60 Years of form
2013: Wohin der Wege? Design 2013

Text: Stephan Ott

Translation: Emily J. McGuffin

Where are you going, design? ls this question sufficient to derive an answer as to what path the discipline finds itself on? ls design really on a single path?

And what journey is it actually, that has for some time now already been leading from consumer, prosumer and desumer to distinct customer? What course do the new technologies prescribe? Are designers threatening their own discipline? Questions about questions, the list of which could long be continued, and to which there can be no exact answer. In his two-part discussion, editor-in-chief Stephan Ott first focuses on design itself, and in the second part (coming in form 251) on its protagonists, the designers.


Design – A Discipline?

There has always been the problem within the humanities and cultural disciplines that – unlike, for example, in the sciences or in law – the boundaries between laypeople and experts are not hermetically sealed. Without the appropriate training or qualification, hardly anyone has just happened upon the idea of performing surgical operations, or composing imperviously intricate legal documents. Not so in design craft. Here even trades outside of the discipline feel prompted or actually invited to engage in design, as soon as their own work reaches points of contact with design: those in marketing or advertising supply the logo along with brand consultation; besides engineering, engineers also shape the machine housing; architects design the appropriate interior for their buildings as a matter of course.

“l would always commission the engineering graduate,” the business ethicist Nils Ole Oermann recently commented in the context of an iF Workshop, [1: iF lndustrie Forum Design e.V., Workshop “Quo Vadis Design?”, Fraueninsel, Lake Chiemsee, 14 September 2013.] regarding the conceptual blurring of design and its qualifications. Oermann is admittedly touching on a very tender spot here. For example, in his 2012 – a year before his retirement – dissertation “Design – auf dem Weg zu einer Disziplin” [Design – on the way to a discipline], [2: Bernhard E. Bürdek, Design – auf dem Weg zu einer Disziplin, Hamburg, 2012.] Bernhard E. Bürdek, professor at Hochschule für Gestaltung Offenbach [University of Applied Art], once again addresses in detail the much-discussed question as to whether design is (yet) a discipline. Starting from the musings of his doctoral thesis supervisor Burghart Schmidt, Bürdek noted “that ‘expertise,’ in other words, ‘disciplined knowledge,’ must only be present, when from out of itself limits can be exceeded. This problem is evident in design.” [3: Ibid., p. 80.] And later he states: “in particular in the context of high tech projects this professionalism is necessary for survival, in that otherwise design degenerates into dilettantism.” [4: Ibid., p. 81.]

That an interdisciplinary professionalism is expected today in other disciplines, whose representatives, however, are not waiting for the protagonists of design to define and occupy its position, is reflected in the method of Design Thinking, which envisages the transfer of aesthetic principles known from design onto the entire interdisciplinary innovation process. Accordingly Design Thinking has won potent advocates in marketing and computer science, and has recently also led to appropriate training facilities, including the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University in Palo Alto, founded in 2005 (under the direction of IDEO founder David Kelley) and to the HPI School of Design Thinking in Potsdam, an affiliate of the Hasso-Plattner-lnstitut für Softwaresystemtechnik / Hasso-Plattner Institute for Software Systems Engineering, founded in 2007. However, critics such as the design scientist Gesche Joost, professor at the University of the Arts (UdK) Design Lab in Berlin, bemoan the reduction of the designer to “the hip creatives who make the most awesome suggestions for improving the world during brainstorming sessions.” [5: cf. “Die Design-Rhetorikerin [The design rhetorician] – Gesche Joost,” interview in: form 249, p. 39.]

Thus basically – and this would be a first interim conclusion – it is nothing more than a case of gentrification, well known within urban sociology: members of higher status disciplines incorporate the lower status design, whereby higher status does not necessarily equate with higher prestige or image, but with greater stringency with regard to competence and qualification. Design has rarely been lacking in general reputation, rather it has lacked the clear definition and communication of its core capability. Also the frequent lack of a sufficient economic base supporting its protagonists could possibly explain the phenomenon, because without definition of competence, the definition of appropriate fee is also difficult.


People, Milieus, Machines

A discipline can only achieve concrete expression and communication of its profession if – for those on the inside and on the outside – there exists clarity regarding the intent, meaning and objective of its activity. For whom or what is design under way? Here – at the least – three rough directions can be determined, which neither mutually exclude nor mutually fertilize each other, but which at a minimum must be actively included in the design canon, for, among others ethical, philosophical and sociological reasons. The least resistance is likely to obtain for that which traditionally has been associated with the design of prostheses and tools, a motivation out of societal responsibility, urging design to serve humanity (Ruth Baumeister, Am Anfang war die Form, p. 84).

A second approach is based on social milieu and as such primarily pursues economic interests. Here, man as a customer is in the centre; in this context products are designed from a marketing perspective and are subject to less objective quality criteria such as technical reliability, aesthetic durability, etc. The business consultant Torsten Oltmanns, Roland Berger partner and global marketing director, indicates in this context that it is not necessarily the technical advantages or qualities, but rather the combination of design and marketing that decide economic success. “According to the statistics breakdown,” he says, “Opel vehicles in all classes fare better than comparable offerings from VW […]. Nevertheless, VW sells significantly more vehicles in each segment and at a 10 to 25 percent higher price.” [6: iF lndustrie Forum Design e.V., Workshop “Quo Vadis Design?,” Fraueninsel, Lake Chiemsee, 14 September 2013.]

There still remains a third, the pure technologically driven approach of machine to machine (interview, Caroline Seifert – So denken wir nicht mehr, p. 56), as represented by Ray Kurzweil, for example, the director of engineering at Google, and as taught among others at the Singularity University co-founded by him in 2009 in the Californian Moffet Federal Airfield. (Incidentally, it is interesting that, as previously with design thinking, this approach seeks proximity to and connection with educational establishments – a strategy that is also worth considering for new design-focused approaches.) In the private Singularity University’s mission statement there is in fact a statement about solving the challenges facing humanity, [7: cf. at http://singularityu.org: “Our mission is to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.”] however, the design author Anne-Marie Willis is inclined to think “that Singularity is absolutely only about design in the worst sense: ultra-deterministic, autonomous design, design as pure, endlessly regulated process.” [8: cf. Anne-Marie Willis, Thinking Design Beyond Singularity, in: form 248. p. 80.] In this context the three-part series produced for the BBC, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” by the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, is worth seeing. Curtis demonstrates that an uncritical adoption of this new ideology of the machine leads to abandoning the idea of human progress, and of socio-political aspirations to change the world for the better.

Design must – and this could be an extension of the above conclusions – develop, formulate and above all teach strategic goals from out of itself, in order not to be excluded from the outset by new societal, marketing or technology-related modes of design.


Form follows, function flees

The new digital technologies currently provide perhaps the greatest mental imposition on design. Objects lose their shape, disappear as (pure) function into black boxes as smartphones, laptops or tablets (Harald Taglinger, Forwards in Three Directions, p. 46). Although this applies to date only to everyday consumer products such as the alarm clock, calculator, flashlight or book (see Function Flees Form, form 249, p. 52), far-reaching consequences for the self-image and understanding of the discipline of design still arise from it today. If only the two-dimensional icon of a digital app remains of the three-dimensional shape, then there arises the fear that the boundaries of discipline that have so far been trustworthy (product design, graphic design, software development, engineering, etc.), and also individual design disciplines, will dissolve, or lose their previous meaning. In general this differentiates design from other design-related disciplines, such as architecture, for example. In the latter case, despite all digitization, upon completion of the draft, just as before, there is the designed three-dimensional form, which the architect alone can claim.

The disappearance of individual forms has not led, as a result, to a total disappearance of products. But it has led to the disappearance of hitherto common design processes and, as set out above, to design: not particularly well developed self-awareness. Young designers such as Cohen Van Balen (p. 78) or Superéquipe (p. 88) have long comprehended this disappearance, and are dealing with the new circumstances intellectually and practically. This brings us to the second part of the question, which we will explore in the next issue: Where are the paths leading? – Designer 2014.


Conclusion 1

The intermediate conclusion initiated and expanded upon above might be rounded off by saying that if design wants to prove its future viability, first the interference from the outside (gentrification) should be met with a clear core competence (definition); then, second, new and hitherto overlooked socially relevant areas (such as (bio) technology, ethics, sociology) should be seen as areas relevant for design and should be integrated: and third, the dissolution of disciplinary boundaries resulting from digitization should be seen as a welcome opportunity for a total reorientation of the discipline – with appropriate foundations and an adequate design theory (Hans Ulrich Reck, On the State of Design Theory, p. 74). These are initiatives which above all should be developed and taught in active cooperation with universities.


Nº 284
Region of Design

form Design Magazine

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