Author of the cover photo: Stefan Kunz, TH Deggendorf
Kostas Medugorac is a German industrial designer and professor of design. Growing up as the son of a designer from the HfG in Ulm (Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm), he was in close contact with design from a very early age. After studying at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart under the mentorship of Richard Sapper and Kurt Weidemann and an internship at Thonet (Frankenberg), he opened his own studio. He has created products ranging from furniture, interior design to complex medical products, transportation design and capital goods design. Medugorac works with well-known clients such as Mercedes-Benz, Abus, Mettler-Toledo and Carl Zeiss Meditec. In addition to his work as a designer, he is a passionate teacher and creative coach. As a professor of design, he researches in the areas of sustainability in design, materials and human-centered design for global companies. During his working life, he was often awarded for his work, most recently with the Red Dot “Best of the Best” award in the industrial design category. Since 2020, he is a professor of design and head of the technical design department at the Institute of Technology in Deggendorf.
This interview was created on the occasion of the upcoming Exhibition of the Croatian Design 21/22.
OM: As a son of a product designer schooled in the prestigious Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, you were introduced to the design world very early on. How did you look at your father’s job when you were a little kid? Did you consider design as your only possible profession from the very beginning and what do you remember from those days?
KM: Of course, as a child, you have a lot of dreams about what you want to do when you grow up. My parents lived a free and creative life and I just loved it. Growing up as the son of a designer from the HfG in Ulm was for me – as well as for my children now – a great adventure. You always see new things, materials and themes in the studio, you are inspired without realizing it and you are right in the middle of the action. Even today, due to the many different tasks, I always have new things at home that need to be designed. It’s always very exciting for the kids. At that time, working on real models was very common (now it is more 3D Software) and I remember well the many hours in my father’s studio
and also the phases at the drawing board with transparent paper.
OM: Judging by your family name, your roots are somewhere in our area. Do you maintain any connections, do you have any family over here and if you visit, where do you usually go?
KM: My uncle still lives in Rijeka and we visit him every year. My great-uncle was the Croatian artist and painter Ivan Topolčić. My father was born in Zagreb, his father came from Medjugorje. My father Zlatan studied architecture in Croatia. However, the political system of the former Yugoslavia did not suit him, so he went to the well-known Hochschule für Gestaltung (HFG) Ulm in Germany to study design. He had to learn German quickly in order to be able to study and work here, which is certainly one of the reasons why I don’t speak Croatian. We used to go to Croatia to visit friends and family all summer long and today I still go to the sea and the cities with my family. For me, it’s like a piece of home.
“I never just wanted to create things that are just beautiful and accessible to a small class of people. I want to create products that people use.”
OM: After graduating from the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart under the mentorship of the legendary German designer Richard Sapper, you gained the opportunity to be working as an intern at the universally acknowledged and long lasting-company Thonet. I suppose these influences also meant a lot to you as a growing product designer. What were the most important lessons you learned at the Academy? Were they in contradiction with the real-life situations you found yourself in at the beginning of your career?
KM: There was a lot of freedom at the university. I was only able to see Richard Sapper on one project. He was an impressive personality. Kurt Weidemann, another lecturer and one of the greatest German typographers and graphic designers was definitely the person who inspired me the most with his approach and uncompromising love of design. I have learned that as a creative worker it is important to trust in your creativity. Unfortunately, the university was only able to give me little for the later start of my own business. I would like to do this better with my chair. I try to realize many real customer projects with the students, to show them how designers can work today.
OM: The FreshWay Touchscreen Scale won a prestigious Reddot Award in 2012 and was praised by the Jury for its clear design and user-friendly interface. How was the interface that’s easy to use and to adjust created? How important is it to conduct quality research and to have good communication with a client?
KM: With the FreshWay we were not only able to win the Red Dot, but also the Red Dot “best of the best”. With this model, we have rethought everything. As a designer, I was given a great deal of freedom and was able to completely rethink the subject. This is how we created many innovations, including the first truly modular scale. I experimented a lot with materials and had an incredibly good team of engineers at my side. We also rethought a lot of the interface. Why is that so bad – just because it’s always been like this? What would I expect as an operator? Can this be shortened? Can this also be done in a language-neutral way?
We asked ourselves all these questions and many more when redesigning the interface. At the end of the holistic process, we were able to bring a product onto the market that rethought everything from the packaging and the transport route to the operation and the modularity. My ideas and formal solutions had to be translated into a complex industrial product that would work anywhere in the world. The production up to the transport should also be optimized. You need a good team for that. As a designer, you always need a team that likes to walk the path with you and also wants to push their limits themselves, as in this case. And of course, a visionary manager who wants and supports this.
OM: You have experience in designing for different types of industries. Amongst the numerous high-profile clients, you had the opportunity to work for Mercedes-Benz and Carl Zeiss Meditec. Whether the client comes from the automotive or medical devices industry, a quality design has to be recognized immediately. How do you recognize a good product design? What are your rules, if any, while designing an object?
KM: It is always important to design the right product for each customer. To know what their DNA is like, to understand what makes them special, or to create a new DNA together. As designers, we do things to improve something, make it easier or make it easier to understand. I never just wanted to create things that are just beautiful and accessible to a small layer of people. I want to create products that people use. I see great value in not just designing for the elite who can afford it.
For me, the analytical part of the design process is very important. If you work for many different customers,
you can gather knowledge from all these industries
and then combine them in new ways. Every project starts with a long phase in which I deal with the product.
OM: You have been designing different types of loudspeakers for Fohhn, one of the biggest firms in audio systems production. What the company itself emphasizes is the importance of not only the sound quality but also of the visual integration of speakers, which is especially important when designing sound systems in places such as masterpieces of architecture, and famous cultural or important religious venues. Considering the variety of environment and ambient, what is your usual preparatory work before you even begin designing?
KM: The design requirements at Fohhn were very high. The aim was to design something that is striking on the one hand and inconspicuous on the other. This is hardly possible in itself, so you work on good detailed solutions that improve the product. We’re currently working on a very exciting new concept that I can’t say much about just yet.
OM: What is necessary to achieve and create a loudspeaker as a “chameleon”?
KM: Do as little as possible to allow as much as possible. The products must be invisible, but multifunctional and work in all areas of application. They must be adjustable and adapt to spatial conditions.
OM: How does your inevitable collaboration with sound engineers affect the process of your work and its final results?
KM: The sound engineers clearly have the say here. Formally you are limited, the design is made here in detail, including the material, the operation, and the production.
“We combine technology and construction with artistic design. The designers are trained as engineers and designers, and it is precisely this hybrid knowledge that optimally prepares them for the new world of work.”
OM: To create subtle and sensitive tools for ophthalmology and eye surgery requires not only skills but courage as well. How do you merge the elements of ergonometry with the practicality useful for doctors and with the effects a particular tool can incur onto the psychology of the patient?
KM: I try to work close to people in all my projects, but here you have a particularly great responsibility. With a medical product that requires precision in ophthalmology, there is an incredible number of factors to consider. From production to safe operability and ergonomics to disposal or recycling of the product. The analytical approach is also particularly important here.
I have already examined, recorded and bundled all these topics in a design guide for Zeiss. This process was extremely important in advance. Don’t make mistakes during an operation! So, the most important thing is to design a product that supports the doctor in the best possible way – functionally, formally, sensory and haptically. It took me a lot of time to be able to work on all these topics in this way. I now work closely with the engineers to create new, more functional handpieces.
OM: In 2020 you became a professor of design and head of the technical design department at the Institute of Technology in Deggendorf. After many years of receiving great lessons in product design yourself, you have finally gotten a chance to share your knowledge with newer generations of designers. How is the curriculum organized? How do you and what do you teach your students?
KM: As already mentioned, I try to carry out many real customer projects with the students. Much more is required in today’s professional world than just being a good designer. Agile processes and constantly changing tasks require a wide range of knowledge and skills. The special thing about our “Technical Design” course at the Institute of Technology in Deggendorf is precisely this approach. We combine technology and construction with artistic design. The designers are trained as engineers and designers, and it is precisely this hybrid knowledge that optimally prepares them for the new world of work. In this way, the students can present the complete product design and product development process as well as the manufacturing process and develop a product from the sketch to the market launch. You can be hired as an engineer and as a designer, a source of inspiration for new ideas; but also, to be a part of the development and construction team. You can act as a link between design and technology or independently take over holistic development.
We also used this topic, “best of both worlds”, when setting up the course. So, the design studio is a bit outside of the university, in the middle of the city park in a wonderful old property. The students have a space here with a lot of freedom for creativity, research, development and trying things out. Different, renowned lecturers teach you the tools of a designer from the basics to analytical design processes. Ideas can be implemented and tested immediately in the new workshop. The studio in its old walls should be a space to create something new.
The university is only a few minutes walk away. With almost 10,000 students, it is one of the fastest-growing and most international in Bavaria. It is the absolute place for high-tech and industry know-how. Being able to use this as a designer is fantastic. The students have their scientific subjects, but also a machine park, from the most modern CNC milling machines to robotic and media workshops. This 360-degree training enables us to train the students in many ways, to give them even better individual support and to show them both worlds during their studies. Personally, I try to give them a lot of responsibility and support them on their professional path. Some of them keep surprising me and it is wonderful to be able to work with young people.
Although our course has only existed for a short time (3 years, I myself have been a course director and professor for 2 years), my students are already designing for well-known customers such as Rolls Royce or Rimowa (Design Prize 2022). They take such tasks very seriously and manage to design and present at a very high level despite a full schedule.
OM: Since you are a member of the Jury of this year’s Exhibition of Croatian Design 21/22, I have to ask your opinion on the current situation of Croatian industrial and product design. How well are you acquainted with the product design scene in Croatia? How do you comment on the works submitted?
KM: I mentioned that I used to go to Croatia every summer when I was a kid. There we lived for many summers in a house with the Croatian artist Vojin Bakić, a close friend of my father. I was very impressed with him as a person. Once I brought him a rock from the beach and when we drove home, he gave me a finished sculpture he had made out of it.
As far as current Croatian design is concerned, I’m still relatively inexperienced and very excited! But I observe how rapidly Croatia is developing. From a distance it is impressive how cities are changing; how quickly new things are created and old things are preserved. I feel very honoured to be invited and to be able to contribute and I look forward to my task.
OM: What are you working on at the moment? Do you have any big projects in the near future?
KM: I work on many different projects at the same time. Among other things, me and my students look after the new concepts for the Stadtbahn for Regensburg. We also work on agricultural machinery and on the new products for my existing customers. In addition, I work for a number of companies as an extender consultant and write columns for magazines. At the moment, my focus is clearly on building up the studio in the university and further developing a design degree.