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How has the importance of industrial and product design changed? How strong is nature's influence on product design? And: what role plays design in terms of communicating technological change? Klaus Klemp, Professor of Design Theory and History of Design at HfG Offenbach, gives answers.

Professor Dr. Klaus Klemp<br>© Andreas BaierProfessor Dr. Klemp, how has the importance of industrial and product design changed over time?
Professional product design is usually said to have emerged in Europe in the mid-19th century, a time when industrialization was in full flow. Design theories have a much longer history, stretching back to the Roman architect Vitruvius in the 1st Century BC, who stated that a structure must display the three qualities of firmitas, utilitas, venustas, meaning it displays the properties of solidity, usefulness and beauty. During the Renaissance, an analytical, scientific and systematic approach was developed, which was successfully picked up on by the constructors in the machine age. However, the efforts to achieve appropriate design and overcome historic applications went on long into the 20th Century.

In the consumer goods segment, attractiveness (beauty) undoubtedly plays a major role, irrespective of its implementation. Yet Vitruvius' other two demands have also not lost any of their significance, if they are updated for today's audience: Solidity in the sense of technical and visual durability that saves resources and protects the environment from unnecessary waste. Given the speed at which technical performance is increasing today and the fact that an ever greater proportion of the world’s population are acting as consumers, this is a major challenge that forces us to think and act in completely new ways. Usefulness can no longer merely be viewed as ease of use, but instead as the sense of creating functional interfaces between people and machines, including within each group, worldwide.

How strong is nature's influence on product design? Which natural shapes and inventions are particularly beneficial for shapes and materials?
As a scientific discipline, bionics might be relatively new, yet its roots can be traced as far back as Alberti and Leonardo. The discipline is a natural factor for engineers and, albeit in a different form, for designers, too. Whether floral ornaments replace historic versions in Art Nouveau style, or imagery itself was shaped in non-European cultures, elements of nature have always been applied to products. Sometimes this is more useful than others, with kitsch design particularly likely to quote from nature. In the 19th Century it was pin cushions in the shape of wild boars, today it is a solar-powered wobbling flower on the dashboard of a car or a windowsill.

Signs and symbols from nature always play a part in fashion and communication design, as can be seen from the use of the color green as an indicator for environmental compatibility. Automotive design has always played with the human face: Headlights representing eyes, radiator grilles the mouth and side mirrors as ears that are reminiscent of anything from a child (Mini) to a dragon (Audi). Perhaps it is time to consider totally new design concepts, especially in this marketing-driven field. Humanoid robots are playing an increasing role in Japan in particular. Robot dog Aibo has been sold more than 150,000 times since 1999, while robot seal PARO has been successfully used to help dementia patients since 2004. The relationship between design, nature and robotics is undoubtedly a broad topic. After all, the conflict between design and nature even includes the field of augmented reality, which links the real and digital worlds.

Does the paradigm of "form follows function" still apply, or does today's design teaching have something else to offer?
The famous phrase from American architect Louis Sullivan in 1896 is arguably the most highly quoted phrase in the history of design, and the one that is most often misunderstood and misused. In the 1920s, functionalists saw it as a call to arms; their opponents as an accusation. Sullivan's meaning was actually much broader. Function-oriented design was predominantly discredited by a brainless (and therefore actually dysfunctional), profit-based prefabricated apartment block in the post-war period. A good counterexample is the electrical company Braun and its Chief Designer Dieter Rams, who from the 1950s succeeded in manufacturing products that not only worked well, but also looked good and stayed looking good. After all, people often throw away products that they no longer like the look of, even if they still work.

Knowledge of product semantics - generating a product language - plays a key role in design education today. This can take the form of intuitive user guidance or a product identity that can be experienced both visually and haptically, unlocking access to the world. These aspects are complemented by key points, such as interaction and interface design (human-machine environment) and materials research, which is also increasingly highly valued in the training of product designers. This expertise also includes reliable knowledge of the history of design and technology, aesthetics, perception theories, semiotics, and design methodologies. Above all, product designers need to be able to create links to neighboring disciplines - both cultural and arts subjects and especially scientific and technical fields. Communication skills are essential here, in order to understand and collaborate in complex design processes that almost always demand interdisciplinary teamwork. It might sound like a paradox, but today’s designers also need to be able to design product avoidance strategies.

What role does design play in communicating technological change processes to society?
Design certainly plays a key role here, although the term itself is put under a lot of strain. Marketing departments like to use it as a distinction and to accelerate consumption, emphasizing one-off designs. Hairdressers, furniture stores, hoteliers and even drug dealers all insist on putting the "design" label on their products. In addition, there is an almost total lack of high-quality design journalism in the public media. Knowledge of what good product design can achieve is not only lacking among the public: many companies are also in the dark, especially at management level.

Innovative product design cannot be left to the marketing department - otherwise it will be nothing more than packaging design. Well-founded design, especially in industry, carries significant social responsibility. From smartphones to mobility concepts, design has a lasting effect on society. We are now living through the "fourth industrial revolution based on cyber-physical systems". The idea behind it is to work with engineers, digital experts and producers to tap the world of artifacts and the nature around us, so that we can make better use of them - and increasingly, protect nature from ourselves. (pu)


Vita Professor Dr. Klaus Klemp

  • born in Dortmund in 1954 
  • studied Design/Visual Communications at the universities of applied sciences in Dortmund and Münster and received a degree in Design
  • studied History of Art, History and History of Law at Philipps-Universität Marburg, receiving his doctorate after studying under Professor Heinrich Klotz and producing a thesis on the architecture of the early modern era
  • from 1988 to 2006 Klemp was in charge of the City of Frankfurt am Main's culture department (Amt für Wissenschaft und Kunst)
  • Klemp also headed up the municipal galleries at Karmeliterkloster (1988 to 1998) and Leinwandhaus (1988 to 2006)
  • from 2006 to 2012 he was head of exhibitions and from 2013 to 2014 deputy director and design expert curator at Museum Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt's museum of applied art
  • since 1998 he has been a lecturer in Design History, Design Theory and Public Design at Akademie der Bildenden Künste (AdBK, the Academy of Fine Art) in Nuremberg, at Hochschule RheinMain (HS-RM, the RheinMain University of Applied Sciences) in Wiesbaden and Würzburg's University of Applied Sciences
  • since 2008, Adjunct Professor at HS-RM in Wiesbaden
  • from 1995 to 2005 a member of the Executive Board at the German Design Council
  • since 2010 a member of the Board of Management at the "Dieter and Ingeborg Rams Foundation", a member of the Advisory Board at GfDg (German Design History Society)
  • since winter semester of 2014/2015 he has been Professor of Design Theory and History of Design at HfG Offenbach whilst remaining Head of Design Collection of Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt

Further Information

HfG Offenbach   |    Braun-Sammlung Ettel Museum für Design   |   VDMAimpulse 03-2018: "Automobile design evokes emotion"   |   VDMAimpulse 03-2018: "There is no such thing as a set formula for good vehicle design"

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