An interview with Eberhard Schrempf, the managing director of the Creative Industries Styria in Graz, Austria, give us a good insight of Austrian environment in this area of investment and business and how Designmonat has been changing mentalities.

Eberhard Schrempf photo by Philipp Podesser.
Eberhard Schrempf was born in 1959 in Austria and lives in Graz. After his artistic education (arts school for sculpture; studied stage design at the university of arts in Graz) he has been working in the field of cultural management and design for more than 30 years. In his careers as a cultural manager, he has, among others, held the position of the Managing Director of the European Capital of Culture project Graz 2003. Since 2007 Eberhard Schrempf was appointed as the managing director of “Creative Industries Styria“, Graz-based net-working company promoting the creative economy in Styria. Its objective is to develop the potential of Styria’s creative people and harness this to economy. As the driving force, Schrempf is also responsible for the successful appointment and development of Graz as a “City of Design” in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.


Designmonat Graz will be 10 years next year, what has been evolved since the first edition?

Designmonat Graz has developed from year to year and is continuously changing. The event has well established and has become a constant within the European festival calendar. The program includes a great number of individual initiatives by designers as well as large local educational design institutions and thus enables synergies and cooperation between the creative industries and ‘traditional’ companies. Designmonat does of course mark a period of time – I like to call it ‘abnormal circumstances’ – when design rises in terms of awareness and importance in the city’s agenda. With the acceptance of the topic ‘design’ the quality of the program has also improved throughout the years. It is also a fact that DMG has become more and more international with the years.

Who supports the festival and what is the annual budget?

DMG festival is supported by the City of Graz, the Economic Department of the State of Styria, the Graz Tourism Agency and private sponsors. The annual budget of CIS for the DMG event amounts to 420,000 Euros. Still, many single events are funded by the partners themselves and are not part of our budget. I guess, you can add another 200,000 Euros from that side.

The Creative Industries Styria is responsible for Designmonat Graz. What is exactly the role of the agency, who and how many people work for it, when was it born, how was it started and for what purposes was it assigned?   

The Creative Industries Styria Ltd. has been the network organization of the creative industries in Styria since 2007. It raises awareness for creative professionals on a regional and international level. Being an active co-creator of the structural change towards a knowledge-based production company, it does initiate and coordinate initiatives and key projects of the creative community. It is the cooperation and contact partner for institutions and companies that wish to implement creative concepts and it supports their implantation through project-related counselling and networking. For Styria, the creative industries – supported by the initiatives of the network society CIS – assume a cross-divisional function in terms of strengthening the innovation processes of firms though design as a holistic creative process for product and service innovations. Their function is also crucial in terms of location development and the development of innovative environments.

Designmonat Graz concentrates the buzz of the creative community within one month, makes it visible and emphasizes the economic relevance of creative processes. It offers a platform for innovative projects, thus highlighting the importance of design. The term ‘Designmonat’ functions as an umbrella brand and joins all individual activities under a uniform appearance without jeopardizing their independence. Creative Industries Styria coordinates and organizes the Designmonat Graz. A team of 20 people, such as curators, project managers, writers, editors or graphic designers work on the planning and organization of the festival.

Due to the lead projects ‘Experience Economy’, ‘Designmonat Graz’, ‘Design Transfer’ and other activities, as well as being part of national and international networks such as ‘UNESCO City of Design’, CIS creates important requirements for making the location Styria more attractive and supporting the local companies. With those activities according to the strategic guidelines of the Economics Department of Styria and its strategic orientation, CIS emphasizes the qualities embedded in this region. It also promotes the globalization of the companies within the network of the Styrian creative industries and hence supports their growing and development. CIS assumes an essential cross-sectional function in terms of innovativeness of companies.

This year’s edition was under the motto ‘Smart Design – Smart Production’. What are the key facts and numbers related to the creative industries in Graz considering not only economic aspects but also cultural and social ones? 

The program focus ‘Smart Design – Smart Production’ deals with the age of digital linking and tools of the digital change. In terms of the topic, the aim was to show which impact the smart technologies, services and features have on society and on daily life and how they can actually improve life. Doing so, we also have to clarify predominantly social and cultural questions regarding this topic: Everyone talks about Smart City and Smart Living – but what do these terms actually mean for society and daily life? And what are the consequences for designers and production?

Currently, in Styria there are about 4,350 creative businesses with more than 15,270 employees who generate a total turnover of 1.6 billion Euros per year. The share of the Styrian creative industries in the overall economy of Styria is approximately 9%, thus every 10th company operates in the field of creative industries. That is why the Styrian government assigned an important cross-sectional competence to the creative industries, which are also anchored in their economic strategy.

What it is gathered under the creative economy?

We define the creative economy as the group of profit-oriented companies that deal with the creation, production and distribution of creative and cultural goods and services. It is an essential segment that has established itself within the last decades. A vibrant and well connected creative community fosters the creation of new products and services as well as the digital change in the entire economy and society. It provides impetus for creating future-orientated jobs, in order to improve the appeal of cities and regions and to strengthen regional and international innovation systems.

For you what does Industry 4.0 mean?      

There is a continuous major transformation going on. Heavy industry has been changed by digital solutions of creative minds with light structures. Most of the intelligent processes are invented by ‘creative thinkers’, who use methods like Design Thinking for new strategies in creation, production and distribution. Smart production alias Industry 4.0 will provoke a major shift in the working world. It will widen the gap between the talents of high- and low-employment. And it comes along with closing the gap between mass and customized production, which I consider positive and a chance for the creative sector in general.

How would you describe the designers’ community in Austria and how are they perceived as qualified professionals?

The designers’ community in Austria, like everywhere else in Europe, is well educated, but in Austria it does suffer from the fact that classical businesses and the economic policy attach too little importance to the topic ‘design’ from an economic point of view. This is a luxury problem and has to do with a kind of comfort with mediocrity within the employer territory. Too filled, too satisfied. The average Austrian mentality is actually characterized by the contrasting poles of the attitude of German perfection and the looseness of the Balkans. This means, that the majority of the companies is happy with the current state and does not invest a lot in innovation and renovation. In general, design is integrated much too late into the economic development process, although designers and institutions like Creative Industries Styria are continuously working on this and they are actually very successful. Still, Austria is a relatively small market for design and this is why many designers do not only operate nationally but also internationally, which works very well.

There’s been this new intention by politicians and policy makers within the European Union of bringing the industries, designers and new technologies into the craft world. What is your opinion about this subject?

Craftsmanship has always been attractive – but not profitable in terms of creation, production and distribution. Prices were too high, incomes too low, products turned out very expensive – so it was not interesting anymore.  I think the initiative brings back production and at the same time safes traditional techniques, before the knowledge gets lost. In combination with modern digital tools, freshness, new distribution models and the delivering power of the web, these newly interpreted products immerge into a new era of handmade goods but coming with their legacy and stories. There is definitely a desire for bygone quality, but for products that are handmade and crafted in the present with a contemporary sustainable approach – for a better tomorrow. Makers, industries and craftsmen do have a lot to share, it does not matter where and how much, as the business and the technology methods are similar, just the size differs.

Does all this cycle of innovation and mission to add value to companies have any reflection on increasing work opportunities for qualified designers?

Yes. Designers take more responsibility in terms of what they provoke by creating new goods. They really take this opportunity. A kind of renaissance in the 21st century – the return of empathy, responsibility and sensibility for the essential needs. They become more and more aware of the consequences that their work has on others. Unfortunately, stupid clients and bad designers still prevail but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Circular economy is just around the corner. What is Austria doing at this level?

Austria and the State of Styria are among the leading European regions regarding the topic of sustainable and green technology solutions. The cooperative culture in the circular economy is already high developed. We support the initiatives, connect designers, companies and engineers and provide them a platform in our daily business, in particular in the course of the Designmonat festival.

How have the UNESCO and the network of creative cities of Design been important for the whole strategy and what sort of inputs and outputs would you like to mention as the most important ones?

Being a City of Design under the roof of UNESCO is important in terms of the acceptance of the topic design, the understanding and the role of design for the city’s development as a whole. It is given and accepted by the citizens and the administration – they believe in titles and brands – not yet understood in all the consequences. Yet, it is anchored and embedded in the city’s agenda and hence in the strategic positioning of Graz, following the topic design as a driver for innovation and growth in a vibrant city with an enormously high quality of life. This provides to creative professionals and companies at least a good reason to live and work in this city, because design is part of its identity. Thus, they can follow this positioning and the vision.

The input for Graz and the festival?  Definitely better connections, an enlarged radius of performance, high diversification and a wide range of opportunities.

Output? For sure being open for more quality, comparability and distinctiveness by understanding internationalization not only in the economic sense, but also as an important ingredient for the creation of a better life by learning from each other, exchanging and changing.

What is next year’s edition bringing and what is it aiming at?

Right now, we continue with the strategy of implementing the program as a sort of parasitic element in the city of Graz and the region. That means, we intend to infect our audience with the positive virus of good design and its value for society. We are aware that it equals an acupuncture or homeopathic slow process therapy, but they will understand more and more and finally it will become part of their DNA…

See more on May 4, 2018, in Graz.

Photos: Courtesy of Creative Industries Styria