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Design in Hamburg: Sustainable world design and AI as growth drivers

Hamburg's design industry is undergoing radical change - AI is changing the field of work, especially in advertising. Experts see designers as drivers of sustainable innovation in the future. An overview of the industry.

Design in Hamburg: Sustainable world design and AI as growth drivers -

Leading the way in Germany

Hamburg is one of the leading centres for design in Germany. Characterised by an international agency landscape, a complex ecosystem of studios, networks and freelancers has formed here. No other sector of Hamburg's creative industry has so many companies and solo freelancers. Almost one in three companies in the creative sector is part of the design market. A total of 8,242 companies have established themselves in the neighbourhood of major clients from the media sector, consumer goods production and industry.


People work in Hamburg's design industry.*

60,6 %

of employees are women - 11% more than in the creative industries as a whole.*


Companies are part of the Hamburg design industry.*

29 %

of the companies in Hamburg's creative sector are classified as design*

1.6 billion

Euro annual turnover*

+27 %

Sales from 2011 to 2021 - 15 % more than the national average*

Companies include companies with an annual turnover of more than 22,000 euros as well as small companies. Employed persons include both persons subject to social security contributions and marginally employed persons, as well as the self-employed.

*Goldmedia Location Monitor, according to the methodology of the BMWK Cultural and Creative Industries (as of 2021)

Design as an economic factor

"You go to Berlin to be creative, to Hamburg to earn money" - the fact that this stereotype is so persistent is probably due to Hamburg's strong agency landscape. Two thirds of the turnover generated in the design submarket comes from advertising design. According to the German government's KKW monitoring report, the design industry's total annual turnover is 1.6 billion euros (2021). This puts Hamburg ahead of Berlin in Germany.

However, the upheavals in the publishing world and the consumer goods industry mean that these key sectors in Hamburg are becoming less important for the design industry, says Lukas Cottrell. He is Managing Partner at the Peter Schmidt Group, one of the largest design agencies in Germany based in the Hanseatic city. "It is therefore essential for us to build and maintain strong relationships not only in Hamburg, but also on international markets.

More than "beauty makers"

When we talk about design, many people think of graphic and communication design. When the appearance of major brands changes, Hamburg names are often involved: Justblue Design created the look of the Becks beer bottles, for example, and the Peter Schmidt Group designed Rewe's own brands. This makes the graphics and communication market segments particularly visible. Most freelancers also work here, many of them as an extended workbench for companies and agencies.

"All our design decisions are based on strategic, long-term considerations and do not chase after short-lived trends."

Tanja Hildebrandt, Re.Frame

However, the design industry is much more diverse: the example of IBM shows that the consulting expertise of designers is becoming increasingly relevant: the former PC manufacturer is now one of the largest software companies in the world. The many designers there are also driving this change. "It started in the product area, then came consulting and now we have designers in all areas right through to HR," says Carlo Schulz from IBM in Hamburg. He is one of more than 3,000 trained designers in the company worldwide. This means that IBM probably has an unusually high "designer density" compared to its competitors. Schulz himself works as an "Experience Designer" at the IBM iX consulting unit. There, he works with his customers to design products, services and experiences that "connect people".

Rethinking work

And where should young talents from local universities such as the HFBK and the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences (HAW) best start their careers? Rather at a large or small agency? Or would it be better to start a career as a freelancer?

Jesko Fezer, Professor of Experimental Design at the Hamburg University of Fine Arts (HFBK), sees great potential for innovation in a third path: "There is a shift towards interdisciplinary, solidarity-based networks," he says. The collective creation of commissioned and self-commissioned works offers the opportunity to escape the sometimes precarious conditions of solo self-employment without having to immediately switch to a permanent position "with the associated signs of fatigue".

What moves the design industry?

The experts speak here

"Design and sustainability must be seen much more as one. Circular design is not a trend, but a trend reversal."

Design in Hamburg: Sustainable world design and AI as growth drivers -

Tanja Hildebrandt (Photo: Niklas Marc Heinecke)

Co-founder of Re.Frame

"Hamburg has the opportunity to develop a more interdisciplinary and fluid concept of design that oscillates between product, market, city, society and environment. Other areas such as art, music and culture, which already work in an extremely interdisciplinary way, prove that Hamburg can do this."

Design in Hamburg: Sustainable world design and AI as growth drivers -

Jesko Fezer (Photo: Max Schwarzmann)

Professor of Experimental Design at the University of Fine Arts Hamburg (HFBK)

"As essential as circular design and eco-social design are and should remain, the reality is that the use of artificial intelligence in the design industry will significantly change many jobs."

Design in Hamburg: Sustainable world design and AI as growth drivers -

Luke Cottrell

Managing Partner at the Peter Schmidt Group

Tanja Hildebrandt is already part of such a collective with her studio Re.Frame. The communication designer sees collectives as a kind of "antithesis" to traditional agencies in terms of working methods and transparency: decisions are made as a team, daily rates are posted on the website. And at some point, says Hildebrandt, the plan is to go one step further: Then Re.Frame wants to become a co-operative.

Social, ecological design

The understanding of its own role corresponds with a development in terms of content - because the design industry is also recognised as playing a central role in shaping ecological, social and economic change. Senator for Culture Carsten Brosda, for example, describes designers as the "blueprint builders of our world of tomorrow." Instead of designing disposable products, Hamburg studios such as Indeed Innovation, Design for Human Nature and Re.Frame specialise in the development of sustainable products, services and digital worlds.

"The economic transformation harbours a great opportunity for us," says Tanja Hildebrandt. According to a proposal for an EU Ecodesign Regulation, over 80 per cent of a product's environmental impact depends on design decisions. The design determines how durable a product is, whether we can repair, retrofit and recycle it. This is where creativity meets the circular economy and behavioural research.

Hamburg has the opportunity to develop a more interdisciplinary concept of design, says Professor Fezer. "Companies cannot answer the big and urgent ecological and social questions on their own," he says. "That's why I see a great dynamic in design away from industry and the market and towards a practice for urban and social actors such as foundations, NGOs and local institutions."

"Designers can no longer rely on their technical skills alone. Instead, the focus of our work must increasingly be on strategic conceptualisation and creative transformation."

Lukas Cottrell, Peter Schmidt Group

Colleague AI

Lukas Cottrell from the Peter Schmidt Group sees the major developments elsewhere: "The revolutionary influence of AI on many jobs in our industry will overshadow important transformation topics such as circular design and eco-social design," he says. For example, production-related creative work ("creative delivery") will largely be done by technology in a few years' time.

At Hamburg agencies such as Loved, so-called "prompt artists" are already working specifically around programmes such as Midjourney and Dall-E, which use machine learning and text input to create images. This blurs the boundaries between design and programming. According to Cottrell, designers therefore need to focus more on "strategic conceptualisation and creative transformation" instead of relying on their technical skills.

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