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A glimpse into Austrian design - interview with Eberhard Schrempf

iF Portugal representative and professional journalist Tiago Krusse spoke with Eberhard Schrempf, managing director of Creative Industries Styria in Graz, Austria, about Austria's investment and business climate and how the Designmonat event has been changing mentalities.

Designmonat Graz is held every year in May and June, in 2018 from 5 May to 3 June.

Designmonat Graz will turn 10 next year: How has the event evolved since its first year?

Although Designmonat Graz (DMG) is well established and has become a constant in the European festival calendar, the event is continuously changing. The program includes a great number of individual initiatives by designers as well as large local educational design institutions and thus enables synergies and cooperation between the creative industries and 'traditional' companies. The past 10 years of Designmonat mark a specific period of time - I like to call it 'abnormal circumstances' – during which design has risen in terms of awareness and importance in the city's agenda. With this acceptance of the topic 'design,' the quality of the program has also improved and the DMG has become more and more international.

Who supports the festival and what is the annual budget?

The DMG festival is supported by the City of Graz, the Economic Department of the State of Styria, the Graz Tourism Agency and private sponsors. The annual budget of CIS for the DMG event amounts to 420,000 euros. Still, many single events are funded by the partners themselves and are not part of our budget. I guess you can add another 200,000 euros from that side.

Creative Industries Styria is responsible for Designmonat Graz. What is exactly the role of the agency, who and how many people work for it, when was it born, how was it started and with what purpose?

Creative Industries Styria, Ltd. (CIS) has been the network organization for Styria's creative industries since 2007. Acting as both liaison and representative, CIS promotes collaboration between companies and institutions and raises awareness for creative professionals in the regional government and internationally through lead projects such as 'Experience Economy', 'Designmonat Graz,' 'Design Transfer', and participation in 'UNESCO City of Design'. CIS is effective because it promotes the concept of design as a holistic creative process that influences a company's product and service innovations. By broadly encouraging knowledge-based production and fostering the cross-sectional development of innovative work environments, CIS makes Styria both more supportive of and more attractive for creative industries.

Designmonat Graz in particular focuses the buzz of the creative community into one single month, increasing visibility and emphasizing the economic relevance of creative processes. Under the umbrella of the Designmonat brand, individual innovators and design companies are given a highly visible and uniform platform to showcase the region's design ingenuity without jeopardizing each designer's independence.

What is meant by the creative economy?

We define the creative economy as the group of profit-oriented companies that deal with the creation, production and distribution of creative and cultural goods and services. It is an essential segment of the whole economy that has established itself within the last few decades. A vibrant and well connected creative community fosters the creation of new products and services as well as digital change that effects the economy and society as a whole. It provides impetus for the creation of future-orientated jobs, in order to improve the appeal of cities and regions and to strengthen regional and international innovation systems.

What does Industry 4.0 mean to you?

There is a continuous major transformation going on. Heavy industry has been changed by the digital solutions of creative minds. Most intelligent processes are invented by 'creative thinkers', who use methods like Design Thinking for new strategies in creation, production and distribution. Smart production—or Industry 4.0—will provoke a major shift in the working world. It will widen the gap between the talents of high- and low-employment, while also closing the gap between mass and customized production, which I consider positive and a chance for the creative sector in general.

How would you describe the design community in Austria and how are its members perceived as qualified professionals?

The design community in Austria, like everywhere else in Europe, is well educated, but in Austria it suffers from the fact that classical businesses and the economic policy attach too little importance to the topic 'design' from an economic point of view. This is a luxury problem and has to do with a kind of comfort with mediocrity within the employer territory—they are too fulfilled, too satisfied. The average Austrian mentality is actually characterized by the contrasting poles of the attitude of German perfection and the laxity of the Balkans. This means that most companies are content with the current state and do not invest much in innovation and renovation. In general, design is integrated much too late into the economic development process, although designers and institutions like Creative Industries Styria are continuously working on this and they have been very successful, actually. Still, Austria is a relatively small market for design and this is why many designers do not only operate nationally but also internationally, which works very well.

There's been a push by politicians and policy makers within the European Union to bringing industries, designers and new technologies into the craft world. What is your opinion about this subject?

Craftsmanship has always been attractive – but not profitable in terms of creation, production and distribution. Prices were too high, incomes too low, products turned out to be very expensive – so craftsmanship stopped attracting attention. I think the initiative brings back production and at the same time saves traditional techniques before this knowledge is lost. In combination with modern digital tools, fresh perspectives, new distribution models and the delivering power of the web, newly interpreted products emerge into a new era of handmade goods that nevertheless retain their legacy and stories. There is definitely a desire for bygone quality and for products that are handmade and crafted in the present with a contemporary sustainable approach – for a better tomorrow. Makers, industries and craftsmen do have a lot in common; the business and the technology methods are similar. Just the size differs.

Does this cycle of innovation and mission to add value to companies reflect on increasing work opportunities for qualified designers?

Yes. Designers take more responsibility in terms of what they provoke by creating new goods. They really take this opportunity. A kind of renaissance in the 21st century – the return of empathy, of responsibility and a sensibility for essential needs. They become more and more aware of the consequences that their work has on others. Unfortunately, stupid clients and bad designers still prevail but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

The circular economy is just around the corner. What is Austria doing at this level?

Austria and the State of Styria are among the leading European regions concerned with sustainable and green technology solutions. The cooperative culture in the circular economy is already highly developed. We support the initiatives, connect designers, companies and engineers and provide them a platform in our daily business, particularly during the Designmonat festival.

How have the UNESCO and the network of Creative Cities of Design been important for the strategy as a whole and what sort of inputs and outputs would you like to mention as the most important ones?

Being a City of Design under the roof of UNESCO is important in terms of the acceptance of the topic design for the city's development as a whole. The centrality of design is accepted by the citizens and the administration – they believe in titles and brands – but is not yet understood in all its consequences. Yet, it is anchored and embedded in the city's agenda and hence in the strategic positioning of Graz, following the topic design as a driver for innovation and growth in a vibrant city with an enormously high quality of life. Because design is a part of the city's identities, creative professionals and companies have a good reason to live and work here. They can follow this positioning and vision.

The major input for Graz and the festival are definitely better connections, an enlarged radius of performance, high diversification and a wide range of opportunities.

The output? Openness to more quality, comparability and distinctiveness by understanding internationalization not only in the economic sense, but also as an important ingredient for the creation of a better life by learning from one another, exchanging, and changing.

What is in the works for next year's edition and what is it aiming for?

Right now, we are focusing on implementing the program as a sort of parasitic element in the city of Graz and the region. That means that we intend to infect our audience with the positive virus of good design and its value for society. We are aware that this is like acupuncture or homeopathic slow process therapy, but the public will understand more and more and finally design will become part of its DNA.

Come to Graz on 4 May 2018 to see more.

About Eberhard Schrempf

Eberhard Schrempf was born in 1959 and lives in Graz. Since studying sculpture and stage design, he has worked in the field of cultural management and design for over 30 years. In his careers as a cultural manager, he has held the position of the Managing Director of the European Capital of Culture project Graz 2003. In 2007, Eberhard Schrempf was appointed as the managing director of “Creative Industries Styria“, a Graz-based networking company promoting the creative economy in Styria. Its objective is to develop the potential of Styria's creative people and harness this to economy. As the driving force, Schrempf is also responsible for the successful appointment and development of Graz as a "City of Design" in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

About Tiago Krusse

Tiago Krusse is a professional journalist and has focused on design and architecture for 25 years. He is the founder and director of DESIGN MAGAZINE, an online media started in 2011 which publishes news and information in English about design and architecture.

This interview was first published in Tiago Krusse's DESIGN MAGAZINE.

Photos: 1.) © iF International Forum Design GmbH, 2.) © Miriam Raneburger, 3.) © Miriam Raneburger, 4.) © Stephan Friesinger, 5.) © Duke Johns GEOPHO, 6.) © The Orange Age GEOPHO, 7.) © The Orange Age GEOPHO, 8.) © Philipp Podesser | All photos except no. 1 and 8 courtesy of Creative Industries Styria.