Design Theory

This field of teaching encompasses theory and research in the area of theory-building knowledge on the essence and fields of activity of design. Here, design theory and design history are understood as corresponding areas to be approached in a research-oriented and source-oriented manner, both empirically in terms of the materials used and speculatively. Particular importance is given to the communication and elaboration of the Offenbach approach to a practice-oriented theory of product language. 

The area of theory development on and regarding design has widened to a vast field in recent decades. Another related issue is the question of the disciplinarity of design. Creating ways to navigate and orientate the wealth of theoretical approaches on offer is therefore a highly desirable option.  

Disciplinarity of design

Jochen Gros supplied some important thoughts on the disciplinarity of design in 19761 when he called for a disciplinary, inductive design theory conceived by designers themselves, rather than an interdisciplinary one determined by other scientific fields. He rightly defined the object of knowledge as being not just the isolated design object, but the “psychological human-object relationship”. This was certainly also a result of the era, in which the psychological aspect was well received and was to be revealed as the counterpart to so-called “cold functionalism”.

Analogous to older iconology in art theory, a contextualization and semantic relevance cannot be denied in the case of design objects either. The apparent contrast of the use and meaning of things, which was vehemently debated in the 1920s, seems hardly relevant nowadays. We can still agree with Wolfgang Jonas (1992)2 when he speaks of a system model that does not depict reality through a theory, but sees it as a tool for accessing the problem space, in which “functionalism” and “product semantics” can be found in close proximity as “two ‘intrinsic values’ of theory dynamics communicatively generated in the ‘system design’”.

The terms use and meaning are not complementary but reciprocal in product design, and if we are to assume, like Luhmann or Habermas, that society is based on communication, then unquestionably we need to ask questions about the communicative qualities of things.

That said, the disciplinary object or rather the process that is design cannot be reduced to the individual human-object relationship. The connection between artefact and individual, to, according to Luhmann, the smallest social unit, the communication between two individuals as well as ultimately to the space, is defined by use and meaning, by practical and symbolic function. Space is to be seen as a separate factor here and refers to both natural and built space as well as ethnological or cultural, private and public and not least virtual media space.

In this regard, theory involves ascertaining one’s own position and actions and serves to define itself both as a justification and thereupon as a critical function.

An effective basis for dealing with design theory as well as for the design process itself can be obtained by learning as much as possible about the history of design, both in one’s own cultural sphere and others. Because design is not the production of self-referential semantic materializations, but primarily a social phenomenon, the current perspective only becomes comprehensible through a knowledge of historical positions. The history of one’s own discipline, its progress and effects is an important prerequisite for its understanding and therefore an important foundation of design theory. 

All this historical knowledge does not replace current theory development, but it can make its discourse and reception more sustainable. The knowledge of ‘critical theory’, as put forward by Adorno and Horkheimer, is also in no way obsolete in gaining a critical perspective on the culture industry and consumerism and therefore worthy of note. In order to be able to navigate this, a knowledge of further key sociological and philosophical theoretical models is surely useful, namely Kant’s fundamental work on aesthetics and ethics, Hegel’s justification of modernity in reason, Heidegger’s ontology, Habermas’ theory of communicative action and of communicative over subject-centered reason, Luhmann’s systems theory, Bourdieu’s and Baudrillard’s questions on everyday matters. 

Design’s spheres of activity 

Design theory can also take on the task of identifying new fields of activity for design. Experimental design, for instance, stemming from an arts context, is entirely justified both in academia and to some extent in professional design studios. This “maker culture”, as it is currently termed, should undoubtedly be observed and analyzed. Experiments are an essential intermediate stage on the path to relevant design. Yet they will presumably only rarely turn out to be useable in the long term. 

A currently relevant but also old sector is design that directly references social processes. This can be contemporary club culture as well as fashion, digital social networks or the realm of a public design that was neglected for decades and more or less left to the advertising industry. An area of investigation that is of particular interest in this respect is the complicated  condition of contraction, with its many factors that can often present an obstructive force. Here design research can work on finding solutions as an empirical and in this case necessarily trans-disciplinary and practice-oriented activity.

Transportation design, including its wide field of signage, also has to undergo complex theoretical examination today. For one, there is the field of regenerative energies, which focuses mainly on different forms of electromobility, then the field of automation and assistance systems, and also sharing models and transport combinations, which are still in their infancy both technically and in terms of design. 

An almost classic field of socially oriented design can be found in the healthcare sector in areas such as accessibility and compensatory products for physical deficits. In terms of gerontology, this will certainly present an important field of activity for design in the future.  

Finally, the topic of product avoidance remains a practice-oriented, long-term goal of design theory. This topic will of course become increasingly important due to the global increase of potential consumers and a simultaneous shortage of resources.

Extended Offenbach approach

HfG Offenbach has a long and critical tradition with regard to theory, which is almost unique in Germany today and which fundamentally defines the character of the university. In the past, important figures in this field of activity were Richard Fischer, Lore Kramer, Jochen Gros, Dagmar Steffen, Volker Fischer, Bernhard E. Bürdek, or, in Visual Communication, Hans-Peter Niebuhr and Friedrich Friedl. In referencing Jochen Gros, syntactics, semantics and pragmatics, in short, semiotics as a whole, are surely a decisive element in the production of objects. Yet it is not the only determining factor. The dictum that places symbolic functions or content and meanings at the center of any design process by all means warrants questioning and ought to be expanded by a current, usage-oriented approach. 

Bernhard E. Bürdek already pointed out paths to an “extended Offenbach approach” when he identified economy, technology and culture as core contexts for product language. The field of ecology would also need to be added here. And they would need to be more than merely contexts; they should fundamentally determine product language. 

As such, the field of teaching encompasses theoretical engagement with the following topics: the resetting of meanings, and consequently a streamlining of product semantics, as well as the current relationship between order and complexity, in particular in the sphere of digital media. 

Design theory in Offenbach aims to proceed inductively from the objects and their interdependencies and contexts, rather than impose one or indeed several theories onto the objects. 

Current research priorities in the field of teaching are the discussion of design strategies and realizations in the New Frankfurt project in the 1920s and 1930s as well as in the Braun enterprise from 1955 to 1995. For the latter, extensive visual and source material can be accessed in the collections of the Frankfurt Museum Angewandte Kunst, the Museum of Applied Arts.

Klaus klemp foto andreas baier
9 years ago

Professorship in Design Theory and History

From winter semester 2014/15 Dr. Klaus Klemp, Deputy Director and curator for design at the Museum Angewandte Kunst Frankfurt will fill the professorship for Theory of Design and HIstory of Design at HfG Offenbach.