7 min read

by Martina Metzner.

David Gilbert and Kim Lauenroth are all in favour of concretising the role of the digital designer – their chosen topic for discussion with Felix Damerius and Franziska Weißbach at the third Design Talk of the year.

Apple removed Jonathan Ive from its website on the last weekend in November, thereby marking the end of an era: Ive and Steve Jobs, who died in 2011, were the perfect duo adept in the area of design, engineering and management, which ultimately created the iPhone. The papers are now reporting that engineering and the pure notion of profit are once again supplanting the “triumph of the entrepreneur through design”.

This shift is touched upon in the third Design Talk held by the German Design Council, which marked the end of the series in 2019 running under the broad banner of “Design and Digitisation”: “Digital Design – How design and IT can work together”. David Gilbert, Chief Advisor of Digital Experience Design at DB Systel, kicked off the Design Talk at his premises on the 31st floor of the DB Systel Tower in Frankfurt, on 3 December 2019. He was joined by Felix Damerius from the Peter Schmidt Group, Kim Lauenroth from adesso and Franziska Weißbach from ING.

The Digital Design Manifesto

What unites them: They are all newcomers to digital design who have mastered the skills themselves. And: Their teams need more members – and the market of designers with digital skills is straightforward. Also: There are IT architects, as well as interface, interaction, UX and system designers – but as of yet, no digital designers. David Gilbert works closely with Kim Lauenroth and is vice-chair of the “Digital Design” working group within Bitkom, Germany’s largest digital association. Both had a hand in drafting the “Digital Design Manifesto”, which was published in 2016 and has now been signed by more than 350 leading figures in the industry.

In it, they draw a comparison with architecture: When we think of construction projects, we naturally believe architects to be responsible for designing buildings and that they are specifically trained to do this. But who should come to mind when we think of the design involved in digitalisation projects? The digital industry has its roots in IT, but this does not provide all the necessary skills. It is with this ambiguity in mind that Gilbert and Lauenroth want to concretise the digital designer as a profession in its own right. One that is based on two pillars: information technology and design. Gilbert and Lauenroth’s working group is therefore talking to universities, the public, politicians and associations from other disciplines in order to bring this new profession to the fore.

The digital designer – a new profession

David Gilbert believes the digital designer is someone “who works on all levels – code, interaction, product and system”. They are not some kind of mega-designer, instead they work as part of a team. According to Gilbert, the digital designer understands both worlds: that of design and engineering. During his media management course at the University of Applied Sciences Wiesbaden, he studied the three areas of design, management and technology. One of Lauenroth’s main concerns in concretising the role of a digital designer is to safeguard traditional job profiles and open them up to the digital world. But he does have a lament: “Lots of talented people tend to choose design or architecture. How do I get those who aspire to work in communication design or other design professions to enter the IT world?”

We act as a converter between these worlds, and we are shaping the future.

Franziska Weißbach

Franziska Weißbach, Intrapreneur at ING, believes the Digital Manifesto to be a step in the right direction because it provides much needed clarity.  Four years ago, Weißbach, a business graduate, set up “Human Experience & Usability Design” in the company and put together a team consisting of UX and UI specialists, writers and researchers. “We act as a converter between these worlds, and we are shaping the future.” Digital technologies and services are everywhere, and the transitions between the digital and analogue world are becoming increasingly complex. According to Weißbach, the design of these spaces is a new discipline. They are created and implemented using very different skills and personalities. Weißbach and her colleagues see themselves as “thought leaders” and “pioneers”. “A discipline is forming here – we must make space for it. We must strive not to be seen as just a pixel pusher.” The issue must be continuously communicated at the highest level. “We have to fight for this and create understanding,” says Weißbach.

Integrability with other disciplines

Felix Damerius, Creative Director at the Peter Schmidt Group, one of the largest brand and design agencies in Germany responsible for designing both analogue and digital products, praises Gilbert and Lauenroth’s initiative. He adds: “It may be the end of designers with different areas of focus.” It is also important to understand the analogue world. Damerius believes the way in which role models are portrayed plays a critical role, as does the way these courses and professions can be accessed in the future.

We need designers who are able to integrate with other disciplines.

Felix Damerius

Like Gilbert and Weißbach, Damerius gained his digital expertise in a roundabout way and went straight to work at the Fraunhofer Institute after studying communication design at the Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences. Damerius says: “We need designers who are able to integrate with other disciplines.” According to Damerius, developing empathy for people’s wishes is just as important as working with code. Digital products no longer necessitate the design of the object itself, rather the interfaces, operating structures, interactions, experiences – in a word, its use. He brought together his team at the Peter Schmidt Group to ensure analogue and digital specialists always work together. In doing so he avoids the biggest mistake: Tackling a problem from just one perspective.

Guidelines for good digital design

Weißbach also finds the ethical guidelines in the Digital Design Manifesto to be helpful. It states that “good digital design” takes the whole person into consideration. And furthermore: “It is useful and usable. It is elegant and aesthetic. It is evolutionary and exploratory. It is sustainable and creates sustainability. It respects data protection and data security. It is equally respectful of all things analogue and digital. And it uses the digital where it is needed.”

In many design areas, whether in architecture or design, it is generally felt that we need to put people back at the centre of the design. This aspect has been overlooked in recent years. With this in mind, Gilbert is examining the context of use in greater depth since he moved over from the agency side to Deutsche Bahn. With internal applications in particular, their benefits are only evident if they are known to offer both a positive experience and good usability. That is why the description of the usage context is now firmly integrated in the IT development processes at DB Systel.

Using the best of technology

According to Lauenroth, art is not only about developing the technology, but also using the technology. Artificial intelligence is a prime example of this. The question that needs to be asked here is: What can it give users? Lauenroth states that in terms of banking, AI could help people better manage their finances. The question of “what design is for” is becoming increasingly important these days – this was also the opinion of the majority of the audience, in which several university teachers were represented.

Furthermore, Gilbert and Lauenroth call for holistic teaching in their Bitkom position paper “Digital Bauhauses for the European Path to the Digital Future”, just as Bauhaus did before them. These new courses would have to be positioned between the disciplines of design and computer science. Numerous universities are interested in the idea of a “Digital Bauhaus”. In contrast to traditional training in industrial and communication design, students would learn to understand the manufacturing process behind digital products and that technology is another material. “It’s a different story in the development process, I have completely different freedoms, I can still modify lots of details further down the development process,” says Lauenroth. And furthermore: “What degree of freedom and possibilities does the material give me?” This is a key question that a digital designer should be able to answer.

DESIGN TALKS is a series of events, presented by the German Design Council in collaboration with the Hessian Ministry of Economics, Transport and Housing, which brings together creative minds and companies in Hesse to strengthen the discourse around design. The third Design Talk 2019 took place on 3 December at DB Systel in Frankfurt am Main. The event brought together Felix Damerius from the Peter Schmidt Group, David Gilbert, Chief Advisor of Digital Experience Design at DB Systel, Kim Lauenroth from adesso and Franziska Weißbach from ING for a discussion entitled “Digital Design – How design and IT can work together”. The talks were presented by design journalist Martina Metzner.

Pictures © Christof Jakob

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