Inaugural Speech Of An Industrial Designer

Magdeburg / 1st of April, 2009

Dear colleagues, dear students,

I love ideas.

An idea is conceived, transformed into a design, into a concept, it becomes a model, and then (as in my case) a form. When a form is serially reproducible, then an idea is called a product. Since an idea resides at the beginning of this chain, I am not a product developer, but a developer of ideas. To be honest with you, I must admit that a mediocre yet well-executed idea functions better than a good idea badly realized. Moreover, I notice that adopting and reheating old ideas will most often cause less resistance and quicker success with little effort. Well-known or stolen ideas usually perform in a much better way and they will be voiced in a more routine way. The cost-to-benefit calculation seems to speak against my love of the original development of ideas. So why do I still love them?

When I take a look around this room, I sense and know that, now and here, I am moved by many ideas. This school was established as an institution, as a place and as a building. All the products in this room are the result of ideas. Each instance of occurrence and self-movement in this room is moderated by ideas of the past. Even my self-concept of a lecturer is based on ideas, numerous ideas of others and some of mine. While observing it, I feel a wish arising in me, the wish that also my ideas will become part of the world, the promise being that I will find myself in this world. In this context, neither stolen nor reheated ideas can help me. Neither in theory nor in practice can I comprehend any effort or attempt to replace supposedly unrealistic imaginative thinking with supposedly realistic (and unimaginative?) thinking, or to play them off against each other, since the idea and the realty need each other.

I am not really sure whether an idea in design has always the ability to change my view of the world beyond the “to-have-and-to-want.” Yet, I am convinced that the view of the world can manifest itself in products. Here, I see the role of design with its conflicting priorities as the concept of the world and the amplifier of the weltanschauungs. Raymund Loewy did not discover speed, but he gave form to the idea of speed. When I design particular surroundings for a person (his workplace or home), I design, no doubt, part of his world. The process of designing confronted with these challenges remains charmingly human. I, as a designer, naturally answer each such question with thoughtful consideration, a sheet of paper, a pencil and artistic expression. Such attitudes towards challenge seem to be attractive to other disciplines. Otherwise, I cannot explain to myself why, for example, restless biologists have now become bionics, the people who broaden the scope of their research into nature in order to create products which no less than enchant me.

The term “idea” has undergone numerous metamorphoses. Diverse definitions describe it as something “eternally unchangeable” or “the notion of a thing” or even “a fancy.” I have found many descriptions of this word and I like them all. I do not really care which definition you prefer because all the meanings of this word taken together describe no less than the range and facets of my imagination, ergo, my abilities.

Ideas are, like everything I experience, not value-free. Therefore, I favor ideas which do not make me a slave or an operator of products or processes, but those which make a user and master out of me. I like ideas which do not appeal to my fears, but those which let me breathe freely, ideas which pay tribute to my body and my soul. I like ideas which do not make me into a lonely couch potato, but those which, in every sense, provide movement and broaden my view of the world. I like ideas which do not limit themselves to appeal to my vanity, no pimped fetishes, but ideas which help create meaningful and exciting products.

The execution of ideas usually takes place against the background of a firmly fixed occupational image. As a designer, I do not have this kind of fixed background. Today (almost exactly 90 years after Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus) not only can I take responsibility for the styling of existing solutions, but I can also be a demanding hunter of patentable innovations. Contrary to an apparently complex description of my occupational field, it is easy to characterize the playing field of my work. Being an industrial designer, I move in a triangular area of tension whose vertexes are called culture, commerce and construction design. Here, I understand culture as human contact with the world in all its facets. I can either respect or change contemporary culture, but I could never ignore it. Commercialization determines the exploitation of my ideas and construction design can be accounted for by the fact that the results of my work are three-dimensional, physically available and serially produced.

These three “Cs” are “only” limitations of the conflict area and they do not constitute any worth in themselves. A successful construction design suggests a good constructor, but not always a successful product. All the same, I need to confront myself with this realization in order to transform an idea into a functioning product. This of process of realization can best be survived by an idea which is superior to a certain range of variations, since designing products means, in my experience, designing many – differently realistic – variants of an idea.

The result of my work is concept and form. Form is function. Each form possesses a constructive, cultural or commercial function. Should I overlook it, I may only hope that the functions of my forms will not blow up in my face since design explains no functions – design exposes them. This exposure always affects not only the eye of the viewer, but also his body. Through product design, I offer the eye a promise which the body must fulfill. This means that my work provides a soundless, but not a speechless connection. This, in turn, connects my work with other non-verbal world languages such as music, dance and cooking.

The idea (in the sense of the principal approach) presents me with a possibility of exchange with others. The interdisciplinary exchange of ideas, providing it takes place at the appropriate level of generalization, is for me the most crucial key to future developments. Should this exchange prove too general, one could come to an agreement that the world can only be “good” or “bad.” Should it be too specific, I will scare others (or myself) away with micro problems such as over technicalized terminology. Somewhere in-between there is a still undervalued area where expert knowledge could be generalized into projects in a result-oriented way. In such case, the healthy common sense could become the lingua franca for all participating sides.

This interdisciplinary understanding and good concepts are our semi-success and save us from needless bricolage. Of course, the problems of a bad concept can be constructively solved. But a bad concept will never result in good construction design, because I cannot separate the concept from the construction. A successful constructive bringing together of various building elements is not necessary when the concept itself does not separate these very elements. Thus, in the meantime, I perceive an outsized construction effort (not only in design) to be suspicious and I sometimes have a suspicion that the most elegant and best designs are, in fact, no designs. When I, as a designer, am not allowed or will not take part in the original process of conceptualization, I can only hope that a given concept accidentally lives up to my expectations and matches my overall competences. In my experience, this is usually not the case. I am mostly confronted with an exaggerated communication effort resulting in rounding off the existing vertexes of the concept, and then making them more angular, which does not really make the whole thing more fascinating.

In interdisciplinary cooperation I, as a designer, do not need to do the work of others. I do not have to be either a salesman or an engineer. Yet, I do have to understand their work since none of my products will ever see the light of the day without the imaginative help of an engineer. Here, embarrassingly enough, it can well happen that I am sometimes, as a designer, a bad engineer, but so is an engineer, from time to time. And these are good development engineers who are sovereign enough to sometimes let themselves err. All these embarrassments are rather negligible when confronted with the pride in a successfully executed product which is the result of mutually assured engineer-designer cooperation.

This pride is real. When I do not design any products I may be proud of, but teach product development and design, then the source of my pride must originate from somewhere else. And here exactly what I am talking about is you, dear students:

With growing standardization of industrial processes, school, rather than industry, will be more and more appreciated as the place where ideas are generated. Standardization is the opposite of the development of ideas and, at best, a necessary provocation for the impatient. The very essence of an idea, its fleetingness and its non-commercial starting character need an environment which the school may and should provide. That is why I also see you as stuntmen and stuntwomen trusting themselves enough to put themselves in danger and courageous enough to think the unthinkable, to conceptualize and to form for all the others who do not dare. In the process of this development of ideas, I see proof of the vibrancy of a place and it is this liveliness and vibrancy which I always look for. I always send signals to those interested in a qualitative advancement. As an industrial designer, I leave a quantitative advancement to machines producing my products or to the media replicating the pictures of my results.

It is, of course, your task as students, to learn the tools of design. In the world of free markets and competitive economies, you will be judged by your professional skills and accomplishments. But your task is also, and even considerably more, to develop an idea of how I will live in the future, how I will communicate, how I will eat, how I will learn, how I will work and relax, how healthy I will stay or how I will move forward. You will decide what will be valued in the future. You will decide what makes sense.

Thus, in doing so, please keep an eye on the fact that I am not only your customer or user of your products, but a human being. This human being has a body and soul; he is both sophisticated and seducible, endowed with fears and courage, stubborn yet capable of development, rational yet romantic, egotistic and hopelessly dependent on others. Develop your ideas for a man whose primary aim is to experience life and live life with others.

As designers, you do not need to explain your ideas to me. Show them to me since:

I love your ideas.