As a visual designer, Björn Bartholdy focuses on graphic design, UI & UX, motion graphics, and 2D animation. Together with Gundolf S. Freyermuth, he conceived the Cologne Game Lab as a creative space around the topic of digital games with the aim of establishing one of the leading research institutions in this field for Europe.
Education and Professional Experience
Björn Bartholdy studied communication design at the Merz Akademie in Stuttgart and Media Design at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne. He worked as a freelance television designer for Bayerischer Rundfunk, RTL, VOX, and VIVA. In 1994 he founded Cutup, a media design agency, and was its creative director and business manager until 2002. The agency won many national and international prizes in the categories of film and TV design as well as in the field of new media. In 1999 the majority of the agency was taken over by Bertelsmann. Björn Bartholdy ran the virtual design department at the Baden-Württemberg Film Academy in Ludwigsburg from 1999-2002. From 2002 to mid-2004, he led the content strategies department at verytv in Cologne. Since 2003 he has been responsible for the Department of Audiovisual Media at the KISD, Köln International School of Design (TH Koeln). He has published several books: SHOWREEL.01 and .02 on audiovisual design and has also written “Broadcast Design”, an account of current TV design. He has also contributed various articles to the Design Dictionary (Birkhäuser) Magazines and other Publications.
In 2006 he started the initiative to found the Cologne Game Lab, where he has taught Media Design as a full-time professor since 2014. He co-directs the institute together with Prof. Dr. Gundolf S. Freyermuth.
The Creative Process
In the context of the specialization ‘Game Arts’ at the Cologne Game Lab, I’m conducting the project/seminar ‘The Creative Process’ starting in the third semester of the bachelor course ‘Digital Games’. The students should systematically learn how to approach practical design questions and internalize structural procedures and processes in design beyond creative flashes of inspiration. The project, which lasts several weeks, simulates exemplary requirements in the design process of digital games. The spectrum of tasks ranges from character design and environmental design to the design of objects such as vehicles, machines, or architecture that need to be designed. The aim of the six- to eight-week work is, in addition to the de-centralized examination of the design process, the technically high-quality implementation of a visual concept.
It is possible that the subject area of digital games in the context of the university struggles in a special way with the prefabricated patterns in the minds of the students. They are all experts in their field and are very familiar with the visual codes of their beloved games. They are willing to repeat them over and over again without ever creating anything new. So an essential part of the teacher’s task is to help the students throw off this ballast and clear their minds for things that they themselves originally created. Already in the course of the application phase, one is overwhelmed with pointy-ears-elves, martial swordsmen, and armored super-marines. The aesthetic wasteland trapped here is not perceived by the applicants. The same schemes must be “driven out” of the few aspirants accepted and filled ‘peu à peu’ with new influences. The awareness that the manifold sources of reference in every creation process are filled with references and inspirations from the fine arts, film, architecture, theatre, applied design, and many other areas of artistic and creative work, that nothing is really fundamentally NEW, must be brought closer to the students. They must learn to find references and to recognize in their own work the complex influences that consciously or unconsciously find their way into their personal work. Here a limited education is often shown in connection with the influencing factors mentioned above. Students often know ‘everything’ about digital games (or at least a specific segment), but their knowledge in other creative fields is often very limited. Of course, artistic-design university education cannot sustain the complete relevant thematic complex and fill existing gaps. Students who have already started or completed a degree in architecture or design and who have switched to digital games have the advantage. Here you will often find knowledge that enables you to ‘look outside the box’ and young people who are able to relate things and create new contexts. Beyond this previous knowledge there is only the permanent pointing out of interesting sources, the joint visit of exhibitions, the organization of film screenings, or the realization of guest lectures, the content of which leaves the safe terrain of computer games – just to name a few examples…
Particularly in the context of project work and the associated preparatory exercises, it is, therefore, necessary to initiate a creative process that goes as far as possible and thus helps to prevent eternally identical solutions and design concepts from arising, which merely represent a mixture of already existing games and are far removed from any innovation.
The starting point of any more creative work is reflection on the task at hand. In this context, an analysis of the topic field takes place, combined with in-depth research in the context of the complex to be worked on. Here it is important to go further and extend the investigation to related fields such as film, visual arts, architecture, applied design, photography, or theatre. Thus, a collection of (audio-) visual and textual references takes place, which at best are represented by a non-linear environment (e.g. a freely editable blog system) and can thus be permanently extended by new sources of inspiration, because the research and collection of further resources do not stop in the context of a development process. This phase of the creative process reflects as-aspects of the systems theoretical approach (according to Ludwig von Bertalanffy – General System Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications, George Braziller Inc, 2015). The task is understood as a partial aspect of an entire system (while). The task is understood as a partial aspect of an entire system, while the results of a wide-ranging research and analysis generate a related field of relevant artifacts. This collection of sources helps the It serves as a reference as well as an impulse for individual design approaches.
Of course, most students will already develop their first ideas with the assignment and record them in a variety of ways, but the research process also serves as a corrective in this context and helps to critically question spontaneous ideas and compare them with existing, comparable solutions. Now, in the following, it is a matter of interlocking one’s own thoughts with the research. At this point, it is important to realize that the spontaneous idea can only be a piece in a mosaic on the way to the design concept. It is often difficult for the students to develop beyond their first approach (which is often perceived as ingenious) and to grow in the iteration of further conceptual and artistic approaches. Ernest Hemingway told the young author Arnold Samuelson “The first draft of anything is shit” when he presented him with his manuscript for “With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba”. A statement that is as shirt-sleeved as it is inspiring. is. Translated this means: Don’t be satisfied with your first draft.
Only if you work hard on a concept (further) can a really good result be achieved. Now you may have Picasso in mind, who could throw a masterpiece onto the canvas with just a few strokes, but don’t forget that more than 7,000 drawings (the total work comprises about 50,000 implementations!) were created during his creative life – even exceptional talents must take over and develop. This makes it all the more important to communicate this persistent process of producing sustainable results to the study participants.
But let’s take another step back. The first research has been carried out and the students have worked out a picture of the respective question. Without wanting to exclude sketches and doodles that have already been implemented at this stage, we now recommend a primarily textual approach. A wide variety of approaches are suitable here. Probably the best-known method under the designation ‘mindmap’ is used worldwide when it comes to fathoming out topic complexes associatively. Also term lists, ‘Spider Diagrams’ or walls full of ‘Post-its’ are helpful supporters in this early phase of the project. In the context of a first presentation, usually about a week after the announcement of the project content, the students present their research results and flank them with textual processing, the results of image research, first color concepts, ‘mood boards’, and early sketches. The discussion of the results and initial ideas is part of the creative process and helps to verify and supplement research results. Many of the initial approaches are further developed by the group and reflected on their quality and feasibility in terms of content and design through critical questioning. Again and again, the teachers have to ‘slow down’ at this point, because often this first presentation ends with a definite outlook on the results envisaged in the project. It is difficult for the students to continue to practice openness. This may be due to the fact that especially when using digital design tools, seemingly ‘finished’ results are available at an early stage, or simply the self-made pressure to achieve an ambitious goal within a short period of time leads to quick decisions.
Here, the teacher must slow down! Best of all, during the early phase of the design process, purely analog design and presentation forms are used and a fixed number of different design approaches up to ‘intermediate presentation’ are demanded in the project description given to the students. It is also advantageous if different visual styles are consciously tested in this phase and not determined too early.
In the next phase of the project, the existing approaches must be tested to such an extent that one of the design lines can be formulated to such an extent that the finalization is in the foreground. In the context of all presentations, great importance is attached to the presentation and communication of the creative decision points. In addition to the ability to visually process all elements, the focus here is also on the ability of a reflected and argumentatively comprehensible verbal implementation. In this context, it should be communicated that things do not simply happen in the design, but are the result of iterative approach and conceptual argumentation. The student’s awareness should be sharpened so that their own position in cooperation with game designers and programmers is strengthened by a comprehensible and substantiated approach. Designers are not (always) kissed by the muse, the results of their work are the result of a highly concentrated and responsible, and systematic approach towards the goal of the respective project.
Within the framework of the interim presentation, the results presented will be discussed again with the teacher and fellow students. The feedback helps the students to adjust themselves again with a view to the finalization of the project and to possibly add new aspects to the individual approach. It happens again and again that a chosen path is abandoned at this point and that a completely new draft is started from the beginning. It is important to recognize creative dead ends and, if necessary, to make a radical cut.
Now the final phase of the project begins, in which the students focus all their energy on the realization of a high-quality conceptual representation of their creative approach. Already in the first half of the project, a teaching unit with an industry ‘hardened’ concept designer is part of the instruction. The aim here is to impart practical knowledge in the implementation of visual representation with analog and digital tools. While the first part focuses on fast iteration, the second instruction concentrates on aspects of high-quality final implementation and presentation of ‘Concept Art’.
In the final presentation of the project, the entire creative process as well as the final result will be summarized in a compact pitch. Again, it is important to present the entire course of the project in five minutes in order to ‘sell’ the result. Here, the ability of reflected design work is coupled with the awareness of acting in a competitive environment, which requires not only artistic quality but also convincing chains of argumentation and clear USPs.
After the project ‘The Creative Process’ has already been carried out several times – again and again with new design tasks – one can state not least from the results of the evaluation that apart from the simple popularity among the students there is also a positive learning curve to be noticed. The creative work instruments acquired here are also used in the group projects at the Institute and are transferred by the students for individual use. Even if individual students fail because of their tasks and often because of their own ambitious goals, it is possible to support the creative development process at least structurally through a systematic approach. Creativity cannot be learned and the many techniques that promise creative flights of fancy cannot really be verified in terms of their effectiveness. However, it is important to note that strong pressure and the resulting bad mood are not conducive to creative workers. Process-oriented approaches help to overcome these fears through regulated framework conditions and provide security and a positive basic attitude in the individual approach. Also does not remain hidden in the studying that creativity is always connected also with much diligence and content-wise, technical expert’s assessment. The required diversity of variants in the project briefing helps to overcome ‘giving oneself too quickly to peace’ and makes openness and curiosity the principle of everyday design. It also becomes clear to all participants that it is difficult to always act at the highest level because good ideas also require a good pinch of chance! And as is well known, this cannot be controlled…
Research Statement: “My main interest is the research and development of aesthetically sophisticated immersive worlds of experience. The transformation of traditional design principles into freely navigable three-dimensional spaces, as well as experimentation with new forms of visual and auditory implementation, are important impulses for the definition of a field that is currently emerging in a completely new form. The resulting applications range from educational contexts (schools, museums, etc.) to technical simulations (digital prototyping, architecture, products, etc.) and use in digital games.”
Current Research Projects: Virtual Bauhaus
Virtual Bauhaus offers visitors a unique experience and transports them into the architectural space of the iconic Bauhaus building in Dessau, which was erected in 1925/26 according to designs by the first school principal Walter Gropius – as it existed in the 1920s. In this environment, which stimulates all the senses, the central ideas of the school can be directly experienced by visitors*inside by exploring the architectural interior.
Create a material study in the workshop room, discover the student dormitories in which the students lived and worked, experience an experimental performance in the stage workshop, enter the iconic staircase of the building, which at the same time served as a backdrop for photographs and drawing courses and hosted notorious celebrations.
In the spirit of the Bauhaus, Virtual Bauhaus opens up new horizons with state-of-the-art technology and offers the possibility of inexpensive reproduction and an interactive experience. The aim of the exhibition is not only to give visitors around the world the opportunity to experience the Bauhaus up close but also to convey through a contemporary medium the lasting relevance of one of Germany’s most important cultural achievements.
The exhibition will be presented at Goethe Institutes and partners worldwide in 2019 and is accessible to a wide audience online. Previous knowledge of virtual reality technology is not necessary.
Project Lead Goethe Institute Boston: Annette Klein
Project Lead CGL: Prof. Björn Bartholdy
Creative Lead CGL: Ilja Burzev