The Frankfurt-Rhine-Main region is competing for the title of World Design Capital 2026. Matthias Wagner K, the director of the Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt am Main, is placing this application under the motto "Design for Democracy. Atmospheres for a better life." In a conversation with Felix Kosok, the two question the state of our democracy and the role that designers could and should play in it. At the center, however, is the question of what design means for democracy.
Felix Kosok: Dear Matthias, every two years the organization World Design Capital designates a city that highlights the effective use and benefits of design in promoting economic, social, cultural and environmental progress. So it's about making design present as a crucial factor in the transformation and further development of our societies. Now you have placed the application of the Frankfurt-Rhine-Main region for this very title under what I think is an extremely interesting motto. First of all, it is not about the design of ecologically sensible mobility or the design of sustainable production cycles, topics that are currently being prominently negotiated in design. This application is entitled "Design for Democracy. Atmospheres for a better life". Now one might think that our democracy is actually functioning relatively well: Democratic processes are up and running, its institutions seem stable. So why this motto and why does our democracy need design at all?
Matthias Wagner K: That's a good question, dear Felix. Democracy definitely needs design! When we, as curators, dealt with the topic of ideologies at the Ray 2021 photography triennial, we already asked ourselves in what state our societies are currently in. In what kind of time do we live? What is happening around us? How can we characterize and describe it? Even during this research, we, as well as I personally, were not of the opinion that democracy and its institutions - as a form of free living - are doing quite as well as you have just described. Democracy seems more and more porous to me. On the one hand, I notice that in many places here in Germany. On the other hand, it is also an international phenomenon, and you only have to look at Europe. In a number of countries, tendencies are spreading that call democratic structures into question or even want to establish anti-democratic structures, and the models of autocratic governance are attracting more and more supporters in both East and West. Democracy is therefore not only porous, but also threatened.
In the course of these observations, an interest in transformation processes and the way societies function arose. Why are our societies disintegrating into ever smaller groups? How open, transparent and permeable are these still? Are we dealing with bubbles? Which makes the question of the relationship of the individual to society urgent. Or are we no longer thinking about society as a whole at all? Does something like responsibility for more than just myself still exist? There is a huge gap in all these areas. Our liberal democracy has many porous zones. The supporting pillars may still be standing, supported by the Constitution. But the rest of the structure is crumbling. My questions and my search began with this diagnosis.
The answer I found in this motto has a lot to do with your book Form, Function and Freedom, in which you write about the relationship between design and democracy. But Natascha Strobl's analysis of a radicalized conservatism and Adorno's 1969 radio contribution on education for autonomy were also inspirations. Even if one would no longer speak of education today, this is still an insanely topical contribution that should be listened to again. In addition to these theoretical influences, there was also a very pragmatic approach. What actually distinguishes the Frankfurt-Rhine-Main region from the rest of the world? If a city like Copenhagen were to apply with the theme of mobility or Oslo as a car-free city of culture, we wouldn't stand a chance. So what makes the Frankfurt-Rhine-Main region special and makes you think about the role and function of designers in a completely new and different way? For this specific question, it makes sense to take a look back into the past: It was here, more than 550 years ago, that Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz invented printing with movable metal type, thus triggering a media revolution; it was here that the reform movement of Art Nouveau, as it found expression in Darmstadt, and not least the city of Frankfurt am Main, with its design utopia "The New Frankfurt," were already centers of modern design and new models of society. Here, in 2023, the first German National Assembly, which took place in the Paulskirche in 1848, will be commemorated and a House of Democracy is to be built. And then there's your book again, in which you found such good examples. The ballot paper alone from the introduction.
Felix Kosok: You mean the infamous Butterfly Ballot of the 2000 presidential election in Florida, right? Its confusing layout led to considerable discrepancies in the projected votes. Ultimately, this helped the Republicans to win the election and, if you will, George W. Bush to the presidency.
Matthias Wagner K: This is of course an example that demonstrates the influence that the smallest things, but very clearly design, can have. It's an example of how good design, but in this case unfortunately bad design, can influence the course of an entire election. Design can be the deciding factor in an election. With this introduction to the topic, it then became clear to me that the application must make a completely different demand. It can't just be about changing mobility concepts or changing products. We don't need yet another chair design. We need to understand design more fundamentally and look at it more profoundly. And out of a recognition of design's potential to change society, we need to derive the corresponding demands, because time is running out for us to still be able to do something to counter the multiple pending crises.
Felix Kosok: I would like to split the title of the motto into two parts to coincide with your diagnosis. We have democracy on the one hand and its design on the other in "Design for Democracy". The idea of democracy is not really in crisis per se. After all, many openly anti-democratic groups claim to be democratic themselves when they call for the free expression of opinions without any consequences. They claim democratic freedom in order to promote unfreedom. But anti-democratic parties in Germany and Europe also continue to promote the idea of democracy. However, what you mentioned, the increasing porosity of our democracy, concerns the design of our democracy, which has become fragile. Obviously, a confidence in the functions of democracy is disappearing and we need better and new proposals for a design of participation. These are exactly those porous zones, aren't they?
Matthias Wagner K: By porous bits, I mean a dilemma: Everyone actually still has some idea of what democracy means, and no one really wants the opposite. But then again, what happens right in front of our door? What is happening on our public squares? What is the state of social cohesion and what is being rebelled against? What is being demonstrated for - and with what signs and symbols? If you look into the realities of everyday life, this is exactly what I mean by the porous zones. That which happens on our doorstep. The things that happen in our own group of friends. Things that happen in our daily interactions with each other - or don't happen. There has been a lot of isolation recently, which is certainly due to the pandemic. But it shows the importance of what we have in common and how it is endangered.
In 2018, Georgia was the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, for which we also had an exhibition in the museum. There was an incredible fascination and enthusiasm, especially among young people in and for the country, for the tentative process of peaceful coexistence between different groups and thus also democratization, which was closely linked to the subculture in Tbilisi. And how quickly did it all end? Many of the book fair's protagonists at the time, authors, curators and cultural workers, have left Georgia. Or let's look at Hungary or Poland. I have strong biographical ties to the latter, because I was part of the Solidarność movement on the German side, in what was then the GDR. But that all seems to be dissolving again right now, and in a large part of the population there is a real nostalgia and longing for strong leadership to deal with the crises. In Georgia, quite explicitly, a nostalgia for Stalinism. All of a sudden, autocrats, and with them autocracy, are once again becoming something attractive and dazzling, and people believe that they can solve the current problems with them.
We are still a long way from that in Germany. The last election proved that. But I see myself quite clearly as a citizen of the world and a European. Borders no longer make sense to me, and the borders that the pandemic has shown us are enough for now. I'll be glad when they disappear again. But I look with concern at our European neighbors. Attacks on democracy are encroaching more and more directly on our lives. I fear that the idea of what it means to work for society and for togetherness is being lost, along with the realization of how fulfilling this can be.
Felix Kosok: You raised several sore points about democracy that I find extremely interesting. For many people, democratic governments no longer seem capable enough to act. They act nationally, while real decisions, especially economic decisions, are made internationally. The crises then again have a planetary scale. This is connected with the longing for strong men and the nostalgia for strong authority that is finally supposed to regulate everything. It is primarily these "strong" men who are at the forefront of anti-democratic movements. At the same time, just as you described, there is a lack of imagination for collective action having exactly this potential for changing things in the world. There is a lack of imagination for what is common, what is unifying, that is created in collective action. In my opinion, these are the two closely related problems of democracy
Matthias Wagner K: Yes, although I would like to consider, certainly also in your sense, the unifying and collective action with a view to a common and extremely threatened world, not as a national idiosyncrasy. At this point we also have to talk about digitalization. Of course, this development or even the technologies are not something bad per se. They certainly have positive effects. But in the concentration of these tools in the hands of globally active corporations with economic interests, i.e. Apple, Google, Alphabet and now Meta, is more than problematic. Social media, for all their positives, of course also contribute to the porosity of our democracy. But above all, the concentration of data capital and the accompanying influence of these corporations reinforces the perception that I, as an individual citizen, can hardly do or change anything. Beyond likes and followers, we are losing the sense of our own agency, which primarily results from collective action. In the process, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And indeed, the concentration of wealth has intensified in the last years of the pandemic. The real and perceived social divide is perhaps not yet as pronounced in Germany as it is in the States. It is nonetheless present. Combined with the loss of the idea of acting together for the good of a society, this gives rise to a despondency that makes people almost indifferent to things. Even such challenges as the climate crisis. When people have the feeling that they can no longer participate in shaping things, that everything has already been lost, this is a danger to democracy. So is corruption, which destroys trust and credibility. Combined, this spreads like a poison, and in the end everyone thinks only about themselves. After us, the deluge, and before that, a big party. This is what I mean when I say that our democracy has become porous.
We have to counter this with something positive that gives us courage, that clarifies our freedom of action. The agency Scholz & Volkmer, which is involved in the process of applying for the title of World Design Capital, recently put it very aptly: Good solutions need good problems!
Felix Kosok: So we just have to understand the porousness of our democracy as a good problem and a good challenge, for which we then have to develop good solutions. At least it's a good problem because it brings us to the underlying problems that you mentioned. We are increasingly losing a sense of agency that resides in the commons. At the same time, certain companies are decoupling themselves from democratic decision-making processes. Their platforms and social media create filter bubbles that further divide society, and then provide the perfect stage for populists, who in turn suggest this collective agency and claim to speak for a people and take action against corrupt elites.
Social media communication is perhaps again such a good problem, pointing out to us that in one way they can also break things, but in another they always remain reliant on the social and the collective action that takes place on them. Which just underscores again the power that lies in collective action.
This brings me to the subtitle of the application for the title World Design Capital 2026, because "Atmospheres for a better life" doesn't sound like the improvement of democratic institutions and processes. How did you come up with this second part of the title and what does it mean?
Matthias Wagner K: To be honest, I thought that the topic of design and democracy also brings with it a certain heaviness. It simply needs something that is like the letter K: It stands firmly on two legs, but is open towards the front, so it can be connoted in a very positive way. For me, this opening is the subtitle "Atmospheres for a better life". On the one hand, of course, the atmosphere means quite specifically the atmosphere of our planet as the basis of all life. And on the other hand, and this is the great thing about this word, atmosphere also means something interpersonal, something aesthetic, and something that has to do with moods. We all know what makes up the atmosphere in a room. Is it well designed? Is the light right? You can also tell a good atmosphere by the conversations that are going on. Am I more open and communicative or closed and reserved? The same applies to the atmosphere of public places. Do they invite participation and exchange? Do I leave my garbage lying around because it doesn't matter in this square anyway and I'm only crossing it to get to the next shopping center? This is what the term "atmospheres" means, and it is precisely these good atmospheres that are lacking everywhere. At the same time, the atmosphere and design of both an urban and an interior space is crucial for a common togetherness.
This links to better living, which may sound a bit soft at first. But to me, a better life means that there is always something to improve and enhance as well. We haven't achieved something yet, but the promise is there. And if you ask me what exactly this better life is, then for me it can only be one that we shape in such a way that future generations have exactly the same chance to live such a life.
Felix Kosok: I like the description that the better life puts a promise in the room; that it is a guiding idea that we have not yet achieved at all. For me, this promise is clearly linked to democracy, which as a form of government has incorporated the promise of its own potential for improvement into its foundation. It can always be made different again, and through new perspectives it can only become better. This promise of improvement then finally connects design and democracy with each other. It is, after all, the very first task of design to improve things and thus to create a better life. Design is about putting this promise into practice. Against the background of this promise, what would be democratic design for you?
Matthias Wagner K: That's not so easy to answer because you first have to ask where democracy manifests itself. On the one hand, there are the institutions, the organizations, but the whole thing goes even further and extends into our everyday lives. For me, a democratic design would be one that understands itself as a mediator and as the applied part of democratic processes. It starts very simply, as you also give as an example in your book: with a consciously and decidedly designed ballot paper. For me, it also extends to the conscious design of public space, which enables the most diverse groups to stay and participate in the public sphere. This continues with the design of a House of Democracy, as is being planned in Frankfurt, which should be less a museum or place of historical work than a place where I am given the opportunity - and at the same time challenged - to understand democratic processes in a participatory way. As a sensory place of education in the here and now. Not a place that wants to erect a monument to democracy, but a place whose design in the here and now makes democracy tangible.
For me, democratic design can also be a place that mediates between scientific knowledge and real life. This is another area in which there is a huge gap. The pandemic has shown us that we have excellent scientists in Germany, but they often fail to communicate their findings. This has something to do with the fact that the right images are missing, because the graphics are missing, because the models are missing. This would be a creative task for designers in the sense of democracy. So it's about the role and function of designers and ultimately about refraining from anything that could damage a liberal democracy.
Felix Kosok: I would support that. For me, democratic design would also be one that opens up the creative scope in the fields you mentioned and shows new, different possibilities. The last point I would bring into our conversation is education. Not only the House of Democracy should be a place of education. You had also referred to Adorno, who talks about education for autonomy. Now it is supposedly not so far from democratic design to democratic designers and their role in society. But do you think that this role has really already entered the consciousness of those designers?
Matthias Wagner K: I would like to answer this question from the perspective of a professor. Despite all the wonderful qualities of the universities here in the Rhine-Main area and thus of the students who come to my course, many areas of application for designers have not yet been seen at all - the possibilities that actually exist for designers to be directly involved in the design of public spaces and thus of democratic processes, integrated into an economy. Of course, this also has something to do with teaching. Product, media or graphic design continues to be taught, whereby one is confronted with corresponding companies and clients, all of which are already predetermined. The potential to design democratically as well as to design democracy itself is not even recognized yet in its political, aesthetic but also economic dimension. This requires an education of politics, which must also understand this potential, as well as a self-awareness of the designers themselves, who must demand this role. Politics must involve designers in processes from the very beginning. It is important to recognize that this is not simply a volunteer position, but must be linked to an actual economy.
Felix Kosok: In the course of this new self-confidence of designers, is there also something like a limit for design, anti-democratic design, i.e. design that should definitely be avoided?
Matthias Wagner K: I think so. You simply have to think about who and what you work for, for which industry. And for which one not. In this respect, I learned a lot from Anette Lenz, your honorary member, when she had her exhibition "A propos" here with us. In France, there is a very good division: Either you work for art and culture or you work for the economy and do advertising. I don't want to set them against each other at all, but the clear decision for one of the two fields leads to a consistency in the work and to a clear attitude. By the way, it creates an enormous credibility. And that is what makes Anette Lenz's work so special.
We could imagine a very blatant case: A designer talks about democratic design, about the design of public spaces that should enable everyone to participate, and how important all this would be. He or she talks about pacification and peaceful coexistence. And in the next assignment, he or she works on an advertising campaign for the AfD. I think you have to make a clear decision and draw the consequences from that decision. Only in this way do you get a clear stance and can you also develop a form of resistance. That is also part of democratic design.
Felix: So being a democratic designer means that you should decide for which better life you want to design, right?
Matthias Wagner K: I think so. That's what you have to do. And this better life, as I said before, can only be one that gives the next generation the same freedom to create a better life on this planet. I can't make any compromises on that. And that then clearly requires that sustainability and concious use of resources must be included in the DNA of the design process and also of thinking. One of the goals of Design for Democracy should also be to develop the criteria for this in an exchange process with experts from the design scene. Otherwise, it will not work, and certain things in design are simply excluded. Democratic design, i.e. good design in the full sense of the word, must be measured against these standards.