By Martina Metzner.

Design is essential for establishing artificial intelligence says Professor Philipp Thesen in his Design Talk with Martina Bergmann at the Frankfurt Trade Fair.

From left to right: Host Martina Metzner, Philipp Thesen, Martina Bergmann. © Christof Jakob

The German Design Council’s first Design Talk – a series of talks presented in collaboration with the Hessian Ministry of Economics, Energy, Transport and Housing – was held in a setting which could not have been more fitting for the occasion: the newly relocated library of the German Design Council, now housed in the archive of the Frankfurt Trade Fair, during the Frankfurt Book Fair. As humans, our capacity to acquire knowledge through reading, training and experience is limited. In this regard artificial intelligence, which is able to draw on vastly more data than we can store in our brains, is far ahead of us – or so it seems. When it comes to intuition, though, artificial intelligence still has limitations. Nevertheless, research and development is being done in this area. One thing is certain: it won’t be long now until AI becomes a matter of course in our everyday lives – a development which is already becoming apparent with the growing popularity of voice-assisted technologies such as Alexa.

Yet artificial intelligence remains an area of technology which many companies and industries are hesitant to embrace. Design may have a crucial role to play in promoting acceptance of this technology. Philip Thesen, professor of human-system interaction in the industrial design department of the Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences and a member of the German Design Council Foundation, agrees. In his Design Talk, Thesen read three chapters from his recently published book „The Digital Shift: Design’s new role as artificial intelligence transforms into personal intelligence“, written in collaboration with former colleague Christian von Reventlow and based on Thesen’s many years of experience working as Head of Design at Deutsche Telekom. Thesen then discussed the topic of “Humanising Technologies: AI and Design” with Martina Bergmann, who is responsible for digital products and web solutions at the Frankfurt Trade Fair.

Taking a human perspective

Thesen’s book is intended to help entrepreneurs and users get over their fears and reservations about AI: it isn’t going to destroy jobs, and it isn’t going to replace the human race, he says. According to Thesen, we are on the cusp of a 4th industrial revolution in which the digital and analogue worlds are going to grow together into a single continuum. He is convinced that digitalisation could lead to an all-encompassing paradigm for prosperity, assuming industry is able to make a “radical shift towards a human perspective”. Industry needs to move away from relegating the human being to the role of passive object. Instead, AI should empower humans to become “self-determining agents and users of these smart and amazing technologies”. Thesen’s goal is to turn humans into “sovereign customers” capable of ruling over their own data. Design is a crucial factor in creating systems and applications that exist solely to serve humans. With the aid of design thinking and user experience, artificial intelligence can be transformed into personal intelligence, says Thesen.

AI should empower humans to become self-determining agents and users of these smart and amazing technologies.

Prof. Philipp Thesen

Chat bots and intelligent searches

In 2015, Thesen and von Reventlow, former head of innovation at Telekom, began introducing artificial intelligence into customer service in Austria in the form of a chat bot.  Every month, the new avatar named “Tinka” answered 120,000 questions from 50,000 users in a friendly female voice. Not only did the new technology lower the cost of the service, but it also increased customer satisfaction by doing away with the need to queue for the next available service representative. Following the successful launch in Austria, the chat bots were introduced in other Telekom markets as well.

The Frankfurt Trade Fair has also experimented with AI, says Martina Bergmann, who has been head of global web strategy, applications and digital services for exhibitors and trade visitors since 2014. Bergmann and her team added artificial intelligence to the exhibitor search feature for IFFA, the meat industry’s leading trade fair. The idea was to create an intelligent search service that, like Amazon, would provide users with relevant suggestions so as to help them better navigate the fair.

And it worked. But she and her team are still very early in the process and still have much to learn, says Bergmann. She goes on to explain if you’re using AI, it needs to be constantly optimised: “you can’t just buy a kilo of artificial intelligence”. Each system is designed for a specific purpose. Which is why Bergmann’s team takes an interdisciplinary approach, employing media designers as well as a large number of self-taught digital experts. What’s also important, says Bergmann, is for each employee to understand the trade fair’s original business model. Without this, we couldn’t even begin to develop the AI system. For this reason, Bergmann and her team’s initial objective with AI is the same as it would be for any other product: “What is the best way to meet the customers’ needs?” Bergmann agrees with Thesen that most companies tend to adopt a predominantly outward looking perspective, instead of seeing things from the customer’s point of view. At the moment, says Bergmann, the team is continuing to develop the AI system for the Frankfurt Trade Fair, always with the same goal: to help visitors be better prepared and give them more guidance, so they are able to make the contacts that are most relevant to their business.

The initial objective with AI is the same as it would be for any other product: What is the best way to meet the customers’ needs?

Martina Bergmann

Relevance is key

Thesen and Bergmann agree: digitalisation and artificial intelligence are not going to reduce the number of jobs; rather, they are going to eliminate old positions and lead to the creation of new ones. “Digital machines are going to take over the jobs that humans aren’t very good at anyway,” says Thesen with conviction. This will free up time for people to pursue more fulfilling activities. As for the trade fair business, Martina Bergmann says that digitalisation is actually strengthening the thoroughly analogue business model. Business is built on trust, which requires direct contact. “You need to be able to look the other person in the eye”, says Bergmann. The sense of distance created by the digital world is making personal interaction at trade fairs all the more relevant.

Digital twins

Data is the driving force behind artificial intelligence – here too, Thesen and Bergmann see eye to eye. The audience listened attentively as Thesen explained how big tech companies in the United States, such as Google and Apple, are creating digital twins which contain the purchase preferences of users from around the globe. Despite the introduction of the GDPR, users are a long way away from owning their data, says Thesen. Instead, he insists, users in Europe should reclaim control of their data by creating their own digital twins and then deciding which companies to interact with – and which to avoid. This would also be good for companies. “We believe that companies which give customers control of their own data are becoming more important,” says Thesen. Transparency is an important criterion, as is democratising AI so that it is accessible to everyone. “In the near future, almost everyone is going to have a digital twin which knows the unique decisions and preferences of its associated user”. Brands will then communicate directly with the digital twin and adjust their products and services in accordance with the twin’s desires.

The new role of the designer

Personalising artificial intelligence is where design comes in. “Designers understand the real needs of humans,” says Thesen. Hence the designer takes on what is actually the original purpose of design: to advocate for the consumer. Designers will, therefore, be responsible for more than merely making products and interfaces “look nice” – they will be responsible for designing entire ecosystems according to the principles of design thinking. For example, says Thesen, a designer could develop a way to improve how technology providers, car companies and local regulators work together to create new mobility systems such as self-driving cars. With his call for “design to humanise new technologies”, Thesen means first and foremost that digital services need to be designed to make people feel safe. Designers need to become the key intermediaries between users and technologies that initially seem strange to us, such as AI.

We need to move away from designers who have immortalised themselves in physical artefacts, like Charles Eames and Frank Lloyd Wright, says Thesen. The designer of the future will only be visible in a small portion of the “liquid environments” he or she designs. Designers will achieve fulfilment by creating a sense of meaning through the reconciliation of humans with machines.


DESIGN TALKS is a series of events, presented by the German Design Council in collaboration with the Hessian Ministry of Economics, Energy, Transport and Housing, which brings together creative minds and companies in Hessen to strengthen discourse around design. The first Design Talk was held on 16 October 2019 in the German Design Council library, housed in the historical archive of the Frankfurt Book Fair. In a talk entitled “Humanising Technologies: KI and Design”, Professor Philipp Thesen, former head of design at Telekom and a member of the German Design Council Foundation, joined Martina Bergmann, head of digital products and web solutions for the Frankfurt Trade Fair, for a discussion. The talk was moderated by design journalist Martina Metzner.

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