Interview: Armin Scharf
Photos: Robert Makany (Design Center Baden-Württemberg)



After his interview with design agency Ottenwälder und Ottenwälder, design journalist Armin Scharf paid us a visit at the Haus der Wirtschaft in Stuttgart – for a conversation with Christiane Nicolaus, director of the Design Center Baden-Württemberg. Find out more about the background to RETHINK:DESIGN, the influence designers have on climate-friendly products and concepts, and the new opportunities that can arise as a result.

Design, say its critics, has fallen into disrepute, has made itself the “yes-man” of hyperconsumerism and is not living up to its ecological responsibility. In fact, design really does have a key role to play when it comes to making our lives more sustainable, more climate-compatible and more resource-friendly. Now, businesses and the design sector can turn to our new series RETHINK:DESIGN for support. The Design Center Baden-Württemberg’s new format shows how design, innovation and climate protection can interact and how commercial success and ecological responsibility go hand in hand.

Why is the Design Center Baden-Württemberg launching the RETHINK:DESIGN format?
CHRISTIANE NICOLAUS: We all have to do our bit if we want to save the global climate from collapse – and that goes for design as well. Designers have a big impact on our product world – and that means a big responsibility too. To be more precise: they can have a major influence on a product’s ecological footprint, in both a positive and a negative sense. Up to 80% of a product’s environmental impact is predetermined by its design, according to Germany’s Ministry of the Environment.

That’s why we launched RETHINK:DESIGN, a series featuring examples of best practice, interviews, talks and workshops that focus on design’s impact on the climate. Our goal is to motivate people to question habitual processes and think of sustainability as an innovation driver. We want to encourage designers to be even more committed to addressing climate protection. We want to show decision-makers how to make clever use of this enhanced design expertise. And last but not least, we want to demonstrate that social and environmental responsibility are a good basis for commercial success.

To do all that, we’ll be involving Baden-Württemberg-based industry, as well as research institutes and design agencies from our state who are breaking new ground. The content will be as multilayered as the topic itself.

Many companies have evidently realised just how relevant the theme of climate protection is, but haven’t actually done anything about it yet.
CHRISTIANE NICOLAUS: That’s right, there are still a lot of entrepreneurs and businesspeople who are still hesitating. Partly also because they don’t know how to tackle this enormous topic: it’s like standing at the foot of a huge mountain and knowing you have to climb it.

Integrating sustainability systematically means questioning and changing processes, complying with requirements, end-to-end documentation, e.g. in the form of sustainability reports, and much, much more besides. At the outset, it’s impossible to know how much time and money will need to be invested, and the risks involved for the business are not entirely predictable.

That’s why it’s all the more important to find a feasible starting point and develop an agenda that seems realistic, maintainable and promising.

With RETHINK:DESIGN, we point out ways to achieve that. And we point out that designers can play a central role. After all, when it’s implemented consistently, design is one of the few disciplines that is involved throughout the entire development process, from the first idea all the way to the launch. That means designers can have considerable influence, including on the climate compatibility of new concepts. Just as they’re already involved in the field of innovation management, they can advise companies on climate-related issues as well – in interdisciplinary CSR teams, for instance. Obviously that means they have to expand their expertise, but from the design sector’s perspective that can definitely be seen as an investment in new business areas.

How well positioned is the design sector for that?
CHRISTIANE NICOLAUS: Very well actually, because essentially a lot of the skills are already there. Like I said, now it’s a question of developing them further and getting in shape for the climate-specific aspects. That also includes setting up the corresponding networks, e.g. by getting carbon accounting agencies, research institutes or universities involved and connecting with them.

Quite apart from that, the necessity of climate protection will affect the design community itself. Having your own carbon footprint calculated boosts credibility. It demonstrates that you take the whole thing seriously and are competent. And you can use this strategic advantage to your own benefit for better standing. Some design agencies are already way ahead with that, like Ottenwälder und Ottenwälder for instance, who we recently interviewed on the subject. And although the German Supply Chain Act, or the obligation to produce sustainability reports, only affects big companies right now, it’s only a question of time before this wave of legislation reaches service providers too. Now is a good time to start preparing for it.
Why is climate protection actually a matter for design at all?
CHRISTIANE NICOLAUS: As I already said, design can play a big part in a product’s impact on the environment. But that’s not a revolutionary insight: taking ecological aspects into account is a matter of course for the design sector anyway. So it’s not a case of having to reinvent the wheel; figuratively speaking, it’s just a question of adding a few spokes and turning it more single-mindedly. That’s why our message to entrepreneurs and businesses is this: put the knowledge you’ve acquired over the years into practice and don’t hesitate to start gearing it towards climate protection. It’s time to leave well-trodden paths and rethink things! The design sector can kickstart this transformation process, provide support and help translate it into concrete action. At the end of the day it’s about sparking enthusiasm too – and there are few professions that are better equipped to do that. If you look at it that way, sustainability and active climate protection can become a new innovation driver.

Where can design do some fine-tuning to push this transformation forward?
CHRISTIANE NICOLAUS: There are plenty of areas where it’s always been possible to make adjustments: an approach that optimises the use of materials and production processes, for instance, an enduring design language, ease of disassembly, and questioning materials, your own production processes and those of suppliers. Now it’s a question of taking a new, more systematic look at all these areas in terms of their influence on the aspect of climate friendliness. That should be the top priority for all the development partners in the briefings. If all the relevant implementation parameters were considered from the perspective of their climate impact, we’d already have come a long, long way.

By the way: we’re sitting on the Wassily Chair that Marcel Breuer developed in 1925 – an inspired example for an enduring design language that has lost nothing of its validity. This approach can be applied everywhere. Obviously you don’t start using a new material from one day to the next and changing processes is a path that takes several years to complete. And it occasionally meets with resistance from the companies involved too – I know that from my own experience in industry. But even so, we need to take a new look at things and factors, and come up with new ways to systematically translate those insights into reality.

Obviously there are also areas that an external service provider can’t influence. That’s why I think it’s particularly important for designers to make the most of all the scope and possibilities they have and keep testing the limits, especially in the case of long-term collaborations.
The client doesn’t want it – is that still a valid argument?
CHRISTIANE NICOLAUS: From my many years of experience I know that clients often hesitate and shy away from anything new because they just can’t judge the cost and consequences. Or because they can’t imagine what can actually be done. Especially where the climate relevance of products or services is concerned, designers can make an important contribution in terms of convincing people, by pointing out alternatives and viable solutions. But that has to be done in a competent and professional way. That’s why RETHINK:DESIGN also shows which skills designers need to have in their portfolio.
Who is RETHINK:DESIGN aimed at?
CHRISTIANE NICOLAUS: We’re addressing various groups. Firstly, SMEs – i.e. small and medium-sized enterprises from Baden-Württemberg, who are known for their huge innovation capabilities. We want to show them that involving designers can help them push ahead with climate-related issues too. We’d like to motivate them to regard sustainable business practices as innovation and use that approach to generate a competitive advantage.

On the other hand, we’re aiming to make it clear to designers just how much responsibility and influence they have in a positive sense. Like I mentioned earlier, climate expertise can ultimately even result in a whole new area of business, similar to innovation consulting. And that message is explicitly aimed at in-house designers too, because they’re even closer to the relevant decision-making processes within the company.

And last but not least, we want to address the public at large as well, and show people that climate protection and good design are not mutually exclusive. We want to raise awareness and get people to pay more attention to climate-relevant aspects – not just when they’re buying things, but when they’re purchasing services or digital services too. Because if demand for those kinds of qualities grows, everybody who’s involved in the development of products and services will have to change. And right now, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Will we have to start talking about a different aesthetic again too?
CHRISTIANE NICOLAUS: I think that discussion is already underway, because design is always an image ambassador too – both for companies and their clientele. Along the lines of: “Do good and spread the word” or “Buy something good and show it”; and that raises the obvious question of whether you should be able to tell a product is climate-neutral just by looking at it. That means brands who want to stand out in this area could look for ways to visibly differentiate themselves from conventional competitors. Another approach can be for a brand that’s been investing in climate protection and sustainability for a long time to communicate that commitment systematically. By buying the brand’s products, buyers can show that they are deliberately supporting this strategy and therefore contributing to climate protection too. The Vaude company from Tettnang in Baden-Württemberg is a prime example of that – which is why we’ll be doing an interview with them in the near future.

There’s something else that I think is extremely important in this context. In recent years, almost everything has revolved around the human-centred design approach. But now the slogan needs to be planet-centred design, i.e. the conservation and restoration of our planet should always be the priority. I mean, that’s precisely what human-centred design is: the planet doesn’t need us, in fact it would probably love to recover from what we’ve done to it – but we need the planet. That’s the message RETHINK:DESIGN aims to spread.