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“You have to get out of your comfort zone” – a standard saying from advice literature and management seminars, which may have a certain validity for individual personality development. Design typically has a different goal: less the crossing of boundaries than the mediation between cultural stock and the new, the strange, the different – one could say the expansion of the comfort zone.

By Martin Krautter

Design can ensure the cultural compatibility of new technologies, concepts or approaches, making them readable and usable. And design can thus also become a tool for specifically influencing and changing culture with its great ability to persist: as a variety of “cultural engineering. A society with a design culture would then be a society that is open to the new, the strange, the unfamiliar, that promotes design in order to move forward – and is willing to discuss the core question “How do we want to live?” without hierarchy. It is the privilege of the young generation of designers to set the tone with designs for their future living environments – this conviction is reflected in promotional prizes such as the German Design Graduates (GDG) Awards. 

Culture is a shimmering concept, often misused as a weapon of identity politics. In science, however, the meaning- and knowledge-oriented concept of culture has established itself. It defines culture as a complex of ideas, ways of thinking, sensibilities, values and meanings produced by human beings and materialized in symbol systems and artifacts: A definition that obviously includes design in all its manifestations. Technical or scientific innovations do not come from a vacuum, but they are inevitably poor in cultural references – and often the creation of these references is not the inventor’s strength. The creation and modeling of such a network of references and relationships, on the other hand, is a central design skill, and its success is quite rightly defined as a criterion for the GDG Award “Design Culture”: “The product design […] links disciplines (collaborations) [and] reflects cultural practices, or has the potential to change them,” reads the call for entries. How this can be expressed in concrete designs can be seen in three designs selected by the jury from this segment of the GDG Awards. 

Global Culture

Design Culture Yujin Kang
„E Cloud – Home“ – a democratic approach to solving the problem of private energy supply, © Yujin Kang
Design Culture
© Yujin Kang

Climate change as well as the present energy crisis are complex global problems that ultimately have to be tackled on a global level. It is therefore even more interesting that the winning design in the “Design Culture” category of the GDG Awards 2022, which deals with the topic of energy, comes from a designer who, as a South Korean in Germany, is familiar with two cultures, their similarities and differences. In her diploma thesis at the HfG Offenbach, Yujin Kang developed “E Cloud – Home”, a democratic solution approach for private energy supply – both on the systemic side with the idea of a kind of “energy cloud” in which people can sell, exchange or even donate energy, for example from domestic photovoltaics, and on the concrete level of a product: a mobile energy storage unit that fits into the living environment through its design. “Thoughtful products change the world,” explains Yujin Kang in conversation, ” Transcultural design would give many countries in Europe and Asia the opportunity to use E Cloud – Home.” The design skill of culturally linking innovations from different fields is evident in her design, for example, in the visible use of textile batteries made of carbon nanotubes – a visionary technology that is not yet ready for the market, but which becomes culturally accessible through the design bridge to the familiar use of textiles in the home. 

Culture and Nature

Milan Bardo Bergheim’s design “peat:lab” is dialectical: it is about the literal origin of culture, agriculture – Latin “cultura”, its undesirable consequences and the fundamental antagonism between culture and nature. Specifically, the subject is moorland landscapes that are being drained in favour of agricultural use. This is a problem because it results in oxidation processes: Peatlands are thus responsible for 5% of Germany’s CO2 emissions. Rewetting stops these emissions, but gigantic areas would have to be rewetted – a cultural paradigm shift. This is why the graduate of the Berlin Weissensee School of Art outlines the “re:wet” project in his Master’s thesis as a framework in which this rewetting of agricultural land is to be coordinated and evaluated. It is from this systemic-cultural framework that the classic product design task develops: namely, a decentralised measuring device, the “peat:lab”, with which farmers can determine terrain heights, water levels, peat thickness and vegetation composition and feed the data into a digital model.

Design Culture peat:lab
peat:lab is a measuring device with which farmers can determine terrain heights, water levels, peat thickness and vegetation composition and feed the data into a digital model, © Milan Bardo Bergheim

In keeping with this context, the product design of the device does not show off, but is as naturally robust and matter-of-fact as a spade – and uses an existing device, the smartphone, as an operating and communication interface. peat:lab thus shows very vividly that design is not only about doing things right, but also about doing the right thing. In the dialectic of culture and nature, design can help to find a synthesis in which opposites dissolve and the preservation of nature becomes a cultural technique.

Culture of repair

Lars Herzog
Pelle is designed so that children can assemble it themselves, adapt it and also modify it if necessary, © Lars Herzog

The British science fiction author and physicist Arthur C. Clarke said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The progressive miniaturisation of electronics, for example, to the point of its quasi-vanishing, was welcomed by design as a gain in freedom. But it also has dark sides, because the complete relapse of consumer societies into magical thinking would be an ominous scenario. At the same time, a subcultural countermovement of hackers and makers can be observed, who insist on the dominance of humans over technology and which manifests itself, for example, in the growing number of Maker Spaces or Repair Cafés. Meanwhile, the European Parliament is calling for guidelines for repair-friendly products: a tangible cultural change. Another design from the GDG Award 2022 fits into this picture: the children’s bicycle “Pelle” for, according to its designer Lars Herzog, “little mechanics”.

It comes to its three to five year old customers in parts and with tools and is consistently designed so that they can assemble it themselves, adapt it and also modify it if necessary, for example from a running bike to a real bicycle with pedals and drive. One can hope that children who have directly experienced freedom of movement and self-efficacy with “Pelle” will later conquer abstract, digital spaces more confidently, supported by educational toys such as Lego robotics kits. Extensive immersive cyber worlds such as Minecraft or the currently discussed Metaverse are part of the reality of young people’s lives – design offers the opportunity to build cultural bridges across the gap between developers and users so that digital worlds also become an extended comfort zone for everyone.

German Design Graduates
The designers mentioned are part of this year’s German Design Graduates. GDG is an initiative with the purpose of promoting the next generation of product design graduates and presenting state-recognised universities, art colleges and universities of applied sciences. Initiated in 2019 by Prof. Ineke Hans, Prof. Hermann Weizenegger, Prof. Mark Braun and Katrin Krupka, the German Design Council has been the project sponsor since 2022. Honouring, presenting and promoting the achievements and solutions of graduates in their quality and diversity is the most important component of the GDG initiative.
On 2 October 2022, the winners of the Circular DesignSocial DesignDesign Research and Design Culture awards were announced, including E Cloud – Home byYujin Kang, which received the Design Culture Award. The German Design Graduates Show 2022 in the Kunstgewerbemuseum (Museum of Decorative Art) der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden with its focus on “Perspectives for Graduates in Product Design” is dedicated to the central themes of our time under the influence of the serious changes and developments in politics, society and the environment, and shows the most interesting ideas and approaches to solutions by 40 young designers from over 20 German universities of product design. The exhibition can be visited in Dresden until 31 October.

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