Publikation # [369]

»Traces and Hopes of Design Research:
An Interview with Gui Bonsiepe, Klaus Krippendorf, Siegfried Maser, and René Spitz«.
Veröffentlichung in: Design Issues Vol. 31, No. 1/2015, 18-31.

From author design to industrial design, graphic design and interface design, to name but a few distinctions, the fields of design seem to be becoming more and more differentiated. In your opinion, is there still a general definition that covers »contemporary German design«?
No. It’s a cliché. First of all, design has always been an international phenomenon because industrialization is an international process, and design is a substantial part of industrialization. Second, any national label would reduce design to its superficial aspects, to the style features of formal aesthetics. But in that case we would no longer be talking about a multi-layered process, but rather about cosmetic changes.

How much theory does design need these days?
If by that you mean a foreign language composed of stilted jargon that takes years to learn to exchange ideas within closed communities with traditional rituals and static visual codes—well, no one needs that. All the same, we are experiencing a worldwide boom of conferences on matters of design theory that move in the direction of closed communities and jargon. If you mean the ability to reflect not only on the past, but also to speculate on the future, then that is part of design as well. The HfG Ulm left its mark on German design. At least it seems to be so with conceptions of design research.

From your viewpoint, what does the HfG Ulm mean for international design research?
The significance of the HfG Ulm’s contribution to international design research hasn’t even begun to be appreciated. We are still at the beginning of the work necessary to show just how far ahead of their time the main figures at the HfG Ulm really were. (My contribution in this issue provides more information.) This state of affairs is due to the passing of time: The closing of the HfG Ulm had to lay 20 years in the past for design in general to have an inkling of the significance of that school. Then it took another 20 years to understand the political and organizational framework conditions that existed within the HfG.

What influence did the closing of the school on discourse have regarding design research in Germany?
I cannot give a serious answer to this question. It might be suitable as a fascinating topic for a research project. I can only formulate three dubious speculations. Let’s assume that the HfG had continued to exist and had not been closed down in 1968. Then there are two possibilities:
1) The HfG would have survived as a private institution. Then it would probably have had another difficult 20 years, 20 long years of opposition, as it had had since its establishment. It is only since the 1990s that the conviction has spread in the politics of education and culture that an institution like the HfG served to fill a gap that had not even been perceived by politicians of the time. In that case, thanks to the research it had managed to carry out, the HfG would carry a prestige similar to that of MIT’s Media Lab and would play a comparable role.
2) The HfG would have been nationalized in 1968. This would have brought about a cultural shift, resulting in the fact that the HfG of 1990 would have been indistinguishable from all the other German universities of applied sciences. Maybe 1990 would have seen a revolt to the tune of »Back to the roots!« Then the HfG might be on the same level as the Royal College of Art today.
3) My third speculation refers to reality as it happened. On the one hand, it cannot be overlooked that the HfG has taken on a seductive power: More than ever, its achievements are mythologized and its historical reality is romanticized. For discourse on design research, this means that the HfG is now seen and discussed in the context of clichés and buzzwords.

The idea of science is always the result of complicated discourse. The sciences that are historically seen as »young,« but are already firmly established, such as psychology and sociology, have successfully managed to assert themselves. It seems that design research in Germany has yet to find its identity. Which scientific standards should design research follow?
Every generation has to negotiate for itself what science is. This is why I find it ridiculous when a catalog of formal criteria that has proven itself in other contexts is simply transferred to new constellations. In the end, it is a fact that every science has to prove its relevance for society and that the value of its contribution must be comprehensible. What arises from science — knowledge and methods — must be intersubjectively understandable. Any claims made by science must remain relevant until they are superseded.

Should design research as a discipline establish its own designerly concept of science and research, or — as a transdiscipline, should it develop an integrative concept of research instead?
I don’t think the two ideas are mutually exclusive. Design research must form its genuine basic requirements. To do so, it must use the tools that are suitable for the task. If its theories and methods are no longer helpful, others must be adapted and new ones developed. Of course, that is a wonderfully promising idea, as I see it: that we don’t have to concern ourselves merely with repeating formulas learned by heart from previous centuries, but rather focus constantly on the critical search for new certainties. GB: Established sciences will rightly treat the claims of any yet unproven new research discipline that plays around with integrative intentions with some reserve. Let’s take a successful example from history: systems theory, which opened up new perspectives for mathematicians, engineers, social scientists, and economists. I wish design theory had the same potential, whether it appears as design theory or not. Designers have always claimed a comprehensive approach to problem-solving that can or should be applied to design research, but without any ambition to »lead.«

Could the industrial-like projects of the HfG Ulm be considered forerunners of contemporary designerly research practice?
Otl Aicher developed a model for the HfG that complemented Humboldt’s two pillars of post-secondary institutions — research and teaching — with a third equal activity that he called development. By these pillars, he didn’t mean three completely separate activities. The substance in Aicher’s model consisted in the initiative that research, teaching, and development should form a cycle and feed back into each other by means of their connectedness. The development groups that were then established at the HfG worked on commissions from both the private and public sectors. As far as I can tell, this model was the first instance of design research institutionalized at a post-secondary institution. Decisive impulses were bundled together — above all, generalism instead of particularism; teamwork among natural and social scientists, businesspeople, engineers, and designers; and rational argumentation instead of emotional strongarming. Until then, [these possibilities] had only been uttered by individuals or outside post-secondary institutions; taken as a whole and measured by their results, they qualify the Ulm Model as design research. So I would never refer to any »forerunner,« but rather describe the Ulm Model as the primary realization.

Are these approaches still relevant for design research?
The worst thing we could do with our inheritance would be to copy it without critical analysis. We should ask ourselves which of the requirements of that time are still relevant today and which have changed. To that I can say first that the idea of the cycle of iterative processes that led to permanent adjustment is still relevant today, and that it should supersede the simplifying image of a linear sequence. What’s more, it is still correct that post-secondary institutions should not rest only on research and teaching but must understand that practice; what Aicher called »development« is an integrative aspect of their duties.

You have published a book on the political story of the HfG Ulm. The way politics perceived what could be understood as science, and what could be considered as science worthy of support, were decisive for the end of the HfG Ulm. How important is support from politics for new areas of »wissenschaft« such as design research nowadays?
The question we should ask is what politics should support. Practically speaking, politics should only negotiate the basic conditions for what is important to society. The first thing is that society has to recognize the significance of design research. The proponents of design research have the responsibility to make people understand this significance. The value of design research is not self-evident. I am convinced that design research makes a helpful, productive, and therefore important contribution to the development of society. So I think it’s right to support design research. This support generally comprises two factors: attention or appreciation and financial support. Researchers’ struggle for future resources consumes the greater part of their existing resources at the cost of their actual research work. This structural dilemma will not be solved the minute that politics discovers design research.

Theories and research perspectives that try to do justice to the heterogeneous nature of design require special approaches, forms of knowledge, methods, and even discourse. At the same time, design in practice has to do with a heterogeneous world in which linear models of this very world and how to »improve« it have reached their limits. In your view, what are the challenges currently facing design wissenschaft, design research, design practice, and teaching?
The greatest challenge lies within ourselves and is an intellectual one. Today, we must rapidly become clear on the fact that design is usually not the solution, but the problem — or at least a relevant part of the problem. (Horst Rittel spoke of »wicked problems.«) The conceit of always being able to control, rule, predict, know, and do everything is currently widespread in design. Fatally, the tendency has arisen to look neither beyond the end of the day nor beyond the confines of the box. I take this as true unwillingness — as a deliberate refusal—to investigate the ecological, cultural, economic, and political consequences of our work as designers as part of the bigger picture.

What design ethics are in demand today?
Design doesn’t need its own set of ethics. Why should there be separate ethics for physicists or musicians? We would be a lot further ahead if more designers were aware of their ethical responsibility as people. Ethics are about the discussion of the ultimate matter: human existence. In the end, I make my last journey without a power tie or a mechanic’s boiler suit, or designer frames for my glasses.

Interview by Sandra Groll
Translation by Kate Hunter

Das PDF des vollständigen Interviews kann von der Website der Zeitschrift Design Issues kostenlos heruntergeladen werden.


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Prof. Dr. René Spitz

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