Design for All in Germany – a claim has to be put to reality. A Designers view

[2012] German Designers are not the pioneers in implementing Design for All. That sounds strange. In fact, not only a few people see the concept as a restriction to their creativity. One reason is that up to now mainly product and industrial designers were part of the discussion. German politics and the design associations should declare Design for All as a top priority. Offers to educate and qualify designers are to be made and existing awards should incorporate the Design for All principles.


In 2010 when the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology and the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media invited hundreds of representatives of the creative industries to their annual conference it should have been a starting point. „Demographic change as challenge and chance“ was the subtitle of the event. Advertised as a “power-play event” the conference input stirred no controversial discussion in political and professional dimensions. The federal government did what it does best: It described a problem: In 2030 more than one third of the German population will be older than 60, thus the German creative class should be thinking about goods and services which the future older generation will need and like. But instead of discussing ways how strategies like Design for All could be implemented on a broader base the architects, musicians, authors, actors, artists, journalists and designers in the audience had to listen to another row of bestpractice examples. The federal government describes prettily; but it is time to act and implement. In 2002 the German parliament voted on the Act on Equal Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (Behindertengleichstellungsgesetz) which includes accessibility to official documents and services. In 2011 the latest by-law, the Barrierefreie Informationstechnik-Verordnung 2.0 that regulates how official internet sites have to be designed and programmed so that they are usable by every citizen, was updated.

Unfortunately, most professionals who advise federal, regional and local authorities (and businesses) and who design their web interfaces have no idea of these regulations. Very few benefit from the advantage to co-operate with programmers who have higher qualifications in this field. Most German designers have no explicit skills in the field of accessibility or Design for All. They do not know that their clients are obliged to follow laws that determine the design course at least with regard to accessibility. With that background I have the impression that most German designers have no interest in learning the necessary skills.


Design for All: Only a limitation?


In 2009 Markus Rebstock, board member of Design for All Germany (EDAD) held a lecture at the annual meeting of the Alliance of German Designers (AGD), Germany’s largest professional design organization. He explained the concept of Design for All, described the necessity to qualify in that field and showed outstanding designexamples. In the following discussion one of the first speakers criticized that the principles of Design for All would generally limit the creative process so that a Design for All product could not come forward with the aesthetic standards set to a good design. Which means: The terms of Design for All foreclose a modern and solid design. Other colleagues followed this argument.

The discussions at the AGD conference showed that although graphic-designers represent with approximately 80 percent the largest group of designers in Germany the issue of Design for All has not even reached them yet. In the DfA-discussion rounds mostly product and industrial designers and architects are to be found. In the view of a German mainstream graphic-designer – or a fashion designer – Design for All has still to prove that a DfA-product can compete with award-winning non-DfA-products that gained awards. In order to make Design for All to a concern of designers the vast majority of designers has to be convinced.


How to inspire designers?


First of all: Rather than to install new awards for Design for All or Universal Design it would be better to relaunch existing awards and add a component that makes the requirements of DFA to an integral element of the award.

It has to be shown to designers and the public as well that a designed product – may it be a kitchen tool, a magazine or an innovative CD cover – that meets the criteria of DfA is the smarter and more aesthetic product and the best useful choice for many users.

To put up new awards exclusively for DfA products easily reinforce the wrong understanding that Design for All is restricted to a niche that is of no concern to the “normal majority”.

Annerose Hintzke, a representative of the national coordination board for Tourism for All, asked at a conference of the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology, why the Design Award of the Federal Republic of Germany does not regard inclusive design at all. Let‘s get away from the niche, let‘s occupy the front row!

Secondly, in order to get more DfA-products one has to explain to designers how to produce them properly. What requirements are to be reached? What needs do the different target groups have? What is the minimum size and optimal form of characters? Which tools are available to evaluate the quality of accessibility? What are the accessibility requirements of documents including PDF documents?

PDF documents are a good example: Just a few designers do have the knowledge to create accessible PDF documents. That shows in most websites from private enterprises and state authorities. Even when ministries and other government offices acknowledge their legal responsibilities in their daily routine they do not necessarily cope with the accepted standards. To publish a DfA-brochure in easy language is much more complex and sometimes more costly than a „normal“ publication: Perhaps more pages are needed, perhaps thenecessary knowledge is not found inhouse so that an expert has to be paid. Convenience and habit are sometimes misleading the acting persons.

More and better education is indispensable. Students of all design branches should be instructed the principles of Design for All as well as about sustainable design. Other programs have to be established in order to give existing design companies and freelancers the possibility to qualify themselves.

The pricing of these programs may become a crucial point. In Germany approximately 94 percent of the design enterprises are small sized or even micro enterprises, one-person offices that achieve just enough income to be able to cover the current costs. Since skills in the field of Design for All are not absolutely necessary yet in order to survive as a professional the expenditures for additional qualification must not exceed a reasonable level. Subsidized by the state government, offline and online materials should be provided as soon as possible.


The economic argument


Of course, the notion that skills in Design for All will be of advantage in the economic competition of designers is true. Some German design associations as the Association of German Communications Designers (BDG) and the AGD spread that notion to their members. Henning Krause, former president of the BDG wrote in a publication dealing with the „Future Market 50plus“: „ Design for the generation 50plus is – seen in the cold light of day – the supreme discipline … The collaboration with design professionals in this market segment leads to quick repayment.“

Today, there are a few design companies which are specialized in the field. The increasing number of older people in the course of demographic change pushes demand. This perspective requests to spread the knowledge on Design for All amongst the 130.000 professional designers in Germany in order to improve their vocational opportunities.

In 2007 the former chairman of the AGD, Dr. Aladdin Jokhosha, stated that „designers and consultants in Germany have to do a lot to catch up as far as ,Design for All‘ is concerned“. The corporate possibilities of the concept have to be emphasized, he said. In the same year AGD and EDAD signed a co-operation agreement. Both organizations agreed: The ignorance concerning Design for All should be abolished, Design for All should be promoted in the design world.

Four years later the website of the BDG contains one document concerning Design for All. The Alliance of German Designers is doing better – but just a little. Articles about some conferences can be found, two issues of the AGD design magazine dealt with the concept of Design for All. Good practice examples, FAQs, own events and such are missing. That there is an active cooperation between AGD and EDAD cannot be observed – neither in written words nor in deeds.

Thanks to the work of institutions like the International Design Center Berlin and universal design e.V., Design for All is still somehow present in the design community. But since their own member organizations yet do not give enough attention to Design for All, why should any freelance designer spare costly time to learn more about a concept that – according to the information published by his organization – he does not seem to need?


The clients generate some pressure


There are two reasons why a design professional should get engaged in the field of Design for All: The first is that he could improve his economic outcome.

But how many of his clients are interested in Design for All? It aren‘t that many. As long as this situation continues only a few designers will occupy themselves with and follow the road of Design for All. The above mentioned proclaimed economic advantages are more or less of importance for academic discussions only – at least at the moment.

The Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology actively tries to convince companies to adopt the new design perspective. But it walks a slow pace. A dozen conferences and a best-practice-study alone will not warm up the debate sufficiently. Just a few companies will be convinced by these meager efforts to develop their own Design for All strategy.

The federal government and the German state authorities should do something more: They should implement the existing laws in their own administrations. The legislative bodies should demand that any enterprise, social organization or cultural activity that is financially supported by public means should comply with the principles of Design for All. That would mean for example that the bill of the water supply company which is mostly run by the local authorities would be readable even by visually impaired people – and that the wording would be understandable for everyone. To take the existing law serious would trigger the demand for Design for All enormously. Then the economic argument would be applicable.


The second reason why a design professional should get engaged in the field of Design for All: caring


The other lever that could push the interest in Design for All is the answer to the question „Why is Design for All important and necessary?“ That designers work in order to let a social and political dream come true is no new idea. The Bauhaus school and the work of its followers are the most famous examples. So if I – as a designer – can decide whether I would like many people to share and use the fruit of my work or if only a chosen elite shall benefit from my design skills why don‘t I turn for the social road? To care for social realities and to try to influence how we deal with them does not mean that it is not possible to develop a cool, functional and innovative design.

Designers are designing a big chunk of the world. And they have fun doing their job. The other side of the coin is that they are responsible for that part of the world that they design. In that regard there is no excuse for designers not to deal with Design for All concepts.


Conclusions and outlook


In Germany, designers are not the main force in order to implement Design for All. Some efforts from the political institutions and the professional associations have to be made in order to bring the designers back into the game. Hopefully, the other players in the Design for All arena will not forget to include designers on their way. The movement will grow and the necessity as well.

Part of the German political class has understood that somewhat has to change – due to the ongoing demographic change of German (and European) society. It is more than lamentable that the main reason for the political interest in Design for All is the demographic change.

In this way Design for All seems to be limited to design for older people. However, even this knowledge of the political class is put only restrictively in action. The design associations and the design community on the other hand have not apprehended that there is a wave of need in sight that will wash them away and turn their professional understanding upside down if they do not move.

Or, to use another image: If Germany‘s official design for All politics would be a vehicle, at the moment it would be a stage coach. The Federal Government should replace the stage coach with at least a minivan pretty soon. And the design community and especially the design associations should invest some money on a train ticket – it is time that they get moving again.

Boris Buchholz


[Published January 2012, Newsletter of the Design For All Institute of India; Vol. 7, No-1.]