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Mobility and design: 5 questions for expert Prof. Peter Eckart

Nov 1, 2018

For Prof. Peter Eckart of the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Offenbach (HfG) and partner of unit-design, Frankfurt, design and mobility belong together. The scientist is convinced, but whether a new type of networked and multimodal mobility can be implemented is also a question of design.

Prof. Peter Eckart
The combination of mobility and design is obvious: ‘You can only be mobile if you can find your way around’, says Prof. Peter Eckart.

What does design mean to you?

Design is first and foremost a communication task that brings technology, systems and the processes of social change closer to people. The automotive industry has understood this for a long time and attracts users through their needs and requirements. The BMW X6, for example, is a rather unusual combination of sedan and SUV, but obviously suits customer taste. Public mobility has a slightly harder time of it because it does not appeal to individuals, but to the many. The challenge here is to get to know the target group and its requirements and to involve not just individuals but everyone.

To what extent is mobility a question of design?

It was not clear even to me for a long time: only a few years ago did I understand how much design has to do with mobility: the only way you can be mobile is when you’re able to find your way around. In order to make this kind of orientation possible, designers must organise and harmonise various systems. Symbols and pictograms must be understood by users as a language in which various mobility offers such as sharing, trams and cycle paths are articulated. The design of the interfaces between the different mobility media has a decisive influence on the success of a multimodal mix. I think that individual traffic is on the decline, and the future belongs to public systems. In order to design the interfaces between these public systems, the players involved must be brought together; this requires political will.

In addition to the aspects of orientation and comprehensibility, it is also important to create a positive experience. This means that rooms should be bright and clean, signs of a good material quality and graphic representations of high quality.

What role do digital technologies play in this?

A major role because digitalisation makes multimodal traffic behaviour possible in the first place. The coordination of different means of transport such as cars, bicycles, car sharing, rental bikes and public transport only works with digital tools. In London, for example, there is the “Citymapper” app that I use to put together a mobility solution using different media. I can filter according to a large number of different criteria: what’s the quickest way to get from A to B? Which way can I burn the most calories?

For the research project “Infrastructure, Design, Society”, we are currently developing a computer game, a so-called “Serious Game”, which is intended to encourage people to use different means of transport. Not by wagging our fingers at them, but playfully: we want to achieve a change of behaviour. It’s also about status. The ability and willingness to handle a mix of means of transport in an agile and confident manner could become a status symbol like certain cars are today. After all, these vehicles are not primarily about satisfying the need for mobility. Why else would you need wood and leather furnishings in something that is a pure means of transport?

In your opinion, which countries or cities are exemplary when it comes to the use of design in the field of mobility?

London is a very good example. The map of the subway does not reflect the actual structure of the city, but tries to make the subway system accessible via symbols and colours and guide the behaviour of users. The overall design in the city’s public spaces is careful. Junction boxes and lampposts are black and thus take a back seat to the design. In public spaces such as the subway there is a high quality environment: corridors are adequately illuminated and even the advertising is carefully presented. In London, you won’t find any foil signs like in Germany: the signs are enamelled. This radiates high quality and durability and the users interact with it differently. The Zurich Glattalbahn, for example, is also an exemplary design.

In a way, means of transport and places are also a representation of society. What does the subway look like, the station? Germany still has some catching up to do. Whenever I pick up visitors at Frankfurt main’s station, I notice that it is not an inviting environment.

Are these concepts as you describe them only applicable in the city? What about the countryside?

It is certainly easier in urban areas due to the different infrastructures of city and country. But even in rural areas it is not impossible to implement a multimodal transport structure. In this case, I would need concentrated planning. We are currently running a competition on this in the Stuttgart area. In rural areas I then have so-called mobility points, transitional points in which the change from one means of transport to another takes place. These could be bus stops. Then I arrive by e-bike and change to the bus. There are rental stations for bicycles or charging stations for e-bikes. In the country, as in the city, it is the combination of means of transport that is the future.

About Prof. Peter Eckart

Peter Eckart is Professor of Product Design and Integrated Design at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Offenbach. He studied with Dieter Rams, the legendary Braun designer, among others, and also worked for the electrical appliance manufacturer for two years. In 2000, together with his partner Bernd Hilpert, he founded the design studio unit-design, via which he also manages the orientation system for Messe Frankfurt.

More information about Prof. Peter Eckart

Research Project “Infrastructure, Design, Society”

In this research project, Goethe University, the Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences and TU Darmstadt are cooperating with the support of the Rhein-Main-Verkehrsverbund. This marks the first time that an art and design college, HfG-Offenbach, has participated in this kind of scientific research project. The project was launched at the beginning of 2018 and will take over four years to research the role that design plays in multimodal transport processes. The state of Hesse is funding the project with around 3.5 million euros until the end of 2021.

More about Research Project “Infrastructure, Design, Society”

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