Putting the question: an interview with Andreas Diefenbach from Phoenix Design

Interview by Thomas Wagner.

In an interview with Andreas Diefenbach, managing partner of Phoenix Design, we spoke about the current pandemic situation; how remote working is changing the creative process; innovation; new needs and the future role of social design, including in a global context.


Mr Diefenbach, the coronavirus pandemic has turned many things upside down. What did you personally find easy to go without in the last few weeks? What did you find difficult? What have you come to appreciate more?

Andreas Diefenbach: At home we have three school-age children who my wife, now in her new role as teacher, takes care of. They are in different years, and teaching them can be very demanding. I also want to help her out a bit in that respect. I can imagine it being even more difficult for other families. Here at Phoenix Design I’m happy that we’ve been able to handle the situation quite well. This is due to us being digitally connected and having previously worked remotely.

What I miss is the personal contact between co-workers and clients, and the reason for that is entirely rational. The perception of the body, gestures and facial expressions is critical in communication, most of all when you are creating new ideas and coming up with new approaches. If you only see the people you are working with in video conferences, I believe that quality suffers a lot. You can do it for a few months, but at some point it becomes difficult. In the creative sector, we are forced to rely on direct contact and proximity so that we can really work on ideas and think up new things together. Creativity is essentially a highly analogue process.

Digital arguments are completely different. Thinking becomes completely different. It is significantly more technical and practice-focused, as well as more disciplined and structured.

Digital meetings obviously have a stronger focus on getting through an agenda, so does that make people less creative?

The devil is in the detail, as the proverb goes, and in this case that means facial expressions, gestures, presence and personality. There is also the energy that is created between two, three, or four people enclosed in a small room to think, draw and argue together. Digital arguments are completely different. Thinking becomes completely different. It is significantly more technical and practice-focused, as well as more disciplined and structured. I think the flip side of the coin, though, is the quality. That final five or ten per cent that contributes to originality and truly new ideas is missing. Things can go on like this for a few months. However, for me and for us at Phoenix Design, the realisation has been that working remotely 100 per cent of the time is not at all possible. If you have a sophisticated, creative agency or would like to have one, then face-to-face thinking and back-and-forth exchanges and designing must be possible.

Phoenix Design has a design presence in a vast number of very different fields, from plumbing fixtures to escalators and apps. Are there subjects or products that you currently think are especially worthy of innovation? Or is there not much that needs changing?

Overall you are right. We are positioned very diversely. However, we categorise our fields of activity into three areas: home, on the go and at work. In our view, these are three physical states of humanity in which people have always been and will always be. People have always been mobile. We move in order to change ourselves and look for new things. People need a roof over their heads because we do not have fur and we need shelter. The purpose of work was never just to earn money; it is also crucial for giving meaning to our existence.

All three of these areas will need to change very rapidly in my opinion. We will have a new word for home. What does “home” mean for someone? More than ever, it is a fortress, something extremely personal and highly local, neither global nor digital. What does that mean when it comes to transport? Will its meaning shift given that future generations will think about transport completely differently? The same applies to work. What do the productivity and the quality of the work consist of?

All of this is going to change permanently, so we decided long ago to work with these three fields of activity to create innovative design and new approaches to old problems. Our smart-living vision, where we keep reinventing the well-being of people in their context, applies all the more in this era – from a light switch to a lift, the technology is there and now has the opportunity to become accepted more strongly and quickly. I am confident that this very negative situation is now giving us a few positive signs, which means that we can keep progressing as a society and in terms of innovation, and everyone can do their task.

If you had to single out an area, what will be the one that changes most?

I believe it will be transport. We are realising how quickly a pandemic can spread around the world and bring many things to a standstill. And at the same time, can we hide ourselves locally? Has humanity reached a limit in its tolerance of the speed of transport? How can these transport structures be remodelled? I personally think that transport as a field will have the biggest impact, negatively as well as positively – especially here in Germany, with Lufthansa and automotive manufacturers.

Has humanity reached a limit in its tolerance of the speed of transport? How can these transport structures be remodelled?

And what about work? Will more change here than before?

In the design sector, we are among the first to experience how work is changing. Our young talent has very clear expectations of how and where they want to work in the future and with what tools. When is physical interaction needed? When is it right to jump in and get involved in the flow of thoughts? The boundaries will become blurred here. We will ask ourselves whether we really need such a large office or whether the future will bring hybrids between home, the park and the office? Likewise, we know that everyone needs a home – a place of belonging – even at work. What creates a feeling of belonging? They are surely the rituals at work: getting a coffee, chatting with someone. The relationship between working at the office and at home will have to be restructured, and in between the two is transport. What is the relationship between these two constants, and how can these distances be overcome – physically and digitally?

Will aspects of social design flow more strongly into design in the three areas that you mentioned? Is more than a change of emphasis needed?

I generally believe that design plays a connecting role. Firstly, it adds meaning to new things, mentally and physically, because in the best-case scenario we create things that were not there before and make people’s lives easier where possible day after day. If we see how easy it is to divide people, we as designers must ask ourselves how we can contribute to bringing people together. Dividing people is easy; bringing them together is hard. I believe that we must bring the things that unite people even further into the foreground when we think of new product experiences. There is a bit of a sentiment among the general public that design is something not everyone can afford. With Bauhaus and the Ulm School of Design, there were attempts to democratise design and give it a political role. Design is intended for the broadest range of social classes possible, not just the top end of society, and that is something we must keep fighting for.

I also believe that we must now also direct even more attention to the countries that are truly under pressure, for example in Africa. The entire continent has been left behind. India is developing, China is of course doing amazingly, even Brazil will develop in some form or another. But Africa? We have put the continent in this box and now it will have to deal with the coronavirus on top of everything else, too. We have a social responsibility in this situation and need to say: how can our work, using innovation and design, contribute to finding an appropriate solution to respond to this crisis, including medically? We must enter this frame of mind definitively, even as designers.

There is a bit of a sentiment among the general public that design is something not everyone can afford.

From a European perspective, what do you think are possibilities for initiating or helping to design tangible improvements?

Firstly, this has something to do with design education at universities and with the questions of what we are learning from the coming generation and what contribution we can make ourselves. Secondly, we must wean ourselves off the idea of waiting and seeing what projects come in. Instead, we should contemplate what role we play and where the multiplier platforms that we can influence are. I am thinking about politics when I say this, and also about grant programmes, where we simply give a gift and think less about the business. A stable financial and commercial position is of course necessary so that something like this can be afforded in the first place. However, I believe that we must take significantly more action ourselves and provide stimulation with which we designers get involved in social discourse.

We design interactions between people and their environment – what will they look like? What will our relationship with artificial intelligence be? How can trust be created if the entity opposite is artificial? These are highly social, very human questions. I think they will keep us greatly occupied when it comes to interpreting the relationship between humans and the things we create.

Will needs and desires change strongly because of the pandemic? Is it a matter of creating new emphases?

We can discuss that based on one word: well-being. What does well-being mean if I am afraid of falling ill? People suddenly start moving very quickly and the relationships required between products and people are entirely different than if I were to get up on top of the Pyramids and say, “What is love for me if my love is for a product?” This well-being will be realigned in the course of the crisis.

More modest?

More secure, firm and clear. I believe that people will develop a better filter for “true” and “untrue”, at least that is what I hope. A filter for these post-growth tendencies, where people say, “I don’t actually need that.” A product does not have to be replaced if there is no substantial improvement. Even in terms of consumption, the matter of well-being will lead to more of a focus on what is truly necessary. We often describe the things that are necessary as essential. For me that means the things that are truly necessary, for my survival – and for love. That is the exciting part about it. I have to say, the opportunity for change has never been as great as now.

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