New formats? Yes please!
by Chemaitis Egon | 2/28/2012
Egon Chemaitis, photo © EC

That which we call design and practice in a variety of ways as design has always been the subject of self-inquiry and self-assurance. Design just isn't the kind of discipline that has binding standards, methodologies, terminologies etc. which make it prone to all sorts of interpretations and readings; it functions rather as a prefix for that which is trendy and cool, or flashy and superficial. Design comes into being by means of an examination of the respective reality. Design appears in distinct manifestations and operational forms and is essentially still an attempt to bring organizations, processes and things together for a common cause, to create unity among the unrelated: ergo to create form.

The fact is that design (or more precisely teaching approaches in design) is moving further and further away from the real core of this profession and, as would seem to be the case in Hamburg for example, is being explicitly conducted as a form of art. It would be easy to simply sweep this fact under the carpet; after all, it'll have no bearing on art – but can we say the same for design? Are defenders of artistic design formats the true visionaries and pioneers for the future development of this sector or are they luring us into a professional nirvana?

For irrespective of what they are thinking (?) in today's universities and what they are teaching there, that which we commonly understand as design (still) continues to appear for the most part in the form of products. Conceived, designed and developed by designers, be it as lone wolves, in partnership with others or in design agencies together with colleagues, and these products are commissioned by or in collaboration with producing companies; and paid for by them, too.

So how are we to explain this shift, which is to be understood as more of a pattern of behavior than a coordinated stance on teaching? From my perspective, there are currently four reasons (and a few others besides) to be discerned here.

1. Society

There is hardly any other profession that is so closely linked to those societies in which it is practiced. We could attempt to explain this using Abraham Maslow's theories, more precisely his "Hierarchy of Needs", according to which here in Germany we occupy the sixth level of this hierarchy, where needs for transcendence and self-actualization are articulated and potentially fulfilled. We could even go as far as suggesting a degree of saturation: it is less a matter of hunger and more of appetite. Put simply: we live in a society that has everything, yet at the same time we are hooked on discussing ecological matters, criticizing attitudes to the environment and consumption. From what I myself have seen this presents a major dilemma especially for young, committed designers: Why should we continue to design things in a world that already has everything on offer, including the pork cycle? It is frequently the case that graduates react by entering a state of design paralysis, trying to find a way out in the world of ironic and witty niceties or producing designs that present solutions for an as yet non-existent problem. Even the so-called artistic approach proves to be an escape route for some, often something of a retreat into the non-committal. Today problems, scarcities and deficiencies are no longer as visible as in Raymond Loewy's time or the days of the Ulm School of Design, they aren't as easy to grasp, they are complex and intricate, even hidden away and so have become difficult to recognize and describe. However, the Danish INDEX award clearly shows that even today it is still possible to provoke exceptional, creative achievements in design.

2. The public

At present, in our line of work in particular, one can observe a profound change taking place, namely the pervasion of the public space. The tendency towards the unconditional "publication" of even the most banal results, whether on websites, blogs or CDs, in exhibitions, magazines, catalogs etc., it appears that there is no longer anything that is discreet, held back, everything has to come out – like some kind of media incontinence. Of course, this change also has its upsides: you become well-known, people recognize you, you are subject to flattery and your self-esteem gets a boost, the public is also well-informed and it can lead to increased transparency. But this also gives rise to an indirect form of contention. By publishing them the themes are set, the acknowledgement of these projects (theme, content etc.) correlates with their medial radius; the teachers' (and presumably also the students') positions are very much derived from these "publications". They are valuable in their own right, they pay off in the form of kudos and esteem, and within the limits of a professor's salary and the regulations surrounding extra pay, publication officially grants a financial advantage: I publish, am therefore I am.

3. University degree programs

The introduction of the two-tier BA/MA study system has placed those design degree programs affected in a "lose-lose" situation. Those who were required to implement a BA/MA study program quite rightly struggle with these rigidly linear degree structures, which are more closely related to a vocational college course than a university education. There is no scope for variation, for error, for passion, for discovery and consequently no scope for what one may alternatively call creativity, the unpredictable, the new, and the unconventional; and there is no scope for the personal development that is so decisive in a profession such as design. Five years, that is the legally specified timeframe, which forces universities or rather university departments to decide which degree level – Bachelor's or Master's – they will (or can) offer potential students, and in a condensed form at that. As I said before, it's a "lose-lose" situation. Whereby, in my opinion, a two-tier system is most definitely a sensible step. That was already in place, not as the BA/MA but as Des. grad. and Dipl.-Des. After all, it is those subjects that draw a significant proportion of their degree content from topical developments, in real time as it were, that are most severely afflicted by this fatal, financially motivated condensation of study programs. Subjects largely based upon a stock of canonized knowledge (Business Administration, Law) on the other hand are much easier to teach and therefore study in this new form.

The only way to evade the infliction of the BA/MA system (or better said to uphold the old form, the Diplom) would be to declare the degree an artistic one – with all the related repercussions. The question as to whether – despite all the deficiencies of the BA/MA system – it would be a strategically-wise move to put Diplom back on the menu in a professional environment that is now marked by BA/MA degrees (and this will soon be the case) is something that university design departments need to answer for each individual degree program.

4. Staff

We now have a situation whereby full-time teachers, above all professors, have built their careers on CVs that have been adapted to the needs of society under the conditions described in points 1 and 2 above. There is no doubt that they are well qualified, but what these teachers lack is noteworthy (reflective) practical experience in design, which given the time constraints of teaching and academic self-management they are no longer in a position to now establish or expand upon. If it is indeed correct that those areas within design that can be taught according to Hans Gugelot's concept of "skills and knowledge" are subject to constant and rapid change and for that very reason require continuous improvement and updating, then this kind of education is best obtained by means of individual, practical design experience. To allow for such development, all universities grant their students permission to engage in "external activity". But transforming the experience and knowledge gained in such practical scenarios into teaching concepts, degree content and study formats while maintaining an appropriate balance in terms of time and in accordance with the teaching responsibilities is another story entirely.

So, new approaches? Always welcome. New formats? Yes please. New content? Let's give it a try. Design has always possessed the ability to shed its skin, to transform itself and has admittedly hit some dead ends at immense speed in the process. But it doesn't come for free, and the same applies to the students as it does to the teachers: "Skills and knowledge", yes, that's what we need, but even if you have these things, that doesn't make you a design teacher.

No, declaring design a form of art is leading the study of design down the path of least resistance – without taking either art or design seriously. Or understanding them at all?

Egon Chemaitis, photo © EC