An Interview with Omar Vulpinari

Judges Interviews

Omar Vulpinari

Creative Director and Innovative Laboratory Leader

CCA Ambassador, Omar Vulpinari, is a multi-disciplinary Creative Director and Innovative Laboratory Leader who has dedicated his career to communicating design for social change, culture and business. His work is focused upon developing strategies for systemic branding and connected commercial advocacy, for awareness raising and behavioural change campaigns, guerrilla marketing tactics, online participatory initiatives, mobile applications, editorial projects and community-based co-design initiatives.

He is vastly experienced in the strategic and creative direction of research and innovation-based projects, most notably at Fabrica – the Benetton-owned Research Centre – where he has directed groups of young and talented designers and technologists in the exploration of new interpretations of creativity across a broad range of genre-shifting initiatives.

Up until 2013, Omar acted as Director of the ‘Expanded Media Area’ with responsibility for the teams leading visual communication, interaction and online experience, video and sound; he was also Creative Director of the ‘Visual Communication Department’ where he directed projects that were designed to address the big issues that are effecting our lives today.

Omar also has a strong interest for research in design education: he was Co-editor of the Icograda Design Education Manifesto 2011 and Founding Editorial Director of Iridescent, the Icograda Journal of Design Research.

Omar, you’ve had an incredibly interesting career. What are you up to at the moment?

Having recently left Fabrica, I’ve been teaching Communication Design to 3rd year students at the University of Venice where my focus is on social impact, design agitation and new technology-related strategies. I’ve also just started a new project in collaboration with BBM, the Berlin/London-based collective of artists, designers, researchers and entrepreneurs who are working together to create a series of events – including art exhibition, theatre, guerilla action and a conference – designed to address the global economic crisis in order to raise awareness and to explore solutions. The project is called ENQuETE ART and our aim is to take it across Europe starting in Hannover, then to Rome, London, Frankfurt, Dresden, Gothenburg, Poznan, Barcelona and beyond.

What was it that opened your mind to the need for socially responsible initiatives?

I had the good fortune to study in a school where the teachers were dedicated to – and passionate about – public design in respect of working towards improving attitudes towards responsible citizenship. Then, for 10 years, I worked with one of those teachers – Massimo Dolcini, a truly great pioneer of Italian public design. Later, in 1997 I met Oliviero Toscani– creator of United Colors of Benetton’s iconic social campaigns of the 1980s/90s and (with Tibor Kalman) co-founder of COLORS Magazine – and started working with him at Fabrica on crucial social issues on a global scale.

What is the single most interesting brief you’ve worked on during your career?

After years of working on huge globally focused campaigns that reached millions around the world, one of the projects that touched me most was a recent one through which I could engage on a personal level with the people whose plight we sought to communicate. It concerned a small institute, in Treviso, for people suffering the terminal affects of AIDS, at that time a group of nine people in various stages of incapacity, including some that could hardly speak or leave their beds.

Working with three students from Fabrica, we created a project together called ‘Memory Factory’ through which we devoted time and attention to those people to show them ways in which they could still express their creative side and be present in the world. Just being present in their lives gave them enormous happiness as we worked together to document their greatest memories through writing, drawing and making. Our work was finally presented to the patients and then at the City Museum enabling us to convey an important message that these people exist and they are not to be abandoned or feared. The result was an increase in funding and donations for the institute. It was a great project and very special to me because I could clearly see the effects of our work in the eyes of those nine people and of the three empathetic, incredibly patient and caring girls whom I worked alongside.

It is smaller projects such as these that show us all that we can work together for the greater good.

Who has been your biggest influence?

In design terms, the British designer, Neville Brody. I was 20 when I picked up my first copy of The Face magazine. I was so impressed that I immediately checked out who designed it – something I had never done before. That’s when I decided that graphic design was my future. In terms of commitment to social improvement, Oliviero Toscani remains my most important influence.

What is the greatest piece of advice you’ve ever been given? What advice would you give a creative student today?

I’m not sure I was actually advised of this mantra but it is something I definitely developed through experience. It is to ‘give a lot, and you will receive a lot’. I always advise students, “you will get extraordinary results only from extraordinary generosity and perseverance. At all times commit and persist for originality, relevance and timelessness’.

In this culture of fear and cautiousness, what is the future of design?

An enormous factor in all our lives today is complexity; it has more and more to do with networks and big data. For that reason, technology will drive design in the future. In fact, it will revolutionise it – take 3D printing, for example. Another driving factor will be synthetic biology – as evidenced by work currently being undertaken at the Royal College of Art – where design is focused on creating life rather than objects. Collaboration is another key word that we use when talking about the future of design through which designers, working within multi-disciplinary groups comprised of bio-engineers, sociologists, psychologists and mathematicians, will engender a very real ability to solve problems.

What is it about the Creative Conscience Awards that has inspired you to get involved?

The idea of having a creative conscience is something that has always interested me and it’s something that I have spent a lifetime promoting – I am also Regional Ambassador for INDEX, a body created to promote the idea of design to improve life – but the Creative Conscience Awards is the first opportunity I’ve had to be exclusively engaged with students interested in social design. I like the simplicity of the initiative and the passion that drives it. It feels genuine and authentic.

The answer to my final question – how does your creative conscience express itself in your work – seems pretty obvious to me so I will re-frame it into what you would advise a creative student to do?

Good design works with the essentials that are important to the end user. Whenever you’re dealing with socially concerned projects, it’s very important to be direct and emotionally impacting, but it’s equally necessary to present information that can be transformed into positive action. This will feed the conscious collaboration of designer, client, and end user.

Interview by Kate Burton