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6 April 2022

On the practice of intercultural design


by Georg-Christof Bertsch

Professor Georg-Christof Bertsch has held an honorary professorship at the University of Art & Design in Offenbach since 2009. Amongst his many activities Georg-Christof Bertsch is an advisory board member of the DDC e.V. German Designer Club, host of the DDCAST podcast and a member of the Board of Trustees of the Museum of World Cultures (Museum WELTKULTUREN) in Frankfurt am Main. He earns his living as a consultant and coach for organisational identity during post-merger integrations. He founded his company BERTSCH.Brand Consultants jointly with his wife Annette in 1995.

© Marie-Anny Bertsch

Between contingency and necessity”, in my opinion this rather grand title of the most recent dissertation from Sandra Groll is the perfect policy objective for intercultural design. Since I became involved with intercultural design in its narrower sense back in 2008, it was always evident to me that, contrary to the mainstream opinion at that time, the world was in no way moving towards an allegedly irreversible globalisation.

“The world is flat” was the title of a best-seller of the noughties. In 2006, Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist of the New York Times, celebrated the perceived elimination of distances – in other words the barrier-free and cost-free intercontinental mobility and logistics hype driven by the Internet. At the time it already appeared to me to be completely bogus.

At that time it was quite apparent to me that the world was already breaking apart precisely through the Internet that Friedman had eulogised. And at the same time, the filter bubble appeared and has been increasingly separating us from each other ever since. Eli Pariser, who coined the term “filter bubble“ in 2011, stated: “Democracy demands shared principles, but we are being placed in parallel but separate universes.”
What appeared all the more important to me was the cohesion that design can offer as a result of the multiplicity of its possibilities based on the fundamental notion of facilitating its use.
In the DDCAST number 14, Sebastian Herkner demonstrated very graphically how this works in the practice of intercultural design. The collective planning of material processing works through signs, through shared manual construction which takes the place of language. In DDCAST number 77 Britta Wagemann reported on the role that shared dancing can play in the social design context for empathetic understanding and conflict resolution.
The urgent topicality of the question
Answering the question of the definition of intercultural design is becoming not less but constantly more important, also against the background of the war in Ukraine, as cultures, whether national or tribal within our society are confronting each other uncomprehendingly - aggravated by social media. The “lateral thinkers” (Querdenker) protest movement is a bad example. This is what we are currently experiencing. The Director of the Institute of Contemporary History, Andreas Wirsching, regards the war in Ukraine even as “the end of the hitherto existing globalisation”, something which may well mean an even sharper confrontation of ideologies.

We are witnessing de-globalisation and the disintegration of social cohesion. Even if all these movements have counter-movements, it is still possible to talk about dismal trends in certain directions.
Intercultural design can and should see itself as an opposing force to counteract the drifting apart of society and the world.
In order to put the terms “design” and “culture” in perspective, it is possible to start by playing with the arrangement of the terms. There is no question that design cultures exist as well as the design of cultures; designing cultures is also possible with an extended definition of design. Design cultures are derived from designers’ different work cultures.

Intercultural connections can be defined and discussed in the relevant sense with regard to all these relationships. In this way the global, allegedly uniform pretension of industrial design that was the overall industrial modernity through educational paradigms in universities is being intensely eroded.

It is amusing to join in as this is where terms become design material. It is becoming particularly clear that the somewhat extremely restricted perception of the term “intercultural design” as the intercultural consideration of national design is only a side issue of the discussion and not its essence.

Linking design to a territory defined by a body politic just does not work. If this were indeed the case, a design, conceived by anyone, in the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany or the Swiss Confederation or the Republic of Kenya would be a German, Swiss or Kenyan design. Or a design created by an Austrian in London would be a British design. But what is this actually all about? Always a fun discussion.
Social design and humanitarian design as important aspects of intercultural design
The examination of sections of design that are totally unable to get by without intercultural experience is certainly more interesting. This could definitely be said about all sections of design, but is particularly evident in the field of social design and humanitarian design, in which, as Dr. Keneilwe Munyaj said, it is always important “to design with people not for people”. This means the direct exchange of ideas is the essence of the designer’s activity, and admittedly in sometimes tenuous contexts and always with a need to get on with the job - in other words: not in the context of gallery design.

We must also always apply a post-colonial perspective to the phenomenon. At this point I will take the liberty of directly quoting my answer to a relevant question during an interview: “Nowadays we usually take the idea of the general intelligibility of signs in the discussion of design for granted, as in, “But everyone understands the iPhone”. This idea seems to be self-evident to us. But a quite different view is taken in the literature on interculturalism. If we look at the classic works of our Offenbach-based product language (...), the works of Jochen Gros, Dieter Mankau and Richard Fischer – who during the 1970s were considering what they would publish in the 1980s - we can see that they were following a Euro-centric perspective.”
Ever more individual
As is well-known, universal design is understood to be barrier-free design; this was, and sometimes still is, equated with intercultural design, as it appears to offer a common language. But is this right?

We a great deal of products, we are now faced with an unmanageable abundance of versions that approaches this singularisation and the wish for maximum individualisation. Nevertheless, the subject of the various design cultures is not concluded but rather multiplied.
“Finding a common language”
We need manageable concepts for the practical application of designs in the intercultural and international context so that we can speak to each other with the goal of finding a “common language”.

Finding a common language in this intercultural arena appears to me to be essential. This language can be cobbled together from many other specialist languages. The key point is that in practice, it acts in the sense of prototyping.
Cultural differences lead to conflicts rather than to peaceful agreements. We must therefore learn to understand cultural differences in intercultural design and attempt to use them positively.
We also know that cultural differences lead to conflicts rather than peaceful agreements. Richard Lewis proved this in great depth. It is no coincidence that his most important work is called “When Cultures Collide”. We can help to dispel conflicts through clever intercultural design. This is the modest message of this article.
In conclusion: Disciplinary definition for discussion
To clarify the term, I propose a simple paradigm:

a) Monocultural designa design restricted to a single culture, whether national, regional or tribal (almost impossible)
b) Transcultural design –Transcending more than one culture. The actual global design (a wonderful illusion / a nightmare)
c) Intercultural design – Design that is conscious of the variations of cultural codes and uses the variations constructively (possibly a viable route)

This is a short version of the text. The detailed original version, which is about twice as long (including footnotes) can be downloaded as a PDF here.

For more information:
IPPO Design Institute of the University of Art and design of the State of Hesse

DDC e.V. - German Designer Club with backlist of the DDCAST

BERTSCH.Brand Consultants

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