Design as a social force?
by Gründl Harald | Mar 11, 2012
Harald Gründl, photo © Udo Titz

The education goals of future designers are currently the subject of much controversy. The discussion on the new approach taken at HFBK in Hamburg is but one example of this. The universities advocate their old or new positions on the basis of their own subjective perception from within the academic domain and offer their students education concepts that are contemporary or in line with the zeitgeist. However, the response to the production conditions for consumer culture today can also be an excuse for programmatic agendas that serve possibly only to shore up the respective educational establishment versus others.

One can suspect that behind this is calculated university marketing. The concern is one's place in the world and one's place in the university rankings. The curriculum spans training and education. Design's shift in the direction of art or arts and crafts that some bemoan goes hand in hand with greater scientific depth being given to the former applied arts courses in universities. There is now, alongside the artistic articulations in design, increasingly a scientific enquiry into issues in the discipline in the form of doctoral theses, assuming that is one finds a university that will accept such a dissertation project. I would like below to bundle the experiences I have recently gained in design training institutes in the form of hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: Design can be the catalyst of change (transitional design)

There is now a broader public awareness of the precarious environmental conditions on Spaceship Earth (Buckminster Fuller). As a visiting professor of design at the HFBK in Hamburg I held a seminar on "Agriculture and the City". It goes without saying that we cannot really produce a significant portion of our food in cities. Which is also not necessary, as planting small plots serves to restore a relationship to nature. And in the process one can learn that design will in future require new strategies: product – service – systems (PSS), the identification of alternative project contexts in design, and finally the enquiry whether the product of a design service has to always have a material form. In 2011 Hamburg was Europe's environmental capital city, and the exhibition of student projects at the IBA Dock in Hamburg contributed to a discussion on how design can catalyze social change.

Hypothesis 2: Objective criteria are needed for sustainable design (ecodesign)

Since the 1990s, ecodesign has had a difficult time getting started. Not only have companies responded very reservedly to objectifiable sustainable product development strategies, but so have the education institutes for design, the market and politicians, creating no incentives for them. This negative dynamism did not improve until the economic and ecological crises of recent years. Nevertheless, university know-how in this key field of design is still very modest and often dominated by simple gut responses rather than objective decisions. People call out loudly for 'paper' the minute the word sustainable crops up. Paper lanterns were another project that I helped run at the Vienna Technical University. The eco-balance showed, however, that reflectors made from paper cause less of an ecological strain in the manufacturing, but are far more inefficient to operate. And the latter phase of the lifecycle is sadly the important one. An instructive semester for everyone concerned, and it showed that artistic research has to be combined with verifiable documentation for decision-making if future-oriented sustainable design is to be moved forward.

Hypothesis 3: We need trans-university open learning networks

In order to move the important topic of "sustainable design" forward and make know-how available, I coordinate the "Learning Network on Sustainability" (LeNS) for Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The global network as founded by the Milan Politecnico (Ezio Manzini, Carlo Vezzoli) functions using interconnected but decentrally organized local networks. Universities that offer courses on the topic of sustainable design can make their lectures, projects and teaching materials available online. Participants in the network have free access and can use the material either after changing it or leaving it as it is. In return, they provide access to their own content, and comes with a "copy left" instead of a "copy right" license. This helps spread important topics fasters and improves the selection of materials for students. Needless to say, this also subverts the outdated notion of university competition and university teaching, and instead offers open access to academic knowledge (open course ware).

Hypothesis 4: Design theory requires experimental discourses

After qualifying as a professor at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna I hold a "venia docendi". This authorizes me to lecture in the "theory and history of design". Without being appointed a member of the university staff I can supervise Ph.D: theses or also offer seminars for which students then receive credits. Last year, I worked with students at the university to compile seminar projects on themes relating to design history. The projects were not presented in writing but as videos on YouTube. Thanks to this medium a completely different, non-canonic approach to the topics became possible. Respecting copyrights on image, film and audio material led to alternative discourses and design theory surely needs them more than performing the same habitual academic rituals, which (like so many tools and discourses in design theory) simply get borrowed from other disciplines.

The fact that design has been given a scientific basis late in the day and the current social challenges (even as far as a more sustainable proposal for our consumer culture) mean there are a spate of new challenges facing design education, from Bachelor programs through to doctoral projects. The artistic approach to design problems will no doubt be expanded to include scientific, i.e., objectively falsifiable strategies, above all when it comes to sustainable design. A critical awareness that along with the medium of design sets out to explore new avenues is my vision for design education that would be socially relevant.


Harald Gründl, photo © Udo Titz