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On 22 June, the German Design Council will celebrate its 70th anniversary in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche with the event “Creating Community”. What is the meaning of good design during times of great change? What are the current challenges that need to be overcome? We spoke to Lutz Dietzold, CEO of the German Design Council, about sustainable process chains, AI-generated design, and the central role of design in the transformation of industry and society.

Interview by Thomas Wagner

Mr. Dietzold, what attracts you to the many facets of design?

Continuous change. You are constantly dealing with new topics and constellations. And the interaction between ever-changing contexts. You could say that the German Design Council has exactly that in its DNA. On the one hand, even at the time of its founding, the goal was to help companies become more economically successful through good design. At the same time, the challenge was to make consumers aware of good design. Much has been achieved in both respects. Times change, of course; some things will be forgotten. But the excitement remains and there are always new challenges to work on.

Lutz Dietzold, CEO of the German Design Council

Constant subject changes and new challenges also exist in other fields: in art, in politics, in management. What distinguishes the design field; what makes it special?

Design is distinct in that it is always used to effect practical consequences in the industry. Regardless of the industry or business model, it is always centred on the question: What customer benefit am I providing with my product, and how can I market it successfully? And it’s not just about physical products. The public sector also wants to bring about change. At the moment, just to give you an example, there is a lot of discussion about mobility: as many people as possible should switch to using bicycles. That has to be organised, and design is one of the major mechanisms that can make a difference. If I want to make cycling attractive, then I don’t only need a bicycle path. It’s also dependant on how the bicycle path is designed and how the bicycle is designed to motivate me to cycle instead of drive.

A lot has changed since the foundation of the German Design Council in 1953. When you reflect on its evolution, where do you see the advantages in promoting design? Have the fundamental questions remained the same or have conditions changed completely?

The founding of the Council was politically motivated. Of course, there was a strong push from the German Werkbund [Association of Craftsmen] to put the topic of design on the state and government agenda. And the Council was very successful in doing this right from the beginning. It was an official participant in the Triennale in Milan as early as 1954. That’s why the Council was predestined to promote German design internationally, to offer it a stage. Within the context of the debates on “good form”, everything was very product-oriented until the 1960s, even though it was essentially about industrial design, so machines and tools. What has changed is that today, we no longer award products and services alone; we also consider the processes and stories of how something came into being.

Without asking you to prophesise: Where is the journey heading? What will change the most in the coming years, and what role will design play in it?

If a permanent change process is being universally discussed, then design will have a major task: to at least help in shaping the transformation and to bring society and people along on the journey. I am particularly convinced that the connection between design and innovation will become increasingly important, and not only in terms of making innovations visible. It is often techniques and methodologies from design that help to achieve new and better results.

Digitalisation, mobility, the circular economy, climate protection: there is a lot being put into motion. In which area will the changes be particularly profound?

There’s a lot that can be summarised under the concept of sustainability. It affects the process chains in every area. It starts with material, where the designer’s role is increasing. We can see what is happening in this field at universities, what new materials are being created and transferred into products. The circular aspect is of particular importance. There’s also the entire area of digitalisation, which includes AI, because that will also revolutionise the discipline itself.

How do you view the current discussion about AI? More opportunity than risk?

I view it as fundamentally opportunity-oriented. As the Rat für Formgebung – which, in our own translation, is referred to as the German Design Council despite its international focus, and still maintains something of a German perspective – we have to face the topic. We will have to deal with AI-generated design. But I don’t see that the topic of design is in danger here. AI will need to be used in a targeted way, but ultimately it still needs discipline, and in the end it will be people who make the decisions. We started out with Microsoft Clip-Art, and many people thought that we wouldn’t need graphic designers anymore.

Yes, that’s true. (Both laughing)

In the end, quality is decisive. By the way, that also characterises our design competitions. They are also about identifying through discourse: What does quality mean? What is the meaning of good design during times of great change?

So you also see the Council as a platform where current change processes can be supported and facilitated?

Yes of course, that’s what sets us apart. And because we’re an industry association, and not a professional association, we have a decisive advantage. Our members include manufacturing companies from all sectors and they are involved in these issues and in proposing solutions. Discussing and demonstrating these is one of our core functions.

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the German Design Council, are there any specific projects that deal with all the issues of transformation?

We are tackling this in specific terms with our projects for young designers, whether they are the newcomers of the German Design Awards or the German Design Graduates, which we have been sponsoring since last year. That is further refined by what the perspective of German design actually is, and how it becomes international. With regard to international networking in particular, we will be even more involved in the discourse in the future.

Design is not just about designing physical products, but experiences, interactions, activities.“

Lutz Dietzold

Climate crisis, digitalisation, mobility, material change, education: there is no shortage of areas in which something needs to be redesigned, reshaped, and improved. What design skills are needed to successfully initiate, drive, and facilitate innovation processes in all of these fields? In other words: what qualifies designers for such important tasks?

When design is discussed, the crux often comes when the question is asked: Is the designer more culture-oriented or industry-oriented? And the truth is that the designer has something from both sides. And marrying the two is ultimately one of the fundamental advantages of design.  The discussion of “purpose” is very relevant at the moment, but basically it is already inherent within the discipline of design. The cultural component is becoming increasingly important for the economic survival of companies. More questions are being asked, and they need to be answered convincingly. People are also looking behind the façade when it comes to products.

Does the question of a sustainable industrial and product culture contain some of what used to be promoted under the name of “the good form”, which touched on aesthetic, moral, and political aspects, as well as economic ones?

Exactly- and I think some of this needs to be reactivated and that design needs to be understood as a force of change. It is also equally important, more than ever before, to learn the language of others from the context of design: the language of business administration, of engineers, and many more. That is in order to be able to have a say and respond to other perspectives, and to be compatible in a tangible way.

Only those who speak the same language can make a difference together?

We need to master the languages of others if we want to convince them of the alternative perspectives that design can offer them. This has a lot to do with structural questions: At what level is design placed within the company? Do I have authority in-house or am I the external designer engaged for a project, as is the case in many companies? In order to be able to produce a greater impact, I have to know the vocabulary of those who are sitting at the table.

Do engineers and technicians still determine the essential specifications, and then designers come in after that? Or has something changed in that regard over the last 20 years?

If you ask companies today how collaboration is organised, you will find that many have realised how important it is to involve design from the very beginning. This is true for many of the Council’s members, as well as beyond. The cooperation with external designers has often grown over the course of years and an iterative process has developed on both sides. A key advantage of working with an external designer is that they bring experience to the project that they have gained from working with other clients, including those in other sectors. That inspiration is important. But digitalisation has also contributed to a significantly higher appreciation of the role of design, which has been reflected in entirely new job descriptions such as service design, UX design, and experience design. Design is not only about creating physical products, but also experiences, interactions, and activities.

Part two of the interview with Lutz Dietzold will appear on ndion next week.

“70 years of the German Design Council – 70 years of design culture”.

On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the German Design Council invites you on Thursday, 22 June 2023, to the international event “Creating Community. Third German Design Debate” in Frankfurt’s Paulskirche. The focus will be on collaborations and interdisciplinary networking, which are playing an increasingly important role in design processes. All citizens, designers, entrepreneurs, cultural and art professionals, students – all interested parties – are cordially invited.

Register now and come along!
To the registration: www.gdc.de
For more information on the speakers and the event, click here.

When: Thursday, 22 June 2023, 5 – 7.30 p.m., followed by a reception.
Venue: Paulskirche, Frankfurt am Main – This event is for free

Introduction: Mike Richter, President German Design Council; Lutz Dietzold, CEO German Design Council
Impulse presentations:

David Kusuma, President World Design Organization – The Importance of Design Towards a Better Tomorrow
Young Designers Circle, represented by Kimia Amir-Moazami, Muhammed Khan und Pedro Sáez Martínez – Not There Yet
Design debate:
Hartmut Esslinger – Design for Industry
Francesca Bria – A Green and Digital Deal That Starts From Data Democracy and Citizens’ Participation
Sunny Dolat – Designing Identities: Building and Reclaiming Black African Narratives
John Maeda – Design and Artificial Intelligence: Hype? Or Hope?
Kate Crawford – Reality Machines: Politics of AI and Design

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