November 1, 2012

One and more Theses about Design

We are happy to present Frank Zebner’s remarkable lecture he has held at the conference German Design: Shaping the Future Today on Oct 2nd, 2012 in San Francisco.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The title of my talk is 3 Theses about Design. I have brought two of them along and lost the other.

My theses are:
Design is democratic, and
Design is everyday.

Thesis 1: Design is democratic.

Today we are looking at the German in design, at German design. But I think that is a little too limiting – linguistically, culturally, and so on! And that’s why I am not really happy with this term.

So I try to think about specific German design in terms of its exact opposite: rather as something that removes borders and limits, an idea and notion that is universal and crosses cultures and unites people. Especially at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, this was the key issue of their founders Inge Scholl and Otl Aicher. Both members of the resistance group ‘Weiße Rose’ – ‘White Rose’ – in the Second World War!

German design derives from a social and political idea. Although the concept of German design does not itself make this totally clear, when looked at closely and from a perspective of design studies and scholarship it is an open and democratic matter. It is a counterpoint and an antithesis to styling, to art, to interpretation!

And it is this above all because when the two great original German design schools were founded, in Weimar – the Bauhaus (1919-1933) – and in Ulm – the HfG or Ulm School of Design (1953-1968) – they both aimed for a thoroughly social role. To put it more precisely: they were both founded in the spirit of resistance to authoritarian systems, to repression, to unfreedom, and to inhumanity. They both intended a new start toward democratic freedom – and internationality. In Ulm nearly 50% of the staff were international experts in design and communication.

The social mission that both schools were committed to emerged from a clear No to unfreedom and violence, and from insights as to what led to the great disasters of a millennium: World War I and World War II.

The consequences were very clear. Only a democratic and enlightened society can resist the temptations and promises of the bitter-sweet haze of propaganda. That was what it was all about!

The Bauhaus and the HfG practiced living democracy, with very special cultures of discourse and pluralism, and it was from their models that innovative design and thinking about design developed. This influenced the whole modern age of design, and it still is and will remain significant. Functional design is often derided, but its rationality will again and again resist all attempts to revive the old – including those of postmodernism.

Information and enlightenment instead of narration and romanticization – this is still the essence of German design, understood as a process, as a program, as a method, as an offer as to how operate and move on! Design should not convince you of anything; it should work, in practical use, in its signage, and with appropriate aesthetic form. Design makes tools, real objects of everyday use. We need and use information so we can navigate our ways through an ever more complex civilization.

But – these innovations for use can only be created in critical and democratic societies. Technical invention and design are a matter of competition, a matter of contested situations.

The personal computer, the internet, the cell phone, and digital social networks would never have been invented and developed in unfree or dictatorial states of any shape or form. We only have the opportunities to design for ourselves in free systems – with the result that all differing points of view and worldviews must be allowed and accepted, even those that contradict the free and open system.

It is only in democratic societies that competition facilitates a system of creative destruction. That is how the economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) put it. This form of simultaneous destruction and construction makes iteration in product development processes possible. And iteration is the lever for product innovation. This way of thinking about design, which is always also a culture of opposition and contradiction, enables a mechanism or the mechos (Greek) that drives our processes of civilization forward.

If something new has to be thought or invented, then political systems must open up a market of free ideas. Cultivating the replacement of the good by the better through a process of competition is the basis for the economic success of a system or state.

Philippe Aghion (*1956), the Harvard economist, takes these ideas further, claiming that a government should not be satisfied with the aim of an open democracy. It must also create a comprehensive package: equality of opportunity in education and professional advancement, no study fees and no schools for elites! Legal structures and legal reliability according to international standards! Human rights! Infrastructure measures to create transportation networks. And so on, and so on . . . And, a government must withdraw to a large extent from economic decision-making. Of course it may – and must – create and regulate the general framework. The primary role of government must be to issue and develop guidelines and legal systems for healthy competition for the whole society. That is how Aghion sees good industrial and economic policy. And good economic policy is also good design policy! And you can only have that in democracy – nowhere else.

Thesis 2: Design is everyday.

What is good design and how does it come about? This question has not only bothered the designers again and again. The world of glossy magazines likes to put this “problem” on its title pages. The search for answers often gets stuck in the sticky world of the “cult of genius.” Since the 1980s, a chosen few star designers have enjoyed being in the public eye and talking about their divine inspirations – if they can for once break their mysterious silence, that is.

This presentation of designers as prophetic visionaries often takes on very curious manifestations. With their vain gestures and misty eyes, they travel the globe, visiting automobile fairs, furniture fairs, and design congresses and answering the question as to what the future will look like. What will it be, the new form? And what will it look like? It will be beautiful, and above all it will be unusual – something very very special! In its usefulness and usability.

Perhaps it is typical of German design that we do not actually encounter so many of these bright and sparkling design gurus running free in German-speaking Europe.

Perhaps it also typical of German design that “designing things” is done off stage, in peace and quiet. Or at least: it should be done like this!

Perhaps it is typical of German design to prefer the speculative to the spectacle.

It is typical for German design to focus on the problems of the everyday. We want to make things that are part of everyday lives, for everyone! And, surprisingly, it is precisely here that we find something special!

It must be emphasized that it is by no means an invention of the Old World, this special concentration on everyday use. Quite the contrary! In the 19th century, North American cultural theory and philosophy wanted to go its own way – an American way. The humanities in the USA did not seek for something higher and sublime as a form of escapism from the real world, as their European counterparts tended to do.

The American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), who preferred a “lower strain,” was a key proponent of this American philosophy. Thus the design theorist Donald Norman (*1935) stands within the best traditions of Ameri-can thinking, and his 1988 book The Design of Eve-ryday Things is a summary of typically American thoughts and views on the everyday. By the way – this is a book that people in Germany like to read, at least at a few design schools. I know that for sure.

Looking at the everyday requires a difficult methodology in the design process – a phenomenological way of seeing. The philosopher Vilém Flusser (1920-1991) once said something to the effect that you should always look at something as if you had never seen it before. So for a moment you have to forget everything you have learned about an object and look at the everyday and familiar as something unknown and unfamiliar. If we use these methods, then designers are able to create innovations that then in their turn should become part of the normal everyday lives of people.

Design should be everyday, ordinary, for everyone. To design like that is a challenge, however, and requires the freedom to think about things in a different way. Which brings us back to thesis number one: design is democratic!

Thank you very much.

Lecture by Prof. Frank Georg Zebner at the Symposium “German Design: Shaping the Future Today” in San Francisco on October, 2, 2012

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