Translating Strategy

An Interview with Olaf Schroeter 

Olaf Schroeter, head of creation at MetaDesign Berlin in conversation with Linus Lütcke about his teaching approach and his recent project in cooperation with students from the HTW Berlin.

Linus Lütcke: Why do you work together with universities?

Olaf Schroeter: Besides my personal passion for teaching, I simply believe that a company like MetaDesign should pass on its years of work experience to the next generation. Also it is essential for us to pick up what drives young talents and which specific skills they should gain for their everyday professional life. I can tell from the job applications we receive that young people oftentimes receive an education that is rather one-dimensional. The focus is clearly on design and aesthetics.

In my opinion, however, the substantial strategic groundwork of a creative work is just as important. Thus it’s necessary for students to deal with a topic from a conceptual point of view and to learn how to translate this into something visual. I try to convey my experiences to the students and to show them a specific approach. So, I basically try to do the same thing I do with our rookies at MetaDesign.

Of course, the fact that we get up-and-coming young people into the company very early on and bind them to Meta, so that they — a bit like in a successful football club — get an understanding of our philosophy and our “way to play” is an interesting add-on. I think getting in touch with young people very early on is more effective and promising than expensively recruiting [more experienced] people. We should be able, with our own strength, to educate the people in such a way that they can achieve the best possible quality in their work.

LL: You said that for you personally it is important to also teach the strategic foundations. Are there other factors, which you notice particularly, that are important to be taught during the educational track?  

OS: There are essentially two things that I find important. On the one hand, what matters for me is that students learn — based on a well-structured process — how to approach an assignment in a professional way. Together with the students, we go through the entire design thinking process, which we have been successfully using at MetaDesign for a number of years. Through prototyping, interviews, and research, you firstly conceive a topic in its entirety, and then you go into brainstorming sessions without going into the actual composition already.

Additionally, I also try to have other dimensions of creation as subjects of my teaching: A good designer should also be able to deal with text, for example. That is why this is also part of my talks. Another topic I address is “brand in space,” which occupies its own unit at MetaDesign and is gaining in relevance despite, or precisely because of, digitalization, since there is an increased demand for real, physical experiences.

Finally, what is almost most important to me is that the students also learn how to present their results. In the business context — for which they are being prepared — the success of a project ultimately depends on the way the results are presented. A good presentation also depends on a certain dramaturgy and narrative style, and the ability to convincingly convey the strategic derivation of your design product is a key competence every designer should possess.

LL: During your last university project, you worked with students of the Berlin HTW. You selected the topic Bahnhofmission.* How was this developed? And what was the concrete task?

OS: If you want to talk about conception, you naturally need a topic which you can think about diversely. Furthermore, I liked the fact that the issue is of somewhat social relevance, which makes it easier to access the subject. So, I called them and came across a very accessible and helpful organization. I felt that we could be relatively quick start on the topic and, for example, take interviews on site.

Interestingly, the image of the Bahnhofsmission is generally not overtly positive. Although the Bahnhofsmission pursues a noble goal, it is somehow negatively loaded for many. Especially the place itself hardly evokes any positive associations. This makes the whole thing an exciting topic with a lot of potential: a visible change can be made. There is a lot which can be improved — much more than just the design.

At first the task was to rework the design, but the Bahnhofsmission also has a lot more problems. For example, finding suitable employees because the job is hard and not for everyone. They also compete with many other social institutions and are dependent on donations. Thus, the question was basically: How do we convince people that if you donate, then donate to the Bahnhofsmission. And if you want to do volunteer work, then do it at the Bahnhofsmission.

LL: So at the core the challenge was, How can we ensure a greater attention gain for the Bahnhofsmission?

OS: Yes, they actually chose this challenge for themselves. On the one hand, it really meant to renew the design and define a brand character. And on the other hand, the students had to ask themselves, How do we inspire more adolescents to start an honorary job at the Bahnhofsmission? Or, How can we acquire more donations? Everyone chose a different topic in this field. And everyone — and this can be seen in the results — made quite different things. Some tried to get more sleeping bags for the Bahnhofsmission, and the others have tried to inspire young people or drafted a pride campaign for the people who already volunteer there. All very exciting approaches of good quality.

LL: What do you think is the core competency that can be developed in such projects and could later contribute to professional life?

OS: I told these students from the beginning that the grade doesn’t mean shit. Because no one will ask you about your grades in the future. What is important is that you can justify your findings and understand design not as painting but as a holistic, conceptual idea that is translated visually in the end. That’s exactly what makes the difference between a good designer and a not-so-good designer.

Olaf Schroeter is Head of Creation at MetaDesign Berlin.  Linus Lütcke is Marketing Manager at MetaDesign Berlin.

* The Bahnhofsmission is a German aid organization located at more than 100 railway stations. With more than 2.000 full-time and volunteer staff, the Bahnhofsmission drop-in centers are key points of the social nets within cities. For over a century, they have been places to go for people seeking help.

A selection of some of the works by Annette Meiser, Stella Raab, Sofie Jäger and Samuel Weber in the slideshow:

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