WDE Spotlight: Gabriel Fontana

In WDE Spotlight, we give the floor to several designers from the Embassies. This time, we speak to Gabriel Fontana, part of the Ch.. Ch.. Changes conference during Dutch Design Week 2022, the Embassy of Health in 2020 and one of the Embassies in 2023 (more on this later). What is his background? What inspires him? What does he hope to achieve with his work? You can read about it in this Q&A!

Type Update
Published on 22 May 2023
Part of Embassy of Inclusive Society
WDE Spotlight: Gabriel Fontana
Part of Embassy of Inclusive Society

Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your design practice?

I am an independent designer and creative director. I graduated from both the Design Academy Eindhoven (NL) with a master’s in Social Design and from Saint-Etienne Higher School of Art and Design (FR), with a bachelor’s degree. 

Drawing on a social design framework, my work explores how ideologies shape movements and vice versa. With this approach, I investigate how our bodies propagate, internalise and reproduce social norms. I propose ways that this can be unlearned through new forms of pedagogy, activities and games that deconstruct group dynamics.

Sport and physical education have been my main field of research for the past five years. In this context, I develop alternative team sports games that reinvent sport as a queer pedagogy. With this method, I developed Multiform (2019) for the municipality of Rotterdam; an educational program for primary and secondary schools that contributes to inclusive physical education. More recently, I launched the Tournament of the Unknown (2022), a tournament series that reimagines togetherness.

Working towards a more inclusive future, my work infiltrates multiple layers of society through three specific sectors: education, culture and the sports industry. My games have been played in schools across Europe, at Nike World Headquarters (US) and in various museums such as MAC/VAL (FR), W139 Amsterdam (NL), Design Milan Week (IT), amongst others.

Multiform - Gabriel Fontana - credits: Iris Rijkamp

What kind of project would you like to realise in the future and why?

I would like to work further with the sports industries as I believe that they can be an important actor for change. Due to my background and education in research-based design schools, I internalised the idea that my work should be presented and applied mainly in the cultural fields. It has always been easy for me to work and navigate the cultural sectors because I know its codes, linguistic jargon and its economic system. However, I start to feel a bit limited in collaborating with schools or art spaces, which are environments that are often quite exclusionary and limited in terms of outreach. Today, I feel the need to re-open the range of possibilities again and extend my outreach by collaborating with other sectors.

At WDE, we believe that design thinking is fundamental for developing new solutions and perspectives on complex social issues. How do you see that as a designer?

I believe that design is often part of the problem it is trying to solve. I’m quite sceptical towards solutionist design projects that often tend to simplify complex realities. I believe that instead, we should embrace complexity; think in terms of fluidity and put things into perspective.

Your project Multiform was part of the Ch… Ch… Changes conference during Dutch Design Week 2022. What can you tell us about the project and the phase it’s in?

Multiform is an educational programme for inclusive physical education. It consists of a new team sport game, transformable uniforms, and alternative sports fields. The games encourage school children to negotiate, resist and alter existing social power structures and body norms through embodied learning.

When I started to work with schools, I realised that many children experience PE class as a very hostile environment. Dominant ideas regarding gender, ethnicity, physical ability and sexuality are reproduced in sports and physical education. Research shows that girls, children with disabilities, children with a bi-cultural background and children part of the LGBTQIA+ community are marginalised and often excluded in PE. This experience of exclusion has an impact that extends far beyond the boundaries of the sports class; it’s often a determining factor in creating obstacles regarding a child’s well-being and social development.

In response to that, I developed a game that deconstructs group dynamics and stimulates empathy. For the game, I designed a transformable outfit that changes colour. Each time a new colour appears on the transformable outfit, the player changes teams. This challenges the way we usually oppose the other. By allowing people to perform multiple identities, the games open up spaces for experimentation, play, and collective reflection that challenge fixed categories.

‘By allowing people to perform multiple identities, the games open up spaces for experimentation, play, and collective reflection that challenge fixed categories.’

Currently, schools across Europe are still playing the Multiform game and it keeps on circulating at various art and sports events.

Multiform - Gabriel Fontana - credits: Iris Rijkamp

How do you think/hope your work will make an impact on the (sports) education sector?

I believe that Multiform can make an impact by showing that alternatives are possible. The project gives an example of what it can mean to redesign sports, not only from an aesthetic or athletic perspective but from a social point of view. In this way, Multiform makes a case for how sportswear can play a role in the development of social skills, reflective capacities, empowerment and inclusiveness in a school context and beyond.

What tips do you give educational institutions when working with designers on a design question?

To fairly pay the designers. The cultural field is an extremely precarious sector, especially for young designers, who are often underpaid. After graduating, many designers focus on responding to open calls for residencies or collaborative projects as a way to develop both their portfolios and professional network. However, the fixed fees offered by these calls are often not enough and not negotiable while on the other hand, institutions tend to ask a lot from the designers both in terms of flexibility, involvement and working hours. This system has to change and the institutions must also consider the current economic inflation by increasing the budget for everyone.

Imagine you are in your sixties. What do you hope to have achieved then in your life when you look back on your career as a designer?

To have found a right work/life balance!

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