon production and so on are certainly threatening our humanity. But another issue is perhaps even more significant to this risk, even if it is less talked about as a generator of catastrophes. Industrial design has its roots in the preoccupation of the first designers with finding the semiotic codes of craftsmanship in the industrial production of the early 20th century. The “anthropophagous” machine as metaphorically represented by Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” invites us to think about the role of the human being in his relationship to the machine. The robot endowed with artificial intelligence poses the same problem. It is a matter of answering the question “what is it to be human, when robots are more intelligent than us?” Between the old lady crossing the street and the plane tree on the side of the road, who will the remote-controlled car decide to hit when we are no longer driving it and it is fully autonomous? What about our avatars that do the shopping for us and bring back the meals of the week at the same time as they choose our menus? What about exoskeletons or other bionic prostheses when they allow us to run faster than the Olympic champion? What does it mean to be human when robots surpass us?
The emergence of a societal conscience and the new human-machine relationship are the two major issues that now guide all design school pedagogy. Each project, each creation, each scenario will be borrowed from these two themes which constitute the link and the node of all the others – they force us to give a meaning to a desirable tomorrow.
Applied to the economic world, as Elsbeth Gerner Nielsen puts it, “The companies of the 19th and 20th centuries asked themselves the question of what is technologically possible and economically profitable, those of the 21st ask themselves the question of what makes sense.”
A recomposed world where each culture enriches the other and where travel becomes revolutionary
It is important to send the following message to all the international students in our schools: you have not come to a foreign country to become global designers in a global world. The culture of others is not soluble, nor a substitute, it is an enrichment of your own value base. Universalism is an egalitarian fantasy from which uniformity and boredom are born. Appreciating difference is a privilege for those who want to grow and develop. Resonance is preferable to mixity.
The world is tearing itself apart and at a time when it is showing signs of nationalism and imperialism, it is essential that we continue to facilitate the exchange of students, professors and staff, even if it means ignoring what the learning experiences of international courses in “distance learning” allow. These obviously offer a universalization of knowledge at lower costs and with a low carbon footprint compared to the airplanes needed to cross continents. But should we be prepared to no longer see each other physically and run the risk of no longer learning from our differences? In a world in turmoil where the temptation of nationalistic reclusion is obvious, multiplying the opportunities to visit others becomes essential and revolutionary. The peace of the world depends on it. To live as a recluse implies having to protect one’s borders, and to be subject to the temptation, the desire, the lack of not owning the neighbor’s land, where the grass is greener.
“Before becoming someone, you come from somewhere” says Per Jakez Hélias. Let all designers bear witness to this, as the meaning they want to give to things depends on it. Institutions of higher education must encourage them to fly the nest, and pursue the crazy hope of a diverse and more beautiful world tomorrow.