5 min read

By Lutz Dietzold.

It’s the year 2020, the writing is on the wall: the continuing rise in CO2 emissions worldwide is leading to global warming, which threatens our climate and the very foundation of our existence. Droughts and forest fires, heavy rainfall and floods, melting ice caps and rising sea levels threaten the earth’s ecosystem and biodiversity.

Despite these devastating events being televised daily on the news, much of our (Western) consumer society can only be described as being oddly reticent and indifferent to these troubling trends. It’s almost as if they believe these cataclysmic events to be too big or too distant to impact on their everyday lives.

A younger generation who are committed to saving the planet have brought a new awareness of the ecological consequences of our actions into mainstream society – and in the process, they have clearly distinguished the portents in the field of design: user-friendliness, use of appropriate materials and minimising environmental impact – all these factors are of equal importance in the design process.

What we need is a fresh viewpoint that openly examines the realities of our time. Today, designers carry more responsibility for our society than ever before. That is why I am calling for a new, down-to-earth empathy.

Creating with ecological awareness

One thing is clear: no matter what we do, we always leave an ecological footprint. At the centre of our work is the indisputable fact that every product we create has an impact on our environment. That is why all future designs must focus on redefining their added value.

In our processes we must consider factors such as the consumption of materials and energy and emissions resulting from manufacture, as well as ease of repair, recyclability and incentives for consumers to keep using a product over a long period of time. It may seem paradoxical, but taking these factors into consideration may inspire designers with a new conception of their own role which in fact prompts them to design less – i.e. not to create something new every year.

In order to address our present-day crises, the design industry should be primarily committed to ethical, social and ecological principles. I am specifically referring to the critical consideration of factors such as: product benefits, social sustainability, life cycle, production, distribution, consumption and disposal.

By the same token, this does not have to be at the cost of the aesthetics. I firmly believe that it is precisely the consistent application of these principles that will lead to new, perhaps unexpected, but coherent solutions with excellent visual and tactile qualities.

In order to address our present-day crises, the design industry should be primarily committed to ethical, social and ecological principles.

The effects of digitalisation

Does digitalisation play a key role in these developments? It is a given now that countless everyday processes, and many aspects of architecture and design, rely on digital technology.

Carlo Ratti recently made the following insightful statement at the ICONIC AWARDS: Innovative Architecture: “All the technologies that have changed our lives in the past 20 to 30 years are now making their way into the physical realm. The Internet is becoming the Internet of Things and bringing huge amounts of data to urban living environments.”

He made it clear that the increasingly precise analysis of data should not just be used to boost further growth and increase sales. He also asked us to reflect on how these insights could change our cities and buildings and improve our lives.

However, I remain sceptical as to whether we should rely solely on the promises of digitalisation. We should consider a sophisticated strategy with different approaches. One such strategy is material innovation. For example, take Maurizio Montalti, who is a pioneer in the research and development of a wide range of mycelium-based technologies for the production of biomaterials and products. He believes in using natural organisms to create contemporary designs. His designs are now market-ready and used in various products – alternatives to plastics are becoming more plausible in many areas of life.

New demands made on objects

When I talk about social demands, I am referring to an object being delivering instant, direct benefits, and therefore providing value and identity. An object that has the ability to emotionally move the user. As Dieter Rams so eloquently states in his 10 commandments on good design, “It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.” Nevertheless, thought-provoking designs must actively influence the cultural field of power. In my opinion the 2012 Werner Aisslinger project, Chair Farm, is a great example of this.

It involved growing a sturdy chair made from plant matter inside a steel frame under precisely defined laboratory conditions – a usable object that at the same time leaves a positive carbon footprint. Admittedly Chair Farm cannot be reproduced on a mass scale, but it serves as an important example of design experiment.

Change does not just come from the visualisation of utopian scenarios in a perfect world, but from the strategic use of existing structures in our imperfect world.

And I am not being cynical when I propose that economics must also assume a leading role in the new self-conception of design. It would in fact be naive to view the economy simply as being in opposition to a carbon-neutral, socially just society; for change does not just come from the visualisation of utopian scenarios in a perfect world, but from the strategic use of existing structures in our imperfect world.

I would also like to affirm that clear, reliable guidelines do not impede economic developments. In fact, they are of great benefit to companies seeking to determine their strategic direction. This is precisely why designers currently play such a central role. They form the bridge between the social, ethical and ecological as well as aesthetic and economic arguments. It is up to the designers of today to save the world.

Lutz Dietzold, CEO of the German Design Council

Lutz Dietzold, Geschäftsführer Rat für Formgebung © Lutz Sternstein

Lutz Dietzold (*1966) has been CEO of the German Design Council since 2002. Prior to that, he worked as a design communication freelancer and was managing director of Designzentrum Hessen (Hesse Design Centre), where he was responsible for the strategic reorientation of design promotion.

Grounded on his studies of art history, classical archaeology and German language and literature in Frankfurt Lutz Dietzold has gathered extensive experience of design, branding and innovation. He also has a special interest in promoting design and up-and-coming designers. In 2011, he became a member of the advisory council of the Mia Seeger Stiftung (Mia Seeger Foundation) and a member of the Stiftung Deutsches Design Museum (German Design Museum Foundation), subsequently taking on the role of chairman in 2020. He was appointed to the Dieselkuratorium’s Board of Trustees in the same year and is dedicated to strengthening the pioneering role of commercially successful innovators.

Lutz Dietzold is also working to increase the international orientation of the German Design Council and its global network of leading companies from industry and the business world. This includes setting up a subsidiary in China.

Lutz Dietzold publishes articles on a regular basis and gives national and international lectures on a variety of topics. He is also a member of numerous committees and juries and sits on the project advisory board of the German Federal Ecodesign Award of the Bundesumweltministerium (German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety).

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