Interview with Wolfgang Weingart

Typographic Experiment, Wolfgang Weingart

Wolfgang Weingart, Typographic experiment, lead type.

Why do you think the Swiss became the de-facto developers of 'modernist' visual communication?

Well I am not Swiss, I am German, but have lived in Switzerland for 40 years. I think it has something to do with the Second World War. Germany couldn’t develop design thinking after the Bauhaus closed, and of course the Swiss could, because they remained neutral in the war. In fact they had time in the 30's and 40's not only to develop typography, but also many other disciplines. After the war, Germany had to repair itself before it could think about what to do with the legacy of the Bauhaus. Switzerland is a small country, and sometimes when you have a small country with a few great personalities, interesting things can happen. i am talking about people like Max Bill, who studied at the Bauhaus, and Anton Stankowski, who was at the Folkwangschule in the 20s. Both were very influential designers, although history has largely forgotten Stankowski. He came from Germany where he had been taught by Max Burchartz. His ability to combine typography and photography were critical in the development of Swiss design in the 1930's. In the 1940's Basel School of Design opened with Emil Ruder in charge of typography and Armin Hofmann in charge of graphic design. They developed a teaching system that became world-renowned.

In the early 90's you gave a lecture in London where you rebuked those designers who had created pastiches of your work. Isn't imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

I think the imitation you refer to would have been specific to our work at Basel in the 1970's. We created a design system built from the techniques of composing. The way we designed typography resulted from the way we 'physically' handled type. It came out of composing in metal. With this there are certain kinds of technical possibilities, which you can 'expand' if you know the material, and if you know the subject really well. So we slowly developed another way to teach typography. Unfortunately, some people took this as a 'style'. This was a misunderstanding, because we didn't create styles. These people had never learnt the 'profession' of a hot metal typesetter. They came and took the vocabulary, and used it without understanding the methods that created it. Simply copying the 'visual field' with no knowledge of its underlying structure. I was very sad about this kind of misappropriation.

Whilst studying at Basel in the early 60s, you chose to experiment with a relatively limited type set. What made you select Berthold Akzidenz-Grotesk
rather than the much newer Univers?

The Berthold typeface is simple, direct, and stable, with a great deal of character. Univers comes from a very different place. It's a post war product designed to help clean up the chaos. Adrian Frutiger, the designer of Univers, tried to create cleanness and neutrality. The concept behind Univers was to create a 'type family' right from its launch in 1957. There were 21 different cuts of Univers. Berthold had far less cuts, even though it was a much older typeface. Many people say it's a very ugly typeface, but my goal at the time was to work with primitive simple tools and then try to bring the maximum out of them. Univers was too 'prefabricated'. It gave you too many possibilities and that didn't interest me. As a basis for experiment Akzidenz provided an uncomplicated starting point.

You were tutored by Armin Hofmann and Emil Ruder, and in 1968 you were offered a typographic teaching post at Basel. Did they influence your decision to accept this job?

They needed a teacher in 68 and I thought this was a great chance to turn my typographic vision into a reality. I wanted to put some 'question marks' next to Swiss typography. We needed to ask whether its rigidity was proving too limiting in a fast changing culture. Whether the rules of Swiss typography, which had been in place for a number of decades, could now be broken or at least bent. I wanted to teach typography in a completely new way at Basel. I think they were wise to take the chance and ask me to join them, even though they knew my ideas were radically different from theirs.

Has your notoriety affected your ability to teach?

You can only do two things in design, you can teach or you can work in practice. Even if you try to do both, as I have, one will always be dominant. I preferred to teach, and my work in practice was always far less intense because of it. I always felt there was a lot to do and a lot to say, and my teaching at Basel provided a platform.

Do you still believe that a typography course should include a study of the 'meaning' of text?

This idea was put forward in an illustrated manuscript called 'How can one make Swiss typography?' It formed the basis for a lecture tour of Switzerland, Germany and the United States in the early 1970's. It was also reprinted in one of the 'Octavo' books in England. I think that you can teach and learn about typography in a syntactic way. In other words a designer can look at the grammar of a sentence or a text, without studying its meaning. But if you just do this, and miss out the analysis of the content, then the practical application of the type is bound to suffer.

Many of your students have gained international reputations in typography and graphic design. Are there any whose accomplishments you are particularly proud of?

I think you can only be proud that your teaching methods are working. You must not see me as the only representative of the Basel School of Design. If an ex-student is functioning well within practice, then it's not for me to feel proud, because they had many other good teachers. We worked as a unit. I am proud of the school, because it has influenced other courses all over the world. We taught students from over 35 different nations within our advanced class for Graphic Design. As you have pointed out, many of these students are now world famous visual communicators, but many of them are passing their knowledge on to another generation through their teaching. It's the quality of a Basel education that is special, and I was only a part of that culture.

How did your teaching evolve over your long tenure at Basel?

I didn't change the primary direction of the program, as problems always remain the same. At Basel we concentrate on the basics, the fundamental building blocks of the design process. You can develop exciting projects from these basics, but without them you have a house without a foundation. It's a kind of a 'proofed' system, where experimentation with elementary concepts, lead to complex solutions. That's what has always interested me. We have developed this system in our summer course at Basel. We have around 40 people who come from all over the world to study on the program, and there seems to be a definite international need for this kind of approach. It's called 'basics in design and typography' and I don't think there's another school in the world that handles this subject as well. You can find out more about this course and its philosophy at

Do you think your students' attitudes towards visual communication changes once they have left Basel?

Some stick closely to the themes covered in the course, and some break away. Many will add other forms of typography to their Basel knowledge base. I think many of the students who have gone on to become educators still teach in the 'systematic approach' they learnt at the School of Design. Those students who now work in practice have had to integrate with the times in which we live. I sometimes see their work appearing in publications, but that doesn't interest me as much as knowing they are able to carry on producing good work and make a living. I don't know how they do it. I think the era of 'new forms' may well be coming to an end. The digital age seems to encourage imitation rather than innovation. Now that we live in a computer age, we will have to reconsider what is possible with this new communication tool. You cannot take a typeface like Bodoni, digitise its outlines, and push it into a computer. The classical typeface has nothing to do with new technology. Lead type comes from the earth. The metal it's made from has an ancient relationship with humankind. To use such an alphabet on a computer screen is decadent. So we must build new reading systems, and new typefaces that can create a healthy marriage between this new technology and the old tools of typography. To do this, a totally new model for teaching this subject will need to be created. I am not at all sure whether we are currently able to undertake such a task. I do not think the changes that are occurring in design education are particularly positive. We need to reduce the amount of design schools, and concentrate our efforts and resources on those that can provide excellence. In England you have far too many schools and this will become a major problem as students and employers realise the qualitative difference between them. The poor output from some institutions will inevitably damage both the discipline and the profession. I believe online teaching may offer a solution for some students. We could then use the new technologies that have forced this change, to help solve some of the problems. John Maeda is also thinking along similar lines and we would like to work together on such a project. At the moment there is an incredible chaos. We don't have the right people in our profession who want to think about how to solve this crisis.

Emil Ruder once said, "Typography has one plain duty before it and that is to convey information in writing. A printed work which cannot be read becomes a product without purpose." Do you agree?

I am afraid to say that, it depends. Ruder was really a classicist and he wasn't full of crazy ideas. My attempt to learn typography from him was unsuccessful. I remained free from dogma and the constraints of mere legibility. I believe that you can have a poster that cannot be read. If you were putting together a campaign for Chanel, you might create a poster that is then covered in perfume. People would smell it and say, "Ah, Chanel No 5". There would be no need for words. For me typography can do anything and you should not attempt to put at in a cage. If you look at the illustrations in my book, you can see the breadth and depth of typographic outcomes and experiments available just from a metal type shop.

Digital technology has created a plethora of tools for the typographer. Why do you still favour traditional methods?

We should not over value traditional methods. We should integrate them into our current situation. When you see a printed sheet from a distance of one metre, you cannot tell if its been printed by hand or if it's been composed on a computer. All you see is a wonderful print. The technology of how to manipulate type, and how many colours we can reproduce, improve continuously. The prints themselves get better and better. And yet the typography gets worse and worse. Therefore we can conclude that supplying increasingly sophisticated tools does not result in a greater understanding of typographic forms. This is because the computer has power, but no rules. And that formula always results in self-indulgence and chaos.

Why did you stop composing with lead type in the mid 1970's?

I expanded the possibilities of a traditional lead type shop to the position where it, and I, were exhausted. Many others in the history of typography have tried that too; Schwitters, El Lissitzky and Piet Zwart. They all came to the same conclusion, and they all reached a point where this base material begins to repeat itself. Inevitably, composing type by placing metal against metal imposes concrete boundaries that will at some point limit experimentation. It is a prefabricated material that you cannot alter. For example, you cannot create 'out of focus type', as you can with film or with a computer. But to hold type in your hands is a fascinating way to work. To be able to physically take elements out and put in new elements is wonderful. You can do incredible things with metal type, and I had found out so much about the material by pushing it to its limits. By the mid 70's I had fully explored its potential. I moved over to experimenting with new techniques in lithography and filmsetting. It's totally different from using lead type and it was very liberating. But you must remember I learnt typography from hot metal composing. This is where I discovered the techniques and formal rules of typography. I was fundamentally self-taught through this experience. My early experiments in the lead type shop allowed me to continue to expand my vision, when I moved on to working with newer technologies.

You once stated that your best ideas were inspired by the 'mechanics of a procedure'. How did you apply this theory?

It's the 'mechanics' of composition that inspire me, and they provide a platform for my experiments. The type shop was a room full of 'sleeping' areas. Places that provoke you to take out the elements and play. There's the lead type itself, the symbols, the leading, and all the other metal you need to compose. You cannot avoid the act of creation in an area that is wholly dedicated to typography. Today, many people make major mistakes because they believe their technical tools can be set to 'automatic' and all of their type problems will be solved. They think that when they compose on a Macintosh it must be perfect. But good typography is created through refinement, and you need a trained eye to correct the visual errors a computer will make. It doesn't matter which program you use, the distance between words will be incorrect. It doesn't know the right distance after a period or after a comma, but you can set these commands within each program before you start composing. If you know how to do this properly, I guarantee you will be able to set type better than anyone using hot metal. The whole kerning issue is solved, along with many other problems, instantly. But it's very dangerous because many people don't know how to apply control to these tools, because they never learnt the basics in typography. Unfortunately they don't learn the basics in typography, because in many cases their teachers don't know them.

1967 saw the beginning of a 30-year collaboration with 'Typografische Monatsblatter'. Rudolf Hosteller, the chief editor from 1952 to 1981, allowed you to express your ideas in the magazine. Why did you end your association with TM?

Everything comes to an end. The secret is to know when it's
the right time to move on. I influenced the direction of this magazine for many years, and in return it gave me the chance to publish every idea I had, without question marks. The magazine is not as interesting as it once was. There just aren't as many people in the world that can fill it with exciting typography. The time of the TM is almost over. It will struggle to survive in a capitalistic money oriented society that only asks 'how much does it cost'. I have no time for that. Everything has a high point and I left because I felt I had no more to contribute. It was a great place to discuss ideas internationally and I can publish again at anytime.

What was your most important contribution to TM, in the sixty plus issues you helped create?

To pull the magazine away from the Swiss, so called, style. At the end of the sixties this way of designing was slowly coming to an end, but many people refused to see it that way. I didn't have an easy time convincing them of this, and many fought against my ideas. But it was necessary for someone to change a design system that was not very interesting anymore. Clean Swiss typography is still needed, but it's now 'subject specific'. It is used when function is of prime importance. We now have far more possibilities to express ourselves, than we ever could with Swiss typography. And that's exactly why I liked working with this magazine, because it became so influential in show casing
alternatives to Swiss typography.

Why did you publish TM in 3 languages?

It was an interesting idea, but publishing it in French proved pointless, as the French part of Switzerland wasn't very interested in the subject. We tried to make the magazine international and it helped in a way.

You resurrected your 'round composing' work for the 1990 exhibition at the Institut Fur Neue Technische Form in Darmstadt. What encouraged you to revisit these works?

That's a very funny question, because I didn't have my round composing works anymore. I threw them away in the sixties! I had to reconstruct them for the exhibition to show the development of these prints. It was a parody of hot metal typesetting, which by definition of the material, has to be produced at right angles. That's why I made these round compositions in the first place. They were totally unusable at the time. I am not sure if the people who saw the exhibition in 1990 understood the irony of producing hot metal in the round!

Why did you decide to stop your design work in the 1990's?

I had created only ten posters in my entire career. I thought if I made number 11, I would simply repeat myself. That's very boring and so I brought my design work to an end. My teaching was my passion and my 'integration' within the community at Basel was completely fulfilling. Using my laboratory to experiment with type, and then bringing the results of those experiments into the classroom was a unique experience. To share this with students was very rewarding. I needed little else.

Alexandra Lee.