The word ‘design’ evokes many things: sumptuous fabrics, elegant furniture, mesmerising jewels. Design, however, is not just a matter of aesthetics. It has evolved as a concept and is now directly linked to a product’s functionality and, more generally, as professionals define it, to ‘product experience’.

Traditionally a concern of consumer product manufacturers, design is increasingly becoming an element of industrial products, according to Mauro Porcini, head of the design centre for 3M, the diversified technology multinational. “Design amplifies product experience both for consumer items and, increasingly so, for industrial products, where objects’ shape is functional to their use rather than a matter of pure appearance,” says Mr Porcini. And 3M is applying this strategy to all its products, including it even in a recent study on the manufacturing of underground cables.

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It would be a challenge to find a manufacturer that does not agree with Mr Porcini. Design is a strong component of the success of a growing number of products, and corporates strive to attract the best design talents and to create an environment that is conducive to developing ideas. Talent is a natural ability to do something well and a location that fosters creativity requires the same level of ease in understanding, developing and marketing a creative idea.

Some locations have developed such an environment better and more stylishly than others. With a few exceptions – New York and Tokyo are the most obvious examples – Europe is home to the majority of internationally acclaimed design centres. Design hubs in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Denmark and Sweden are all attracting the attention and the business of style-conscious corporates around the world.

No contest

However, many still regard one location as the unquestionable champion: Milan. “You can just breathe design in Milan,” says Mr Porcini, whose company has based its design centre in the northern Italian city. “Design in Italy has kudos, it’s a cultural brand. When people know that a product has been designed [or manufactured] in Italy, they look at it in a different way. Milan has a unique combination of design schools, design firms, sociological and philosophical debate, and networking opportunities.”

If you can breathe design in Milan’s air, it is even easier to see design in the city’s rich architecture. The town centre offers the most traditional example of great architecture, and disused industrial areas are being regenerated and brought back to life by architects that include heavyweights such as Norman Foster and Renzo Piano.

Engineering group Samsung could not resist the chemistry of Milan either. The multinational set up an international design centre in the city last year, as part of its global design network, which has centres in London, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Shanghai. Technology group Hitachi has also chosen Milan for its European design centre, after merging its German and Italian design offices, and moving the centre from its original location in Düsseldorf.

Collaborations

Milan’s creativity-intense environment has also attracted cross-discipline collaborations. South Korea’s LG Electronics has worked with fashion maestro Prada to produce an ultra-thin, ultra-fashionable touch-screen phone.

“Design represents a factor of excellence for Milan and Italy,” says Bruno Ermolli, president of Promos, special agency of the Milan Chamber of Commerce. “It is the result of creativity, style and innovation, which represents Italy around the world. Design is a crucial factor in strengthening Italian companies’ competitiveness and for the attraction of foreign investors.”

Deep rooted

Measuring creativity and quantifying its power to attract foreign investors seems an unnatural task even for businesses investing in design and professionals working in the field. Nonetheless, a few indicators suggest how deep and widespread the design network is in Milan.

Milan hosts about 500 companies specialised in design, one university course and 17 specialised schools dedicated to design, 37 publishing offices specialised in the field, the world’s most important furniture exhibition, Il Salone del Mobile, and a series of design events, including the Triennale exhibition. The city is also the historical host of the prestigious Compasso d’Oro award for industrial design, set up in 1954.

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Designer city: Rho-Pero exhibition centre in Milan

Milan is the proud representative of a design sector that has traditionally distinguished Italy. The Belpaese historical vocation is reflected in its production structure: 4090 companies operate in the textile design and styling sector, a number that increased by more than 10% from 2005 to 2006, according to the Milan Chamber of Commerce.

World-renowned designers have not only made the fortunes of Milan and of many Milan-based companies, but the city seems also to be an incredibly powerful engine for designers’ individual notoriety and continues to attract them. “The number of design projects carried out in Milan brings international designers to the city and it is paradoxically easier to meet [design guru] Philip Stark in Milan than in Paris, where his headquarters are based,” says Mr Porcini.

“Designers all over the world come to Italy to develop designs that they can’t do elsewhere,” says Rosario Messina, chairman of Il Salone del Mobile and of furniture company Flou. “Italian entrepreneurs have a certain sensitivity that complements the creative idea and that leads to the creation of great products.

“If Italians didn’t have the creativity gene in their DNA, Italy would have been in bankruptcy, considering the lack of raw materials or energy sources,” he says.

Feel the quality

Design, know-how and generally good quality goods are even more crucial these days, with corporates relocating to markets that guarantee cheaper costs. Wholesale and retail companies follow this trend, too, with buyers travelling to China for local fairs and exhibitions.

“Buyers go to China now because they can find products at a competitive price,” says Paolo Taverna, director of Macef, Milan’s houseware exhibition. Mr Taverna also points out that China is starting to manufacture products for the medium and high end of the market. The best manufacturers, however, still go to Europe to present their quality products.

“There is a different culture in Asia,” says Mr Porcini. “China attracts companies that want to cut costs, but once the production costs increase – as part of the country’s natural economic development – there will be an improvement in terms of design offering, too.”

With growing globalisation and the high mobility of creative minds and ideas, no doubt new locations will establish themselves as good design hubs. It is hard to forecast how quickly China or any of the world’s aspiring creative centres will emerge as design hubs, however. What is certain is that when Milan is mentioned, designers’ eyes sparkle – and the formula for that reaction is pretty difficult to generate.

Design in the air: a sleek air purifier produced by 3M, which has based its design centre in Milan