Design in Town
Who is the graphic professional, what do they do, and how do you become one.
Design in Town
Who is the graphic professional, what do they do, and how do you become one.
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Who is the graphic professional, what do they do, and how do you become one.

Design in Town interviews Marco Tortoioli Ricci, graphic designer and President of AIAP, the Italian association of visual communication.
Wide-ranging interview with a dean of graphic design in Italy. Tortoioli Ricci has, in addition to an honorable career, a great experience in teaching in schools of excellence, and this allows him to have a complete view of the delicate transition between training and work. Let's listen to him, let us be inspired and let's not stop dreaming, let's just do it with a bit of groundedness. For high school students and the families who support them, being properly motivated and aware is a large part of the problem, but also of the solution.

What is a Graphic Designer?

In order to clarify, try to give us your definition of the graphics profession and how it has evolved in recent years.
The graphic designer is primarily a mediator of languages. He translates complex messages into visual systems that facilitate their understanding and memorization, he performs an ‘facilitating’ function with respect to the capacity for action and participation of every citizen. I am not just talking about visual compositions, but the complex of languages that are at the heart of the communication process. Visual, verbal, typographic, iconographic, symbolic, both static and dynamic. It is appropriate to add that the graphic designer today should instead define himself, as we have done for years in our Association, as a communication designer, including in the meaning of the word design precisely the need to be able to design the entire communication process, from the issuer to the receiver and vice versa, also including the relational and interpretative variables that lie at the heart of the perceptive mechanisms that are obviously influenced by the contexts and cultural characteristics in which the communication process takes place.


What are the “variations” of the graphic designer on a professional level?
Nowadays graphics or communication designers operate in fields that are also very different from each other, just think of the digital explosion we have had in the last 15 years. A graphic designer operates as in the publishing industry, in visual identities projects for companies, institutions or regions, in information design or in data visualization, and as a user interface designer applying himself both to the world of digital platforms and environments giving particular attention to the variables that define the degree of accessibility for users, and also deals with graphic design applied to exhibition systems in general, but we should also mention the other countless areas in which a graphic designer applies his skills, from textile design to industrial packaging and so on. It is important to clarify that a graphic designer job is defined by the context in which it is applied. In this regard, we have focused on some of the major areas of professional practice during the exhibition that AIAP curated at the Triennale last year, Il Mestiere di Grafico- oggi (The Graphic Designer’s Trade): in what relationship does our profession exist in respect to the world of education; in what relationship does it exist in respect to the different types of companies in which many young designers organize themselves in order to practice; what areas define what we have called ‘artisan graphics’, in what relationship does it exist to those who choose to work analogically and who are able to be in contact with communities; what instead are the areas of application of ‘programmed graphics’, in other words of those who choose to design graphically through the programming of code.


What is the difference between a graphic designer and an art director?
It is a deliniation that I do not like, especially in light of my work as a professor of design in various schools at university level. Through such a categorisation one wants the graphic designer to be locked into the idea of a craft, a worker and subordinate, at best established as an artist. The art director, on the other hand, is the one who coordinates the work of others, capable of guiding the coherence of the visual language produced by his collaborators rather than creating directly himself. But these are definitions that I consider outdated. Today, every designer, even working as a freelancer, is called upon to participate in a form of work that is increasingly developed in a collaborative and multidisciplinary manner. The contemporary designer must be able to read the contexts to which the project applies and not merely seek a stylistic solution, and must be able to reflect on the visual and relational forms that the project ecosystem establishes with its users.

How does one become a Graphic Designer?

What is the best way to approach the graphic design profession during the high school years?

I think it is important to start being interested in the history of the profession and the masters who have shaped it. There is fundamental reading to learn about the history of design culture in our country and worldwide. Starting with some ‘manifestos’ of ethics and established ideas that have influenced these such as the First Thing First promoted by Ken Garland in 1964 and, as far as we are concerned, the Graphic Design Charter promoted by AIAP in 1989. There would be many texts to mention but I will limit myself to what I consider a must-have book, which is Il mestiere di Grafico by Albe Steiner published by Einaudi. It is important to pay attention to the programme of exhibitions and conferences that some cultural institutions routinely schedule, I am talking about the Milan Triennale, the newborn Design Museum of ADI and the Documentation Centre of the Graphic Design of AIAP also in Milan, the Tipoteca of Cornuda in the province of Treviso, the Mart in Rovereto, the MAXXI in Rome and so on. Not to forget some smaller institutions of excellence such as MAGMA (Museo Archivio Grafica e Manifesto) in Civitanova Marche. As AIAP we publish an annual programme of conferences and workshops on different aspects of the profession. We collaborate on an ongoing basis with Polidesign for the construction of training products on the most advanced aspects of the communication designer’s work. Our association publishes the only magazine that talks about graphic design in Italy, Progetto Grafico, and dedicates a specific membership category to the world of students.

And after high school, what graphic studies are there? 

The world of advanced design training in Italy today offers various possibilities. I begin with a biased recommendation, having been a teacher in this school for 16 years, indicating the ISIA of Urbino as one of the most excellenct institutions that our country offers in the field of editorial graphics. In relation to specific interests and places of residence there is a wide range of possibilities, ranging from the Design Department of the Milan Polytechnic, to the Design and Communication course of the Turin Polytechnic, from the Communication Design course at the IUAV in Venice, to the Design Course within the Faculty of Architecture at the Sapienza University of Rome, from the Design and Communication Course of the Vanvitelli University of Naples to the Design courses at the Polytechnic of Bari and at the Mediterranean University of Reggio Calabria. It is necessary to patiently and in-depth analyze the study plans of many Italian Academies, Venice, Bologna, Urbino, Perugia, Rome, Naples, Palermo, Catania, among the many that have now permanently activated courses and departments dedicated to design and visual communication . Alongside public universities and academies, the offer of private and professional training has gradually increased. In Italy schools like the IED have a great history behind them, and over time many others have been added, such as NABA in Milan or RUFA in Rome or laboratory-schools with annual courses like the Bauer in Milan, just to name a few.

Is it better to study as a graphic designer in Italy or abroad? What do you think?

My advice is to start your studies in Italy, and maybe imagine completing your master’s degree abroad. Our country has a sufficiently experimental artistic and design history, especially if we refer to the period up to the 1980s. Perhaps we lose (but it is not entirely true, even if the discussion would be complex and long) the challenge with the contemporary, but not because we lack skills and talent, rather because we are crushed by a profound incapacity or political governance. There is a lack of real awareness in the country of defending a cultural identity that is not only classical and historical. Studying abroad means having direct experience of a social ecosystem in which culture, even highly experimental, is considered the cornerstone of the social and economic value of an entire community. But then it’s important to come back.

Can experiences like Design in Town help a young person to get into the world of graphics? 

Combining classical training with non-formal learning opportunities in a laboratory key, carried out in strongly characterized environmental and territorial contexts, represents in my opinion an indispensable collection of experience for every young designer. Especially to grow ones social and interpersonal skills and as a person, and to learn to respond to the unexpected and know how to deal with that large resource of non-institutionalized knowledge that exists in the community.

What it takes to be a good Graphic Designer. 

What soft skills do you need to have to be a good graphic designer? 

The first and most important concern is the ability not to nurture an overly specialized culture. I remember that Michele Provinciali advised us students at the ISIA in Urbino not to read graphics books, but only to read Tristi tropici by Levi-Strauss. I advise you to look carefully at the work of artistic direction and design of the Imago house organ, carried out by Provinciali starting from 1960 for Bassoli Fotoincisioni and recently republished in a volume edited by Giorgio Camuffo and published by Corraini. Before training your presentation and public image skills, you need to enrich your basic cultural understanding to avoid talking nonsense and in a self-referential way. We must become true producers of culture. Unfortunately we are witnessing a scenario of the profession in which many young people limit themselves to superficial research and often only by accessing digital platforms such as Behance or Pinterest. The result is a worrying stylistic homogenization, in which the ability to conceptualize and design, the will and the possibility of having things to say are increasingly weak, if not totally absent.

To be a graphic designer you need talent, technological skills, elbow grease and culture. Can you tell us your perfect cocktail? 

The question is somewhat rhetorical, it already indicates all characteristics that are indispensable to varying degrees. I prefer to answer by indicating one that I don’t see here, namely humility. To do this job you need to have the humility to admit to yourself that you don’t know. It is a job in which simple disciplinary and technical knowledge represent a small part of the necessary equipment. It is necessary to train one’s ability to see, to see where others cannot see, to nourish historical and cultural preparation with study, not only at school, but throughout life. Many of my students claim to already know, know what they are good at, know which is the trendiest font to use, know how to approach a project. My job is to push them to move on uncomfortable terrain, to help them discover how important it is to start with awareness, or rather the claim not to know. I absolutely recommend reading Species of spaces by George Perec, an authentic genius of literature, to understand the usefulness of being humble and to take to the limit – and when you succeed beyond that limit – your storytelling ability.

Advice to a young Graphic Designer. 

Who was your go-to graphic designer(s) when you were young? 

They are the ones I had as teachers and guides at the ISIA in Urbino, I’m talking about Michele Provinciali and Albert Hohenegger. Studying in Urbino we had a sort of veneration for the work of Albe Steiner, and subsequently for the world that had revolved around the Boggeri Studio in early twentieth-century Milan. Over the years I have had the opportunity to get to know the work of figures such as Massimo Vignelli, Giacomo Iliprandi, Bob Noorda and Bruno Monguzzi. In 1984 we took part in the Biennial of graphics in Cattolica and there we discovered the militant and contemporary dimension represented by the phenomenon of public utility graphics. The names were those of Giovanni Anceschi, Giovanni Lussu, Massimo Dolcini, Mario Cresci, Roberto Pieracini, Gianfranco Torri and many others.

And what if you were young today, who would they be? 

In Italy there are authors who have also established themselves internationally over the years and with whom I have the good fortune to be friends like Leonardo Sonnoli, but together I would like to mention Sergio Menichelli of Studio FM, Mauro Bubbico, Studio Obelo who does an interesting research work also in a pedagogical key, the CAST collective for typographic design. At an international level there are figures who carry out an interesting job from the point of view of ethical and professional commitment, I give the example of Ruben Pater or Zak Kyes and I would still like to quote Radim Pesko for typographic design. As for the younger ones, I recommend going back to looking at the names I had included in the aforementioned exhibition at the Triennale. In general in this period I am not very attracted by contemporaries who I find all rather homogenized (this is not meant to be a generalized judgment), however I am more interested in the many protagonists of radical thought in Italy in the 70s. The level of experimentation expressed in that period remains unsurpassed even today.

Can you recommend 3 books that you consider essential for those who want to approach the world of graphics? 

I have already mentioned one before. Then there are ‘handbook’ books that absolutely must be read, such as What is a designer by Norman Potter, Abecedario by Sergio Polano and Pierpaolo Vetta, Modern Typography by Robin Kinross, The Grid System by Josef Muller-Brockmann, La forma del libro by Jan Tschicold and Rudolf Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception.

Can you recommend us a movie you think is important for those who want to become a graphic designer? 

I must indicate more than one. I start from Metropolis by Fritz Lang (1927), can be considered the first proto-science fiction film, full of symbolisms and figurations closely linked to the artistic avant-gardes of the period. Then there are some small treasures, among which I point out Why man creates by Saul Bass (1968). Two very interesting documentaries have recently been made: Design is One, on the work of Lella and Massimo Vignelli, directed by Kathy Brew and Roberto Guerra (2012); and Helvetica directed by Gary Hustwit (2007), which is part of a trilogy dedicated to the world of design. Above all, Brazil by Terry Gilliam (1985) stands out, a grotesque narrative on the dystopias of a future imagined in a fantastic key.

Marco Tortoioli Ricci 

Born in Perugia in 1964, Marco Tortoioli Ricci graduated from the ISIA in Urbino in 1987, where he was a pupil of Michele Provinciali and Albert Hohenneger. From 1989 to 1992 he worked as art director at the Dolcini associati studio in Pesaro. In 1992 he founded the Bcpt associati studio in Perugia, with which he developed corporate identity and branding projects. In 2003 he founded the CoMoDo cooperative to implement training, research, ethical communication and social innovation projects. He deals with the design of visual identity systems and systems design, with particular reference to the communication of territories and places. He is professor of Project Methodology at the ISIA in Urbino, coordinator of the two-year master's degree in Territorial Brand Design at ABA Perugia and professor of Design at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering of the University of Perugia. Since 2018 he has held the position of National President of AIAP, the Italian Association of Visual Communication Design. 

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