Designers should be involved in processes at an early stage

A transfer interview with design researcher Prof. Dr. Martina Fineder on the interdisciplinary tasks of design

"Design starts with thinking along in development processes and has a significant influence on everything we end up with, including how we can get rid of it when we no longer want it," says Design and Cultural Studies expert Professor Dr Martina Fineder, who has held the Chair of Design Theory and Design Research at the University of Wuppertal since 2019.
Design theory is a relatively young science that only developed at the beginning of the last century. It deals with methods, strategies, but also research and analysis on the concept of design, as well as with questions of consumption and lifestyle. It takes a more situational approach, focusing on specific contexts or time periods.
"In Wuppertal, we deal with questions of social change and focus on questions of socially and ecologically oriented design and consumer research as well as forms of creative work," Fineder explains. "We do this from both a historical, and a contemporary perspective." The scientist and her students pay special attention to the perception of change, and with aspects such as the acceleration of the pace of life, or environmental changes, as well as digitalisation, there is also the exciting view from a multi-generational perspective, "because these experiences are not only culturally but also very biographically shaped.

Vienna – Weimar – Wuppertal

The three cities mark Fineder's professional path in life. In Vienna, the doctor of Design and Cultural Studies works at the University of Applied Arts, at the Technical University, and most recently at the Academy of Fine Arts. For two years, she also taught as a visiting professor for the Theory and History of Design at the Faculty of Design at Bauhaus University in Weimar. In 2019, she found her professional home in Wuppertal. "I come from the cultural and social science side of the discipline. Here, in Wuppertal, this side is combined very well with the technical and economic orientation through collaborations with colleagues from design practice and innovation strategy."
The native Austrian describes her perception of the Bergisch city in the heart of North Rhine-Westphalia as following: "I do not see Wuppertal as a smaller city, but as part of a metropolis of 10 million people. The city has a large catchment area. Forty minutes to Cologne, twenty minutes to Düsseldorf, that is shorter than going from one end to the other in a big city. It is well embedded and the restructuring of the industry and the associated necessary reorganisation of the working world, offer a very exciting working environment.

New forms of design

The scientist has been working for a long time on the unimagined new possibilities of commons logic, the so-called commons, which offer design and innovation strategies. This involves the development of new forms of design as well as of production and consumption. "Here, an approach is needed that sees the design of our living and working worlds as socially open processes which allow for more participation and co-determination. "Design can provide instructions, methods and tools to offer meaningful supplements and alternatives to the currently dominant forms of production and economy. But to do this, we need to develop an understanding that this concerns us all," she says. "I carried a project along with me from Vienna. In this project, we took a longer look at the various forms of sharing knowledge and means of production. We developed patterns for future design commons out of them. Currently, in a project with Master's students, she and her colleagues are investigating aspects of the common good in design. The working group, on the initiative of colleague Prof. Gert Trauernicht, is trying to combine design and charity in a socially and economically meaningful way under the title "Design for Good". In the coming semester, a teaching and research cooperation with the Bundeskunsthalle Bonn is on the agenda, which deals with new forms of participation and analogue-digital hybrid experiences between museum and home.

Interpersonal design

Last year, Martina Fineder and Johannes Lang published the interdisciplinary book "Interpersonal Design". The editors explore the question of how things consciously or unconsciously shape our interpersonal interaction, based on a history of design which deals with the constant improvement of people's living conditions. Both practice and theory increasingly focus on the social aspects of design, such as the improvement of living and working conditions through technical and functional facilitation. "Household design is a good example. For a long time, for good reasons, a lot of effort was done to make work more ergonomic, i.e. to make it physically and psychologically more manageable," she says. "The social relationships in the household were not the focus. This also applies to the field of medicine. Some contributions in the book deal specifically with the role of things in doctor-patient relationships, or about the effect of things on the interaction in care situations. It can be observed that palpation, questions and looking at patients have predominantly been substituted by an evidence-based doctor-patient relationship when measuring devices are involved. These devices are considered more for reasons of time and safety, since one can better rely on these data. "It is currently apparent that people need to be more informed, consulted and involved again," Fineder explains, "which is why, for example, decision-making aids are being designed in ways that involve patients, but also relatives again in joint therapy decision-making processes.
Another interpersonal design aspect deals with the design of learning spaces that can promote or disrupt joint reflection and cooperation. Here, the question arises: "Can we actually meet in our spaces? What can the designed environment do to promote interdisciplinary cooperation? What kind of hierarchies do we help to shape through our learning environments and do we even want them?"

The opportunities of distance learning

Corona still prevents people from meeting in rooms. Therefore, working conditions have to be adapted. Thematically, the teaching has not changed as much, the design scientist says, but methodologically, different formats have been used. "For example, we have focused more on group work, in which each student has his or her own individual task, but the students work together in preparing for seminars. For this purpose, question and answer formats have been developed that generate content-related questions in advance of individual courses. New media or software such as Miroboards (digital collaborative drawing board) with chat formats are used. In this regard, I was also able to learn a lot from the students because they have a very informal approach to digital media. We also visualised the contents of complete books via the Miroboard. I would say, I receive the joint, interactive visualisation of knowledge, as even more important since last semester, since we cannot be in the same room physically." Thematically, we directly responded to the pandemic with a specific project for Master's students that addresses the issue of spatially separated collaboration. The question of how collaborative, creative work is experienced as most satisfying when one cannot meet physically was central to this. One important result is that technical functionality and perfection (such as transmission quality) are only partial aspects of successful online communication. Rather, it is a matter of including the need for social proximity as a decisive aspect in the design of digital meeting cultures.

Utopia of design

Research always implies dealing with challenges that have not yet been dealt with. Design therefore also deals with utopias that can quickly become realities in the digital age. "If you think of utopias a little dystopian, the possibilities and consequences of surveillance and security, these are not only political but also design issues, then there has been an incredible surge of realisation in recent years. Not long ago, digitally controlled everyday life was still the subject of dystopian series like, for example, Black Mirror. Some of this has now, due to the pandemic, become reality very quickly. Soon we may not have to move either, like the characters on the space station in the film "Walli-E" (laughs). But if you look at eco-social utopias, like those that were already being spun in the 1970s, for example on topics like plastic waste, car- and exhaust-free cities or access to fresh drinking water for all people in this world, things are moving very slowly in comparison."

Designer training is very interdisciplinary

Design makes a decisive contribution to corporate success. "Let us just look at Apple, which is an oft-cited example, unthinkable without design," she explains, "and like its role model, the successful German design model Braun, today an iconic part of all design collections in the world." But that is only what one sees at first glance, the scientist says, but it is often much more interesting where design is commonly not seen. "It is therefore important that designers are involved in processes at an early stage in order to develop new orientations, new consumption, production or communication strategies or procedures. This will not only contribute significantly to the success of companies in the future, but also contributes significantly to the common good.
"Designers receive a very interdisciplinary education for this. They can join social and ecological issues with market aspects and technical requirements and design and moderate development processes accordingly and, if necessary, question the traditional.

Finally, Fineder frames the unique characteristic of the Industrial Design Department at the University of Wuppertal as following: "For me, the particularly great thing about our department is the previously, rarely experienced interweaving of practice, theory and research. There is a high level of mutual interest."
This interest could be used even more attentively by the business community.

Uwe Blass (Interview on February 4, 2021)

Martina Fineder is Professor of Design Theory and Design Research in the Industrial Design Department of the Faculty of Design and Art at the University of Wuppertal.

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