Plagues by the idea of rebellion
by Erlhoff Michael | Mar 16, 2012
Michael Erlhoff, photo © ME

1. On design and art after all

It is somehow quite simple: art is not a problem for design. One admires, observes and appreciates it, and for design one can learn from art just as one can from physics, sociology, music, psychology and all the others. However, evidently design is often a problem for art. Because either (to simplify somewhat) art seeks to put down roots in the autonomy of the ivory tower ("Art is art, and everything else is everything else," Ad Reinhardt), or it feels uneasy there from time to time and tries to socialize, and tries to find common ground with the general. This leads in the ideal typical case to a pale populist pandering by means of purportedly realistic social themes or it seeks to play in current sciences, media and technologies, or art intervenes in the everyday life of things and constructs furniture, household appliances, jewelry, forms typographies and layouts and the like. The latter has repeatedly occurred, for example in the cases of Uecker, Arman, Andy Warhol, is to be seen today with Tobias Rehberger or Erwin Wurm and many others, and can in historical terms certainly cite Constructivism or Dada, for example. Which is not to forget that often the results were beautiful and definitely interesting things and thoughts that without doubt tended to find a market.

There's nothing to be said against that, it's just that it has nothing or at best only very little to do with design. For in the case of these artifacts what is involved is solely to prove a certain companionship or participation in everyday events and to question the otherwise overly emphasized radical notion of autonomy that claims art exists in and of itself and by no means requires a beholder and repels any subjection to utility.

In actual fact, traditionally the assertion by art of its autonomy opened up a drastic difference between art and design: for while design was said to be inexorably social at root and realized through its use, art was claimed to exist purely in and of itself. Admittedly, this proposition that art was invariably autonomous, once championed in such a fundamentalist vein, is today very dubious in practical terms not least given the media and digital thrust in the discipline, and has become as good as untenable. Design has all the more thus become the problem of art, as the latter now more frequently snuggled up to design.

Yet another element could be considered, namely to distinguish design from art: Thomas Wagner and Thomas Edelmann have already mentioned this, namely the relevance in design of a discursive activity, as it almost always occurs through the cooperation of different people and through a critical enquiry at various institutional levels (in corporations, institutions and agencies). By contrast, with a few exceptions we, and art with us, tend to expect that art is presented by individuals and by no means loquaciously. Incidentally, this has considerable consequences for the respective course of study, as design curricula invariably include group work, participation in various projects and seminars, public presentations based on clear lines of argumentation, and "master classes" and the like are pointless; things are different in art, where the curricula at least traditionally hinge on fostering the individual and personal critical interaction with the teachers is so crucial.

Thus far, this is all very comprehensible. However, there is one aspect that makes art a problem for and of design. For art is far more respected in society than is design – the typical upshot of middle-class societies since at least the mid-19th century, as middle-class citizens have so wished to be able to have a nibble of feudalism and its culture. It is immensely important in this context that art (Thomas Wagner has already noted this) has curiously managed to this very day to avoid being linked to the economy: although everybody should really know that art is deeply entrenched in the various markets (both as an import and export, too) and posts hefty sales, in public there is hardly any talk about this economic reality and the relevance of art; instead, art prefers to purport to its economic integrity, to being intrinsically far removed from capitalist exploitation. Design, by contrast, is evidently part of market activities, is stuck right in the middle of capital's contradictions and a society structured by the market. All the so ghastly aspects of this reality (one need think only of information, communication, competition, corporate design ...) cut to the heart of design; however, this at the same time compels design to address these contradictions proactively and possibly use them as a playful way of devising or even designing subversion, intervention and complex forms of resistance.

The higher regard in which society holds art means that design constantly has the problem that art is promoted publicly and privately at all times and in particular there is corporate sponsoring for it. Design only very rarely enjoys such miracles, as no one in society really wishes to drape themselves in design and in particular companies (not to mention politicians and institutions) sense that promoting design (for example through exhibitions or congresses) always actually refers back to them and could imply criticism of them. Design is simply too close to these constant contradictions to enable companies to buy into promoting it with no strings attached (unlike the case of art, literature, or music, for example), meaning without it being linked back to the company's own entrepreneurial and thus potentially dubious actions. It is thus quite understandable in this context that for such straightforward financial reasons the one or other college is now letting design run under the heading of "art".

2. The perception of design meanders ad infinitum

As regards studying design, I feel compelled to contradict Thomas Edelmann, whom I otherwise hold in such high esteem, on one important point. For he complains that so few graduates of German design courses have become renowned product designers. The reason for this is firstly the typical economic situation of German companies, whereby (unlike their Italian counterparts) it is truly industry (and precisely not the small extended crafts workshops) that dominates the entrepreneurial scene and no stars are tolerated in that industry; instead, it is always the company that stands for the brand and products (almost no advertising in Germany uses the names of the designers). Albeit, and here Thomas Edelmann is quite right, the actual design scene in Germany is somehow frightened of stars in its profession, justifies this stance with some pseudo-social arguments, and simply plays hurt when paying obeisance to them. Design evidently lacks self-esteem here.

Something else is more important which is very much a problem both publicly and as regards the presence of outstanding persons in design. There is no clear and readily comprehensible design profession. Instead, the curricula and even more drastically professional life in design entails such an opaque complexity of professional variants that the general public cannot understand what happens in design and what people in design do. A good example of this is a study which students at the Cologne International School of Design (KISD) are currently compiling and in which they are trying at long last also to establish what former KISD students (the name today is 'alumni') are now doing professionally. (Yes, of course, the study also focuses on all the things they did after graduating in order to be where they are today and how important the curriculum was for them and also what they would recommend to design students today as regards how to study). A total of some 400 such alumni have now participated in the study, and it has among other things emerged (and this is of relevance to this text) that for the 400 former KSID students now active professionally in design (some of them are very successful at that) we need to apply at least 200-300 different job descriptions and thus career paths. In other words, there is nothing like a uniform image of the design profession, but (in each case quite plausibly and justifiably) an utterly opaque complexity of activities. It suffices to cautiously name but a few examples – from concept development and research through the explicit design of services, consultancy in international markets, the design of navigation, the development of general information systems, of Websites and layouts, of books or TV design and sound design through to the design of tangible products, formulating brands, the entire context of developing interfaces between technical media and their use, or of Apps, games and much more besides. It's no longer possible to classify all this in individual sections, but is simply termed "design", and this flies in the face of any straightforward, down-to-earth perception of design and meanders more or less on and on, ad infinitum.

Needless to say, this complexity is a closed book to those who cannot know more about it and therefore still want to rely on a halfway traditional image of design and thus suffer from the fact that the term simply remains intangible. Incidentally, the problem becomes evident in its public coverage, as journalists rely in their work only on what they readily understand and can easily describe. The reality of design today confuses that public and by extension the politicians and companies, or even the research institutes or cultural support programs, for example. Without doubt, this is a very real problem for design as regards its public perception, reputation and financial prospects.

Lest general uncertainty or depression given this state of design as a profession spreads, let us report that without doubt this complexity in the design profession simply reflects the current and indeed future reality of life today. Reality simply no longer functions so straightforwardly, so one-dimensionally as we once thought; the career prospects simply can no longer be a straight track in all fields, and instead this (and not merely abstract, formalist) diversity of professional lives is entirely realistic and the permanent change within that complexity will increasingly determine the professional prospects.

Certainly the colleges have long since had to respond to this, or, better still, should have anticipated this. Meaning open courses that emphasize the generalists, no longer offering purported special fields such as industrial, communications, textile, fashion or media design and the like, and instead courses that tear down these walls and offer students realistic opportunities to engage openly, flexibly and successfully with the professional realities and the future prospects. And this should by no means be understood as trivial conformism or simple adaptation but that graduates must be able to handle such situations playfully and thus very self-confidently.

3. Standardized arbitrariness contradicts design

Now in this context the focus is also on the current reality of design courses in German and, of course, likewise in foreign colleges, on which an additional comment is in order. On the one hand, we must surely acknowledge that today an ever greater number of colleges offer conferences, publications and international alliances. In his contribution to this debate to my mind somewhat mistakenly Thomas Edelmann bemoans this fact, as surely this articulates a clearly greater interest in self-reflection and thus also in design's self-confidence. For example, a very interesting conference just took place at the University of Applied Sciences in Konstanz, last year there was a great lecture series at the HfG Offenbach, as well as various events of this kind at the KISD and elsewhere, too. This is all buttressed by the fact that companies now realize the need for research into and with design and are interested in it, as it were, as an ersatz for abstract market research and the manifestly dumb trend gurus who when pouring over their coffee grounds cast yet another flurry of hackneyed phrases onto the market.

What may be a little problematic is that slowly something is happening in Germany that has long since become normal in the United States and other countries: Increasingly, cultural studies aficionados are discovering design, which in itself would be wonderful, but too many of them simply discover in design the opportunity to bag a teaching appointment at a college and hardly even bother to even basically understand design, or, worse still, (and like some of the art historians who wind up in design museums) are essentially repelled by design, simply follow their good middle-class notions on the trade, and suffer from not working in art, and therefore do nothing to promote an intelligent and understanding study of design, and likewise nothing to present it more understandably to the public.

In Germany it strangely took longer and only gradually are some of the otherwise often unemployed graduates in art history or cultural studies realizing how important, how exciting and how pioneering design is. But that will happen and it will be a complicated process for both sides, for them and for design.

The reservations toward the Bachelor's and Master's courses the EU has insisted on are definitely justified. This is especially true in design given the above-mentioned necessary complexity and intensity of design courses and the need for open-minded generalists, if we are to boost design itself, its social reality and the career prospects of students. Lucky are those who insisted on a four-year Bachelor's, and here I completely agree with both Thomas Wagner and Thomas Edelmann. There is a danger that in design courses at tertiary institutions the technocrats will gain the upper hand, too. Especially as it would seem that the generation of 40-50 year-olds who are now primarily taking the helm in tertiary design courses as well advocate technocratic regulations, clear standards and an insistence of strong structures as they are somehow fearful, helpless and confused. It is precisely the generation that, instead of opting for critical and controversial discourse, sought to flee into rancor, committee work and simple safe bets. Sadly, one must perhaps confess, this is in line with the mindset of a generation of students today, who thanks to navigation, computer games and permanent parental support are always informed (i.e., in form), focused and guided, and have never experienced for themselves what it is like to be disoriented, to somehow get lost and then have to decide for themselves what path to take or to wander around and find out where the path may be. Technocracy and such normed student arbitrariness unfortunately go well together and fly completely in the face of not only design, but life itself.

That said, there's no need for overly great concern, as such students are occasionally plagued by the idea of rebellion and of the notion of experimentation. So it remains to hope that these will wear down the technocrats and zestfully support design in a necessarily radical experimental configuration.

Michael Erlhoff, photo © ME