Interview with Prof. Jan-Erik Baars: Design of the Future

Design of the Future

Tell us something about your career, how did you come to design?

By chance, and then again not: I was always interested in how to design, how to create something new and how to change and improve what already exists. When I finished school, I didn’t know what career path to take. At first I thought of architecture or mechanical engineering, then by chance I discovered industrial design. But first, like Peter, I had to sow my wild oats in competitive sports! But after entering the professional world in 1990 at Philips, it was design all the way.

Jan-Erik You are a trained industrial designer, what made you go into design teaching/research?

I felt I was there from the very beginning. I always understood the profession as research, because everything I got on the table I had to research first. And that’s still the case!

Many approaches in design are ‘gut feeling’ but there are also many methods and approaches that are systemic and need to be understood first. So while I was working, I was already interested in topics around design, as well as design management. After more than 20 years in the industry, I found that it would be exciting to pass on insights and knowledge, but also to further deepen them for myself. That’s how I came to HSLU, but I also teach at a few other universities. From 2011 to 2019, I led the Design Management degree programme, where I strove to reshape and promote the profession of design manager. Since 2019, I have been at the Department of Business, where I try to promote design as a competence of business managers. I do all this part-time because I have always kept one foot in business: I have been advising companies on design issues for many years.

What is your conclusion after several years as head of studies in design management at the HSLU?

That it is difficult to develop design in a design environment. Many ‘departments’ live up to their name, they are ‘departed’, i.e. detached from other disciplines. There is still a lack of interdisciplinary exchange, people still keep to themselves too much. Nevertheless, design management is well developed and I have seen many alumni move into great relevant jobs in business. Design is developing at the university now in other departments, as it should. Design is far too important to just leave it to the designers. So now we also have many continuing education courses with a design connection: in business, in design and art and also in technology and architecture.

When did you first feel that design as a whole needed not only to be done, but to be led?

When I realised at Philips that design work was often downstream and misused. The briefing for the designers at that time was often inadequate and made the designers write their own briefing. This often led to delays, conflicts, uncoordinated solutions. There was simply no clear structure to manage the design work. My path into design management therefore came about: I wanted to help shape and improve the management of design issues here. So that’s what I’m still doing today!

Many companies are still rather sceptical about design, why is that?

Precisely for the reasons mentioned above: Design is still too little ‘normal’ and still too much ‘exotic’. Many companies seem to have forgotten that they always design, even if they don’t do it consciously.

The result of their work is a design. Whether this design will be successful depends mainly on whether the design work is consciously planned and professionally carried out. However, many companies still believe that if they only manage well, they are doing enough for success. From this perspective, design seems like a risk because it questions a lot, shakes up the status quo and requires the company to care, to get creative. This effort (which is also an effort!) is a deterrent for many companies: they fear costs and loss of time, they are afraid of change. Many prefer to administer rather than create. However, this attitude becomes fatal for many: because customers buy what companies design – they don’t care how they manage!

You are the author of the book “LEADING DESIGN” what are the different reactions to this book?

With this book I try to describe the mentioned problems in dealing with design and to give the reader methods to use and lead design better. So it is not only aimed at designers, but above all at managers. Accordingly, many designers buy the book and give it to their managers so that they can learn how to activate and use design. I have heard from many companies that have distributed my book to managers. I think that’s great. Now the English translation is out and slowly making the rounds. It is a bit like missionary work.

missionary work…

Is a second book planned and if so, do you already know what the topic will be?

I have actually planned two. One will be an annotated collection of the texts I have published over the last 12 years. I think there are a lot of suggestions in there that can contribute to design regaining its value. And then I am working on a reference book on improving the alignment of corporate functions in relation to design.

As a member of the board of directors of VETICA Group AG, you have a good insight into an internationally oriented design agency, what is your impression of where VETICA is heading?

The Vetica Group is actively shaping the trend towards more holistic support for companies. In doing so, it is doing something that only a few have tried and been able to do so far: It builds a bridge between the classically separate disciplines of brand and design, with the aim of creating consistent and differentiating customer experiences. Against the background that companies usually have problems with their silo structures, this approach is perfectly suited to improve the impact of companies’ performance on customers. Especially for SMEs this is an important support, because they often do not have the resources to establish design leadership themselves, but they urgently need it. And this is where Vetica can deliver! Therefore, I expect more mandates in the future that focus on optimising framework conditions for design. But classic design work also remains important, because it ultimately produces what clients really want: Relevant solutions that make sense!