Issue 2

All work and no play

Stefan Bufler

Photos by Sigrid reinichs Words by Stefan Bufler

Communication designers in Germany—Thoughts on the
profile of a creative profession.

Prof. Stefan Bufler is a passionate communication designer, not just at Augsburg University of Applied Sciences, where he has taught “Identity Design / Corporate Branding” as part of the communication design study course since 2002, but also in terms of the economy and society too. For Stefan, communication is a form of design which makes change processes possible. His perspective on ­matters has certainly been shaped by living in the UK for 11 years. After studying at the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London, he worked as a designer and as the Creative Director and Managing Partner of an international brand consultancy and design agency.

What does a communication designer actually do?

Have you already posed this question to yourself or one of your friends? In general, answers may not be immediately obvious, and depending on your perspective, they may vary significantly. The majority of the population really do not have any idea what the term means. With regard to design, most Germans think of fashion design or products, above all cars—not to mention “nail design”. People understand that design is a concept linked to aesthetics. But “communication designer”? Never heard of it! If you are lucky, they might perhaps come up with such terms as “advertising” and “web design”. They might even venture to ask: ­“They work a lot with computers. Is that right?”

Students and graduates of communication design will, of course, have a more concrete idea of what this occupation entails. Generally speaking, they have opted for an appropriate degree because they enjoy creative roles. It’s “something to do with art”. Consequently, it is small wonder that the creative dimension plays a central role in the minds of new generation designers. Communication designers give form to the message, ideally identifying their “artistic” signature. Technical expertise is a pre-requisite, which is regarded as obvious by this generation of “digital natives”.

And what kind of answer would we get from experienced professionals in a design agency? The chances are that they would speak of communication in an increasingly complex media universe. It’s about strategic brand consultancy, 360° or integrated communication, touchpoints, target groups, personas, etc. They are keen to draw a parallel between the role of design and the processes of change—the operative words being “change management”—with regard to the economy and society. The only term to elicit an allergic reaction from agency man (yes, unfortunately, even today, it is still mostly men in these roles) is “aesthetics”. After all, good design has greater.

The three perspectives on the job description of a communication designer may well take this, or a similar, form in response to the question posed at the beginning. What are initially the most striking are the differing priorities ­expressed in the choice of terminology.

If we establish the remit of a communication designer in the ­context of the spectrum of “art”, “workmanship, technology, crafts”, “economy” and “society”, the following picture—more or less—emerges:

The uninitiated tend to associate communication designers with the terms “technology” and “economy”. Students and young professionals place them between “art” and “workmanship, technology, crafts”, while experienced professionals underline the relevance of communication design for the “economy” and “society”.

This exercise of terminological positioning seems to be a leitmotif permeating the history of design. For example, we are aware of the “arts and crafts” movement. The 1912 Yearbook of the German Craft Trade Association promoted the notion of a shift from arts and crafts to how art and design could be professionalised. A weighty specialist publication from Paul Ruben in 1913 was ­entitled “Advertising—your
art and science”
. Today, “design thinking” is doing the rounds.

Do these differing associations of what a communication designer’s job actually entails cause any problems, or should we just live with it? Ultimately, it is in nobody’s interest to place synthetic boundaries on the remit of the communication designer.

Yet it is precisely because job descriptions are constantly ­chang­ing that a diffuse range of services cannot be tailored to­ward the ­designers themselves. The discrepancy between the preconceived ideas held by those outside the industry and the vision designers have of their own jobs often leads to unrealistic expectations, misunderstandings and conflicts, both in professional and academic circles. This means that ideal scenarios are potentially ­unattainable. The result of these misunderstandings and narrow perceptions is a lack of appreciation of the value of the work of the ­designer.

The following question is consequently key to profiling and positioning the profession:

Why do I need a communication designer? What can a communication designer do that others ­cannot? What motivates a communication designer?

At this juncture, it would be worth casting a critical eye over a few elements of the historical development, professional practice and current discussion surrounding communication design in ­Germany. I hope I will be forgiven if I exaggerate here in striving to shed more light on the subject.

From graphic designer to design consultant.

The German design and advertising industry has become increasingly professional and specialised since the 1950s. While in the early days of West Germany, advertising agencies followed the model established in the USA in terms of ads and design tasks, German advertising agencies slowly began to carve out their own design landscape, with their activities focused on different areas. The increasing importance of brand communication was responsible for transforming many design agencies from small, regional offices to comparatively large-scale design service providers. In the meantime, advertising agencies have also repositioned themselves as experts in “integrated brand communications”. 

As “the brand” was increasingly prioritised above all else, the -design agency morphed into a -“design consultancy”, a graphic designer became a “communication designer”, before finally becoming a “design consultant”. Consultants often expected to rise from a graphic design service provider to equal partner—an approach frequently demanded by well-known designers, but which in -reality, only happens occasionally.

Another language was needed to confront the competition from corporate consultants in the boardroom: the language of marketing. The result was that the world of design moved ever closer to the economic world. The success stories of many renowned agencies can be traced back to this development.

However, in tandem with the change in terminology, the working culture of the design agencies changed too. From this point on, strategists took the lead. “Technicians” looked after media channels. The creative process replaced design intuition. The success of design was measured against -return on income (ROI) and quantified where possible. Design -became a calculable entity.

And what of the communications designers? They moved with the times. But they had a persistent nagging feeling that something was missing, preventing them from being totally happy. But what exactly? Where was the -motivation that had once encouraged them in their chosen studies and career? 

On the clinical nature of design culture.

Who could have imagined the ­contemporary creative environment back then? An iMac on an Eiermann desk next to a lamp­ ­designed by Tolomeo. Lots of empty space. Black, white, glass and steel dominant.

Today, there is little difference ­between the reception area of a ­design agency and a doctor’s ­surgery. The clinical nature of design is as much a legacy of the modern style which followed Bauhaus as it is of the US style of advertising ­agencies depicted in “Mad Men”. In fact, Germans are said to be fond of this minimalist approach, expressed here in the memorable quote below by Otl Aicher: 

“Graphics in the traditional sense represent an attempt to imbue publications with artistic merit, also known as: applied arts. This is not the case for the rotis typeface. Here, graphics serve to optimise communications. This means, there are no artistic categories, rather categories of communication. We are not trying to use art as a superior notion to transform the profane into something more cultured. No, rather we are striving to ensure that communication is taken seriously, change the perception of comm­unication so that it is regarded as an art form in itself. With the rotis typeface, art is a manifestation of all that is true and proper.” (Aicher, Otl: analog und digital. 2. Auflage. Berlin: Wilhelm Ernst & Sohn, 2015, S. 58)

There it is again, this fear of art. The focus is on the concept of “the manifestation of the worthy”. And design also reflects this: it is worthy. Obviously, Otl Aicher was not wrong in his conclusions. Contemporary communication design is also about content and the best choice of form in which to convey this. In this light, the design culture described in the quote above doesn’t sound especially sensual or inspirational.

But why shouldn’t we make room for “sensual inspiration” in design—including in agency offices? After all, even Bauhaus followers were joyous.

And could it not be the case that the narrow-minded view of the population which regards designers as “aesthetes” and “designers of finishes” goes hand in hand with the depiction of uniformity? In a way, this appears to be a “homemade” problem?

About ourselves.

If need be, communication designers can escape back into the parallel world of the agency model, where the designer’s dreams can apparently still come true. In Germany as in other countries, there are a handful of “Named designers”, who, on account of their undisputed design achievements have become leading figures of the design scene. At various congresses and symposia, speakers and audiences alike are emboldened in the knowledge that design can be free, wild, sensual and experimental all at the same time. 

It’s just that outside of conference halls, auditoria and specialist media, nobody really takes any notice. The mainstream media has generally been unmoved by topics related to design.

This is a situation which is mirrored by the various design competitions: their focus rarely extends beyond creative circles and their direct customers. 

So, are we acting out the role assigned to designers by László Moholy-Nagy back in 1947 in our everyday lives?

“There is design in organisation of emotional experiences, in family life, in labour relations, in city planning, in working together as civilised human beings. Ultimately all problems of design merge into one great problem: ‘design for life’.” (Moholy-Nagy, László: vision in motion. 2. Auflage. Chicago: Paul Theobald, 1947, S. 42)

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