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How are the winners of the German Design Graduates Award selected? In an interview with ndion.de, two members of this year’s jury tell us what distinguishes the class of 2023, what criteria they use to sift through the submissions and what they themselves learn from jury work. Barbara Lersch works for the Hans Sauer Foundation and is an expert in social design. Leif Huff is responsible for strategy and innovation at the Fluid agency and teaches at various design colleges.

The 9-member jury of the German Design Graduates Award 2023 selected winners in the four categories Sustainability & Circularity, Research & Transfer, Society & Community and Inclusion. All award-winning projects are part of the German Design Graduates exhibition “Dare to Design”, which shows a total of 47 works by graduates of German universities. The exhibition was on display at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg until Sunday, 8 October 2023.

Interview by Jasmin Jouhar

Jury and finalists, Photo: German Design Council

Barbara, Leif, this wasn’t the first time you were both on the jury for the German Design Graduates Awards. Did you notice anything special when you looked at the class of 2023?

Barbara Lersch: The quality of the submissions is improving, the texts are getting better. It becomes more visible from year to year that it is also about describing one’s own processes. And not just to present a final product. And there are more and more videos. This illustrates many works in their context, which makes it easier to understand them. Even though I am personally a fan of the written form.

Leif Huff: I can confirm that. The presentations are becoming more complete, more videos, websites, links to find out more about a project. What I also noticed: In the category “Sustainability & Circularity” there were more pure product submissions last year – a product as a solution for a circular process or a sustainability issue. It was more complex this year. We saw more systemic solutions, digital approaches, UX and UI concepts, services. I think that is a great sign. Because for the design in the circular economy, it is often not enough to just develop a product.

Which topics were particularly relevant this year?

Barbara Lersch: There have been some works that have taken the perspective of minorities, works on queer and feminist issues or for people with disabilities. Some other projects deal with the current major social challenges, such as the housing shortage, the climate or energy crisis. The exhibition reflects this well.

Barbara Lersch

What else is there to see in the exhibition “Dare to design”? What can visitors focus their attention on?

Leif Huff: The exhibition can show visitors what design can be. How can design help to ask the big questions and try to find approaches and solutions? Maybe the exhibition can also give hope. I certainly have, as someone who has worked in the industry for 30 years. I simply believe that in this time, which has so many crises to deal with, we can make a difference with design. But for the exhibition, people should take their time. I could imagine that for non-designers it could be surprising, maybe even overwhelming.

Barbara Lersch: It’s about diversity, about the different approaches. But it’s also about getting an idea of what design can do for you, for your own life. That practically every life-world theme can be connected with one’s own design practice. You can see that there is a lot of power in a design degree.

Leif Huff: Maybe one more aspect that I personally felt this year, also in the works from Barbara’s group (Society & Community). For me, as someone who has been working as a designer for a long time and is representative of a certain generation, it was extremely exciting to see how young people think. How they deal with these current issues that affect us all. That’s what I would like to pass on to the visitors: The way the young generation thinks and works becomes tangible and comprehensible here.

The work of a jury starts long before the award ceremony. Can you explain how you go about reviewing the many projects that are submitted?

Barbara Lersch: There are two phases. First, there is the personal work that you do alone at your desk at home. And then the work in the jury group. When I work at my desk, I try to apply my contextual criteria. That means I come from the foundation’s work, I bring a certain perspective with me. In other words, I don’t just evaluate the end product, but the whole work. That includes the research, that includes the text, that includes the narratives and processes that are chosen. But part of a good application is not having so many spelling mistakes in the texts.

Leif Huff: For me, it is important to immerse myself, to take time to really grasp what is there. I have developed a system for myself that I go through the projects one after the other according to different assessment criteria and rank them accordingly. In the discussion in the group, I then try to find out whether others have come to similar assessments. Did certain projects immediately stand out for them as well? This year there were not so many similarities. But that was actually very refreshing that there were such discrepancies.

Leif Huff

And in the end, how do you build a consensus on who gets the award?

Barbara Lersch: Things are heating up! Most of the time you take a vote, and if there is no consensus, then you go into discussions. Then it goes back and forth. I think it’s nice to hear other perspectives that I don’t have from my expertise. I learn a lot as a juror!

What could these perspectives be?

Barbara Lersch: When I talk to Leif, for example. He looks at things from the industry’s perspective. This perspective doesn’t usually play a role for me, but it is very relevant for certain projects or questions.

Leif Huff: It was the other way round. There was a moment in the big round with all the jurors when my group presented our projects. You asked very critical questions, Barbara. That has a completely different quality than when three industrial designers discuss within a homogeneous group.

What functions can a award like the GDG Awards have, for the award winners personally, but also for the discipline of design in general?

Barbara Lersch: Again, the power lies in the process. An effect is created at every stage of the process. It starts with someone thinking, how can I prepare my work so that I can submit it? A lot is learned in the process. Then there is the networking aspect. This year there was a dinner with all the finalists. They don’t know each other beforehand, they come from different universities, but they all have an inherent interest in design tasks. It was nice to see how they networked. Of course, the award also has an effect on the universities. It creates visibility and says: “This is relevant”. And last but not least, the prize and the exhibition are a strong representation of the many design degree programmes in Germany.

Last question: Is my impression deceptive, or do you simply enjoy your work on the jury?

Barbara Lersch: This selection process is a gift because it opens up one’s own perspectives so much. In addition, there is a nice togetherness in the group. It is also very enriching to accompany the students as they grow. As a foundation, we have been involved in German Design Graduates since the beginning, and I am still in contact with all the students who have received awards.

Leif Huff: I am inspired by the work in the jury. And I also feel a responsibility to shape teaching and give feedback. After all, I am also active in teaching myself. I also get to know talented people and meet the people behind the work. What can we do as a company to offer them and their ideas a basis?

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