In the time of the pandemic, a lot has changed - also in design. Our board member Felix Kosok talks to DDC honorary member Gesche Joost about the Design Research Lab, digitalization, and new professional opportunities for designers. What skills are needed to master the digital transformation? How do we need to rethink the role of designers? And are designers perhaps the better politicians?
Felix Kosok: Dear Gesche, I have gotten to know you as a very optimistic person. This impression was confirmed in particular by Thomas Ramge's congratulatory speech to you at our WAS IST GUT symposium. Nevertheless, 2021 has been the second year of a pandemic, which may not have left even optimists entirely unscathed. How did you personally cope this year and what changes did you notice?
Gesche Joost: I am indeed always very optimistic. For me personally, as a result of the pandemic, I realized that I have positioned myself to be relatively crisis-proof and resilient and that I have sought out my own personal niches. This also applied to my work. In the modified working situation, where I could do all my meetings from home, I have been able to increase my efficiency once again. In retrospect, though, I wondered if that was actually a positive thing. You just become more scheduled through videoconferencing. That was the downside of the change. At the beginning, however, I felt very positive that our society still has the ability to change. Suddenly, education was changing, a meeting culture needed to change, and social interaction had to adapt as well. That was interesting to me at first.
However, thanks to my team and my colleagues, I also experienced how difficult it has been for others, how vulnerable we are both as a team and as individuals. I have great respect for what young families have mastered, and also great sympathy. Many were personally affected by illness and tragedy. I was also able to experience how differently people react to crises: Either with flight, or they shut themselves off, or quite the opposite, they sought exchange with each other and shared these personal tragedies with the rest of the team. We went through a very intense time, for which I am grateful. We want to continue to foster this culture. This time also made me think about what our role actually is as leaders or as teachers. How personally accessible and approachable are we? How are we present not only professionally or intellectually, but also emotionally and socially? This experience has been very challenging, but it has reinforced my thinking about how teams can come together. My personal horizons of experience were broadened and yes, you really do learn in a crisis.
Felix Kosok: I like that you bring these two sides of the transformation together with your answer. Personally, I can also report from my practice as a graphic and media designer that there has been this increase in efficiency as a result of forced digitization and that completely new fields of business have emerged ad hoc, bringing with them new jobs, some of which really had to be solved purely digitally. At the same time, many had feared that the social, the interpersonal, would now be completely cut out of the equation in this efficiency and digitization push. Social distancing was also primarily a digital distancing of delivery services with electronic payments, online tickets, and streaming from the safety of home. You, on the other hand, have seen that these don't have to be mutually exclusive, but that the digital can also be a tool for fostering the interpersonal.
Gesche Joost: Yes, exactly. Of course in a different way than when you meet physically, but still in some way - I thought that was great. But when there was a short period of relaxation in Germany in September and we met up with the whole team, we were all really relieved that we could see each other physically again and just be with each other - and that took on a whole new quality. I think this crisis has broadened the spectrum of possibilities for how we can meet each other socially.
Felix Kosok: I would want to pick up on the expansion of the spectrum directly. Digitization is generally your area of expertise. How do you think digitization is changing design and designing in particular? I already touched on this briefly: New fields of business are emerging, perhaps even completely new professions, communication and the design process are changing, but what influence does digitization have on design in general?
Gesche Joost: Digitization is making a huge difference to design! A wonderful one, in my opinion. There have been different phases, waves. From a personal perspective, in the 90s, when I was a student, the Internet emerged for the first time, the first websites, the first web-enabled cell phones - but the first ideas for mobile use were quite terrible. But overall, that brought about whole new ways of expression that initially tended to focus on the interface. But even then, our expressive capabilities were expanding and a lot of new tools were coming out. Even then it was clear that we all needed to be able to program. For me, there was already no way back from the 90s onwards.
After this wave, however, there was the first real setback, in the 2000s, when the Internet bubble burst. But this low was immediately followed by the next wave with the first ideas for virtual reality and these cyborg visions. From a feminist perspective, too, the question could be raised of how to reinvent one's own body digitally and beyond biological boundaries, and how to think about the relationship between humans and technology. The discourses on this, which of course started much earlier, were strongly inspired by art and very free and optimistic. I'm thinking of Donna Haraway's manifesto for cyborgs.
This was followed by the next wave of data and information visualization, which was the "next level", so to speak. While the interface of the 90s was thought flat, with data visualization it went into the third dimension and certainly entered our thinking. How can insights and knowledge be promoted? And once that space opened up, the next revolution leapt back into real space through physical computing. With Arduino and Raspberry Pi, we just got going and Processing also opened up a design tool that didn't require you to be an expert in code, but was accessible and opened up a world of their own again through their community-based approach and open source. The leap from interface, to interaction, to the dimension of interaction through material, was really exciting. Arduino's LillyPad has been a very important tool here for my research area. With the LillyPad, we could suddenly design interactive wearables. Here, a new field had opened up for the Design Research Lab, in which many young women are also active. They wrote the code themselves, soldered the circuits themselves, and reinvented smart materials and wearables as electronic components. That was a major breakthrough. Suddenly, we are no longer dealing with small, hard building blocks, but electronics became soft, and can perhaps even be knitted. I don't think we as a society have yet really mentally digested the possibilities and potentials presented by this.
But of course, as it always happens with technological progress, we are already in the midst of a new wave of virtual reality. There is now a much wider range of tools, many of which are no longer new inventions, but rediscoveries and combinations of existing technologies.
Therefore, I believe that the areas in which designers are active will continue to increase exponentially. Of course, then it is a question of what we as designers should actually still be able to do. But we are also quite good at learning new things. However, this would require a new design education, something that we in Germany are currently lagging far behind. In our universities, a lot of things are still very conventional. Yet there are so many great new worlds to be discovered, which can then be mastered with the right design training. The evolution of design demonstrates that we must always dare to set out on a new path.
Felix Kosok: Before we get to the downsides or the supposed downsides of digitization, I'll let your optimism infect me a bit. From your descriptions of the evolution, I wonder what you think is the reason why digital technologies are often related to community-based approaches? That might actually be something that perhaps makes studying design completely obsolete - I'm not allowed to say that, of course - but maybe it's something that expands it. This emergence of a design community of people who inspire you and with whom you experiment together. Why is this specifically related to digital technologies, to programming, to hacking? Why is the community always so important in this field?
Gesche Joost: That's an exciting question. On the one hand, I think it's rooted in the construction of the Internet itself. The decentralized network has simply brought a new structural category onto the scene. Actually, they are peer-to-peer networks and there is no "master." There is also no single country that determines the governance of the Internet. Suddenly, there is a decentralized structure growing, which we are also just beginning to understand. Of course, it is very difficult to regulate this structure. The Internet can't simply be brought under control according to old, but also democratic structures; new institutions like the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) are needed for this. Nevertheless, it has always been a system in which many have collaborated and a community has emerged. The Internet only works through the community of those who build and use it.
It is also obvious that these communities have their dark sides too. These bubbles or filter bubbles, in which counter-publics crystallize, in which a detachment from the social consensus takes place, which is necessary for opinion-forming in a democracy, are a problem. Clearly, this can also become radicalized. Overall, however, in my own experience, the positive aspects and the many new worlds that can emerge as a result outweigh the negative ones. The great hope has been that the digital also explicitly promotes democracy, because more people have access and can participate and organize better. Even if it's not quite that simple, and the technology and the structure don't solve the problem themselves yet, they do enable a continuous re-design and co-design of how we can come together socially and collaboratively to address the big societal challenges. This power has definitely been unleashed and has given many more people the opportunities to realize themselves and with others together.
Felix Kosok: You described that in the 90s there was a great euphoria regarding the Internet or digital technology in general. Now I'm asking myself, quite personally from the perspective of an affected designer - a poor, small graphic designer - whether this scenario of constant technological progress doesn't also have something threatening, namely something economically threatening very specifically for me. What actually happens when AI-supported logo makers spit out logos on the digital assembly line when large software companies scan user data and have portfolio platforms analyzed in order to automatically generate their own designs from this? What is left for me as a graphic designer to do? Isn't digitization something that can actively take away my job?
Gesche Joost: I don't believe that at all! There have been attempts to have an AI create a Bach or Mozart symphony. The AI was fed music, but the end result was something completely different and not a symphony. The experiment turned out to be disappointing. Generative design has also been around for at least 20 years, where algorithms create design through variations and recombinations. But what is being designed here, in my opinion, is something completely different, a new category of design, or perhaps rather a separate generative design aesthetic. This aesthetic has not made anything obsolete, it has only broadened the spectrum. The same is true, I think, for AI systems. I'm also at the DFKI, the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence. What I was able to learn there - also from my nerdy colleagues, who are awesome and very deep in the subject matter - is that AI is very, very good for mass processing of data. Processing very specific tasks, millions of loops, they're great at that. But I don't see them being able to develop something creative out of it that goes beyond pure pattern recognition and recombination in the near future. In this respect, I would rather include AI in our palette of tools as designers. It will never be a substitute for our skills, but an extension of them. I think we can be quite relaxed about that. No need to change, but to evolve - as always.
Felix Kosok: Yes, I think that the integration of AI would be a strong factor in the further development or expansion of our tools. As designers, we can give ourselves a pat on the back for our creative potential. Maybe in the future I won't have to be the one who designs all the logos myself. My role in the design process also changes when I integrate AI and include it in my repertoire.
Gesche Joost: Yes, I think so too.
Felix Kosok: So what we actually need for the new tools are new role models, new understandings of designing and of design. You've already mentioned it: The great hope associated with the Internet was a democratization of knowledge and the enabling of participation and active involvement and co-creation of a new world. That hasn't quite happened yet, but maybe all that's missing so far is a better design. Wouldn't that be a field of activity for the designers of the future: creating digital spaces of participation?
Gesche Joost: I think we really do play an important role here. Especially because we, as designers, have become aware of how little these digital tools for participation have been designed to be inclusive so far. The technology was for the masses, but not at all inclusive. Many people - whether because of different levels of education, different ages or cultural backgrounds or physical ability - have simply been left out for too long. This leads to a drifting apart of society because at some point these groups no longer feel included when it comes to online participation in political processes when democratic parties say "we".
The Pirate Party had thought this through with its "liquid democracy". But here, too, it, unfortunately, targeted the usual suspects who were politically engaged anyway. In design, too, we have to make more of an effort not only to survey completely different groups but also to actively involve them in the design process. What do they want? What are they interested in? What is their actual appeal? For older people, in particular, you simply have to show what advantages the Internet and digitization bring. You know, what's in it for me? What's in it for me personally to go online?
That's where we have to look very closely. I call it "the social last mile". When it comes to fiber-optic expansion, we also talk about the "last mile" of infrastructure. But this social last mile is the biggest challenge. We designers are super-important in overcoming it. But to do that, we also have to move out of our comfort zone. It's not always designed for hipsters and it doesn't always look great, sometimes it might have big letters for readability, it might talk in a simpler language, or it might just address everyday issues. I think there are opportunities there to be a designer and also to become more multimodal. By that, I mean that not everything is purely about the visual - which is not only that anyway - but also about tactile or acoustic interfaces.
In Berlin, the Design Research Lab has implemented many social design projects in which we went into a neighborhood where many people with a background of migration live. Here it was not so easy to find a translation. So we worked a lot with images or comments. We built a kind of analog Twitter, a mailbox into which you simply put a postcard. On it, people asked, "What would you like to change in your neighborhood?" - in different languages. In response, you could draw something or write something. Then you put the postcard in the mailbox. It was digitized, scanned, and uploaded to Twitter as an image. This was then projected onto the wall of the building. That way, people could tweet without having to have their own account. Interfaces like this between analog and digital, between the physical place and the web, that's a super-exciting intermediate area that we could design much more actively in order to create access points.
Felix Kosok: We should also understand designers as translators, but also as people who can open up new spaces of possibility through design.
Felix Kosok: To repeat myself again: Digitization seemed like the perfect tool for participation. But the promise of free access to knowledge turned into filtered knowledge bubbles and social networks that narrow rather than broaden perspectives. This is precisely where designers would be the perfect mediators, who could point out alternatives within these structures and systems and open up new spaces of possibility. Simply by using digital tools differently, we can show what else is possible and how things could be done completely differently.
Gesche Joost: We are really good at designing the future. That is our greatest competence. We are also quick to adapt. I myself may already be too old and need to have my students explain to me how TikTok works. I have to relearn that because the reinvention of these cultural techniques is happening faster and faster. And that's great. There's an incredibly high level of innovation that comes with this constant reinvention. But here again, we have to look closely. If I'm already struggling to learn this in the academic filter bubble, how are others coping with it? Some older people don't even know how to use a cell phone. It is also touching to see when certain gestures like the swipe or swiping have never been learned as a cultural technique when these movements are not natural. As designers, we have to see how we can reach out to very different people in order to open up the possibilities of change to everyone.
Felix Kosok: If designers are such good mediators, what would it be like if they finally got involved in politics? If we stopped just pointing to our own expertise and actively got involved in politics. Would that be a good idea? Could that work? Or: What would designers have to be prepared for if they did that?
Gesche Joost: I find this an exciting field of activity. That was exactly my motivation to go into politics - I don't know exactly how many years ago. At the Design Research Lab, we created so many social design projects, with communities, and it was always about enabling participation. It was always about socio-political issues. But I was never involved in party politics. Until I said to myself, I'm now trying to make a difference in the traditional space of politics. I was inspired by developments in England, where there has been a lot of focus on the design of public services, as well as in Scandinavia. In some ministries, there are now design and co-creation spaces, such as the think tank in the Ministry of Labor. The idea of such government innovation labs is that they creatively collaborate in policy-making, because government actors have noticed that they reach limits if they do not reinvent themselves within the heart of political and administrative action.
There are many such great experiments. Barcelona Digital City, for example, as the city that is being redesigned, together with designers and artists and technologists. A challenge for modern policy making is working on up-to-date information - evidence-based policy making / decision making - where designers play a big role because they develop the tools and the processes to shape data into insights. These are important approaches that we need in politics.
But my own experience in politics, including party politics, is a completely different. It's very traditional. It's hard to call for a revolution within political parties. But as far as the new federal government is concerned, I'm already cheerful about the start they've made. Asking how one could practice creative or design-oriented political action is the right way to go. Robert Habeck also explicitly uses the term "design" - I found that interesting. He says that we should dare to do something, to design something, to shape something. Let's see how successful the government will be with this. It's a tough road, of course, but if you could take our design attitude into it: this bridge-building, this translation, this creative design into the future - that would certainly lead to a change in politics.
Felix Kosok: Personally, I imagine it to be grueling to work as a designer in politics because there are different understandings of time amongst designers and politicians. But somehow democratic processes simply need time, democracy needs time. Where do these time differences perhaps make sense? And where do designers have a right to insist that some things could be done faster?
Gesche Joost: I think that's a very correct observation. It's sometimes frustrating when you realize that democratic negotiation processes are laborious and time-consuming. Let's just take the discussion about compulsory vaccination, where opinions have clashed and it's a matter of negotiating compromises on a small scale. But that is precisely the core of our democracy. Especially if you look at how China, unlike us, is dealing with the pandemic. There, a city simply goes into complete lockdown - game over. Then they have no more Corona cases. Or it is determined that the air pollution in Beijing is too high, therefore it is decided from now on that they no longer allow mopeds with combustion engines, but that everything is converted to e-scooters. One month later, all this has been implemented - so they seem to be more efficient in the matter of climate protection as well. Such autocratic, even dictatorial systems are sometimes faster - but it is precisely the democratic formation of opinion, the protection of the rights of individuals and the observance of fundamental rights - that is what we stand for in Europe. That is what makes a democracy.
Auch dieses Ringen um Verständnis während der Pandemie. Da wird um Verständigung und Verständnis gerungen. Da setzt sich auch der Bundespräsident mit unterschiedlichen Menschen, auch mit Impfgegnern, auseinander und will zuhören, weil es darum geht, es gemeinsam auszuhandeln, damit alle die Corona-Maßnahmen mittragen können. Solche Prozesse brauchen Zeit, führen aber zu einer freiheitlichen und offenen Gesellschaft, an der wir teilhaben können und selbst auch Verantwortung tragen. Auch als Designer*innen brauchen wir ein grundlegendes Verständnis dafür, wie gesellschaftliche Akzeptanz und gesellschaftlicher Zusammenhalt in einem demokratischen Miteinander entstehen. Wenn wir dafür Brücken bauen können und Wege eröffnen, haben wir viel erreicht.
Felix Kosok: If I were to sum up our conversation, I would want to apply your optimism to the design community and shout out loud to the design world: "Hey guys, you already have the expertise and tools at your fingertips! You just need to understand yourselves and what you do differently and go beyond the boundaries you've set. You need to go into these new fields because designers are really in demand." Would you sign my Open Call?
Gesche Joost: Absolutely. We once had a great political activist invited, Renata Avila, and she said in terms of policy making in the pandemic, "We need designers in the decision making rooms. We need designers in the crisis rooms." I thought this was very cool, because she said, as a lawyer, we need designers when the degrees of science sit together and ask themselves, how do we design the next Corona rules? That's when we need designers! I think it's great that other disciplines are already asking us to participate and get involved. We should simply be much more self-confident. I have experienced that we often knock down open doors. Yes, we designers can have a real impact on society!