The Italian design, since the Second World War, has always been one of the most important engines of the economic boom. Today, in the midst of an ecological and digital transition (moreover accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic), the Italian design is once again called to give its contribution to the recovery, adapting to the challenges that the future imposes, from the metamorphosis of mobility to shared models, both interconnected and electrical, to the processes of decarbonization and the circular economy that are changing industry and supply chain relationships, up to products that, in a context of increasingly scarcity of resources, will necessarily have to be redesigned to become more durable, repairable, reconditionable and reusable.

Those are the themes touched upon by the quanti-qualitative research on the “Design Economy” on the design sector, which the Symbola Foundation, Deloitte Private and Polidesign carry out every year in collaboration with ADI – Association for Industrial Design, Logotel, CUID, Comieco and AlmaLaurea.

According to the data highlighted by this year’s research, the design sector currently has 30,000 companies, which generated an added value of 2.5 billion euros in 2020 with 61,000 employees. Companies are distributed throughout the national territory, with a particular concentration in the areas of specialization of Made in Italy and in the regions of Lombardy, Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna and Veneto, where 60% of companies are located. Among the provinces, Milan (15% companies and 18% national added value) stand out, with Rome (6.7% and 5.3%) and Turin (5% and 7.8%).

The analysis reveals a significant and peculiar aspect exclusively of the Italian design, namely the direct relationship with the client: the vast majority of respondents – 86% of them – declare that they interact directly with entrepreneurs and top management.

As regards the services requested, companies declare that they mainly provide advice on stylistic (58%) and procedural (25%) aspects; while strategic consultancy accounts for 10%. To these core services, design companies are adding new consulting activities, such as communication (in 59% of cases), branding (52%), marketing (46%), R&D (44.3%) and packaging (32.9%). In particular, data highlights the tendency of packaging design to increasingly move towards sustainable materials, the most used of which are paper and cardboard, chosen by 30% of companies that design packaging.

And it is precisely to sustainability that the Design Economy Report 2022 dedicates an entire chapter. In terms of skills, 55.1% of design companies declare that they have a “medium” level of competence on sustainability and of a “high” level in 33.9% of cases; on the other hand, just over 11% believes to have a “low” or almost zero level of competence. Considering the services currently offered, 57.6% of respondents deal with design for durability, i.e. designing the product or its methods of use in such a way as to improve maintainability, physical and emotional durability, while 43.4% designs products that minimize the use of materials and energy and the production of waste (design for reduction). In 34% of cases, the interviewees design products that facilitate the recycling process (reduction in the quantity of materials used, use of mono-materials, use of easily recyclable and regenerated materials, ease in the separation of materials).

31.4% of companies offer services related to design for repairability and 13.3% to design for disassembly; in the first case, the interviewees work in such a way as to allow the replacement of components or the updating of their functions, in the second, they aim to design products using reversible connection systems, functional to the separation of all the components for the different types of materials, in order to facilitate the recovery and recycling process. 10.7% of companies deals with strategic design for sustainability (functional to the creation of frameworks, KPIs and tools for environmental sustainability) and, finally, 5.5% deals with design for regeneration (functional to the remanufacturing of products with the same or different function of use, or to the design of modular products to facilitate the reuse of parts of the product).

Among the sectors that drive the demand for sustainable design services there is, above all, the Made in Italy-related sector. Leading the way is the furniture sector (69%), followed by automotive (56%), real estate – i.e., ceramics, floors, up to structural elements – (38%), clothing (30%) and agri-food (13.3%).

The third chapter of the report, as every year, deals with the training system starting from databases provided by the Ministry of Education. There are 291 university training courses dedicated to design, distributed over various training levels and in different areas of specialization. Peaks of excellence are reached by the Politecnico di Milano, leading the ranking by number of graduates, which confirms its excellence in the international arena, ranking first in the EU countries and fifth in the world according to the QS World University Rankings by Subject for the design, but first, however, among public universities. Subsequently, the European Institute of Design (IED) and the New Academy of Fine Arts (NABA) maintain an important role in the training of designers. Overall, 9,362 designers trained in 2019 (13.5% more than in 2018); of these, two thirds reside in the North, particularly in Lombardy (49.8%).

Since this year, thanks to the collaboration with AlmaLaurea and the Career Service of the Politecnico di Milano, an additional piece of information has been added regarding the work situation five years after graduation and five years after our first report on design. The first estimate of the employment rate of two-year master’s degree graduates in design, interviewed in 2020 five years after the qualification, returns a value of 91%, higher than the average of the total of two-year master’s graduates in Italy; of these, 84% have a profession consistent with the field of design.

In conclusion, data in the report tell us about a sector that has strengths in the system of field players, in the widespread presence on the territory, in the rich training system, but also tell about fragility and new needs to update and make more effective and adequate the tools of design to the new challenges. The sector is in fact called upon to accompany Italian companies in expanding the perspective from the customer to the communities, territories and the environment, with profound implications in business decisions: from the choice of materials to the redefinition of supply chains.