Let’s become more sophisticated!
by Albus Volker | Apr 22, 2012
Voker Albus, photo © Fritz Albus

One thing is for sure, a debate such as the one currently raging on the Stylepark design platform about design education is certainly no easy matter. Indeed, for some of those involved in the discussion, I mean for the teachers at the colleges, it can quickly backfire, thus achieving exactly the opposite of what they were aiming for. How is this possible? Well, debates of this kind are, primarily suited in particular for indulging in the fine art of dogmatism, with everybody involved, or, as is here the case, at least some of the participants, attempting to dissect the arguments put forward by the others, and completely taking them apart for the delectation of the reading public (and of those leading the discussion). This, however, does not achieve anything, because all these exchanges on this or that relating to various curricula are taking place without the main discussion partners, in other words, without the cultural bureaucrats responsible for the structure of, and facilities available at the relevant colleges. And so, basically, people cannot only lose by cultivating a disrespectful policy of opposition. At the same time a debate of this nature on this very subject is meaningful, indeed, it is overdue, and we must be grateful to Thomas Edelmann for setting it in motion.

We should however be clear about the objectives behind this kind of discussion, and its strategies. After all, as already mentioned, the colleges can only benefit from this kind of debate if they sit down together and formulate what they have in mind, and what is needed, and do not waste their energies by engaging in skirmishes with one another. It is not about from now on patting one another on the back and telling each other how great we are. Not at all. No, what we have to do is to bring the actual state of affairs at our educational institutions in line with our very specific ideas of how things should be and, once this has been achieved, possibly to come up with joint initiatives suitable for improving the situation considerably.

When I arrived at HfG Karlsruhe in 1994 the Product Design department faculty had two full-time employees – and no assistants. In terms of the number of professors, in principle, nothing has changed; it is only on the level of assistant posts that some improvements have been made: each full-timer boasts half an assistant. This, of course, is still not exactly a lot, and compared with usual staffing levels at universities and colleges (of art, design and other applied disciplines) in Germany pretty much puts us at the bottom of the spectrum. It is only logical that with a team like this it is not possible to achieve great goals in the form of highly nuanced professional profiles. So, what can we do? Who is our target group?

Even in those first years, two types of applicants to our particular university soon emerged: those who knew exactly what they wanted to design (car designers!) and those who had a very vague notion of the profession ("I want to design 'beautiful' or 'functional' things"). Naturally, in view of our staff structure (in those initial years Hannes Wettstein and Werner Aisslinger worked alongside me in Karlsruhe), we focused on the second group, i.e., on those who did not have a clearly defined view of the profession of designer, but who instead boasted certain talents, a disrespectful curiosity, and who were open to suggestions. (We encouraged the others to apply to schools with the relevant know-how.) We were primarily interested in using the project-based courses our college offered to coax out the specific talents from each student, something that has worked very well right up to the present day.

It has to be said though that we have had to juggle about a bit in terms of expanding the scope of our teaching. For instance, we have divided up one position, a few years ago we introduced a one-year project professorship and we have established the kkaarrlls platform, on which we regularly (and indeed ever more frequently) present a selection of our finest work in a professional framework, for example during the furniture show in Milan. Alongside the fact that most positions in Karlsruhe are as a matter of principle temporary, all this represents the core elements of our teaching structure. Independent observers will anyway confirm that we have made quite a reasonable job of things here in Karlsruhe and, at least in the context of design education at an academy of art, we by no means need to consider ourselves obsolescent. So is everything fine and dandy, and we should just carry on as before?

Not a bit of it, because developments in Karlsruhe in particular have demonstrated that the kind of courses on offer here, at times extremely stimulating and very diverse, represent an absolutely necessary prerequisite for permanently updating the kind of teaching that is very time and generation-oriented – that must, however, be constantly advanced. And just demanding more jobs will not be enough, no, we will also have to address the diversity of social, technical, ecological and economic circumstances that challenge design in particular to respond appropriately and produce suitable solutions. And so proclaiming great artistic freedom alone definitely is not enough. It is far more about defining the coordinates of these supposed liberties and checking that every one of these coordinates is of relevance to the design of a product.

This does not mean that I am advocating a general standardization of the design process à la Herbert Ohl, that "design is measurable". Heavens no! It does, however, mean that in this particular discipline we need to take our orientation from the requirements of third parties and from certain actual circumstances and cannot, as is the case with art, concentrate solely on adapting what is around us to our own personal viewpoint.

The fact that in the process a great degree of intellectual freedom and, in the same context, the diversity that is absolutely necessary should nonetheless be maintained, is clear. Both the definition of and the relativization of the coordinates, namely, can only be generalized on a basic level. By way of contrast, determining the starting situation is very much subject to the social, economic, technical and cultural situation on the basis of which the relevant author produces his design.

The question remains: how can they do this: how – and here I am speaking for the colleges that have a similar structure to Karlsruhe and that do not boast as broad a range of courses as Darmstadt, Hanover, Cologne or Pforzheim, who rely more or less one on the qualities of their two, three or four-man teaching staff – how can such schools make available the basic information mentioned above?

As we all doubtless agree, it is very unlikely that we will be granted additional teaching posts – even if the increased importance of design is obvious everywhere. One suggestion that I find particularly promising is Harald Gründl's idea of setting up "intercollegiate learning networks". If appropriate financing can be found for such networks they would not only make up for the inappropriately low fee structures for teaching positions and guest lectures. They would also make it possible to provide a suitable range of subjects that is "open and flexible" as is demanded by the constantly changing realities.

What appears to me most important of all is that, as much of a platitude as this may seem, we simply need to become more creative, more flexible, indeed, more sophisticated, that we need to undermine the very static circumstances of our institutions, to complement them, for instance with network-based structures and perhaps partially or even entirely replace them – and simply to show them as just antiquated. Quite simply, we should not take our orientation from things that are definitely impossible but should develop alternatives from anything that is not explicitly out of the question. And this would then be exactly the kind of "art" that we in design education need.

Voker Albus, photo © Fritz Albus