#campustour Interview: Professor Helmut Jakobs

As with all creative professions, design is something into which one grows, where over time your position to it develops and evolves until such time as you reach a place where you are comfortable with what you are doing and why. Sure one starts of under the impression you understand design, the wise quickly realise they don’t, step back, reconsider, listen, observe, reconsider, experiment, listen, observe, reconsider, experiment and slowly but surely form their own position to and understanding of design, ultimately arriving at Bob Dylan’s realisation that “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

An important, though not necessarily essential, step on that process is design school, a place for experimentation, observation, discourse and statics, and a place to come into contact experienced designers of various hues: consequently, when out and about on our #campustour we not only explore the student projects and consider underlying themes and priorities, but also speak to those responsible for design education, including Helmut Jakobs, who for neigh on three decades guided design students at the FH Aachen.

Helmut Jakobs FH Aachen

Professor Helmut Jakobs

Helmut Jakobs took what he himself refers to as an “unconventional route” to his position as Dean of the Fachbereich Gestaltung at the FH Aachen: a Diploma in Social Pedagogics at the Fachhochschule Düsseldorf being followed by Philosophy at the city’s Heinrich-Heine-Universität, before in 1980 he established himself as studio neonart, both developing and realising light objects and light displays for advertising, as well as cooperating with international artists including Dan Flavin, Mario Merz and Bruce Nauman. In 1991 came the switch to academia and the FH Aachen, the intervening decades having seen him serve in numerous positions including lecturer, Dean of Studies, Prorector, and Dean. In March 2018 Helmut Jakobs stepped down from his post at FH and today is a consultant for the university sector

Shortly before his departure we met up with Helmut Jakobs to discuss contemporary design education, relationships with Aachen’s RWTH University and the FH Aachen’s so-called Aachener Modell whereby design students in Aachen study a 7 semester Bachelor and 3 semester Master, rather that the standard German 6+4, but began by asking about the background to his work with neon lighting………..

Helmut Jakobs: In 1978 I undertook my first trip to the USA and was fascinated and inspired by the abundance of both neon advertising and neon art. I subsequently came into contact with Rudi Stern, who was working as Let there be Neon in Manhattan, started importing works from him, and from there it grew and took on a life of its own. At that time it was a very tight scene in Düsseldorf with networks of friends of friends, cross pollinations and all centred in and around around the Ratinger Straße, the Ratinger Hof, the first punk bar in Germany was my living room, it was directly behind the Kunstakademie and it was a very fertile period, with many contacts and discussions with artists and students who would go on to have, more or less, significant international careers.

smow Blog: Slight diversion, but since you mentioned Ratinger Hof, we have to ask, did you also frequent Creamcheese?

Helmut Jakobs: Creamcheese was a little earlier, but yes I was a there a lot when I was 16, 17, but only later did I understand that with, for example, its Nagelbilder on the wall or its stroboscopes, that it was essentially an art installation, with a collection of woks by Kunstakademie students who were yet to establish themselves. And next door Konrad Fischer had his first gallery where Bruce Nauman had his first ever European exhibition, so in many respects it all had its origins in those narrow alleys.

smow Blog: In 1991 came the switch to the FH Aachen, why, what was the motivation for the move to education?

Helmut Jakobs: That was in essence a personal motivation, I had a young family, and especially the advertising commissions, which regularly involved working until late in the evening, often at weekends, away from home, wasn’t compatible with family life. Decisive however was the decision to establish a Media Design department here in Aachen, which was where I then began. Before the department was formally operational I gained a qualification in computer graphics and computer animation and was subsequently responsible for the planning of the computer laboratory and later as lecturer for computer technology. However having come from a profession that didn’t know time off, I quickly understood that design education is also a vocation, it isn’t simply a job that one does Monday to Friday, but is a duty, a responsibility.

smow Blog: Here in FH Aachen you have the so-called Aachener Modell, 7 semesters Bachelor plus 3 Master, why not the “standard” 6+4?

Helmut Jakobs: With the conversion from Diploma to Bachelor and Master we were, from the outset opposed to the demands of the German Rectors’ Conference, opposed to the requirements of our own Rectorate, and from the very beginning my position was that we need 7+3, because in the future our main responsibility would be Bachelor students, and in 6 semesters, from which only 5 are study semesters, you can’t train a designer, and certainly not a designer capable of competently meeting the demands of the profession, not least because the process of personal development, an essential component of a design education, can’t have the time it requires, and our aim here is to produce Gestalter Persönlickeiten, designers who are in a position and have the character and confidence to develop their own position to design.

smow Blog: ….and with your model rather than 5 study semesters, its 7 study semesters, why no internship semester?

Helmut Jakobs: Because, for me, when the course contains a compulsory internship semester then we would have to guarantee every student an internship. in the current Higher Education Pact we have a target of 135 new students every year, and where should we find a guaranteed internship semester für 135 students? And so with our model each student can decide for themselves if and when they undertake a internship.

smow Blog: Doing a internship does however involve an 8th semester, and so ultimately 8+3 rather than 6+4, how did you achieve that?

Helmut Jakobs: Das war ein Piratentat! After successfully arguing for a 7 semester bachelor program, we also had both BA programs accredited with an eighth practice semester because students should gain some more hands-on experience outside the college. My main argument for the 8th semester was that when someone completes a 7 semester Bachelor with us and then goes somewhere else to do a 4 semester Master, they’ve studied 11 semesters, and who has the right to tell someone that they can study 7+4 but not 8+3? Which as an argument goes to the heart of the Bologna Process, that the individual should move freely, develop freely, and decide themselves how and where to study. But also by that stage the politicians had understood and accepted that with normal 6+4 arrangement it is barely possible to develop designers of the type industry and society needs, and that giving the students the time they need to develop is not only sensible but necessary.

smow Blog: When you say “industry and society” can we take that to mean that you see the role of designers, and design education, as being beyond, lets say, products?

Helmut Jakobs: Designers are in the first instance developers, not just in terms of attractive objects or brilliant campaigns, but also of structures and forms of coexistence. I had the opportunity to personally experience Joseph Beuys, but only later did I comprehend what he meant with Social Sculpture, that through what you do you are always part of a social interaction, and as designers we are challenged to help shape society, to recognise solutions, to think about systems, to ask where we are going and why. To achieve that I believe we need a higher, lets say, academic level, intellectual level, but for all that design is understood as a social science, because when it is, design and designers won’t be understood as part of an economic system in context of product development, but integrated into processes as a matter of course, be that industrial process or social process, and that, for example, industry won’t just contact designers to decide on the colour of a new machine, but rather from the very beginning to help decide if the machine is even needed, and if so then to help devise production structures, organisation structures etc, etc…..

smow Blog: ….and in your experience is industry open for that?

Helmut Jakobs: Yes, I believe so. I’m no conspiracy theorist who believes the bosses of industry are only interested in advancing their own wealth, rather I am convinced that they understand the need for change in their branches, understand that new thinking can achieve that, and are reachable. For example the mechanical engineers very quickly understood that if Germany was to remain a relevant nation then engineering had to become creative engineering, and that required cooperation with designers, and for all accepting that it is precisely this “messing about” that designers do which brings the success and not the dogmatic adherence to a given production rule or design rule. Genuine innovation always comes from thresholds, border regions, and the ability to connect differing disciples to create something new.

smow Blog: And does that require let’s say, a different design student than was may be the case twenty years ago?

Helmut Jakobs: Our aim remains, and as it has always been, to find those applicants where one recognises that a fire burns, where one sees not only a genuine interest and talent but also the intellectual ability, because, and regardless of in terms of Communication Design or Product Design, the ability to conceptually inform a work, to place them in both a historic and contemporary context requires a good all-round education, a precise faculty of thought as well as a design sense for things, a feeling for colour and form. Through G8*, which is thankfully being rolled back, we have increasingly had a lot of 17 year olds starting who, owing to the low esteem for cultural subjects in secondary schools, have had next to no exposure to art history, who haven’t had an opportunity to start to develop a position to art or design, which then makes recognising the flame a little harder, doesn’t take away from the necessity of identifying it, and our role is then to help the students develop that.

smow Blog: Changing tact slightly, Aachen sits on the border to Belgium and Holland, do cooperations exist between the FH Aachen and colleges in Belgium or Holland?

Helmut Jakobs: Not really,although it seems so obvious, but in reality there are a lot of formal problems. For example, in terms of the Netherlands, our nearest neighbour, the Academie Maastricht, is attached to the Hogeschool Zuyd, which is similar to a Fachhochschule but not the same, for example, in contrast to our modular system they have a more school based system and also a completely different academic cycle, have Trimester not Semester. When I was prorector with responsibility for teaching and studying, I met with the colleagues from Hogeschool Zuyd to discuss possibilities, however it was quickly clear that while individual projects are possible, in terms of formal cooperation the differences make it very difficult. Plus, in terms of both Belgium and the Netherlands, there is also a certain amount of competition as regards European Union funding.

smow Blog: And with the RWTH University her in Aachen, is there also a competition there?

Helmut Jakobs: No, the opposite and the RWTH are our principle cooperation partner. The RWTH don’t have designers, do however understand what designers can bring to their disciplines, and we have numerous cooperations, for example in terms of e-mobility, where the research cluster in Aachen is very strong, and for me we should be aiming to cooperate a lot more with the RWTH, and that not only in technical disciplines but also with social scientists, linguists, communication specialists, for example Eva Vitting, one of our Communication Design Professors, is involved in a research project with the RWTH concerned with visualising highly complex technical productions processes, the question of, when processes become ever more complex, how does one communicate that in a clear and precise manner within the context of an corporate structure, and in areas such as Information Design there is huge demand, and a demand the FH Aachen we are excellently positioned to meet.

smow Blog: And could such increasing cooperation, theoretically, eventually lead to a fusion with RWTH?

Helmut Jakobs: This is of course an interesting topic, but I don’t see things going that far! However there are considerations as to how cooperations can be improved, to perhaps create organisational forms in conjunction with the architects, who are also designers and which is a very good and strong area at the RWTH, but with such considerations you very quickly reach the limits of German organisational distinctions and so on the moment they are just considerations.

smow Blog: And briefly to end, if you had one piece of advice for a new graduate?

Helmut Jakobs: For me the most important thing is never to lose sight of the Life-Work balance. The abilities and skills you have are quickly exhausted when you’re exhausted, but when you remember the Life-Work balance you will always have the essentials in view: why am I doing this, for who am I doing this, what could I do better? When you lose that you achieve an energetic condition where you can’t develop anything meaningful for yourself, for the client, for the world….. And so for me the Life-Work balance is the most important. And that you maintain an incredible curiosity, and to have that you shouldn’t let yourself be put off by this medial flooding of fake news, but must rather develop a healthy sense for right, wrong, truth, lie. Because with fake you cannot find your voice.

More details on the FH Aachen and its courses can be found at www.fh-aachen.de

Further details on Helmut Jakobs and his work can be found at http://helmut-jakobs.de/

* Between 2012 and 2015 several German States changed their education system so that pupils only spent 8 years in secondary school rather than the previous 9.

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