New School

The New Creative Class

Elena Pacenti Trains the Next Generation of Design Thinkers


Breakthrough products, services, and experiences. The confluence of design and technology. High-paying, competitive jobs filled by young, creative, highly educated citizens. A community enriched by art, entertainment and recreation. This is our vision for the future of San Diego. It is a future in which cities are the major engines of innovative ideas and businesses. Here at The I.D.E.A. District, we are determined to make this future a reality. The success of our vision is absolutely dependent on one factor. It all comes down to the people – to those coveted, innovative, highly educated citizens. We see a new class of citizens taking shape: The creative class. They are the forward momentum driving us into the future. They are the entrepreneurs, the designers, and the leaders, who will bring new business and jobs to our city. They will be the ones to make our vision a reality – and some of them are already right here in San Diego.

elena 1

Elena Pacenti is the director of the recently created Domus Academy School of Design at NSAD, which is part of NewSchool of Architecture and Design and offers programs in interior design and product design. She has an undergraduate degree in architecture and a PhD in industrial design, both from the Politecnico di Milano,the largest technical university in Italy. A worldwide traveler, skilled designer, academic innovator and highly accomplished educator, Elena certainly falls into the new creative class. We were able to meet with her personally to discuss her experiences, professional work, inspiration, and thoughts on The I.D.E.A. District. Read on to learn more about one of San Diego’s trailblazers and see what she has to say about our city’s future.

Elena hails from Domus Academy in Milan, Italy, one of the top-ranked design schools in the world. As the director of the Domus Academy Research Center, she oversaw the development and coordination of design-innovation research projects for the European Union and for government and private groups in Italy. In 2011, she established the Master in Service and Experience Design program at Domus Academy. She describes her time at the Academy: “My experience at Domus Academy has been in both design education and research. We worked on many research projects to expand and investigate new fields for design. This has always been a characteristic of Domus; not just being strongly rooted in industrial design, or traditional design. We were really investigating and envisioning new fields for design.”

This collective mindset revolving around expansion and the ‘larger picture’ plays a major role in shaping Elena’s approach to design. She explains that her own conceptual framework is also reflected throughout Italian design: “That’s my background and that’s also the way I approach design; always aimed at understanding what is next. It’s really about the sense of design for the industry and for society as a whole. It’s not only about the beautiful products. It’s about the ability to conceive design as a way to improve the lives of human beings.”

Elena came to San Diego in 2013 as part of the school’s mission to offer students a range of interdisciplinary and international design study opportunities that complement the already-established programs in architecture, construction management and digital media arts. In addition to programs in product design and interior design headed by Elena, the school has also recently launched new programs in animation, game art and game programming through the Media Design School of Digital Arts at NSAD directed by Linda Sellheim (learn more about their launch event here). The curriculum for these new programs has been developed through collaborations with Domus Academy as well as with the Media Design School in New Zealand. Elena describes a common philosophy of education that unites these institutions under one goal: “Teaching design today is not an easy task. We don’t even know what types of products our students will be designing in four years time when they graduate because this world is changing so rapidly. We want to provide students with strong foundations, but also with the ability to think.”

“We are going to train the next generation of design thinkers. We need not only to prepare them with the right skill sets, but also with the right mindsets.”

So how will they train this future generation of design thinkers? The tested-and-proven approach has been that ‘the only way to learn about design is designing.’ Elena brings the same philosophy to NewSchool that she abided by at Domus. The students need to be challenged with projects that require innovation and also have a strong link to the industry or to society. She describes the school as an “incubator of designers.” Her link to Italy continues to influence her perspective on design. “We try to bring our design experiences from Italy and tie them with the school here. In Italy, the first generations of designers were architects. Our design sensitivity is rooted in architecture: we care about the quality of the relationship between human beings and things.”

At NewSchool, this translates to a very unique understanding of design. Students are taught to consider the experience of the object and its journey, and to think of this in a sequence of steps, with a strong focus on environmental influences. Elena describes the concept of global design and explains how it is applied in an educational setting: “We are training designers to be ready for any kind of client on a global perspective and to be inspired by international people. One of the characteristics of the new programs headed by Elena include a study-abroad component at Domus Academy in Milan during their third year in the spring. It will coincide with Design Week in Milan and allow the students to be exposed to such a strong momentum of design, that it will open their minds. We encourage people to go on field trips to see and look because this is the only way to really try to be design thinkers and think outside the box.”

While it can certainly be said that this program and Elena’s teaching have influenced the students at NSAD, Elena says that the students have had a strong influence on her as well. “Teaching design is not one way. It is the most conversational activity ever. The students are really outstanding people, and not only because of their passion and interest. It’s through the encounter of different perspectives that new things come out. We have very interesting dialogue; designers never invent from scratch.”

“Designers have to take the right inspirations and being able to interpret and notice the right things. By collecting references, we are learning together – because it’s a way of refining the ‘why.’”

She explains that the dialogue empowers not only the students, but all the professors as well. When asked where she finds her own inspiration, Elena says that she finds it everywhere and in everything. She names art as a form of inspiration, but then brings up another interesting point: “Contemporary art is a form of inspiration for me, but not really for the artistic gesture, because art and design are really two completely different worlds. Design has to produce things that are meaningful and useful for people. Art can renounce a bit. Art can be a statement. That’s why the relationship with beauty is also different. Design has to deal with the meaning, and therefore, is the equilibrium of things. Art can state something that is really provocative – it doesn’t need to fit into society, so I look at art because it’s a way of reflecting society.”

Elena says that traveling, above all else, brings her the most inspiration, including the journey to San Diego. As we circle back to the conversation about our city, we turn to the topic of The I.D.E.A. District, and how the initiative will take shape. Elena is enthusiastically onboard with the concept: “I think that those words actually bring together everything that is relevant for society today. The commonality between all of us is that we’re trying to utilize design as leverage for innovation, to tie it to what’s happening in the industry, and in a society that is technology driven. Those words really summarize the essence of design and innovation nowadays. The project is an interesting attempt to create an area in the city that really promotes design, and I think that is this is something that San Diego needs. Design should be more visible in San Diego – something stronger in the city. It needs to be inspired; needs to be nurtured.”

She goes on to explain what she feels is necessary for a successful urban initiative: “I think the sense of the East Village as an idea district depends on several factors. Bringing intelligence is one, and I do agree with that. Bringing a strong statement or sign for the city – saying, ‘we’re here.’ We are in the center of a city. This area is in a big expansion, so everything is new by definition. This newness has to dialogue with the existing interesting buildings and neighborhood initiatives to create a sense of identity. It’s impossible to directly edit everything from the top down, but I’m sure that the success of the district in terms of innovation, design, technology and education also depends on being able to attract these qualities.”

“We should encourage new things, new startups, new shops, and new venues to come and create something different. We have to really encourage these new things to happen. This makes a difference.”

Our final question for Elena is about how she foresees The I.D.E.A. District influencing herself and her fellow designers and innovators. She responds with thoughtful optimism: “I think we will benefit, and I really hope that we can cooperate on this because I’ve seen it happen in my past experience. If a strong education program comes together with the companies and design firms, there is the possibility of taking something experimental and making it real every day. It is only through the dialogue between research, industry, companies and education that we can bring what you are saying – really, the new generation of design thinkers. I see our proximity to a lot of possibilities and potential, and I really think that we have to make again, design visible for the city and try to build up the momentum here. For my program it will be important, and for the school as a whole, and the proximity with other partners and stakeholders in the design arena, it will be extremely positive.”


By: Julie Riggert
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