We are probably all familiar with hasty action and blind actionism from our own private and/or professional experience. Especially when we have lost sight of the big picture and there are too many trouble spots in parallel for which we currently have no tried and tested coping strategy. In German, we know the expression that a matter ends like the Hornberger Schießen [Hornberg Shooting]. Etymologically, there are different narratives for this, but they all have in common that the actors either focused too much on the essential goal or lost sight of it altogether – depending on the point of view. In any case, in the end, all actors have acted inadequately and shot their powder, as another saying goes.
By Stephan Ott
It seems as if we are currently living in times in which we are in danger of losing sight of the big picture, also in the social context: volatile stock markets, inflation, climate crisis, Corona pandemic, wars, the list could go on for a while. Solutions – even comprehensive ones – do not seem to be in sight, not even resolutions, which the design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber consider to be maximally possible for dilemmatic problems1, are of any help. Thus – to give just one example – the current form of electromobility is such a resolution of the automobile lobby (which, by the way, is much larger than the automobile industry), which solves the mobility problem, if at all, only in a small way and the global climate crisis almost not at all. I will come back to this below.
Even if the omnipresent calls for transformation, more resilience and thrift cannot be contradicted, nothing is gained as long as the call remains merely in the stage of rhetorical reflex. In the long run, only reflection will bring us to action. Because about how we transform ourselves, where we should save and against whom or what we should be resistant, first requires a strategy that is perspective-based, encompassing as many points of view as possible; and for this in turn, we need the ability to analyse, to be informed, the ability to iterate and the intelligence to make decisions. I would like to point out here that these are the basic competences of design, since – according to my thesis – the influence of design is dwindling more and more, even where it has already impressively demonstrated its expertise.
Accenture Song – After Steve – Aichers Kritik
But, I hear the first people object, design is more on everyone’s lips than ever before. Design may be on everyone’s lips, but beyond all the rhetoric, in the context of the knowledge generated and presented by design and design research, things look quite different.
Here are three examples among many:
(1) In 1984 Otl Aicher published the book kritik am auto2 [criticism of the car] with the wonderfully perspective subtitle schwierige verteidigung des autos gegen seine anbeter [difficult defence of the car against its worshippers]. At the end of the introduction, Aicher writes: […] the designers are in demand, not the stylists who only deal with formal problems of the zeitgeist, but the architects of the car, the designers who understand the car as a human object, in its use, in its sizes, in its equipment and thus naturally also in its form, but a form derived from the thing […] fortunately they [the designers, author’s note] exist. the next 50 years will be exciting.3
If we look at the situation today, after almost 40 of the exciting 50 years, I don’t have the impression that designers in Aicher’s sense are particularly in demand. Many car manufacturers are currently facing the challenge of ensuring that their new electric SUVs do
not exceed the 3.5 tonne mark, as they would then not be allowed to be driven with an EU car driving licence. (It comes in quite handy – the above-mentioned automotive lobby has obviously done a great job – that the EU wants to adopt a new driving license directive in 2023, according to which the increase of the weight limit to 4.25 tons is planned.)
On the other hand, customers – people like us – are apparently more interested in styling than in fundamental innovations. The Munich-based start-up Sono Motors, for example, faced massive criticism from the outset because its Sion series-production vehicle, scheduled for 2024, will only be available in a single equipment variant – partly for cost reasons. Innovations, such as the solar cells integrated into the entire body or the vehicle’s bidirectional charging capability, are apparently of little consequence to very few people; so far there are only around
22,000 pre-orderers. It is therefore currently uncertain whether the Sion will ever go into series production.
(2) At the end of April 2022, the consultancy Accenture announced that all of its 40 or so design, marketing and advertising agencies acquired in recent years – including, among others, the design and innovation consultancies Fjord and Designaffairs – would in future be brought together under the Accenture Song brand. Now, the expertise is not lost with the brand name, but with the brand a piece of visibility of the respective discipline disappears in any case, which conversely leads, among other things, to the fact that many designers prefer to appear before their clients as consultants, if only because of the considerable differences in fees.
David Droga, the CEO of Accenture Song, puts it a little more cryptic: Since its infancy, Accenture Interactive has helped clients build and grow their business by being experience-led. Today’s needs are strikingly different. To capture the next waves of growth, businesses now need to operate at the speed of life, perpetually demonstrating their relevance to their customers, their people and the world at-large.
Incidentally, Droga5, the advertising and marketing agency founded by Droga, will be the only one to continue to exist and operate under its brand name – a scoundrel who thinks evil of it or who simply thinks again about the speed of life.
(3) There is no doubt that Apple is one of those companies where design has not only helped to create innovative products and services, but has also made a significant contribution to increasing the value of the company. In his book After Steve – How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul4, published in early May 2022, Tripp Mickle describes in great detail the decline of the legendary Apple design team after the death of Steve Jobs. Starting in 2016 with the departure of Danny Coster, who was instrumental in the development of the translucent iMac in the 1990s, among other things, to the terminations of Chris Stringer and of software designer Imran Chaudhri, who was instrumental in the iPhone’s user interface, in 2017, to chief designer Jonathan Ive, who left the company in 2019.
All four designers had been with Apple for over 20 years and, according to Mickle’s analysis, it is obvious that their departures are directly related to Apple’s new post-Jobs era strategy. Thus he writes, among other things:
He [Danny Coster, author’s note] had developed a refreshed iPad with more refined curves and a lighter body that felt natural in people’s hands. Some of the product designers working on it considered it so elegant that they said it would be the first model they would gladly purchase at retail prices. However, Apple’s operations team determined that making the iPad would require building several new features from scratch. The first-time costs of new machinery, a new logic board, and other components would amount to billions of dollars, an investment that would take years to recoup. Those so-called nonrecurring engineering costs led Apple’s business division to suspend the iPad.
A professor of economics once told me that no one has ever saved up themselves rich yet; even I, as a layman in Business Administration, can see why, given the continuing low interest and high inflation rates.
The Information-Informedness Ratio
So what needs to be done to give design the status it deserves? In short: First of all, we should understand and practice design as active informing and not misuse it as an auxiliary discipline of growing information bombardment. Information and its free availability are, of course, the basic prerequisite for any action, but the decisive difference is that we relate to it. Only in this way do we increase our informedness, which is the actual raw material of innovation. The philosopher and design theorist Dieter Leisegang expressed this – readers may not be frightened by the complicated discourse language of the 1970s – as follows: If a model is permitted: the mature human being, if he does not want to bring about his absolute death, must educate the immature one to his own level along his own determinacy, is forced to inform him to himself, so to speak.5
In this sense, all disciplines are called upon, for it has long been clear to everyone that a single discipline can never rise to the level of the complex challenges we face. To create the basis for this interdisciplinary work, then to provide the necessary skills and finally to always keep the objective in mind during the process and to present it, no discipline can do this better than design. And to believe that after or with the successful completion of a development process, design can be dispensed with again (see above) is a widespread fallacy. Because today, less than ever, we can afford to think in terms of linear, supposedly lockable and separate process structures. If we don’t grasp this, then we won’t grasp the trans in transformation and won’t even come close to a come close to a circular economy.
In design – and this may serve as a preliminary conclusion – it must be about transforming the daily growing totality of information into a totality of informedness. A look at nature can help. Leisegang also pointed this out and formulated it, at this point much more clearly, as follows:
The forest is not the additive totality of many trees, but their wholeness. If the forest were merely composed of trees, one would not see it for the trees […] Let us put it this way: the forest is a living wholeness and not merely the totality of many specific living beings.6
Nature also teaches us that resilience can only arise from such a living wholeness – this applies to the forest as well as to a society.
1 Rittel, Horst, Webber, Melvin: Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, in: Policy Sciences 4 (1973), pages 155-169.
(https://www.sympoetic.net/Managing_Complexity/complexity_files/1973 Rittel and Webber Wicked Problems.pdf)
2 Aicher, Otl: Kritik am Auto – schwierige Verteidigung des Autos gegen seien Anbeter, Munich, 1984.
3 a.a.O., page 10.
4 Mickle, Tripp: After Steve – How Apple Became a Trillion-Dollar Company and Lost Its Soul, New
York City, 2022.
5 Leisegang, Dieter: Dimension und Totalität, Entwurf einer Philosophie der Beziehungen, Frankfurt
am Main, 1972, page 82.
6 ebenda, pages 7, 8.
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