Studying and Teaching Interface Design

This text describes how I got to know Gui Bonsiepe over 30 years ago, what it meant for me to study with him, how this subsequently influenced my own teaching, and what I think his work means for me today. These are personal thoughts. I nevertheless hope that they have meaning for readers with an interest in Gui Bonsiepe’s work.

Gui Bonsiepe and me during a hike in July 2020

How I got to know Gui Bonsiepe

Gui Bonsiepe began a new chapter in his career in 1992 when he accepted an appointment as a professor of “Hypermedia and Interface Design” in a new design program, the “Cologne Model (Kölner Modell),” at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences in Germany. I was in my first semester myself when I attended his inaugural lecture. I still knew very little about design and even less about this field of teaching or this new professor. The lecture took place in a large multiplex movie theater, an unusual venue for an academic lecture. A special cinema, called the “Black Box” by the venue managers, served as the auditorium. In retrospect, this name was highly symbolic, as Bonsiepe’s presentation opened up a new perspective for the students in attendance: Bonsiepe’s concept of the “Interface” described design with an emphasis on the tool characteristics of designed artifacts. Gui Bonsiepe formulated calmly, concentrated and with his peculiar mixture of rhetorical questions and prepared, precisely placed statements. When I left this “Black Box,” I had the feeling that I had switched to a completely new study program, without the usual administrative circumstances that such a switch usually entails.

In the action-theoretical approach introduced by Gui Bonsiepe and characterized by the term “interface design”, it doesn’t matter whether you’re designing a product, software, or printed material. This unifying perspective stood in opposition to the excessive specialization in design that the new course was essentially directed against. Bonsiepe provided a theoretical building block for the agenda of the “Cologne Model” and, through his involvement, established a link to the HfG Ulm, which had been closed around 25 years prior. His participation and commitment helped to improve the reputation of the study program and increase the chances of the Cologne Model being recognized internationally. This was very much in line with the objectives of the initiators. Bonsiepe’s approach to design theory was less characterized by observations from the distance of the more general humanities or cultural studies, but rather motivated by concrete practical design issues and their significance for a broader political and social discourse. A few years later, some of these considerations were reflected in the book Interface – An approach to Design (the German version was published in 1996, while the English translation followed in 1998).

In the 1980s, the computer found its way into design practice. At the beginning of the 1990s, a new wave of interactive media began, which was initially distributed primarily via CD-ROM. Gui Bonsiepe’s teaching area “Hypermedia and Interface Design” dealt with the role of the computer as a medium. His teaching activities in Cologne began at the same time as my own studies and coincided with the emergence of the World Wide Web, which led to the popularization of the Internet. I was there when Gui Bonsiepe saw a web browser and HTML pages in action for the first time. He jokingly described that moment in time as the “darkest Middle Ages” and the upcoming internet era as the “world of the future”. The topic of networking and digitization was on the agenda everywhere. In the morning, there was talk about the computerization of everyday life and the emergence of a knowledge society, while HTML was coded by hand in the afternoon. Google and Facebook would not be around until ten years later. The first gateways to the vastness of the fast-growing Internet were called Global Network Navigator and later Lycos or AltaVista. It really was new territory and a new field of activity for designers.

Gui Bonsiepe was always very interested in the possibilities of technical innovation. He was always optimistic about those advancements and potentials. The projects we did with him during my studies were mostly about useful applications. I can’t say whether one can go so far as to say that Gui Bonsiepe ignored the dangers of technology in his teaching. What is certain, however, is that his teaching focused more on the opportunities of new technologies than on the dangers. Designers could and should use their work to show how technologies can be used sensibly.

What was my experience of Gui Bonsiepe as a teacher?

It may have been a strange and fortuitous combination that a teacher with many years of design and professional experience met a completely new medium at the same time as his students. It allowed us to work together: we were constantly learning from each other and had a lot to discover and discuss together. It is characteristic of Gui Bonsiepe’s modest nature that in the early years I had little idea of his connection to the HfG Ulm or the significance of his work in South America: It played no role in the actual project work, and Gui Bonsiepe obviously had no reason to impress his students with stories about his career or his international reputation. He never made a big deal out of his former work life and achievements. Mutual recognition was always based on the current joint work and the associated design issues.

The students could have easily lost themselves in technical details and constant innovations. Soon, every company wanted its own website and needed designers who were able to create meaningful online presences. Technically, it was all still relatively simple HTML and you could implement web projects without having studied computer science beforehand (there was not much CSS and even less JavaScript that could have complicated things). And even though Gui Bonsiepe himself was someone who had his own curious fascination for new technologies, he was indispensable for us students in placing our experiments in a wider political, economic, and sociological context. Bonsiepe not only let us design, but helped us connect our own work to a broader design discourse and recognize what determined our assumptions. He referred not so much to concepts from art history or cultural studies, but introduced separate terminology that came out of an original design discourse. He positioned design as a fourth field alongside art, science, and technology. He strengthened our self-confidence by emphasizing the role of designers in translating technological progress into everyday life and highlighting the uniqueness of designers in this task.

His teaching was always characterized by an interest in and curiosity about the new questions facing the designers of his time. He often spoke of design discourse and that design was also a discursive activity. In general, articulated debate and verbal clarity were one of the most important elements of his teaching. He encouraged us to express ourselves clearly, often responding to overly clumsy attempts at explanation and ambiguity on the part of the students with a puzzled facial expression and the question “What do you mean?“. As soon as an argument could be presented clearly enough, he often helped by furthering the chain of thought and placing it in a larger context. I can’t say whether this was a particular didactic strategy, but it was certainly typical of Gui Bonsiepe. I remember that some students would have liked more advice on specific questions of formal aesthetics and did not get on so well with his way of not commenting much on individual design decisions. But his categorical assertions made it clear that each of our own work results was to be regarded as a part of the design discourse. Gui Bonsiepe not only trained designers but also taught us to think about the function of design in a wider context. At the same time, he did not ignore design practice. It was self-evident that we should never neglect the simple, practical design details while discussing broader subjects. Design solutions were above all examples of solution strategies and potentially typical procedures. Therefore, it was less about qualifying concrete designs and more about reflecting on the way of working and thinking that gave rise to our assumptions and enabled design decisions.

There were some lecturers in the design department who tried to attract a certain amount of public attention to the subject of design and the “Cologne Model” through PR and press campaigns. This desire for public perception was also linked to the need to examine the validity of the new study approach and perhaps also the preservation of the special status as a model study program. As far as I recall, these issues did not play an important role for Gui Bonsiepe. He may have been convinced by the concept of the curriculum and the basic interdisciplinary idea, but he did not seem to have an interest in regional debates and local politics. A whole series of graduates who studied and graduated under Gui Bonsiepe in Cologne are now actively teaching themselves. This can be seen as an indication that Gui Bonsiepe himself always raised design education itself as a prominent issue in his teaching.

How was my own teaching influenced by Gui Bonsiepe?

After a few years as a freelance designer and a brief interlude at an art-oriented college, I was appointed as a professor in the communication design program at Aachen University of Applied Sciences. In the early 2000s, this program expanded into the field of interactive media. Right at the beginning of my teaching career, I realized that I was pursuing a somewhat different approach to teaching than many of my new and immediate colleagues. I realized how my training in the “Cologne Model” and my studies with Gui Bonsiepe encouraged me to see design as a changing domain and not to give students the impression that the positions had been debated and the field of work was mature. To the contrary, that field was changing rapidly, and there was no indication that this was slowing down.

Although my teaching area “Interactive Media” was seen by my colleagues as a specialization within the program, interdisciplinarity was always important to me. I proposed a more generalist approach that clearly reflected my interest in design. While I did, of course, focus on audiovisual media and information architecture, the question of interactivity was less of a goal for the work than the starting point. This was expressed, for example, in the fact that I did not design seminars and project topics as simulations of typical real-world job assignments. I also didn’t try to take the technical issues of new media too seriously (it was constantly changing anyway). Instead, I focused on the question of how people might think, work and live in the future if digitalization were to be a help or a hindrance. The aim was to work out where designers are still not sufficiently involved and what approaches they can use to achieve meaningful interventions. Gui Bonsiepe emphasized to us that design does not stand apart from social discourse, but is fundamentally connected to it. He appreciated the concrete design work, but he was almost more interested in reflecting on the relationship of designers to their environment and the conditions under which designers work. For me, this meant that design could never be seen as something given and “completed,” but that designers always had to be in a position to re-legitimize their own existence at any given time. This led me to challenge students not only to come up with designs, but to try to understand the contexts in which their work is embedded. Today, I often ask students what they think other designers could learn from their work results.

The self-image of designers as co-authors of sustainable solutions to problems was often at odds with that of the general public or economic players. The tension between a socio-cultural and an economic-political perspective on the design profession has challenged me as a teacher. In the degree program in Aachen, the change from a more art-oriented to a design-focused program had only just begun when I started to teach there around 2001. Within that curriculum, the design basics and the practice of designing were seen as enormously important, while conceptual work, intellectual input, and the ability to put this into clear words only played a role later on in the course – if at all. The result often counted more than the process that produced it, and the design strategy used to achieve results was often secondary. There were even professors that expected only designs and no written concept at all (not anymore, I should add). The mission statement of the course still celebrated the myth of creativity as the source of good design and focused on the training of “designer personalities”. I was very suspicious of both notions, but particularly of the latter: the development of a personality may have been an effect of a good design education, but not the reason or the goal.

Gui Bonsiepe has undoubtedly influenced my teaching. One example of a discrepancy between my attitude and that of those around me, especially at the beginning of my teaching career, was the understanding of “design basics.” Many of my colleagues were of the opinion that a meaningful study of design could only begin once certain practical foundations had been laid: Typography, color design, illustration, etc. This then led to a very packed mandatory program in the first year of the degree, followed by an unfocused and open-ended project course up to the final exam. Design theory was not an integral part of each area of teaching, but “outsourced” in a mostly lecture-based segment of the curriculum. This has essentially not changed to this day. The overemphasis on practical skills at the beginning of the course suggests to students that these skills are the most important characteristic of a professional career. The problem is not so much the overemphasis per se, but rather the fact that so many required and optional courses are crammed into the first semesters of study that there is not enough time for theoretical or design-strategic discussions. It is not uncommon for students in the middle of their studies to have reached the end of an extensive foundation course and to have settled on their profile, and sometimes even decided whether or not to reflect theoretically on what they do and how they do it. This can devalue design education to mere skill training. Theoretical considerations of one’s own work then seem more like unnecessary ballast and there is a lack of patience to deal with design itself in a knowledge-oriented and open-minded way. This becomes apparent in the fact that many students have a hard time understanding what theory actually is. Often they regard any kind of language-based work in the design field as “theory” – even normal conceptual work is falsely regarded as some kind of theoretical activity. Achieving respectable results quickly is more important than the question of why and how.

Recognizing that design work is an intellectual challenge long before it becomes a practical challenge would be a start towards changing the basic understanding of design education. If design is far more than a professional qualification, then this is undoubtedly rooted in this intellectual work. While skill-based training is only about simulating professionalism, academic training offers the opportunity to constantly redefine professionalism and thus prepare design and design practice for future challenges instead of merely reacting to existing challenges that may be outdated once the study is finished.

This is also where the demand for multi-professionalism and interdisciplinary work comes in, which is frequently encountered in the professional world. Data, information, and project environments are often so complex that they cannot be overseen by one person alone. The cooperation of several players with different perspectives is intended to tackle and overcome more complex challenges in projects. A remarkable observation is that even simple design solutions can achieve great effects if they are targeted at the right spot in a problem domain. Great system effects can be achieved through good leverage. However, this presupposes that designers can think in systems and understand where the leverage effect of design solutions can be particularly large. This is where design education fails in many places. There are initial attempts to approach the topic through special further education courses and, for example, to offer master’s degree courses with a focus on design strategy. In my view, this is well-intentioned, but far too little and far too late. The reason for the failure of design education is not the lack of corresponding specialized courses, but the outdated disciplinary understanding of design basics, which is still based on the image of the designer as an “aestheticizer” and in which design is simply understood as cosmetic work in the context of brand staging. In view of the pressing social, ecological, and economic challenges, nothing seems more inappropriate and foolish to me than limiting design to inventing additional consumer options and preserving outdated business models through fashionable and fancy redesign. There is enough to be done to solve urgent problems and avert impending crises. What is the significance of Gui Bonsiepe for me today?

Gui Bonsiepe’s contributions to the design discourse are special because they span over six decades and reflect different socio-cultural contexts. From his texts, I conclude that there are still a lot of open questions to which designers can and should contribute – also because new questions are emerging: artificial intelligence and its impact on the world of work, gender equality, sustainability and climate crisis, anti-intellectualism and the return of authoritarianism, the one-sided distribution of wealth, aging societies, intercultural understanding, etc. There are many subject areas in which new tasks are also opening up for designers. At the same time, design is a field that lends itself to certain actors who want to position themselves with their own agenda. The habit of separating such agendas as if it were a race for relevance slows down the work towards a greater consensus.

However, this differentiation and broadening of the design discourse has still not resolved some important issues. One example of this is the relationship between design and business. There is still a persistent discrepancy between “what design could be and what it is”: Designers still do not find adequate recognition for their work everywhere. The contribution of design to economic success is still underestimated. As a result, economic potential often remains untapped. As recently as 2018, McKinsey demonstrated in a five-year study of around 300 companies (The business value of Design, 2018) that sustainable investment in design has a significant impact on corporate success, sales growth, and stock market value.

Despite this clear evidence, designers in many companies are still at the beginning of a difficult educational process. Design consultants use maturity models to classify the extent to which companies have integrated design into their way of thinking and working. This shows that the vast majority of companies still have to be classified at the lowest levels of design maturity. And in difficult economic times, design is mainly what is cut back on. According to a publication by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, the decline in sales in the design sector in Germany alone is estimated at 4.7 to 8 billion euros in the first year of the COVID pandemic – more than in any other sector of the creative industries in Germany (but I suspect this is not specific to Germany).

This at least corresponds with a position that Gui Bonsiepe has repeatedly advocated: Design is still at the beginning of a definition compared to other disciplines. Part of this development is the development of common goals, agreements, and the joint identification of helpful contributions on how designers move within their profession, so that there is a chance that design can also come into its own as an elementary cultural technique beyond a service business. The next generation of designers are already setting their own priorities and are faced with a changed social and political situation in which critical thinking is required more than ever, with a real danger that discourse will split into many side and niche issues due to the complexity of the questions.

If we are to avoid this fragmentation, we can use Gui Bonsiepe’s overarching and wide-ranging work and take the impulses he presented to us, and further a humanistic and modernistic agenda. We can cross socio-political divides by being interested in other cultures, and open to learning from unexpected sources, to understand how to act in unity and achieve sustainable progress.


Bonsiepe, G. (1998) Interface – An approach to Design. Maastricht: Jan van Eyck Academy.

Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie. (2020). Kurzfassung: Monitoringbericht Kultur- und Kreativwirtschaft 2020 at

McKinsey & Company. (2018). The business value of Design at: business-value-of-design#/; accessed December 2023)

This text is taken from a book »Noventa Aniversario gui bonsiepe« with collected texts of friends of Gui Bonsiepe. The book was presented to Gui on his 90ies birthay in 23rd March 2024. The texts were gathered by Maria Gonzalez de Cossio, who came up with the idea for the book.