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In search of the "tempo" of Slow Design

The word “slow” is losing its pejorative meaning; first in food (Slow Food), later in cities (Cittaslow) and now in design. Slow Design promises fair, sustainable, and quality products.

Slow and slowness, during the past century, have been synonymous with inefficiency, the antithesis of what can be produced at low prices and on economies of scale. Slowness also meant lack of development, when not seen as a sign of weakness and obsolescence.

Today, the reaction against this culture of speed can be seen everywhere. Perhaps the best recognized example began in Italy with the Slow Food manifesto, whose evolution has been covered, not just in blogs and specialized websites (faircompanies, TreeHugger, Lime, TheDailyGreen, among many others), but by media heavyweights like The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, Le Monde, Der Spiegel or the Canadian journalist living in London Carl Honoré, in his book In Praise of Slowness.

The creed of the Slow Movement has been taken seriously not only by the mass media, but by “ethical consumers”, politicians and influential personalities of different backgrounds, including members of the royalty like Prince Charles of England, defender of the last rural communities in the United Kingdom, like the Dukedom of Cornwall, that he tries to manage personally.

Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food, has not only been received in the high ranks of British society- Prince Charles calls him “my dear Carlo”, but he was included by Time magazine in its group of “European heroes” and he has been welcomed into the offices of Al Gore, Barack Obama and David Cameron, to name a few.

The expansion of the conch: Slow Food, Slow Movement, Cittaslow…

The symbol of Slow Food is the conch, an emblem of slowness. The vindication of slowness is now a focus of successful professionals like Carl Honoré, who exposes in the subtitle accompanying his book how “a worldwide movement is challenging the cult of speed”.

The terms “slow” or “downshifting” deepen a movement that began reclaiming good meals as a daily right, to now cover the use of organic and local products.

From there it extended to the Slow Movement, converting a culinary demand into a cultural tendency; in 1999, Cittaslow (slow city) arrived, transferring the same idea to improve the quality of life of cities, that they should resist the homogenization and expansion of the suburbs.

When Carlo Petrini decided to initiate from Bra -headquarters of the first University of Gastronomic Sciences– a protest movement and demand for food cooked over a “slow fire”, in both the literal and figurative senses, with local products and recipes, he wasn’t responding to only the -traumatic for him- experience of witnessing the opening of a McDonald’ s in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna, in 1986.

Slow Food, a name chosen by Petrini for the new organization to spread the idea to everyone, he challenges us to recover our broken ties with our cultural and gastronomic traditions that, according to this Italian, we have had to push aside to adapt to modern demands.

Exacting work and a frantic rhythm that does not leave space for reflection, conversation with coffee, good food, or daily pleasantries. Petrini simply raised his voice before a sensation of real loss of quality in everyday life, experienced in places where the tranquil life had become a cultural inheritance that should have been protected.

The brands “whole earth”, “permaculture”, “cradle to cradle” and “slow”

Slow Food was born as a movement of resistance, both practical and intellectual, to junk food: it was founded to protect the cultural and biological diversity in food production and, at the same time, to propose new eating networks.

It was a resistance not only to low quality ingredients produced with maximum efficiency, hundreds or thousands of miles away -antidote: slow food-, but also to the speed with which we must “execute” our routine tasks -antidote: slow movement- or to the presence of cars in historic districts ideal for strolling or bicycling -antidote: cittaslow-.

“Slow” is just a recognized term, but there are reactions against the worship of velocity, efficiency and the industrial concept of productivity similar to the manifesto formulated by Petrini, everywhere. Three examples:

  • The compilation of “tools” for a sustainable life The Whole Earth Catalog, coordinated by the member of the California counterculture of the sixties Stewart Brand.
  • The birth of the concept of “permaculture” (from “permanent” and “agriculture”), born in the seventies in Australia, at the hand of Bill Mollison (naturalist) and David Holmgren (engineer of ecological design).
  • William McDonough and Michael Braungart, authors of the book Cradle to Cradle, begin with the premise that products should be eco-effective: “Products that are not designed particularly for human and ecological health are unintelligent and inelegant -crude products”. Both authors introduce the concept to do things well, so that an obsolete product can serve as “food” for a new product. From there comes the idea of “cradle to cradle” in comparison with the industrialist “from cradle to grave”.

The bakery Barcelona Reykjavik functions according to these ideas. Its owners, David Nelson and Gudrun Margret, set out “to recover the origins of bread and to seek adequate ingredients from nature”. It’s obvious, from testing their product, that they’ve succeeded in their goal.

Nevertheless, neither Nelson neither Margret have a “license” of “slow” people. Although we titled one of the videos we shot with them “Slow bread from Barcelona Reykjavik“, these ideas are just about taking your time and paying attention to quality; or more adequately, piano piano.

Good, clean and fair

Combining pleasure with local knowledge and products of quality and respect (Slow Food) helps to improve one’s personal environment and to make it sustainable with work well done and adapted to the environment (an idea originating with the Whole Earth catalog); as well as working and enjoying the same environment following the precepts of nature (ideas like permaculture or eco-effectiveness).

Why can’t design, even industrial design, be nutrients that return to nature? That is the goal of the “cradle to cradle” philosophy and, now, that of Slow Food. The idea is so irresistible that this latter movement has followers worldwide.

The maxim of Slow Food is “good, clean and fair”, as explained by Penelope Green in a story for the New York Times.

Food, daily life, cities and -now- the design of the products that we consume, should comply with this simple idea. Slow Design aims to contribute clean, good (ecological) and fair designs.

…And now Slow Design

If Slow Food led to the Slow Movement and to Cittaslow, now the moment has arrived for Slow Design. It is a reaction against a culture that promotes the impersonal and homogeneous products and services (to create a product satisfying to all, independent of their environment and needs).

Slow Design refers to:

  • Design processes with more time to investigate, to contemplate, to test the impact of the product in real life and to adjust it to the task for which it has been created.
  • Design for the production of products using local or regional materials, or design that supports local industries, workshops and artisans.
  • The study of the concept of natural timecycles and their subsequent incorporation into the design and manufacture of a product.
  • Design that focuses on long and stable cycles, like those of human behavior and sustainability.

Slow Design departs from the Slow Movement and, in this way, is an inclusive, extensive concept and in the constant process of maturation. Numerous initiatives explore this new idea: the organizations slowLab, SlowDesign.org (SLOW) and the international seminar and manifesto Slow + Design.

slowLab, SlowDesign.org and Slow + Design

slowLab defines itself as a think tank with offices in New York and Amsterdam and with activities worldwide, with the mission “to promote ‘slowness’ or what we call ‘slow design’ as a positive catalyst of individual, socio-cultural and environmental well-being, engaging the innate creative capacities of individuals and leveraging the collaborative potential of communities to spur networks of cooperation that incite new thinking and approaches.”

It doesn’t sound bad, but how are projects set in motion? slowLab works in creating a network of people and creative professionals from several disciplines, inviting them to exchange ideas and to cooperate in projects that “positively impact the lives of individuals, the communities they participate in and the planet that we share”.

This New York project declares itself “inspired by the global ‘slow’ movements which serve to balance the demands of the fast-paced world on our bodies, our cities, and the cultural fabric”. slowLab is supported by the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA).

slowLab defines “slow design” as the sum of six principles:

  • Reveal: designs based on spaces and everyday experiences, often omitted or forgotten in the discipline.
  • Expand: to consider the expressions and functions of artifacts designed beyond perceived functionality, physical attributes and lifespans.
  • Reflect: environments and utensils designed slowly induce contemplation and “reflective consumption.”
  • Engage: the structure and processes of slow design are “open source” and open to contribution, based on exchange, cooperation and transparency of information, so that designs continue evolving in the future.
  • Participate: Slow Design encourages users to become active participants in the process of design, exchanging ideas to aid the social accountability of a product.
  • Evolve: Slow Design realizes that the maturation of artifacts and environments over the years leads to richer experiences. “Looking beyond the needs and circumstances of the present day, slow design processes and outcomes become agents of positive change.”

The Brit Alastair Fuad-Luke, the driving force behind SlowDesign.org, relates Slow Design with the “democracy of design”, so that it is the users themselves who create socially beneficial, local products with low environmental impact.

Besides New York and the United Kingdom, Slow Design has in Italy a seminar and manifesto: Slow + Design, created as a course with international scope to serve as the “slow focus” of this new design current.

The chosen city: Milan. Participating in the seminar are the Università di Scienze Gastronomiche, Slow Food Italia, Politecnico di Milano (Facoltà del Design, INDACO department), the Istituto Europeo di Design and the Domus Academy.

The manifesto Slow + Design, published in October of 2006, analyzes the success of Slow Food and transfers its principles to design. According to the signatories of the manifesto, coordinated by Francesca Rossi, Giulia Simeone and Marianna Recchia, the success of Slow Food is based on “the capacity to connect what should be done for ethical, social and environmental reasons with what is ‘good and beautiful’, i.e. with the quality dimension.”

“Above all, the slow approach means the simple, but in current times revolutionary, affirmation that it is not possible to produce and appreciate quality if we do not allow ourselves the time to do so; in other words, if we do not activate some kind of slowdown.”

“However, slow does not only mean this. It also means a concrete way of actually putting this idea into practice. It means cultivating quality: linking products and their producers to their places of production and to their end-users who, by taking part in the production chain in different ways, become themselves co-producers” (their italics).

Slow design: projects emerging from Slow Design

A listing of projects of Slow Design that, according to slowLab, can inspire anyone to understand the precepts of slow design.

Projects with a purpose “to reflect” and “to share” :

Projects that “reveal” y “expand”:

Projects to “participate” and “evolve”: