Prof. Fritz Frenkler, professor of industrial design
Prof. Fritz Frenkler: "Design focuses on people. In a manner of speaking, we represent the need for people to be able to operate the things." © Auerberg Produkte GmbH

What tasks do designers have to fulfill today? An interview with Prof. Fritz Frenkler, designer and professor of industrial design at the Technical University of Munich.  

You think designers have the most important jobs for the future?

Take marketing, management, engineering, and design. The engineer works on simplifying things and making them producible. The marketer is just there to sell products, and management has to make sure everything goes smoothly, which means lower payroll costs, lower production costs, less production time. Design—almost exclusively out of these—focuses on people. In a manner of speaking, we represent the need for people to be able to operate the things. If we focus only on revenue, the results are disastrous. Then the things cannot be sold without deceiving the customer, which unfortunately is often the case. This is what makes design a core element of industry.  

50 percent of the products we develop are flops  

Sustainability is also one of the responsibilities of design, isn’t it?

Optimum sustainability would, of course, mean that we do not need every product. Evidence shows that roughly 50 percent of the products and services we develop are flops. They are not embraced by the people and they quickly disappear again. We would need to know what will become a flop before we start. We have to forestall products, not just design them, while being paid as a designer. This is a major part of how we reach the sustainability we need. My students and I have been moving ahead with that and developing parameters.  

An example of that?

We’re carrying out a big project in Singapore with the Technical University of Munich (TUM). Right now we’re trying to develop e-transporters that would deliver goods from distribution centers to stores. But let’s start with the question behind the problem. In our studies, we noticed what is true of nearly all metropolitan areas: the subways are not active at night. Why don’t they transport goods then? That would be innovation for me.  

We don’t need pens in outer space when we’ve already invented the pencil! This simplicity, this minimalism, is an important component of sustainability. But this can only be discovered through systematic research. 

The challenge for designers is to challenge the system  

Will these functions of the design be recognized by companies?

That is another task. But companies are slowly recognizing that the development process with the designer is becoming something different. We were already much further along as a society and had developed regional tastes and were painting beautiful pictures, when marketing said, “Great, then we’ll tell you what to do. We know the competition, we know the market." But then why does that produce a 50 percent flop rate?  

Developing new objects requires so much money today that it would be better to optimize the existing ones. This is also partly innovative, but we don’t challenge the systems anymore. That is, however, the challenge for the designers. Is what we’re making here still right? Couldn’t this be done more easily and with more regard for the environment? We have to become moderators for changes in society and industry. Designers continue to think they have to create “something pretty,” and the understanding of design suffers from that. The challenge of formal aesthetics was settled a long time ago; we do that on the weekends. What is crucial is the application and necessity of the product. And: How, where, and with whom can it be produced? 

Take a close look and observe  

At universal design, the focus is the benefit for all users. Will this approach also be appreciated by the employers?  

Universal design must be a part of every development. The classic way of defining target demographics hasn’t worked in a long time. But marketing hasn’t learned anything about that. You have to take a close look and observe. That is a challenge that we have to learn again—and carry into.  

You have an office in Kyoto. Japanese design is characterized by reduction. Is that also a model for sustainability?

I am convinced that this reduction was the springboard for the first modernity that guided Gropius or Mies van der Rohe. After World War II, Japan denied this identity, trying to please everybody. That changed again, even though there has always been this other, classical Japanese design and way of thinking. I always say, "Japan was rich when it was poor." Perhaps this “poverty” is a necessity. Comfortable societies are rarely capable of creating anything fundamentally new. So, be Japanese!   

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Professor Fritz Frenkler (f/p design) is the chair for industrial design at the Technical University of Munich. After finishing his degree, he spent many years at frog design in Germany and the US working there for Apple, AEG, Sony, and Louis Vuitton. As of 1986, he became responsible for design and oversaw frog design Asia in Tokyo and Taipei, led Wiege Wilkhahn Entwicklungsgesellschaft, and was head of design for the Deutsche Bahn. With Annette Ponholzer, he founded f/p design deutschland gmbh in 2000, and f/p design japan inc. in 2003. Frenkler is the recipient of many international awards for design and is regional advisor to the International Council of the Societies of Industrial Design.  

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