Attoma: simplifying complexity

Design Fax interviewed Giuseppe Attoma Pepe, founder of the Attoma agency, who shared his vision and analysis of the trade, with a special emphasis on strategic and operational dimensions.

Giuseppe Attoma Pepe, could you tell us a bit about your background?

G.A.P.: I have kind of an unusual background. I am Italian and started my career in comics, graphic design and art direction, all self-taught. I was lucky enough to meet some great masters and received amazing support: in Switzerland and in Milan in the 90s, where I was fortunate to work with people like Ettore Sottsass and other designers of this calibre. Working with talented designers was immensely informative. But at the same time, I have always followed a guideline in my mind – which wasn’t initially well defined in practice – relating to the importance of information design, i.e. the way complex content should be organised to make it immediately accessible and usable. This led me to work in the financial sector, to provide an easy understanding of complex data, and soon after, in the field of mobility. In 1997, I set up my own agency in France and collaborated with Yo Kaminagai (editor’s note: head of design at RATP) for a very intense season filled with projects relating to passenger information, including, in 2001-2002, the creation of the first touch-screen terminal intended for the general public, the Navigo card-reloading terminal. At the time, few methodological practices were available and we were awarded the project because we chose to put emphasis on the user experience with a UX-type approach. Interestingly enough, the Navigo card-reloading interface is still in use 20 years later and gives satisfaction to users. That’s definitely a great source of pride for me! At Attoma, we bring together such aspects of interaction and user experience to create an offer that is especially relevant for sectors with a high degree of complexity: mobility, transport operators, but also the industrial sector where human-machine interactions and the user journey are absolutely key. And we’ve grown through these projects over the years, both in terms of experience and expertise.


Giuseppe attoma pepe

Can you tell us about your agency and business?

G.A.P.: Our focus is on the user, who must face and interact with an ever more complex world. This positioning, which was very well received in the French business landscape, has allowed us to involve and train a large number of designers, something I am very happy about. In 2019, due to the underlying trend towards concentration in the field of design, we decided to join the Italian group Assist Digital, which has an original positioning and operates a design entity with 130 people. Their approach to design is very similar to ours, and their culture of client realisation is especially advanced. Assist Digital owns all the shares in Attoma and I own shares in the group. Assist Digital has a turnover of €140 million, with aggressive growth targets. By joining the group, we can now operate throughout Europe. We managed to get through the COVID-19 pandemic and return to growth as soon as 2021, with the ambition of expanding Attoma’s offer beyond our traditional focus on design, to broaden our approach – consulting, user experience and design – and expand internationally. And that really is a theme at the moment: pure player design is becoming a thing of the past. Design has penetrated the various layers of businesses, and there is a need for dialogue at all levels, hierarchical as well as functional. There are obviously many questions about the evolution of design. For me, the future of design may not be design at all. Maybe it is yet to be invented. For instance, what is augmented design? We don’t have a clear picture so far. What is certain is that we must operate at the junction between consulting and design. Not all players are mature, the sector is still in its infancy, but it’s definitely a core topic in our industry. The strategic and organisational dimensions of design are an essential consideration. At Assist Digital, we work with big accounts such as Stellantis or Toyota Europe: we can see that large multinational groups are already thinking in terms of augmented design. The other aspect we are focusing on is the energy transition. We work for Plenitude (editor’s note: the new name of Eni Gas e Luce). We also collaborate with Schneider Electric to find out how to innovate in rapidly changing energy and environmental contexts.

How do you see your sector evolving in the next five to ten years?

G.A.P.: Interesting question! Attoma is very much focused on digital and UX, a booming market globally. It’s very difficult to attract talents, and wages are high. But if we analyse it more closely, we need to distinguish between strategy-related design (customer journey, ecosystem, innovation support) and industry-related design, with design ops (editor’s note: design operations) involving the management of massive digital projects that require a lot of resources. I hope you don’t see any judgement in what I’m about to say, but many UX designers are a bit like specialised craftsmen in an industry that is becoming increasingly digital. In the future, we may have to manage a kind of “digital metallurgy” as automation increases. Players like Figma (editor’s note: whose interview is scheduled in September) are contributing to thinning out the workforce with automation processes. So one may ask: what will become of these cohorts of UX designers? Today, we are somewhere between mass production and luxury craftsmanship. Tomorrow, what role will design automation play? Generally speaking, we need to manage both the strategic and operational aspects of design. We support companies and institutions on topics such as meaning, quality of life and user experience with a unique design methodology. At the moment, nothing is set in stone, but things are moving forward and the maturity levels differ depending on the industry. There have been significant developments among players in the mobility and energy transition sectors. For instance, for specific activities of Schneider Electric, we have implemented an approach that combines the two aspects of design, strategy and operations.

What is your perspective on French design?

G.A.P.: I don’t know what French design is. I’ve never been especially sensitive to the rhetoric of the “French touch”. I am an Italian who has lived in France for 25 years. I’ve always travelled a lot. I feel mostly European, immersed in a European culture, and I think this notion of “local design” is fading. I’m not very interested in French design, especially since French object and furniture design has been praised again and again by Italian publishers! The richness of design relies on a blend of cultures and know-how. Design is international by definition.

Do you have a final message you would like to share?

G.A.P.: It might not be a commercially convincing stance, but you really need to learn how to doubt. A lot of people have strong certainties and beliefs, especially from a methodological standpoint. This leaves me rather sceptical…. We live in an extraordinarily complex era and we must remain humble because many things have yet to be invented. We shouldn’t be too arrogant: is the world better and easier to navigate than it was 10 years ago? Not necessarily. There are many failures that we haven’t really taken into account, so I’d say learning how to doubt is paramount. For lack of humility, we don’t always ask ourselves the right questions and we don’t go as far as we could. I’ve had a lot of discussions on this matter at Science Po and to be honest, I’d love to establish a Master’s degree in doubt design!

Portrait photo of Giuseppe Attoma with the inscription "Design Fax n°1242 of June 20, 2022

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