Design culture or the expansion of the comfort zone ndion –

“You have to get out of your comfort zone” – a standard adage from counseling literature and management seminars that may have some validity for individual personality development. Design typically has a different goal: not so much to cross borders as to mediate between cultural heritage and the new, strange, different – ​​you could say to expand the comfort zone.

By Martin Krauter

Design can ensure cultural compatibility of new technologies, concepts or approaches, making them readable and usable. And design can also become a tool to specifically influence and change culture with its great inertia: as a variation of “cultural engineering”. A society with design culture would then be one that is open to the new, foreign, unknown, that promotes design to evolve further – and is ready to discuss the key question “How do we want to live?” without hierarchies. It is the privilege of the young generation of designers to set the tone with design for their future living environments – this belief is reflected in awards such as the German Design Graduates (GDG) Award.

Culture is a dazzling term that is not infrequently misused as a weapon of identity politics. In science, the meaning- and knowledge-oriented concept of culture has meanwhile prevailed. He understands culture as the overarching complex of ideas, thought forms, perceptions, values ​​and meanings created by humans, which materialize in symbol systems and artefacts: a definition that obviously includes design in all its forms. Technical or scientific innovations do not come out of a vacuum, but they are inevitably poor in cultural references to begin with – and often the creation of these references is not the inventor’s forte. The binding and modeling of such a network of references and relationships is, on the other hand, a central design skill and its success is quite rightly defined as a criterion for the GDG Award “Design Culture”: “The product design” […] linking disciplines (collaboration) [und] reflect cultural practices or have the potential to change them,” the announcement reads. How this can be expressed in concrete designs can be seen in three designs selected by the jury from this segment of the GDG Awards.

global culture

“E Cloud – Home” – a democratic solution for private energy supply, © Yujin Kang
Design culture
© Yujin Kang

Climate change and the acute energy crisis are complex global problems that must ultimately be dealt with on a global scale. It is all the more interesting that the winning design in the “Design Culture” category of the GDG Awards 2022, which deals with the topic of energy, comes from a designer who, as a South Korean in Germany, is familiar with two cultures, their similarities and differences. As a diploma thesis at HfG Offenbach, Yujin Kang participated “E Cloud-Home” developed a democratic solution for private energy supply – both on the systemic side with the idea of ​​a kind of “energy cloud” where people can sell, exchange or donate energy, for example from household solar cells, as well as on the specific level of a product: a mobile energy storage unit that blends into the residential environment thanks to its design. “Well-thought-out products change the world,” Yujin Kang explains in an interview: “Thanks to transcultural design, many countries in Europe and Asia would have the opportunity to use E Cloud – Home.” The design skill to culturally connect innovations from different fields is evident in their design, for example in the visible use of textile batteries made of carbon nanotubes – a visionary technology that is not yet ready for the market, but is culturally accessible through the creative bridge to the familiar use of textiles in the living area.

culture and nature

Milan Bardo Bergheim’s design is dialectical “peat:lab”: Because this is about the literal origin of culture, agriculture – Latin “cultura”, its unwanted consequences and the fundamental opposition of culture and nature. Specifically, heathlands are the subject, which are drained in favor of agricultural use. A problem because this results in oxidation processes: bogs are responsible for 5% of German CO2 emissions. Rewetting stops these emissions, but gigantic areas would have to be rewetted – a cultural paradigm shift. Therefore, in his master’s thesis, the candidate from Kunsthochschule Berlin Weissensee outlines the project “re:wet” as a framework in which this rewetting of agricultural land must be coordinated and evaluated. It is from this systemic-cultural framework that the classic product design task initially develops: namely a decentralized measuring device, “peat:lab”, with which farmers* determine terrain heights, water levels, peat thickness and vegetation composition. and the data into a can in a digital model.

Design Culture peat:lab
peat:lab is a measuring device that farmers can use to determine terrain heights, water levels, peat thickness and vegetation composition and feed the data into a digital model, © Milan Bardo Bergheim

In keeping with this context, the product design of the device does not boast, but is as naturally robust and functional as a spade – and uses an existing device with the smartphone as the operating and communication interface. peat:lab thus shows very clearly: Even in creative work, it is not only about doing things right, but also about doing the right thing. In the dialectic of culture and nature, design can help find a synthesis where contradictions dissolve and the preservation of nature becomes a cultural technique.

repair culture

Lars Herzog
Pelle is designed so that children can assemble it themselves, adapt it and modify it if necessary, © Lars Herzog

The British science fiction writer and physicist Arthur C. Clarke once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The progressive miniaturization of electronics, for example, right up to their virtual disappearance was welcomed by design as a gain in freedom. But it also has its drawbacks, because a complete relapse of consumer society into magical thinking would be a threatening scenario. At the same time, a subcultural counter-movement of hackers and makers can be observed, which insists on human dominance over technology, and which, for example, is expressed in the increasing number of maker spaces or repair cafes. Meanwhile, the European Parliament is calling for guidelines for repairable products: a tangible culture change. Another design from the GDG Award 2022, the children’s bike, fits into this image “pellet” for, according to its designer Lars Herzog, “little mechanics”.

It comes to its three to five-year-old customers in parts and with tools and is consistently designed in such a way that they can assemble it themselves, customize it and, if necessary, also modify it, for example from a balance bike to a real bike with pedals and drive. One can hope that children who have directly experienced freedom of movement and self-efficacy with “Pelle” will later conquer abstract, digital spaces with more confidence, supported for example by educational toys such as the Lego robot building sets. Extensive immersive cyber worlds such as Minecraft or the currently discussed Metaverse are part of the reality of life for young people – design offers the opportunity to bridge cultural gaps between developers and users, so that digital worlds can also become an extended comfort zone for everyone.

German design graduates
The designers mentioned are part of this year’s German design graduates. GDG is an initiative aimed at promoting young product design graduates and presenting state-recognised universities, art schools and technical colleges. Initiated in 2019 by Prof. Ineke Hans, Prof. Hermann Weizenegger, Prof. Mark Braun and Katrin Krupka, the German Design Council has been the project sponsor since 2022. Recognizing, presenting and promoting the quality and diversity of the candidates’ achievements and solutions is the most important building blocks of the GDG initiative.
On 2 October 2022, the prizes were awarded in the areas Circular design, social design, design research and Design culture awarded, under what E Cloud—Home by Yujin Kang with Design Culture Awards was awarded. that German Design Graduates Show 2022 in the Kunstgewerbemuseum in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden with a focus on “Perspectives for Graduates in Product Design” is dedicated to the central issues of our time under the influence of the serious changes and developments in politics, society and the environment and shows the most interesting ideas and solution approaches from 40 young designers from over 20 German universities for product design. The exhibition can be seen in Dresden until 31 October.

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