A city, a book and History lead us to Karl Stocker and his impressions not only about the design scene in Graz, Austria, but to a wider perception of society and the planet. More than a believer of the motto “The power of design and creativity to transform society”, a doer.
Karl Stocker. Photo by Silke Traunfellner.
Professor Karl Stocker, Ph.D., is a historian and the head of the Institute of Design & Communication at the FH JOANNEUM – University of Applied Sciences in Graz, Austria. In 1989 he founded the exhibition design agency BISDATO, which produces concepts, content and spatial design for cultural-historical exhibitions and museums. His professional and academic interests include design & theory, design & society, exhibition design and socio design. He has presented the results of his research at several conferences, symposia and universities around the world. Karl Stocker is the author and publisher of numerous publications; his most recent project was Socio-Design. Relevant Projects – Designed for Society (Birkhäuser 2017).
What is the motivation of a historian to commit himself to design the way you do?
For me as historian, the phrase “learning from history for the present and the future” has always been relevant. I believe that not only in history but also in various disciplines of design, the human being and his or her relations to other humans, to the environment and the society should take center stage. In this sense, there is a good connection. A designer without philosophical-historical background would probably do things in a completely different way.
At the FH JOANNEUM University of Applied Sciences, in Graz, who guides the students and what are the main concerns at this level of higher education?
My team and I! We try to be role models for them, inasmuch as what we teach and communicate is not something trained or acquired but a personal mindset. Our approach is that we think design is a very good means to improve the life of all people – not only of a minority – by taking into account social and sustainable principles. We definitely don’t see design as an investment goodie for people who don’t know what else to do with their money. Secondly, we don’t see design as a means for adornment to enable aesthetic distinction. Thirdly, design is never only aesthetics but always connected to a content.
Photo by Michael Forster
How would you describe the academic environment among the different institutions in the city?
In our city of approx. 300.000 inhabitants, there are seven academic institutions with a total of 60.000 students. The largest is Karl Franzens University where I also teach, then come the Technical University and the University of Arts. We at the FH JOANNEUM, are a University of Applied Sciences with 4.500 students of which 400 are in the design field. For us as design study programmes, it is extremely important to be present in the city and to actively shape it with our students, with exhibitions and posters, by means of interactive media and in various cooperation projects with NGOs, enterprises but also with municipal institutions. We consider ourselves to be active co-shapers of the city.
In 2011, Graz became UNESCO City of Design. Which major changes have you noticed in the community since then?
Let’s put it that way: it takes time. It’s really not easy to transfer design consciousness from the design community to the city. Meanwhile, at least a lot of people are aware that design not only stands for expensive watches and fast cars. And in the community itself there is more and more appreciation of the opportunities provided by the UNESCO City of Design network. Especially, the possibilities of international networking promoted by the Creative Industries Styria are highly estimated by the designers. Also for us as design institute this is an important impetus, since we are working hard to internationalize ourselves. We were already well-positioned within the Erasmus+ framework, but it has also been our aim from the beginning to enter into cooperation and exchange agreements with at least one university in each Design City. So far, we have made good progress, collaborating intensively with the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, with CENTRO in Mexico City, with Iberoamericana in Puebla (also with other universities there), with the Hubei Institute of Art and Design in Wuhan, etc.
You have contributed to a series of books and texts for different reputable publications. Do you feel that people aren’t reading that much anymore or do you have a wider and different perspective about the book as a media tool?
I always say that a book has two readers, your editor and your partner. No, just joking… I still believe in the power of the written / printed text. Of course, a lot is communicated by visuals nowadays but when you want to go deeper into a topic you must read about it. One thing has also become apparent: I always take books with me on my travels as presents to my hosts, and they are very much appreciated – admittedly, they have a beautiful layout.
Photo by Manuel Schaffernak.
In 2017, you were the responsible for the publication of the book “Socio-Design – Relevant Projects: Design For Society”. When did you start thinking of publishing it and how did you organize the structure?
As head of the institute, one has to take care not to be overwhelmed by management work. I believe that especially as head of a study programme, one must stay up-to-date in content-related matters and continue to make progress, e.g. with own projects and publications. I’m convinced that publishing is actually a “must”. As the refugee crisis escalated in 2015, it became clear to me that we have to make a statement as design institute. We have the responsibility to take a stand and – this is very important – we also have the tools to intervene in a supportive manner due to our design competency.
However, what does this have to do with design? Nowadays the profession “designer” means a lot more than it meant 30, 20, or even 10 years ago, and includes a wide range of approaches, accesses and definitions. While designers used to simply create products or carry out graphic tasks, they have now become design strategists who are able to find creative solutions to the most diverse societal and ecological problems thanks to their different skills and interdisciplinary approach. Therefore, we organized a lecture series with the topic “Design for the People“ within the Design Month 2015, and – because the lectures were very interesting – we decided to publish them. Yes, in that sense it was also simply necessary to publish this book.
Why did you think it was relevant to focus on socio-design?
I would say that it’s all about social commitment. As design institute of a university we have the obligation and the responsibility to commit ourselves to society and to work on the improvement of the world. I believe that we should support and guide young people and, in particular, our students to develop an attitude.
What are the major misconceptions about this subject?
Designers dealing with social topics is not a new phenomenon. Already in 1971, Viktor Papanek jolted the design community with his book “Design for the Real World”. At this time, he was ridiculed because his radio for the 3rd world made from a used tin can was not elaborated aesthetically enough. Of course, this mirrors the spirit at that time when mass consumption was reaching its peak and many designers thought they would only achieve fame and honour with aesthetical products. Nowadays, it is questionable why designers should still use their energy for the designing of products of which there are already 100.000 versions. In that sense, a lot of potential designer energy is available for more important issues. Indeed, many designers today are active in initiatives and NGOs to help repair and improve the world.
In your introduction to the book, “Designing Societies”, the question “Improving the world through design?” is raised. You show some deep sociological concerns and sometimes we sense a skepticism towards the nature of humans. Are there any solutions to this?
On the one hand, I’m very pessimistic. If science – which is usually very cautious with forecasts – warns us that it is 5 minutes to 12, then I think that it’s nearly too late. On the other hand, as historian I know that changes only happen under pressure and not through insight. Why should multinational companies chalking up fat profits change their corporate strategies voluntarily? They will only comply under pressure. I think this is something we have learnt from history.
Despite being pessimistic, we also need to be optimistic. Humanity must save the world otherwise it will perish. We have a chance so let’s go for it! We designers share a big responsibility, but we also have great opportunities. It is due to the modern age that the livelihood of mankind is massively threatened by climate change, a shortage of resources, global migration, etc. Harald Welzer establishes that there are only two ways to escape from this state of “comprehensive devastation of the world by the prevailing system”, either “by disaster” or “by design”. The former means waiting until everything collapses, and then trying to build something new from the ruins; “by design” implies the preemptive transformation of the existing into something new through planned and targeted action.
Photo by Miriam Raneburger.
Is this young generation leaving universities built and capable to deal with the immensity of challenges and the urge of dramatic measures?
Young people are aware of the negative impacts of our current economic model, and are discussing new approaches to the world: they are critical of the inequality which exists between the 1st, 2nd and 3rd world, they demand action against the increasing destruction of our environment, and they get involved with social initiatives as well as working to improve the world in their local areas.
Already in the year 2000, Paul H. Ray and Sherry R. Anderson described the so-called LOHAS group of people. LOHAS people value a lifestyle of health and sustainability, and are some of the consumers of organic and fair trade products. Other recent movements which are based on a fundamental change in values are DIY, Slow Food, Vegetarianism, Veganism and Pescetarianism. Zero Waste, plastic free, minimalism, micro housing and social engagement are all buzzwords which characterize this new way of thinking. In addition, concepts such as eco-friendly, biodegradable or products made out of trash, as well as packaging-free shops, etc., demonstrate the enormous spectrum these movements have now achieved. Thus, as said before, I’m optimistic with regards to young people.
What do you think needs to be changed right now?
In addition to the above mentioned shift in our dealings with nature, something must also be done to stop the widening social gap between the rich and the poor. The concentration of fortune at the top has further increased in 2019, announced by the British NGO Oxfam at the presentation of their inequality report “Time to Care” before the start of the World Economic Forum in Davos. They criticize that the fortune of the 500 richest person has increased by one fourth in the past year. In particular, prosperity is allocated unevenly between men and women. Accordingly, the wealth of men is 50 percent higher than that of women. In the last year, the 2.153 richest people on earth have controlled more funds than the 4.6 billion poorest altogether. I would say there is a need for action here.
I believe in the motto “The power of design and creativity to transform society”! And I am convinced that money, governments or science can’t solve complex global issues on their own. However, we don’t know whether the fresh ideas, alternative strategies and provocative thoughts of a critical design community will be enough to change the planet like the “What Design Can Do”-Festival 2019 announced. This will hardly be possible without substantial measures. With their 17 sustainable development goals, the UN have taken a clear position on what needs to happen worldwide, and how the world should be transformed by 2030. Nevertheless, we know that there are strong economic (and related political) interests which are currently blocking the substantial reforms that are necessary. This is why it all depends on collaboration – between politics, science, the economy, designers, activists and people – in order to find solutions and achieve and implement these goals in the near future.
Photo by Michael Forster.
Can you tell us what your contribution for the upcoming edition of Design Monat Graz is going to be?
This year, we as Institute of Design and Communication, are involved in at least three quite important activities within the Design Month. Firstly, we are working on an exhibition with the title “Circle around Humanity” that will have the aim to transfer the approach described above out to the world. The focus will be on the human being. In the exhibition, he or she will be in the center of criticism but also the protagonist of the future. We want to raise awareness and provoke self-reflection. In particular, the “17 UN targets for sustainable development” and their realization in six UNESCO Cities of Design will be presented as one of the main subjects. As the visitors wander through the exhibition and “draw their circles”, they will get to know the 17 aims and encounter five social and sustainable design projects each from the six UNESCO Cities of Design Detroit, Graz, Istanbul, Mexico City, Puebla and Saint Etienne.
The exhibition results from a collaboration between the Institute of Design and Communication of the FH JOANNEUM University of Applied Sciences and the Creative Industries Styria. “Circle around Humanity” will be a crucial part of the Design Month 2020 and will be on display from 7th May to 7th June.
Secondly, on 11th and 12th May, a symposium on “Better Future”, developed and carried out also together with the Creative Industries Styria, will take place. Speakers from Detroit, Graz, Istanbul, Johannesburg, Mexico City and Puebla will discuss the various problems, opportunities and perspectives, and what specifically design can contribute to a better future. We are very proud that we managed to get Stuart Walker, the pioneer of Sustainable Design, to come to Graz for a keynote.
Last but not least, our new book with the title “Designing Sustainable Cities. Approaches That Would Not Hurt And Make Cities Better: Detroit, Graz, Istanbul, Mexico City and Puebla”, edited by Sigrid Bürstmayr and myself and published again by Birkhäuser, will be presented on 11th May.