60 Years of form

Wohin der Wege?
Designer 2014

Text: Stephan Ott

Translation: Nicholas Grindell

In our last issue, we looked at the current state of design, focusing in particular on the lack of a clear definition of design and the consequences of this. In the second part of our “Quo Vadis?” series, we put the question to designers – taking a look at those who shape the discipline.

Our findings: there are fields of design without designers; the distinction between individualization and standardization that began with the Werkbund dispute of 1914 can still be observed today; and designers will not be short of tasks in the future, if they want them.


“I also know that at the moment when the improviser lays down his tools and declares the job done, my job as an industrial designer is only just beginning.” [1: Quoted from Dirk Schmauser, “Design by F. A. Porsche, Eine Design-Zeit/1972–2004,” self-published, 2013, pp. 63–64. ]
Simon Fraser, Designer


Designers in 2014 – Between Makers and Engineers

It is a familiar story in almost every field: whenever a technology previously reserved for professionals becomes available on the consumer market, people soon start talking about a revolution. This is certainly true of the 3D printer, a device supposedly capable of solving many of our (design) problems at a single stroke – at least if one judges by the number of exhibitions, trade fairs, [2: The first “Maker World” fair (“the event all about making, tinkering and creating”) will take place on June 28th–29th 2014 in Friedrichshafen.] and symposia [3: This year, the German Society for Design Theory and Research (DGTF) devoted its annual conference on November 22nd–23rd at Hamburg’s University of Fine Arts (HFBK) to this theme under the title “The Politics of the Makers.”] currently being devoted to this technology. There is talk of a culture or even a movement of “makers” who are revolutionizing design, as cheap production of spare parts and small production is no longer a problem. But a cursory look at design history is enough to at least temper any such notion of a revolution. Although access to the necessary output devices has facilitated tasks, it has never abolished the need for concepts, creativity and implementation. Whether in film, music or writing, it has always taken professionals to shoot, compose and formulate coherent content. This need still applies, and the availability of widely affordable 3D printers will not alter that: good products will continue to depend on a design file produced by a professional designer. There is nothing wrong with the maker community – essentially an amalgamation of the long-established do-it-yourself movement and the hacker scene. But one thing must be kept in mind: even by their own self-definition, makers are tinkerers and hobbyists, but not (yet) designers.

At the opposite end of the scale – in the world of highly complex industrial manufacturing – there are also areas where design processes take place with zero input from designers. Here, the engineers responsible for technical development take care of design at the same time. This applies above all to technology-driven, non-consumer sectors like military and construction equipment. But it’s also true for architecture, which is not a contradiction, as architects, too, are – or were, until the Bologna Process – trained engineers. This situation is rooted in history: up to the High Middle Ages, engineers (Italian: ingegnere; originally military engineer) were responsible solely for military technology, and even today they are widely viewed as the true creators of things (which can be traced back to Latin, ingenium: talent, ingenuity). In history, designers do not usually make their appearance until a technology has reached maturity and/or when it no longer suffices in itself as a mark of differentiation. The automotive industry is a much-cited and still topical example of this.


Designers in 1914 – Individualization versus Standardization

In 1914, the architect and industrial design pioneer Hermann Muthesius launched a heated debate on design within the Deutscher Werkbund. Muthesius advocated the standardization of design to match the requirements of industry, provoking criticism from the artists among the Werkbund’s members. This rival camp was led by the painter and applied arts pioneer Henry van de Velde, who called instead for increased individualization of design. [4: See, for example, Angelika Thiekötter, “Der Werkbund-Streit,” in Wulf Herzogenrath et al. (eds.), “Die Deutsche Werkbund-Ausstellung Cöln 1914” (Cologne: Kölnischer Kunstverein, 1984), pp. 78–94.] Although this debate has long since lost its heat, as the two sides no longer deny each other’s right to exist, two basic types of designers are still identifiable today that can be traced back to the two original positions. On the one hand are the auteur designers with a high public profile. For them, success depends crucially on how and by whom they are perceived, whether they manage to capture the attention of other publics (beyond their own industry) over a long period of time. Such success renders them especially interesting to clients. These clients are mainly companies in the fields of furniture, consumer goods and fashion, but also editorial design – fields where the name and image of the designer now have an importance similar to that of the product and its manufacturer/publisher themselves. The expectations placed on these auteur designers are probably best compared with those placed on pop stars. Designers of the second type, on the other hand, are rarely in the public eye, building their reputation instead in a specialized, industrial field where success depends on working with people from other disciplines (increasingly biologists, medics and also engineers). Between these two types – the auteur who designs a chair for a well-known furniture company and the person who designs a Somatom CT scanner – a full range of intermediate types exist. Some start out as anonymous in-house designers, but their company comes under pressure to distinguish itself within the market, creating a need for auteurs as marketing vehicles. Jonathan Ives, designer-in-chief at Apple, is one example of this. Others are already in the limelight as show business stars, and then become designers. Victoria Beckham’s work for Land Rover [5: In 2010, Land Rover commissioned Victoria Beckham to design the interior of the Range Rover Evoque. ] would be an example of this. [6: This is by no means a new phenomenon – as early as 1972, the actor Alain Delon designed a line of furniture for the Parisian company Maison Jansen – it just happens more often now.]

New York designer Stephen Burks, on the other hand, is trying to travel in the opposite direction, from the auteur designer of his early career to a new collaborative position. Having attained a degree of public celebrity, and having been simplistically labelled the Tiger Woods or Barack Obama of design, he is now rethinking his approach. According to Burks, 100 per cent of auteur design, what he calls “signed design,” is conceived of and produced for 8 per cent of the world’s population. [7: Stephen Burks in his lecture at the Alvar Aalto Seminar on August 25th 2013 in Jyväskylä, Finland.] Burks has drawn conclusions from this: as he says himself, he sees his future as a designer not in the world of glamour but in collaborations. Leaving aside the question of whether Burks actually follows this path and how closely he sticks to it, the key point here is his public questioning of his previous self-image as an auteur designer, reflecting a change in attitude.


Designers in 2014 – Outlook (Conclusion 2) [8: Conclusion 1, in “Quo Vadis? Design 2013,” form 250, p. 40.]

Such a change of attitude raises the interesting question of whether, in the future, the two basic types described above may be joined by a third type of designer, or whether the emergence of such a third type should be actively fostered. Product and brand differentiation may be the goal of managers and strategists, but the work of designers is about more than merely developing and differentiating tools, which on closer examination almost always aims exclusively for maximization of profit. Instead, the designer’s potential also lies in developing a community. This approach, too, is not new, having accompanied the discipline from the outset, but without ever having achieved the deserved respect. The philosopher and sociologist Frigga Haug recently drew attention to the relationship between social progress and the development of tools on the one hand and welfare on the other. “Many things in history, especially all the things that have gone wrong with inventions through to high technology, suggests that it is good for the survival of humankind if not everyone selects the path of technological progress as their chosen form of development. After all, someone has to look after the task of caring for those on the margins of society.” [9: Frigga Haug, “Die Illusion vom Gemeinwesen – Über Geschlechter, Werkzeuge und den Schritt in eine andere Gesellschaft,” in: TAZ am Wochenende, November 16–17 2013, p. 11.] According to Haug, and this can hardly be denied, this “caring” role has in the past been played mostly by women, and this continues to be the case. It is certainly worth considering whether this might be amongst the most important future tasks for designers, both men and women: helping the design of welfare systems to attain the same weight and esteem as the design of all manner of tools.


Nº 284
Region of Design

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