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It started with a simple email that let me know I’d misspelled a designer’s name on an Imprint post, SFMOMA Reopening Celebrates Graphic Design. The name was Bob Noorda, Massimo Vignelli’s partner on the New York City Transit Authority graphics program. But the note about a misplaced letter ‘i’, from a Robert in Italy, got mistranslated by me. I’d mistakenly thought the email had come from the Dutch-born Italian designer Bob Noorda himself (1927-2010, which shows how much I still have to learn). In any event, this exchange led to a conversation with its writer, Robert Rebotti, in Bologna, Italy, that has lasted for several months.
Rebotti is not only an authority in the particulars of design history, he is a designer whose work blurs the lines between fine art and graphic design, between poetry and headline writing, between the academic and the practical. On his website, you see projects for clients like music and theater festivals, poetry and cultural events—works that are poetry in themselves, that could easily be hanging in art museums and galleries and sold at print fairs.
But then he started telling me about the project he’s been creating with another Bologna-based designer, Lorella Pierdicca. I fell in love with her work, too, and with the structure of her website, the black-and-white of it. And I wanted to know, is this kind of delicate conceptual work, a bit like Dada, a leading trend in Europe?
I asked a few questions, and what I learned is that Rebotti and Pierdicca have created a “design manifesto,” IN-Pratica, for themselves and perhaps for the entire graphic design profession.
“I take this opportunity to write a few words about our editorial project ‘IN-Pratica’ (‘IN-Practice’)” wrote Robert. “This book traces and discusses some of the reflections that have emerged from our research on design practices, communication processes, methodologies, techniques, tools, and applications. It’s a collaborative graphic design project by n-o-u-s, based in Bologna. The text is a set of annotations, and the same time it is a designed object that results from our collective work. In the text you will find topics—very important topics from our point of view—focused on the social and cultural dimensions of graphic communication.
“To us, this book is a tool that we use for our daily jobs, during workshops, and to share the contents with others, individual and collectively. We are interested in design practices that are accessible and visible in space and time. We think that design practice can be social, relational, open and dynamic. These emails are one example. As graphic designers, we would like to see the book published, but that is not the main goal. It can be a functional tool in its digital and prototypical formats. This conversation, I hope, will be a first step in sharing.
That exchange, of course, led to more questions and answers:
Ellen: The name n-o-u-s means ‘we’ or ‘us’ in French. Do the four letters also mean something special in Italian, or to you?Robert: Yes, it means ‘us,’ but the name is also based on the ‘nous’ of the ancient Greeks, a philosophical term for ‘intellect.’
Are you and Lorella business partners only, or are you also life partners? Do you work together or in separate studios?Although we work in the same building, our collaboration is focused only on the n-o-u-s project. Each of us has his/her own operative working space, and we have set up a communal area, which we use when we need to collaborate.
Do you consider yourselves two of the leading, or most influential, designers in Italy?Definitely not. Being an influencer of designers is not our intent. We are interested in exploring the character of space in the manner of Christopher Alexander [the Berkeley-based architect, academician, and design theorist who has written about the nature of human-centered design and is considered father of the Pattern Language movement].
So the patterns Alexander finds in cities and dwellings, you search for in graphic design. Do you speak at conferences? Do you teach at a university or art school?We are not very interested in conferences and similar meetings: they generally do not allow a real exchange between participants. In our experience, conferences end up presenting linear, self-referential speeches by the lecturer and passive participation by the audience. The speaker and listeners are on separate sides of the same space, without real relations and exchange. This kind of meeting does not help us answer our questions. In terms of teaching, yes, it is our intention to work collaboratively along this path.
How, exactly do you and Lorella work together? And when you characterize n-o-u-s as a collaborative design project, are you now collaborating with each other exclusively, or with other designers in Italy? Throughout Europe?We have known each other for more than ten years, but n-o-u-s is taking its first steps right now. Over the past two years we have worked long and hard to define the “how” in the processes and practices of design. IN–Pratica is our way to share practical reflections on collaborative projects, in Italy and worldwide, with colleagues, students and clients. We ask each other a question that makes inquiries into itself and that helps us formulate experimental interventions, scenarios, programs, and theories; our boundaries are fluid.
The language of your text is, to me, academic, dense, sometimes a bit difficult to understand. Is this the kind of approach that you think has been missing in current literature about graphic design?We believe that deeply practical research is missing from the current literature—both in practice itself and the theory of practice, on the complexity of interdisciplinary and mixed-media design processes. Our goal is to track down the forms through which those complex social systems are structured and organized and how they evolve, act, adapt, change, transform, and are realized.
And then there is the typography, the layouts. How influenced are you by the poems of Mallarmé?Stéphane Mallarmé is certainly a historical point of reference. His poetry is visual and eventful; it strategically acts in space and creates visual relationships and deep sound connections. With Guillaume Apollinaire, too, the words become sound and visual poetry. Like these pages from our book:
What are, or who are, your other influences?Our influences are many and varied. In some cases, juxtaposed, they seem to be in obvious contradiction to each other. We are influenced by concrete poetry, sound poetry, editorial projects, visual writing, abstract art, op art, kinetic art, music, and sculpture, mostly by the experimentations created between the 1950s and ’70s. We would need a whole book to list all the influential disciplines, fields, areas of interest, and authors, but our attention has been focused on creators of interdisciplinary work, especially Bruno Munari and Gastone Novelli. And also Frédéric Teschner, who died prematurely and recently. Specific references can be found on our Pinterest Sound-Poetry page and in the Fluxus collection. This interdisciplinary, mixed-media network is what we investigate and translate into our daily practice.
In this way, IN–Pratica is a space in which establishing a fruitful dialogue with that enormous cultural heritage seems possible.
Is IN-Practica for sale?At the moment we only have two copies of the prototype printed, plus the digital file available for free download on n-o-u-s website (www.n-o-u-s.it/IN-Pratica). The book is in both Italian and English because we would like to share it as widely as possible. In fact, we are hoping to meet someone who can help us to produce it.
Self-portrait of Roberto Rebotti and Lorella Pierdicca
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