This article focuses on Italian design, a field which is particularly apt for study from the critical perspectives of cultural studies, both because of its hybrid, interdisciplinary nature, and because of its implicit imperative to change society, potentially even in more democratic ways. The fact that the Italian language uses the English word ‘design’ to refer to one of the most popular Italian production areas is significant. In Italy, in fact, there is no specific word describing a field that has a number of different connotations at the same time. Sometimes design seems to be a form of art, at times a science, sometimes an aesthetic discourse, or a philosophy of living. By way of reference to bel design, the Italian design of the 1950s, and particularly to the experience of Adriano Olivetti and his company, this article investigates a specific historical and intellectual conception of design as a complex and uneven movement, in terms of its political and ethical propensities. The article asks whether this conception of design is still possible nowadays.