As the CEO of iF International Forum Design, how did you personally get involved in design?
Earlier in my career – from 1981 until 1998 – I was involved in international trade shows and exhibitions for the world-renowned HANNOVER FAIR. Since iF was founded by that company in 1953 and was originally situated within the exhibition grounds, I had heard of iF but had very little specific knowledge of what it was doing. My background is marketing, not design. In the summer of 1995, my former boss, the CEO of HANNOVER FAIR, asked me to take a closer look at iF as it was struggling financially. So, for the first time, I met with designers like Dieter Rams, Herbert Schultes and Richard Sapper to hear what they thought about iF. I was fascinated by their answers and profound ideas about design. I went back to the CEO and informed him that I thought it should be manageable. Of course, he then asked me to take up the challenge of managing iF. For almost three years I kept my job at HANNOVER FAIR while also running iF, until I had to make a choice – thankfully, I decided to stay with iF.
In your opinion, how has the advance of technology affected the original Bauhaus motto of ‘Good Form’, which is still honoured by your institution?
Design today is more influential than it’s ever been. And the Bauhaus understanding of ‘good form’ still applies. But technology and many other factors have changed the role of design. Whereas a few decades ago design was largely dedicated to mass production, today in many ways it serves the individual. Some would go as far as to say that “everybody can be a designer” – but I say this is nonsense. Sure, you can decide on the decoration of your shoes but does that mean you’ve designed them? Not at all. A person has to study and work hard to reach the higher level of skill and competence that distinguishes a true designer. Ergonomics, choice of material, functionality, usability, safety, branding and many other criteria have to be taken into consideration by designers. Can ‘everybody’ do that? Design is a very complex profession that should be left to designers.
Among the evaluation criteria of iF Design Talent, the combined student and recent graduate award of which you are also in charge, the following are mentioned: Human dignity, Respect for the individual, Social responsibility and Societal value. Evidently, iF awards advocate for social change through design, but how feasible is the implementation of such change at a global scale?
As designers learn to identify problems or challenges they also learn to understand the needs of human beings. Most designers would love to help make this world a better place. So, it’s in their DNA to understand social issues as well. That doesn’t mean designers are necessarily deeply involved in social projects. But a lot of design ideas have been socially influenced, and design students, in particular, love to think about the social impact of their work. That’s one of the reasons we initiated the iF SOCIAL IMPACT PRIZE, which has no entry fees and a prize fund of EUR 50,000. We also identify and promote social projects that are already being implemented – so this is not an area for student ideas. In our opinion, design and social impact are closely connected, and more and more corporations understand the need for social engagement if they want to create a positive and successful brand and company. The best talents want to work for reliable and socially involved companies. I really like that idea. And with our support for students and the iF SOCIAL IMPACT PRIZE we are trying to offer a positive example of what can be done.
Bearing in mind that the iF awards attempt to link the German school of thought with more international approaches, what criteria do you apply in selecting the jurors?
The core criteria are experience and international design knowledge. It is a different thing to design for the Latin American market than for the European or Asian markets. Our jurors understand such differences and take them into account when judging the submissions. Being a good juror means being fair and being able to identify a smart approach, even if the execution may lack some necessary elements of quality. Supporting a promising idea is sometimes more important than giving an award to a product that’s already known for its design quality. Teamwork is another important issue to consider. We don’t try to form a jury of ‘stars’, but rather invite highly qualified professional designers, either working inhouse or in design or architecture studios. It’s the overall configuration of a jury that makes the difference, not the individuals.
After sixty years of existence, and having established itself as a part of design history, what are iF’s future plans?
I could give you a very long answer to that question, as our medium-term strategy includes numerous promising new projects and services. But, maybe it’s better if I just give you one quick peek: the upcoming iF design center Chengdu. This will provide 4,000 square meters of space spread over two floors, and will open in April 2018, offering unique opportunities for our target groups. To give you just one example, we will offer temporary offices for design studios and smaller companies thinking about entering the Chinese market. They use our space, we connect them to target groups and government services, and after three to nine months they should be in a better position to decide “yes, I will” or “no, I won’t”. This is a very exciting project!