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“Being aware and attentive, being open and willing to engage with new things”

An interview with Steinbeis Entrepreneur Professor Susanne Radtke

When considering education and the working environment of the future, it is essential to look beyond personal cultural values, especially given increasing globalization. After all, as we are all part of global society, we find ourselves interacting with people who have grown up in different cultures, which have shaped who they are. TRANSFER magazine talked about this with Susanne Radtke, who experiences such challenges every day, not only in her work as a professor of design and media design at Ulm University of Applied Sciences, but also as a Steinbeis Entrepreneur at the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Intercultural & Corporate Design (I&CD). In the interview, Radtke speaks of the role played by “interculturality,” especially in the field of design, and how both society and business are in a position to address this.

Hello Professor Radtke. You’re very closely involved in the topic of interculturality. What role does interculturality currently play in education, as well as the world of work?

In a global world, where physical distances and different languages play only a very minor role nowadays, it’s a topic nobody can avoid. The world has become a village, and everyone thinks they understand everything and everyone. But that’s a misconception – there are so many things and situations we don’t understand, and more often than not we misinterpret them. For example, in our society we express agreement by nodding, whereas in Asia or Bulgaria people shake their head to the left and right, which we tend to interpret as a no.

It’s similar with design: Colors, combinations of color, fonts, and shapes don’t have the same meaning everywhere in the world. Good global branding and marketing agencies understood this some time ago by adapting their product advertising on a local level. So in Japan, for example, deodorant labels have soft shapes and pastel colors, whereas in the United States, they prefer to use more dominant lettering and brash colors. There are also colors that are not culture-specific, like green. Green is used for canned vegetables in China, South Korea, Germany, and the USA; it’s a color that’s associated with nature worldwide. Lots of people assume that perceptions, taste, and judgments in a global world are also the same everywhere. But what’s good, bad, pretty, or ugly, is mainly driven by the respective culture. This is exactly what I try to convey to my students, but also to anyone planning to work in a different cultural environment.

The design courses you offer focus a lot on cross-cultural design basics. What does that actually mean?

Design basics, as the name implies, are the fundamentals or individual attributes that go to make up a design, such as shapes, colors, or fonts. Unlike art, design always revolves around application – so above all, what’s important to the beholder or consumer is its function. Conveying information through so-called signals, for example red as a signal color, should match what you’re trying to achieve, i.e. it should hit the target group. Students have to learn how to design a poster for a cultural event, an advertising animation, or complex branding in such a way that it can be understood by different audiences. To do that, you first have to research and analyze their visual, auditory, and stylistic preferences.

What influence does globalization have on the work of design teams, but also on collaboration? What do you observe in your workshops?

In a globalized world, signals and signage always relate to the cultural context, so they can only be understood or interpreted within that context. That’s why, as early as their first semester, my students examine international designs and styles that many of them are less familiar with. Looking at Asian, African, Latin American, and Arab designers encourages us to examine our own, minimalist design language, which was shaped by Bauhaus. This is juxtaposed with previously acquired design norms such as clarity, conciseness, guiding the eye, and “less is more,” and this is subjected to scrutiny.

You have to allow yourself to embrace designs and their intercultural diversity, because an increasing number of design teams now work internationally, which means they no longer just design things for domestic markets. In the intercultural workshops I run, the participants get to experience themselves within the context of a mixed international team, so as they work together this allows them to shake off their initial reticence and become more confident. They discover new strengths and, ideally, become motivated to engage in areas they’re not familiar with, alongside team members from other cultures. Ultimately, this allows them to navigate more successfully in the international job market and to prove themselves.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in training and continuing education in the future, especially from an intercultural perspective?

The first thing that comes to mind for me is the switch to online teaching during the coronavirus pandemic. Everyone involved in education struggled with this at first, but in mixed, intercultural teams, online teaching is an even more complicated challenge. The advantage in terms of timing and financial investment is that people no longer have to travel to attend a workshop, but the disadvantage is that a major part of your body language, which plays a crucial role when you’re imparting knowledge, falls by the wayside. Not only that, but the course participants are more isolated and arranging group tasks becomes complex. So it’s essential to use interactive icebreakers and do warm-up games. What’s also important is that anyone involved in international teaching should understand that the processes of socialization between the student and the teacher are completely different. In the United States, you’re almost a buddy; in Indonesia you’re a very strong symbol of authority, so you’re treated accordingly. Over the many years I’ve been conducting workshops, I’ve learned some of these idiosyncrasies and have worked out how to deal with them.

What can society, but also business, do to ensure workers are trained and educated to shape the workplace of tomorrow?

There are always people behind an economy, as well as society, and they have very different interests, needs, and priorities. We have global corporations to thank for the economy, and the economy is also capable of reacting much faster to new demands than society. To secure its existence, it has to solve problems before they arise. Society usually lags behind in this respect, and it often only acts when a problem meets it head-on. Let me give you an example: During the Covid-19 pandemic, companies were very quick to switch to online meetings and working from home, setting up the necessary infrastructure and making software and hardware available. At schools, which are an important part of our society and politics, that didn’t happen so quickly. When they were forced to switch to online lessons, the first thing they realized is that there was neither the right hardware in place nor the right software, not just in the schools themselves but also at home with the students. By the end of 2021, only 1.27 billion euros of the 6.5 billion euros that had been signed off in federal funding had actually been spent. That’s not even 20 percent! What this clearly shows is how different things work in business and politics – at least in terms of the speed they operate at. One thing they do have in common, however, is interculturality: Neither is intercultural per se, they’ve become so, but only through the people who have automatically and unconsciously acquired this behavior during childhood. Language acquisition and learning cultural values are closely interlinked – you learn by interacting with your parents and the things around you.

If we want to function properly in what’s a new cultural setting to us, we first have to work out our own behavioral norms, our value system, but also our own cultural patterns, and question whether they’re beneficial to us in a new or foreign context. Being aware and attentive, being open and willing to engage with new things, treating others with respect – these are good prerequisites.

Intercultural education is not only part of my teaching, it’s also something I apply to the work at my Steinbeis Enterprise. I’d like to impart this knowledge regarding the necessity of culturally sensitive action and work. For me, there are three qualities that all of us should hold on to: Be curious about the things we don’t know, explore things courageously, and then act decisively and be sensitive to different cultures!


Prof. Susanne Radtke (interviewee)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Consulting Center Intercultural & Corporate Design (Ulm)