Prof. Birgit Weller passed away on April 18, 2021 at the age of only 60. An obituary for the long-time IDZ board member, university lecturer and industrial designer who inspired generations of design students.


By Karsten Henze.

Birgit Weller was never afraid of strong colors. But it was certainly not solely due to her penchant for bright scarves and colorful outfits - her "trademark movie-star look," as an Indian colleague affectionately described it - that she was noticed, that every conversation with her was an enrichment. It was her very special blend of confident expertise, professional demeanor, irrepressible curiosity about people and her radiant smile that always impressed.

The Beginnings

Birgit Weller had actually wanted to study architecture. But already during her studies at the Weißensee Kunsthochschule (Weißensee Art Academy) she began to deal with industrial form design and changed disciplines without further ado. This was not entirely uncomplicated, as she would later admit, but she was "fascinated beyond measure" - and thus simply unstoppable. Already during her studies, she experienced the advantages of practical training, which she always advocated later in her professional life. In cooperation with VEB Lokomotivbau Elektrische Werke "Hans Beimler" (LEW) in Hennigsdorf, she was able to participate in the design of the metro in Bratislava or the development of various urban rail concepts while still a student. What opportunities to be able to try out one's own talents in real projects so early on. And they brought her success: In 1985, Birgit Weller received an offer to start working in Hennigsdorf directly after her diploma.

User experience - this word was not yet known when, at the age of just 24, she was given the task of designing the driver's workplace for the then new Berlin S-Bahn. As a young designer in a heavy engineering company, however, it was part of her own "experience" that she had to assert herself, but that this struggle was worthwhile. This, too, was to shape her for her professional life. The topic of workplace design had a tradition in the GDR, but the approach she and her team chose was new. Today, it would be called a human-centered design process: Involving drivers as actual users early on, working in iterative phases, and testing across different models led to exciting, novel solutions. She then took on her first design project management role in the development of the first generation of trains for the Shanghai Metro. And she learned not only how to deal with the living conditions of a country that was inaccessible to her at the time, but also how enriching collaboration across borders can be. That, too, was to become a formative experience for her.

University and self-employment

Curiosity has always been a strong motivator, so it is not surprising that she left LEW - now merged into AEG - in 1990 to gain new experience. Her path eventually led her to the FH Hannover, where she accepted an appointment as professor of industrial design in 1994. As a co-founder and board member of the Mart Stam Society, she simultaneously established the non-profit sponsoring association of the Weißensee Kunsthochschule - her alma mater, which had shaped her so much.

In the years that followed, she purposefully expanded her international network: as a speaker, workshop leader, jury member, or visiting professor in India, France, Finland, and China, among other places. Her students benefited just as much from this as from her many contacts to industry and small and medium-sized businesses, which often resulted in university projects. Practical relevance and working on and for people were the guiding principles of her teaching activities, which focused on topics ranging from mobility to universal design. The book "Du Tarzan, ich Jane" (You Tarzan, I Jane), which she published in 2011 as a university lecturer together with Katharina Krämer, dealt early on with the stereotypes of supposedly gender-typical products and their marketing.

Her time in Hanover also saw the beginning of her collaboration with the National Institute of Design India (NID), with whom she continued to promote the topic of universal design thinking in an intercultural context, among other things, until the end. I still remember how impressed I was by the professionalism and creativity of the students at the NID in particular, when I worked with Birgit Weller and the FH Hannover in 2011 as part of a research project for Deutsche Bahn.

In 2012, she co-founded the Industrial Design degree program at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts (HTW) and moved to Berlin as a professor. Developing and watching this degree program grow visibly filled her with joy, and her passion communicated itself to her students as well. In addition to her main research and teaching areas such as design methodology and universal design thinking, she had established the development of the new design master's program "System Design" until the end. In addition, she - together with her sister and long-time dean of the department, Prof. Katrin Hinz - tirelessly promoted the international cooperation of the university. The intensive and above all human exchange with the Indian colleagues of the NID was a matter close to both of their hearts.

Imaginative and down to earth: It was this special blend of pragmatism and inventiveness that made the collaboration and exchange with Birgit Weller inspiring and at the same time so wonderfully uncomplicated. This was not only true for our exchange at the IDZ. As a former lecturer at the HTW and a member of the Industrial Design Advisory Board, I also came to appreciate her very much as a colleague.

But it was not only teaching or cross-cultural exchange between renowned universities that kept her busy. She never lost contact with practice. Here, too, it was important for her to be internationally networked in order to be able to strategically advise globally operating companies in the field of transportation, investment and consumer goods design, among others since 2005 in the international network INAREA.

The IDZ

Birgit Weller became a member in 2001, but she had already been associated with the IDZ since her student days. She was initially curious about our publications, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall she quickly sought personal contact. At the IDZ, she not only appreciated the opportunity to attend excellent events - it was the content-related work and the chance for inspiring discussions that attracted Birgit Weller. She found this offer at the IDZ. Just one year after joining, she was elected to the board, where a generational change was taking place at the time. It was a time of upheaval and change at the IDZ, which had been facing great challenges since the end of institutional funding by the Berlin Senate. Turbulent years were to follow with structural and personnel changes as well as several relocations. Above all, however, it was a phase of intensive and inspiring work in the board, with fresh ideas and lively discussions before often not easy decisions. We quickly realized that we saw many things similarly, as different as our backgrounds were. There was a common wavelength that made us work together excellently. During this time, she served as Vice Chair of the Board for four years, for which I am still personally very grateful to her. In 2019, she decided for herself that she did not want to run again. As we now know, for good reasons.

Birgit Weller died on April 18, 2021, at the age of only 60. The IDZ is deeply indebted to her. With her, we lose a great personality, inspiring designer and a good friend.

We will miss her very much.



Many thanks to the Design Center Baden Württemberg for their kind permission to use the above photo.

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