13 November 2006
Helmut Langer
Helmut Langer

Our modern world is undergoing a fundamental transformation as the industrial society that marked the 20th century rapidly gives way to the information and knowledge society of the 21st century. This dynamic process promises a fundamental change in all aspects of our lives, including knowledge dissemination, social interaction, economic and business practices, political engagement, media, education, health, leisure and entertainment. His or her exterior including fashion and intensity of suntan, home, means of transport, all utensils of daily necessity, food and environment are all objects created by design. Whether ergonomically correct or technically perfect, of primary importance is the visual impression the communication of values.

A new visual culture
Video phone and satellite conferences, the visualisation of audio-communication, visual simulation in science and research, the graphic ability of mobile phones, the world wide web, multi-media, universal mobile telecommunications systems, global networks, all lead to the beginning of a visual alphabetisation of culture. In other words, this represents a visual presence from and on every corner of the world. We are standing at the beginning of a global visual culture and value revolution.

A new visual culture is replacing the world of linearity. The global knowledge society is evolving at breakneck speed. The accelerating convergence between telecommunications, broadcasting, multimedia and information and communication technologies is driving new products and services, as well as ways of conducting business and commerce. Never before in the history of mankind have so many people had access to such a wealth of information available for data rendering and application. Access to and understanding of information are the keys to success and to survive in social, cultural, economic, technological and environmental terms. Information may be what is presented but knowledge is the goal the value. Designers, as the communicators are in the process of 'changing paradigms', that is, from information to knowledge.

Design and global culture
Design has become worldwide, more and more significant over the last years in all areas and fields of the industrial, commercial, cultural, ecological and social activities. Design is of necessity multi-faceted and multi-dimensional in nature. There is excellent Italian, German, Finnish, Swedish design, fashion from Paris and Milan, Danish interior design, English graphic design, Bavarian, Breton, Scottish traditional costumes, avant-garde movements and popular culture in every metropolis. Design is expressing and communicating every typical cultural and characteristic value of European civilisation of the past as well as the present.

Classic modern-age design is a Europe-wide innovation with global effects. To that extent these are hardly ever the result of European epochs. During the first half of the 20th century modern architecture, industrial design, fashion, film and graphic design represented world-famous European culture values . Due to nationalism and the consequences of the two World Wars this development collapsed. With the integration process of forming the European Union, design is beginning to re-establish its dynamic energy in industrial, commercial, cultural, ecological and social terms.

Europe and sustainability design values
Design values must contribute to a strong Europe that must keep up in the international competition of quality and innovation of products and services. This is a Europe that must increase its cultural identity and its competitive capacity by further reinforcing of the co-operation in all fields of design. It must be in the mutual interest of all member states of the European Union to use these values for a new common policy.

European civilisation, 'our high standard of living', is based on the culture and technologies of everyday life and means of communication. Design is essential but will be useless without new thinking in environmental value terms. Our survival depends on our succeeding to protect the environment and to design products and services in a sustainable, economic way. Sustainability adds value over and above product performance. As a valuable component of corporate image it differentiates brands in a positive and persuasive way. Companies can have a key role in promoting sustainable products and services, benefiting both themselves and the environment. The demand for higher environmental values must be understood as a political, entrepreneurial, intellectual and European cultural challenge. The highest degree of creativity and innovative ability, combined with technological expertise, is required to continue this process of value shift towards re-orienting, re-cycling, re-using and reducing waste.

This will include new consumption patterns and new value understanding, such as moving from buying and processing products to sharing products.

Design today is an integral tool including cultural, communicative, ecological, economical, aesthetic, practical, informative, social and technological aspects to reach high quality values in daily life, contribution to satisfaction and freedom. Flexible production in combination with innovation and quality through design for products and services will provide the world community with the possibility of infinite choice. Markets of the future, through innovation and quality of design, make the difference, as well as creating and communicating value.

Cultures, like products, are de-massifying. And the multiplicity of media accelerates this process. The new global media systems should deepen diversity instead. Globalisation, therefore, is not the same as homogeneity and even means a multiplicity of quite different global villages with their specific values all wired into the new media systems, but all straining to retain or enhance their cultural, ethnic, national, religious or political individuality.

In addition to the general shift in values taking place in the world economy and the international community, should be added the tremendous demographic challenge within the European Union and other industrialised countries. More aged and people with disabilities than ever before in history, claim their special values for an independent life. Designers have a high responsibility for the development of a barrier-free environment, or barrier-free products and barrier-free or unrestricted information and communication for all people of all ages with and without disabilities. Design has a great potential to create and communicate values. Designers hold much responsibility for forming culture, influencing values, making our complex world understandable and shaping the future.

About this article

This article is re-published with permission from Design Issues in Europe Today, a White Book published by The Bureau of European Design Associations (BEDA), ISBN: 1-905061-04-08. Please visit the BEDA website for more information.

About Helmut Langer
Helmut Langer is a graphic designer and a Past President of The International Council of Graphic Design Associations (Icograda), 1989-91.

About BEDA
Founded in 1969, incorporated in The Netherlands and headquartered in Barcelona, BEDA exists to ensure permanent liaison between design organisations - the professional societies, promotional, educational, research, social and design management networks - and the authorities of the European Union. The organisation's objective is to develop long-term policies on design for Europe, to promote the use of design across the continent and by so doing, to help industry compete in world markets.