Can classic German design values like durability, reliability, functionality and a systematic approach be transferred to digital product design? Does nationality actually still play any role at all in the digital arena? Martin Krautter discusses these and other questions with Christian Hanke, creative director at Edenspiekermann, and Philipp Thesen, head of design at Deutsche Telekom.
I think everybody has an idea of what German product design is. You immediately think of classic brands like Braun or BMW. We’re here at a company that mainly offers services. Philipp, are Telekom’s products actually even perceived as German in other countries?
Philipp Thesen: It varies a lot. Internationally speaking, people have very positive associations with German design. Several years ago when we were defining the design language of the Telekom products and our entire digital experience, the question came up as to whether there are any specifically German aspects. Our company sells its products in 30 countries, but on the other hand our German origins are part of our brand identity. I’ve always been interested in German design and I have to admit that, for a long time, I thought the kind of functionalism that came out of the Ulm School of Design was the global norm. But studying abroad made me realise that isn’t the case everywhere. There are certain things international designers value as German attributes: a fundamentally systematic approach, a sustainability mindset and an aspiration to quality that isn’t seen as luxury. But because of the Ulm School of Design’s international influence, there’s definitely something universal about those things too.
Christian Hanke: When we opened our Los Angeles office in 2015, the fact that we’re a European agency, or more specifically a German one, was an important sales argument – like a quality label. Our founder Erik Spiekermann, who represents precisely those classic attributes, is very wellknown over there, and that was a big help. Thesen: On the other hand there are plenty of high-profile designers from Germany who disappear behind their work; that’s not the case in a country like Italy or France.
Hanke: Do you think that’s typically German?
Thesen: I don’t know, but I studied in Milan and Helsinki. In Italy, designers like to foster a personality cult to some extent. And although people in Scandinavia tend to keep a very low profile, designer branding plays a more important role than it does here. Both those countries have strong design companies with artisanal roots. In Germany, design is more likely to have its breeding grounds in industry, and chief design officers like Gorden Wagener of Mercedes-Benz have only recently started to have a public presence. Even so, German designers are often still invisible ghosts: the things they create are enjoyed by people all over the world, but their authorship tends to remain a mystery.
Philipp, how have the design qualities that you identified as typically German been translated into Telekom’s digital products? Can that kind of thing be expressed in a concrete way?
Thesen: We took a very functional approach right from the outset. The realisation that the digital experience mainly concerns innovations in hardware, software and services has only really caught on over the last few years – it’s important to remember that. Prior to that, “digital” mainly meant websites and apps, it was all about entertainment. And the functional aspect was often merely expressed in the form of functionalistic references, like the interfaces of the early Apple products: although their style was reminiscent of Dieter Rams, they weren’t designed in the same spirit at all.
The calculator by Dietrich Lubs is the classic example: its look was simply copied ... Surely that’s got something to do with the fact that digital products are inherently less tangible than hardware products, wouldn’t you say?
Hanke: Do you really think so? I think it’s just that it took us a few years to learn what a digital look and feel is. We designers were still pretty clumsy to start with. It took time to understand just how important things like transitions and performance or language and tonality really are for a digital product experience.
Thesen: That’s exactly what I mean. The tendency to reference earlier designs resulted from a certain degree of helplessness.
Hanke: Or to put it another way, from the necessity to get the user to make the connection. That’s how icons like the floppy disk as a symbol for “save” came about, or the use of imitation leather in the calendar app for that matter. None of that’s necessary anymore and we can be more mature in how we design, thank God!
Thesen: The digital sphere is a totally new realm of experience – in a literal sense too. It’s no coincidence that most digital applications tended to be created by industrial designers to start with. Ten years ago, we mainly employed industrial designers too: they think more three-dimensionally, which enables them to negotiate navigation structures better. Graphic designers found that difficult to start with; they concentrated more on the interface.
To some extent, the importance of design classics can be attributed to insecurity too: when consumers aren’t sure what’s good, they tend to fall back on classics. Does that apply to the digital sphere too? Can tried-and-tested designs become classics?
Hanke: No, it’s a different way of thinking. Obviously there are metaphors or a certain aesthetic that reflect the corresponding zeitgeist. Take Wikipedia, for instance: on the whole, it will probably stay just the way it is for ever. But does that make it a design classic? Or do sites like that belong in the museum?
Thesen: No – with the possible exception of Spiegel Online’s first news site! (Laughter) But that’s precisely the point: digitality fundamentally changes a designer’s relationship to their work and, by extension, their self-image. For a long time, designers dreamed of creating things that would end up in the museum and outlive them as icons for posterity. That’s simply not possible in the case of products that are relaunched what feels like 600 times a day on the basis of user research and iteration. Which isn’t to say that certain digital applications don’t deserve to be considered outstanding in the context of their time.
Hanke: The first iPhone OS is one such time capsule!
Thesen: Yes, or important paradigm shifts like Apple’s Lisa – the birth of the graphical user interface! But nobody would want to fall back on that kind of thing just because they feel insecure – it’s not the same as buying an Eames Chair because you can’t go wrong with it. Perhaps digital design will follow in the footsteps of the invisible industrial designer.
Hanke: I think it’s slightly different in digital editorial design because it’s OK to be more expressive when there’s a narrative involved. But it’s nonsense to talk about something like “experimental navigation” in connection with digital products. It’s the kind of thing you might read in an undergraduate dissertation, but otherwise you can’t help wondering whether there’s actually a niche for it! (Laughter)
Well then, would you say there are certain design principles that have acquired classic-like status in the digital sphere?
Hanke: Yes, definitely. There are some very powerful conventions. I realise that when my kids try to swipe printed pictures away with their index finger or build the hotword for activating Alexa into their jokes. The swipe gesture was created for the Palm OS and, in the form of “swipe to unlock”, was even considered a brand-defining pattern for iOS – until a new technology came along and Apple users got out of the habit. That’s how the native platforms, successful products and major design systems like Google’s Material Design manage to keep playing such an influential role in digital design.
Thesen: And that will continue, lots of new things will emerge. There’ll be new forms of interaction that will become increasingly important for the user experience, things like language, gestures, predictive interfaces. And classics will establish themselves in those areas too.
In such a fast-moving field as this, can you imagine anybody nailing 10 theses to the door the same way Dieter Rams did when he defined good design in 10 principles?
Hanke: But those principles don’t actually refer to a specific area of design!
Thesen: They’re more about a professional ethos, an attitude.
Hanke: And a lot of things about them are very German. Before we met today, I asked a few non-German colleagues about their idea of German design in the hope of getting some answers that go beyond the usual clichés.
Thesen: Although clichés are actually only condensed information ...
Hanke (laughs): Precisely! According to a colleague from Slovenia, Germanness is scheduled fun. But in a good way! Another colleague said being an artist and engineer rolled into one is a typically German trait. One of our agency’s guiding principles expresses a similar sentiment: we want to make things that are important, useful and attractive – but never just useful and never just attractive.