Balancing a duet

Torino, Italy. 2017


A duet is a composition for two soloists with equal important pieces to play. There’s no subordination: the balance of the final work depends on the musicians’ ability to play their role soliciting the counterpart’s participation without overwhelming him. Good design is born out of the equilibrium between the client and the designer.

History has plenty of instances of “enlightened” clients, those who are able to pursue different (or alternative) goals than mere profit. They knew they could trust the genius of important professionals to «make things in a good way and let others know» (Adriano Olivetti).

This mythical person is in strong contrast with the less poetic but more frequent uneducated client. He’s the one who often distrust the designer and behaves in ways that compromise the delicate balance that is necessary for the project to be realized in an optimal way. This behavior can be oftentimes attributed to the client’s total ignorance about design, or the distorted and incomplete knowledge of the same matter, or some kind of excessive apprehension, mainly due to the economic and temporal resources he’s investing.

During his lectio magistralis in Salerno, 1 italian designer Massimo Vignelli cared to explain that «if a client comes to us professionals and tells us what he want then he can simply do it by himself. The most important thing is to understand the needs of the client, not what he wants». To avoid drawbacks during the design process, Vignelli also refers to a seemingly simply solution to bring the equilibrium back to normal: «We need to educate the client».

Educating means making the others aware of something through good example. The un-educated client mirrors the lazy or un-educated designer; ontologically these two subjects are identical. The problem remains in fact unsolved due to those people Norman Potter calls “parasites”. 2 The good designer is not infallible, but he studies the history, the discipline, the profession of design, trying to master it practically. He justifies each formal choice and each meaning because he knows that through his work he has an important responsibility towards the client, the user, his colleagues, the profession and culture in general. On the contrary, “parasites” are «those who exploit other people’s work, skimming the best of it, thus earning enough, and much more than enough, to live» (Norman Potter). They’re the passive designers who don’t possess consciousness or critical sense, those who choose the easier way without ever teaching something to the client. As a result they cannot answer effectively to the client’s needs.

Assuming now both a client and a designer with a very scarce knowledge of the subject matter, this condition leads inexorably far from the creation of a relationship based on trust. The couple can be compared to two inexperienced musicians desperately trying to put together a duo, concluding little, fighting a lot.

“Parasites exist in every profession, but speaking about design, claims Potter, «there’s simply too many of them».”

Just like a finely tuned balance is necessary to musicians for a quality composition, the same kind of equilibrium is required by designers for their projects. To improve working conditions and its quality the action of each individual professional is a fundamental requisite: delegating this responsibility to the whole class or educational system is useless. Less “parasites” automatically means less uneducated clients. Each designer teaching himself this awareness concurs to educate his customers, thus making clearer the distinction of both roles. In this way, balance is restored and pursuing better results will be not only possible but much easier.

However, people who are not only uneducated but also plain impolite do exist, and the designer can’t do much to save the equilibrium. For him, it’s far better saving time and energy to focus on other projects. «Never work for a bad client, because a bad client brings another one, so a great effort must be done to get the best client possible» (Massimo Vignelli).

  1. 1

    Salerno brand, Massimo Vignelli's lectio magistralis on Vimeo. (

  2. 2

    Potter, Norman. What is a designer: things.places.messages. London: Hyphen Press, 2002.