Prof. Aleksandra Konopek

Studying the future

Prof. Aleksandra Konopek is an industrial designer and head of the digital product design department at Essen’s Hochschule der Bildenden Künste. In interview, she talks about why knowledge of electrical engineering and programming will be essential for designers in the future and reveals her views on the current hype surrounding NFTs.

Anna Moldenhauer: Prof. Konopek, you head up the digital product design department at the HBK Essen. This undergraduate degree course has only recently been launched; what exactly can students expect?

Prof. Aleksandra Konopek: On top of the classic product design, we also teach virtual design of products, as in the form of avatars. The course also provides a foundation in electrical engineering and programming, whereby the range covers everything from the basic syntax of common programming languages to artificial intelligence to the development of initial functional prototypes. This knowledge, I believe, will be really crucial for product designers in the future.

Why is that exactly?

Prof. Aleksandra Konopek: More and more products are being outfitted with electronic components, and are being integrated into the “Internet of things” –a collective term for technologies that make it possible to link up physical and virtual objects and thus get them to work together. The more designers understand the steps required in electrical engineering and IT in the process of product development, the better the collaboration will work. The Chinese cellphone manufacturer Huawei, for example, employs product designers who also have programming knowledge. They are much in demand, because an understanding of how electronic components are embedded in the product is very important for its development. On top of this, it gives creatives the opportunity to play a role in all stages of design.

Aside from an understanding of technical processes, why should designers be studying areas like artificial intelligence nowadays?

Prof. Aleksandra Konopek: In future, artificial intelligence will form part of the debate on what is good design. An example might be its use in product development, revealing that human beings’ facial expressions are more relaxed when they are using form A than with form B. The designers then face the question of who has the right to decide on the design. And we need to prepare our future experts for that. Another exciting area, I believe, is the research into “generative design”, whereby the result is no longer produced directly by the designers, but rather by a programmed algorithm. The processes are automated and the cycle of development shortened.

Electrical engineering, IT – these are disciplines that don’t exactly have a reputation of a low threshold. How should I picture the teaching of digital product design in the degree course?

Prof. Aleksandra Konopek: Access to new technologies has become more straightforward. User-friendliness and easy-to-understand tutorials have made it possible to gain a foothold in this highly specialized engineering world. People themselves have been revealed as potential innovators, hence specialist areas are opening up more and becoming more diverse. This is what I discovered during my studies at the FabAcademy at MIT in Boston and what helped to shape the development of the course for HBK Essen. Dealing with new technologies and research is becoming an ever-greater part of the study of industrial design, product design, or even media design – like, for example, learning how to use the “Arduino” software, which makes it possible to control individual components. These might be light sensors, LEDs or screens. When I have understood the set-up, then I can change it and adapt my own design.

You work as an industrial designer and professor of digital product design in both analog and digital disciplines. One debate that is currently very polarized along these lines is the hype around NFTs, both in art and in design. What’s your view on that?

Prof. Aleksandra Konopek: Our existence is physical, in that we have a body and we wouldn’t be able to live without physical products. I think the specialization in digital product avatars is really interesting, creating a twin to the analog product. A visualization is extremely helpful here.

Some of the surreal furniture designs are now being produced for real, as in the collaboration between Andrés Reisinger and Moooi. Do you see this as a short-lived trend, or are we on the brink of a revolution in design?

Prof. Aleksandra Konopek: The topic is very complex, and I believe there are various different perspectives. First might be the absurd waste of resources. The energy that NFTs and cryptocurrency consume is actually catastrophically high –it’s an ecological disaster. On the other hand, new trends in art and design are important, because they mean further development of our culture, a new way of looking at things. When artists and designers dare to advance into these high-tech areas, we can also benefit from the fact that they bring new aspects to bear. I think it’s important to be open to new developments, but we need to be careful about how we treat the environment in the process.

Thanks to the hype over the last few weeks the digital works by certain creatives have achieved phenomenal sums at auctions. Converted from cryptocurrency, for example, the NFT digital house by Krista Kim raised 512,000 dollars, while the collage by Beeple sold for 69,346,250.00 dollars and the virtual furniture by Andrés Reisinger was sold for the equivalent of 450,000 dollars. These are the kinds of prices almost any artist or designer producing analog works could only dream of. How do you convey these contrasts to the students in your department?

Prof. Aleksandra Konopek: We live in an age of lifelong learning. Jobs are continually changing with the further development of technology. If I am open to that, then I can help to shape society. The question for creatives, I believe, is rather what do they care about? Are they aiming to meet demand during the hype in order to achieve rapid, short-term recognition? Or do they want to actively influence and mold society over a prolonged period of time as part of cultural creation? That’s the question I put to students.

Do you think the hype surrounding NFTs also harbors risks for the arts?

Prof. Aleksandra Konopek: “Risks” is perhaps a bit strong, but it’s certainly becoming clear that craftsmanship is not as much in demand among the younger generation as it once was. I think it would be good if designers already had some experience of craftsmanship or at least an intrinsic interest in it before they start to focus on digital development. Where they don’t have a point of reference with crafts, then they don’t have a feel for mechanical movements or for the accuracy of static and interconnecting elements. In future, the clusters around digital and analog design will have to work together, so it’s good if one side can understand the perspective of the other.

Do the students show an interest in the debate surrounding NFTs and digital objects?

Prof. Aleksandra Konopek: In my experience, the students have certainly taken note of the hype, but I don’t get the feeling that they relate this to their own work. The digital product design course at the HBK offers an additional pillar in the topic “design for all”, which teaches students to not only conceive products as inclusive but also to design them as such. In my experience, the students are more interested in sustainable solutions.

So you mean digital design that people can relate to, that is practically oriented? From society, for society.

Prof. Aleksandra Konopek: Exactly.

Right now, there are an increasing number of experiments involving digital exhibitions of art and design, be it with illustrations of the analog objects or entirely in digital form. Do you see the offerings as supplementing physical exhibitions in future, or do you think there is a shift taking place towards digital presentation?

Prof. Aleksandra Konopek: In my view, our longing for physical events has grown enormously – but at the same time there are exciting developments in the area of augmented reality and VR. Presentation via a screen is unsatisfactory in the long term; virtual reality is more impressive because the current research shows that the same areas of the brain are activated by it as in a real experience. So I think that both forms of presentation – both physical and digital – will have a role to play in future.