September 2023

Design: Commitment to a Humane Future (since 1953)

At the iF Design Awards ceremony in Taipei in July 2023, René Spitz, board member of the iF Design Foundation, looked back on 70 years of iF history. In his comprehensive talk, he highlighted the subjects of change, transformation and progress: "where we have come from, where we are, and what that might mean for us". He also defined the commitment to a humane future as the core task of design.

Design as part of modernity

In the second half of the 19th century, design was a new term to designate a new reality. The phenomenon had previously been called industrial art. Design is both a child of modernity and a factor that drives and stabilizes the historical process of modernity.

At its core, modernity is not an aesthetic phenomenon. It's an expression of a different concept of time: before modernity, the past was important, and traditions determined what had to be done, by whom, how, and why. People were guided by what was handed down to them from their ancestors.

The opposite is true for modernity: modern people do not look back; they look towards the future. The past does not help us shape the future. We have to form our own judgements because we have to make our own decisions. Modern people are fundamentally critical of other people’s claims or statements. This is because, with modern science, people have come to realize that many past beliefs and convictions were indeed superstitions and misconceptions.

For the modern human, the future is not predetermined; we can shape it. Each individual is called upon to develop their future in a free and independent way. That is why modernity is intrinsically political.

However, the First World War shattered modernism's belief in progress. Everything it had promised with regard to a future worth living suddenly turned into an inhumane, unimaginably cruel slaughterhouse.

The core of the Bauhaus: designing everyday life as art

Without this worldwide shock, it is impossible to understand the Bauhaus. What could modern people do to avoid despair? Walter Gropius and his colleagues were looking for the solution not in the past, but in the future. They wanted to create something new, because the old had led to the catastrophe of the First World War. They wanted to develop new forms to shape the future. A future that would have liberated itself from the old traditions. Art served them as a guide. For the founders of the Bauhaus, art was international, a uniting force for humanity. Art was the answer to the question as to how society could be transformed into a peaceful and free society.

The Bauhaus was the most influential art school of the 20th century. Its aim was to bring art into everyday life. The instrument for this was architecture: the house was the focal point, everything was geared towards making the building a total work of art. Industry became a partner, especially at the Bauhaus Dessau. This resulted in designs that were subject to the artistic rules of a new aesthetic: the so-called industrial aesthetic. Although it was a contradiction in terms, people were quick to refer to ‘the Bauhaus style’: in fact, however, the Bauhaus was about overcoming styles and instead developing each form independently based on its purpose. That these ideas and objectives were definitely political in nature was evident from the fact that the ruling politicians despised and fought against the Bauhaus.

A new democratic beginning after the Second World War

After the Second World War, democratic initiatives sprang up all over Germany. The most significant one in terms of design emerged in Ulm, where the Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG, 1953-1968) was founded. It questioned all traditions since they had not stopped the National Socialists from seizing power and establishing their daily regime of terror. The HfG also rejected the idea that art was the benchmark for a perfect life.

In the early 1950s, a tension between tradition and progress, between reconstruction and new forms could be observed everywhere. It was similar to the juxtaposition of visible destruction caused by the war and newly constructed roads and buildings with new automotive traffic. At the same time, there were some significant and powerful initiatives that focused not on reconstruction, but on developing a new future. For example, in Hanover: in 1947, the British military government had arranged for the industrial trade fair to take place there.

1953: the beginning of iF

In 1953, the Deutsche Industrie-Messe (German Industrial Fair) staged its first exhibition of selected products with the title Sonderschau formgerechter Industrieerzeugnisse (Special Show of Well-Designed Industrial Goods). This initiative was founded by representatives from business, culture and politics. They wanted to contribute to a peaceful, free and democratic future. They believed that design encompassed social, technical (in terms of production), economic, functional, cultural and aesthetic aspects in equal measure. In today's terms, they wanted to promote design as a core component of sustainability. That was the birth of the iF. The name is derived from the title of the first book published in 1954, GESTALTETE INDUSTRIEFORM IN DEUTSCHLAND (Designed Industrial Form in Germany): iF is an initialism for industrial form.

The disillusionment of the late 1960s

By the end of the 1960s, it became obvious that modernity had failed to deliver on its promises. The world had not become more peaceful, free, just and humane. The modern, designed world had not become better, only different. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steve Izenour touched a sore spot when they poked fun at the fact that in the middle of the Nevada desert, a city was growing and thriving that was not supposed to exist in modernity. A city that didn't care in the least about the aesthetic rules that were supposed to lead to a better society. It was about nothing more than fun and entertainment, a funny facade and eye-catching decoration. The symbol was more important than the substance. Irony became the defining tone of any narrative in the late 1960s – which, above all, had to be entertaining. Anyone who was serious was ridiculed. Historical forms were rediscovered as repertoire for citations and collages. There was no more progress or perfection, only transformation. And the meaning of consumption was the consumption of meaning. Design was in the middle of this debate when digitalization arrived.

Design in the 21st century: dealing with wicked problems

Since then, we have been having a new debate. The modern world is a world of design. In the 20th century, design caused pre-modern things to disappear. In the digital world of the 21st century, things themselves are disappearing. Our world, the modern industrialized world, is a complex world. It is characterized by so-called wicked problems. There are countless interdependencies. They cannot be examined from the outside, from a neutral position. Anyone who wants to solve these problems is neither independent nor objective. All relevant challenges of the present are such "wicked problems": the Covid pandemic, climate change, mass consumption, social media, energy, plastics, etc.

As early as 50 years ago, the Club of Rome argued that there were limits to growth and that we had to develop new strategies to master the urgent challenges that we were facing. Its report opened the doors to sustainability. Another key message in that report was that education was needed to understand, and to overcome, these challenges.

Our tasks are not simple problems, they are wicked problems. But we are mostly still guided by 20th century solutions to simple, so-called tame problems. Tame problems have been solved. Unfortunately, we keep giving new answers, ignoring that the question has already been answered. Now, however, the simple design of simple tools is not a solution, but a problem.

We need education if we are to deal with the current complex and wicked problems, with uncertainty, contradictions, different interests and perspectives. Critical thinking requires education. Simple answers lead to hatred and destruction.

Designing Design Education

When, in 2015, we were asked to develop a design school for the 21st century, it sounded like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. To better understand this mission, we traveled around the world and talked to hundreds of people. We went to design schools, design studios and to industry. We wanted to learn from the people we talked to. Essentially, we only had one question: Is what is being taught in design schools the kind of thing that is needed for the future of design? Two years ago, we published our findings: Designing Design Education – WhiteBook on the Future of Design Education.

In October XNUMX, we launched our new three-year research program in order to provide answers on how to implement this new design education program. Not in theory, but in practice. We combine impulses from current discourses with practical workshops and reflection. Our mission is to contribute to a development that will lead to a design education for a humane future. It would be great if you joined us in building a new learning community.

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