A native of Le Marche region in Italy, Sabrina describes her hometown of Ascoli Piceno as a geographically isolated jewel where people still live according to Nature’s rhythms. This authentic and harmonious way of life has shaped her worldview and design practice. But eager to expand her horizons, Sabrina left this splendid isolation to study Product Design and Product Service Systems Design in Milan. During an internship at Namahn, she discovered and applied Systemic Design to her Master’s thesis focusing on music, and decided to make Belgium her new home.
Have you always been eager to explore new frontiers?
So far, widening my perspectives on the world has been a beautiful experience! I consciously chose to move to a totally different place for my studies. As Italy’s design capital, I was attracted by Milan’s creative vibe. However, given its industrial heritage, engineering and production processes are at the heart of product design teaching there. I wanted to go beyond this, to explore the human side. So after studying Product Design I chose Product Service Systems Design as my Master and could begin designing experiences. As an international course, it was also an opportunity for me to meet lots of different nationalities.
How did you discover Namahn?
In my second year, I had to choose an internship. I wanted to continue expanding my horizons so I looked for a service design internship abroad. Belgium was top of my list. My grandfather came here as an immigrant mineworker and my father was born here, so there is a family link and I was curious to know more. When I Googled Belgium and service design, Namahn was the top hit! I was immediately impressed by their approach to knowledge management and attracted by the friendly people profiles. My happiest moment was at the end of the test day in January 2016, when I was invited into the design studio with the whole team and told I had the internship! I worked closely with Kristel for six months, during which I discovered Systemic Design (very different to the systemic design I learned about at university), applied it to my thesis and rapidly fell in love with the Namahn family.
Why did you choose music as the topic of your thesis?
I used to play guitar and I’m still very passionate about music, especially rock. Soundabout explores how music can be used to reinforce social cohesion. I used a Systemic Design approach, which proved remarkable for studying the complex nature of relationships between different stakeholders (audiences, musicians, concert venues). Brussels was the perfect place to do this. The cultural and music scenes are very diverse. I discovered all sorts of new genres that I would not have found in Italy. This diversity describes Brussels in general: a colourful city, in terms of language, food, sights and sounds offering multiple opportunities to create mixed experiences. Variety is an important principle in Systemic Design. It’s also what Namahn is: a great variety of skills and backgrounds. One of the main touchpoints of Soundabout is an online platform for musicians to book concerts at a variety of venues. Audiences can also give feedback to the musicians, and the more concerts people attend, the larger the venues they can access, which is also the case for the musicians. This supports new encounters and widens the possibilities for everyone to access the cultural scene. Soundabout is still on paper but I’m proud to say it was included in the Namahn exhibition for the Henry van de Velde Awards, which recognized Joannes and Kristel with the Career Award in 2016.
What fascinates you about Systemic Design?
Systemic Design broadens the disciplines within service design. Service design is very linear. You start and end with the user. Systemic Design looks at the perspectives, drives and needs of everyone involved. It is a much wider, circular reading of reality. You need to try to understand, be empathic, facilitate. Of course, it has its roots in Human-Centred Design but it goes further—from me to we—and explores how multiple perspectives play together. When we talk about complex problems, we are in fact talking about the singular ways different actors look at them. Capturing the chaos when they meet can change the system itself. Namahn is playing a key role in making this clearer through the Systemic Design Toolkit we are creating.
How does living in Brussels compare with Milan?
Most Italian cities have a beautiful city centre. But move to the periphery and you are generally disappointed. They have retained nothing of the Renaissance values of creating an environment in tune with humans. Man-made beauty is trapped at the core. In Brussels, beauty is scattered everywhere. Milan was a bit of a jungle and I never used a bike there. Now I can cycle to work each day across the park, breathing fresh air. You don’t have to look far for green spaces in Brussels!
Does your rural upbringing colour your practice as a designer?
Where I come from, people live according to nature’s rhythm. In my hometown, time goes very slowly, whereas in Milan, everything went extremely fast. This experience convinced me that we have lost our respect for the nature of time and the beauty we can create over time. Take, for example, medieval cathedrals. Today, despite all our technologies, we still look at these constructions with amazement and judge them impossible to re-create. Whereas a cathedral is closer to human needs, the skyscrapers that populate our cities are closer to the logic of business. We should re-find the attention that was once given to humans, slow down and think about where we are going. Why are we in such a rush? This is also why I believe in Systemic Design. It is not about the short-term. It is about allowing the system to change itself in the time it needs, with harmony as the ultimate goal.
Any ‘slow’ passions outside work?
Food! My grandmother is a great cook. She taught me how to cook, to forage for edible herbs in the fields, even how to make soap! She creates a local specialty and the most important dish of our region, Olive Ascolane: pitted olives stuffed with a filling of meat and cheese, dipped in breadcrumbs then deep-fried. She starts in the morning and makes 500 of these tiny delicacies! What makes the annual moment of tasting precious is its connection to rarity. If Olive Ascolane were available all the time, we would lose that perception of value and rarity. We need to rediscover the authenticity of life, of what we consume and keep such knowledge alive!
What are you hoping to achieve as a designer in the future?
I believe we have lost the capability to look at the future… There are so many seeds to grow, and we have stopped watering them! Systems are always about the long-term, not today or tomorrow. At Namahn, I have an opportunity to take this further and achieve tangible results. With Systemic Design, maybe I can be even more ambitious and work on a larger scale to make a real difference.