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“Design”, says Lutz Dietzold, “is now, in many cases, embedded in companies as a matter of course.” In the second part of our interview, the CEO of the German Design Council discusses what has changed in the relationship between design and industry, why the classics remain successful even during times of disruption, why trust in a brand is becoming increasingly important – and why young designers are developing new perspectives.

Interview: Thomas Wagner

Mr. Dietzold, when we look at things from a broader perspective, we often hear that “design can save the world”. Is that too lofty of a claim? What about it is true and what is hubris?

Well, (laughs), that is a very ambitious statement. Sometimes the phrase “design can save the world“ simply serves as self-legitimation.

Lutz Dietzold, CEO of the German Design Council

More specifically: What skills does the designer have that the engineer doesn’t? That the business economist doesn’t have, that the sales manager doesn’t have? Does the input of design function like a catalyst in the change process?

That depends on how application-oriented my approach is. How do I understand the design process? How do I approach solutions? I think that designers have fundamentally more possibilities, not that that’s their sole concern, but they have a wider range of options, and can approach a task more openly.

Has anything fundamentally changed in the relationship between business and design, between industry and design, in recent years or even decades?

For a long time, the establishment of design within a company was dependent on individuals, the personality of the company. It was a matter for the boss, especially in medium-sized companies. Today, it is more or less embedded naturally in the structure of companies, most clearly in large corporations; in the automotive industry, for example, with its large design departments. Many aspects of integration don’t appear to be spectacular, and the institutionalisation of design as a whole is proceeding with less fanfare. Don’t forget: the subject of design has become more strongly connected with the subject of brand.

Would it have been a given thirty years ago that someone like Peter Schreyer would not only be responsible for corporate design at KIA, but also sit on the board? Isn’t that also a success for the Council, which has been beating the drum about how important design is for industry since 1953?

In many cases, design is embedded in companies today as a matter of course. And not only in the automotive industry. If you look at the history of the German Design Council, it was its president, Philip Rosenthal, who embodied the cohesion of industry and design himself. What went wrong for Rosenthal later had little to do with the approach itself and a lot to do with changes in certain industries. Demand fell, and not only for porcelain and cutlery. Even the furniture sector has felt how much the attention of the broader public has shifted to the digital and to topics such as gaming. That has also been noticeable in terms of UX topics: How do I operate digital devices? Which devices do I even have? And going further: Do I still need this or that product, or does an app on my smartphone take care of it? In general, what does the disappearance of many material things mean – for us as consumers, for design, for individual industries? While the world of things is disappearing faster and faster, more and more things are also being produced. Let’s just look at the fashion sector, a field that has typically been just marginally relevant for the Council and is not directly associated with the DNA of “German Design”. Over the course of the debate about sustainability, many companies that are members of our Foundation have become increasingly interested in innovative fabrics and textile supply chains, so in the positive examples out of that field. Something is shifting there, and that is where our cross-sector, cross-research approach really benefits us.  

„Interestingly, the market has reported that it is the classics that do particularly well during times of disruption and rapid change.“

— Lutz Dietzold

Major upheavals can be observed in terms of both products and business models. Design, innovation, brand: does the Council analyse these disruptive processes? Could it even do something to calm them down?

Interestingly, the market has reported that it is the classics that do particularly well during times of disruption and rapid change. Consumers seem to turn to the tried and true in turbulent times. The topic of heritage is also playing an increasingly important role for companies: Where do I come from, what do I do, am I credible? Do people trust me, especially about topics like sustainability? It helps to draw a clear line. Even among automotive companies, where everything seemed to be in question just a few years ago – Will we provide taxi services and ride-sharing platforms, will we also produce bicycles? – a lot has been consolidated. Inspired by the fashion sector and French examples, German brands are focusing more on luxury at the moment.

„Five years ago, it was enough to pull plastic bottles out of the ocean and make a new shoe or something similar out of them. Today, juries are discussing it differently.“

— Lutz Dietzold

The Council organises various awards. Do the submissions indicate a shift in awareness?

Yes, a lot has happened in recent years, especially in terms of sustainability. Five years ago, it was enough to pull plastic bottles out of the ocean and make a new shoe or something similar out of them. Today, juries are discussing it differently. People are asking: Why did the bottle end up in the ocean in the first place? Don’t we need to intervene earlier and prevent it from getting in there at all? There is a huge change process happening, which is reflected in the decisions of the juries. Companies today also have to demonstrate how their cycles work, where something comes from and how it is processed. Particularly amongst young designers coming out of universities, the topic of materials is very much at the forefront, as is the topic of societal design.

The rebellious youth is one thing. Have companies also gotten bolder?

(laughs) Have companies gotten bolder? They’ve changed. There is a need to reflect on social consequences and act accordingly. It’s not just a question of what comes off the production line and goes into the shops. Today the question is more: What kind of employees can I find, where do they come from and how do they work? A company that thinks it can ignore change is going to run into increasing problems. That means that change can be triggered just by the recruiting that I do. And that is a very exciting topic, incidentally also relevant to design: What does my company look like, what kind of working environment do I offer?

You have to live what you advocate for.

Of course. All of this has an impact on how processes are created, how new things are created and how work is organised in companies. And there again, you can ask the question- what changes when not only the work environment, but the entire process is viewed through the design lens?

Much is being changed by the digitalisation of processes. Artificial intelligence and virtual parallel worlds like the Metaverse are being discussed in-depth right now. What do they mean for design, innovation, and brand?

The follow-up from the sustainability discussion is that access to certain things will not be as easy in the future, because they will become more expensive or certain products will disappear. A simple example: if entry-level prices for cars rise, if energy costs, city tolls, and CO2 prices are added to that, it means that certain people will no longer be able to afford a car. Generally speaking, we can assume that we will only be able to get a grip on resource consumption by reducing it, by limiting it. But what does it mean if I can no longer afford a car? And that brings us back to the question of design: Can I then borrow one? Can I satisfy my desire to experience driving a car, the feeling of freedom, of speed, in a different way? Compensate for the loss through digital experiences? Can design create entirely new opportunities? And isn’t that also a benefit?

Does that mean that we are moving in the direction of a kind of surrogate culture? Or is that too rigid a view?

Well, the question is really if we haven’t long since (laughs) developed into a surrogate culture? And how can we shape the experience differently?

Do the interfaces between machines and us as users play a central role here, and not just in AI? We are constantly experiencing that more and more tasks in digitalisation are being transferred to us as consumers. Aren’t interfaces and organisational models needed which don’t delegate everything to the user, often in a way that can’t be used?

Where bank branches and stores are being closed and personal contact is being eliminated, the digital interface is often the only option left. And I have to say- there’s pluses and minuses. I don’t have a personal connection to an app, but I do connect to it through usability. Designing it really well is a Herculean task. If you do it poorly, you’ll disappear from the market sooner rather than later. There’s a lot of people who have not yet understood this. Why are we only making slow progress with well-designed digital services? Especially because we can’t find people to work anymore in certain professions, in certain jobs. Why are many cafes switching to self-service? Because they can’t find workers who want to work in the restaurant industry. You can think that’s a shame, and it may accelerate the split between self-service and staff-heavy, cost-heavy catering. But the facts remain.

Many processes have been accelerated in the pursuit of greater efficiency. Is it time to apply the brakes here and there? In order to be able to consider consequences that weren’t apparent at first?

It’s important to maintain a balance between the two poles of insistence and pushing forward. No matter what you’re designing, before you finalise anything, it can’t hurt to take a look at everything from a distance and critically examine it. For me, it’s just two sides that have to work together.

So it would actually be quite a task for the Council to find the right pace.

We don’t decide the pace, we just get confronted with it. And we could call for a moratorium on AI or ChatGPT, but what would that actually mean? That is the central question for me about the whole thing at the moment, even if I look at it from a national, political perspective. Can the entire need for change only be controlled by regulation? And that’s where I would say no, it also needs to be managed on an emotional level in order to involve the users- and that’s where design plays a central role for me. Through means of design, everything can be done much faster and with more enjoyment. We all experience these places where better design is needed. That’s where action is necessary. And that can also be solved, to a large extent, by designers. So much more design is needed. So my answer is: faster! Not faster design, but more design faster.

Click here for the first part of the interview.

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