Style as an Object of Design Theory


Fifty years ago, it was indeed a strange time for design theory. The contemporary style could not be an object of consideration because the change of style and thus the style itself had been overcome by the timeless Good Form (1) – at least in the prevailing doctrine, the functionalism. As a result, especially in German design theory even the word style became as relentless a taboo as the ornament in the practice of design and architecture. Theodor W. Adorno , on the contrary, had suspected already in 1965: "[...] that what refuses style is unconsciously itself a style".(2)

In this situation, the main concern in the precursor of the theory of the product language was the criticism of functionalism as an intrinsic mixing of style with theory and ideology. In contrast, the precursor of the theory now separated style and theory and  ideology. It defined style and related values clearly as an object of scientific consideration, which was then a new approach to a design theory. Then, in the years after 1970, when the basic system of concepts was already prepared, the examination of the contemporary style, the interpretation of stylistic inconsistencies, and the reflection of alternative style projects became a recurrent theme in the theory. This included the use and improvement of theoretical concepts not only in the field of research and the examination of style and partial styles, but also with regard to supporting and inspiring experimental design projects. Thus, the issue of style runs like a red thread through the entire development of the theory of product language until today.

I certainly cannot retell the whole story here, but rather I would like to recall how the theoretical reflection of style change has developed over time in the context of certain discourses, events and personal encounters. And if the main purpose of this review is to address the question of contemporary style, it is not only because we look at the change of style today with completely different eyes than we did at the time of the Bauhaus school and its doctrine of a timeless Good Form. In the current ecological crisis, amidst of the digital revolution and confronted with escalating social controversies, the concept of style gains additional importance because all these developments are also reflected in the forms and formulations of design as indications, signs and symbols, as statements or suggestions in the product language. In other words, the concept of style reflects, like no other term, all the manifold interactions between design and a corresponding lifestyle, production style, consumer style, thinking style, educational style and actually everything we refer to as "style".All these manifestations of style are not only on the move today, it also seems that most of them are in urgent need of fundamental reforms - not through design, but with help from design, with an appropriate say in the product language.

This brings us to the crux of the matter because, as in the entire history of style, the key to the vocabulary, scope and impact of the product language is found in the concept of ornament. After all, we recognize ornaments as epitome of applied art, as characteristics of style, and not least as the innermost point of controversy in design theory as well as in design practice.


Resümee eines bald 50-jährigen Pendelns zwischen Designtheorie und experimentellem Design.


Stilwandel unter Mitsprache des Design

Rückblick auf die Entwicklung und den Gebrauch der Theorie der Produktsprache


Dieser Buchbeitrag erscheint anlässlich des 50-jährigen Bestehens der HfG Offenbach im Sammelband: "Der Offenbacher Ansatz - Zur Theorie der Produktsprache", Hrg. Thilo Schwer und Kai Vöckler, Transcript, ab Dezember 2020.


Zum Inhalt des Beitrags: Anzeichen und Symbole als Gegensatz zum Funktionalismus / Produktsprache als Spezifikum des Designs / Design als eigenständige Disziplin.

Grundbegriffe der Theorie zur Interpretation und Inspiration des Stilwandels: Alternativdesign der 70er / Neues Design der 80er / Roboterhandwerk (C-Lab) am Ende der 90er Jahre.

Perspektiven der Produktsprache im Kontext der allgemeinen Visualisierung der Sprache sowie ihrer digitalen Verschriftung und computergesteuerten Verkörperung / Der lange Weg des Stilwandels von der Moderne zur Digitale / Ein „neues Ornament“ aus Bildschriftzeichen?

Das letzte Kapitel des Buchbeitrags wird in folgendem iBook illustriert und daraufhin designtheoretisch konkretisiert.

Im andauernden Gebrauch von rund 1300 Emojis werden viele der Bildchen auch als Symbole verwendet, es werden Metaphern vereinbart und zusammengesetzte Begriffe veranschaulicht. Dadurch erweitert sich der Wortschatz der

E (Bild) moji (Schriftzeichen) nach und nach wie in einer lebendigen Sprache. Doch mit der für Emojis entwickelten Technologie sind auch Piktogramme wie Emojis in eine Zeile zu "schreiben" und zusammen mit Emojis lassen sich dann in der Tat ganze Sätze bilden – angefangen mit den Piktogrammen für "ich" und "du".

Summary of almost 50 years of feedback between design theory and experimental design.


Style Change With a Say in Design

Review of the Development and Use of the Theory of

Product Language


This book contribution will be published on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the HfG (University of Art and Design) Offenbach, Germany, in the anthology: "Der Offenbacher Ansatz - Zur Theorie der Produktsprache"

(The Offenbach Approach - Towards the Theory of Product Language), Hrg. Thilo Schwer and Kai Vöckler, Transcript, December 2020.

Contents of the contribution: Signs and symbols as a contradiction to functionalism / Product language as the specific feature of design / Design as a discipline of its own. Basic concepts of the theory applied to interpret and inspire the changes in style: Alternative design in the 70s / New Design in the 80s / Robocraft (C-Lab/Fab-Lab) in the end of the 90s. Views of the product language in the context of the general visualization of language as well as its digital transcription and computer-controlled embodiment / The long course of style change from Modernism to Digitalism / A "new ornament" based on pictorial characters?

Since this text is only available in German, I have translated its first chapter: „Style as an Object of Design Theory“ (See below). Later I will translate the complete text step by step. Moreover, the last chapter is already illustrated and theoretically deepened in English. See the following iBook.

Digital Picture Fonts Get the Rosetta Stone Rolling

Emojis and Pictograms as Equals


Whereas the theory of product language is used to "translate" signs into words, conversely, more and more words are "translated" into characters: into icons, pictograms and emojis. Yet only a few steps further along this way, a stone is likely to be set in motion that is of far-reaching importance not only for the general visualization of language, but also for the semantics of design: for the design of immaterial products, the user interface, as well as the face of material products.

  1. (1) In terms of the functionalism the ornamentless and therefore considered "timeless" Good Form does not represent a style, but the overcoming of style.

  2. (2)Adorno, Theodor W.: Functionalism today. Lecture at the conference of the Deutscher Werkbund, Berlin. Republished in: Ders.: Ohne Leitbild, Frankfurt/Main 1981, pp. 104-127, here p. 111.                                                "The absolute rejection of style becomes style" in: Functionalism today, English version https://thecharnelhouse.org/2011/11/19/theodor-adornos-functionalism-today-1965/#comments [05.09.2020]


Digitale Bilder-Fonts bringen den Stein von Rosetta ins Rollen Emojis und Piktogramme auf Augenhöhe


Während die Theorie der Produktsprache dazu dient, Zeichen in Wörter zu "übersetzen", werden umgekehrt auch immer mehr Wörter in Zeichen "übersetzt“: in Icons, Piktogramme und Emojis. Doch nur wenige Schritte weiter auf diesem Weg kommt ein Stein ins Rollen, der nicht nur für die allgemeine Visualisierung von Sprache von weitreichender Bedeutung ist, sondern auch für die Semantik des Designs: für die Gestaltung der immateriellen Produkte, des user interface, aber auch für das Gesicht der materiellen Produkte. 

      Smiley & Co                                 können keine Sätze ... oder doch?

During the continuous use of around 1300 emojis, many of these small pictures are also used as symbols, metaphors are agreed upon and compound terms are illustrated. Thus the vocabulary of the e (picture) moji (characters) is gradually expanding as in a living language. With the technology developed for emojis, however, pictograms, too, can

be "written" like emojis in a line, and together with emojis they can indeed form whole sentences – starting with the pictograms for "I" and "You".

Jochen Gros, Digital Picture Fonts Get the Rosetta Stone Rolling. iBook, available in all Apple Book Stores.

Jochen Gros, Digitale Bilder-Fonts btingen den Stein von Rosetta ins Rollen. iBook.

      Smiley & Co                             cannot form sentences, can they?