Willi Kunz
Getting to know Wolfgang Weingart

The 1960s were the golden age of corporate identity in the United States. As corporations became more sophisticated and competitive in their business practices, they needed to project a strong cohesive identity to their customers, shareholders, and employees. Major corporations, which committed to comprehensive identity programs, were IBM, Westinghouse, Container Corporation, Mobil, and Chase Manhattan Bank, among others. They set the standards in the United States. European companies, large and small, had used corporate identity as a business tool for decades, the scale of corporate design in the US, however, was unique.

At that time I was a young graphic designer in Zürich. In Communications Arts magazine imported from the United States, I read about the large identity programs created in the US. I was fascinated by the programs’ scale and scope, which included logotype, stationery, forms, checks, packaging, signage, vehicles, company flags, employee uniforms, advertising and promotion, and even the corporate executives’ cufflinks and ties. Every design detail was meticulously specified and laid out in elaborate identity manuals. Occasionally I worked on identity programs for small Swiss companies, and was rather dissatisfied with their modest scale. I wanted to learn how the larger identity programs were created in the US and decided I would move to New York in 1970.

In 1970, America was in a deep recession. Unemployment was high, and finding work as a graphic designer in New York was difficult. Fortunately, Swiss designers were well respected for their education and work ethic and eventually I found freelance- and later full time work at Anspach Grossman Portugal, consultants in marketing communication and design. With three partners, three designers and a secretary, AGP at that time was a small firm. It was the perfect place for me to learn about creating and implementing identity programs for a wide range of large, prestigious companies. After living in Switzerland where high-rise buildings were extremely rare, working on the 30th floor of the Time & Life Building, overlooking Radio City Music Hall was a dream come true.

In 1970, Wolfgang Weingart was virtually unknown in the US. I had become familiar with some of his early experimental work from the 1960s through articles in the trade journals “Der Druckspiegel” and “Typografische Monatsblätter” (TM). It reminded me of El Lissitzky and Piet Zwaart, architects / artists who in the 1920s used simple typographic means for maximum optical effect. Compared to their work, Weingarts’s experiments were more playful and refined. Its exuberance and pioneering quality, however, seemed more appropriate to the open spirit in America than to Switzerland with its cultural resistance to change.

In 1968, Weingart began teaching typography in a special class for advanced graphic design initiated by Armin Hofmann and Emil Ruder. In his many years of teaching typography Ruder had established the distinct Basel style, culminating in his book “Typography” first published in 1964. Widely anticipated, the publication of Ruder’s book was a seminal event. In stark contrast to other books on typography, which were mostly about typesetting technique and illustrated with outdated visual examples, Ruder’s book, focusing on the visual aspects of typographic design, was a breath of fresh air at that time.

Weingart, an independent former student of Ruder wanted to develop and teach his own ideas. But despite his unhindered attitude about typography and its possible future directions, he often referred to the classic “Ruder Typography” as an approach still valid. In Weingart’s tattered copy of Ruder’s book many pages were marked with copious notes suggesting how certain visual ideas could be further developed.

In the early 1970s, several American students, among them April Greiman and Dan Friedman had returned to the US to practice and teach, Greiman at the Philadelphia College of Art (now University of the Arts), Friedman at the Yale University School of Art. As Weingart’s typographic experimentations became popular, many designers saw it as an antidote to the strict corporate design en vogue at that time.

Getting to know Weingart

In April 1972, I sent Weingart a letter suggesting that we meet sometime that summer. He quickly agreed, and in August we met at his office at the school in Basel. As an introduction I brought some samples of the work I had done in New York. He carefully inspected each piece and found my work on the Merit gasoline station identity “fantastic.” His comments were: “This is work you can only do in America.” It was unclear to me what exactly he meant; was it the work that had impressed him, or simply the fact that it was done in America, a country he very much wanted to visit.

He mentioned that in October 1972 he was planning a US lecture tour with the title “How Can One Make Swiss Typography?” Organized by Dan Friedman, venues were to include the Philadelphia College of Art (PCA), the Ohio State University, the University of Cincinnati, Princeton University, Yale University, and the Rhode Island School of Design.

Missing on this tour was a stop in New York City, so I spontaneously offered to organize a lecture for him. I contacted the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the Art Directors Club, the Type Directors Club, Cooper Union, the Parsons School of Design, Pratt Institute, and the School of Visual Arts. All of them except the AIGA politely declined.

The AIGA, which at the time was located on the Upper East Side at 1059 Third Avenue, kindly offered its conference space, accommodating approximately 40 people. A lecture was planned for the evening of October 25, the day before Weingart’s return to Switzerland.

The lecture poster I designed was sent to a limited number of designers in New York City. There was an immediate, overwhelming response. The ambiguous lecture title “How Can One Make Swiss Typography?” suggested a recipe for “making” Swiss typography, but also questioned the popular Swiss approach, apparently hitting a nerve within the design community.

The event was RSVP. The large number of people signed up soon exceeded the capacity of the AIGA conference room. There were also strong protests from seasoned members of the AIGA board of directors, who opposed a lecture by Weingart because they simply did not like or understand his work. Then on short notice the lecture was cancelled.

In the spring of 1973, Weingart was planning a second lecture tour with workshops at various schools in the US. He was taking a sabbatical from the school in Basel and needed a substitute to teach from September through December. Would I be interested?

Having worked at a relentless pace in New York for three years, I was ready for a change. I agreed to begin teaching typography at the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule (School of Design) in Basel, a school with an excellent reputation, which attracted students from around the world. Armin Hofmann directed the outstanding graphic design program, with faculty members André Gürtler, Kurt Hauert, Manfred Meier, Max Schmid, Peter von Arx, and Wolfgang Weingart, among others.

Teaching with Weingart

During the summer of 1973, I began co-teaching various typography classes with Weingart. I was already familiar with his manifesto “How Can One Make Swiss Typography?” which had been published in 1972, but still needed to become familiar with his teaching method.

Although I had met Weingart a few times before and thought I knew him fairly well, it quickly became clear that besides having a strong interest in typographic design and similar backgrounds (we both started as apprentice typesetters), our attitudes were quite different; he was an idealistic teacher and I was a realistic practitioner.

Weingart’s method of teaching was intuitive, demonstrating to students why one solution works and another doesn’t. His rudimentary English did not allow much explanation. I missed the clear didactic approach outlined in his manifesto “How can one make Swiss Typography?” Having worked professionally for several years, I was used to a more rational way of making typography: working without direction may foster creativity but it can also create confusion.

Weingart had strong views on typography, but equally strong were his opinions about living. I vividly remember our quarrels about shoes and eating. Many times he chided me for wearing sneakers – they would ruin my feet. I should wear real leather shoes with heels, a recommendation I steadfastly ignored. Also, he did not approve of my preference for occasionally having only a salad for lunch. Eat some real food, he would tell me. I frequently teased him about his unhealthy diet, drinking and smoking – habits that would not be sustainable.

Weini, as everyone called him, was a tireless worker, devoted to his students and his personal projects, such as writing and designing articles for “Typografische Monatsblätter” (TM), edited by Rudolf Hostettler. He could always be found either in Room G102/103, the typography workshop at the school, or in his cramped apartment at Imbergässlein 23, a fourteenth century building in the historic part of Basel. He was a dedicated cook and loved eating and drinking with friends. He especially enjoyed the restaurant at Badischer Bahnhof, Charon, and Di Donati. Several times a week we had dinner together, sometimes with students, arguing about typography late into the night.

In the fall of 1973, Weingart began his US lecture tour and I began teaching his classes. We had agreed that I would follow his curriculum and continue to teach “his” typography – which was what the students were coming to learn in Basel.

There were different categories of classes including ones for free elective students; graphic design students; students of the Advanced Class for Graphic Design; and students of the Polygraphische Tagesfachklasse, who already had a degree in typography.

For me, teaching typography was like starting over; I was the teacher but also new to Weingart’s didactic approach. After ten years of professional practice in Zurich and New York, it was difficult for me to adapt to the freedom of the classroom. I had never worked in such an unrestricted environment.

The most interesting class was the Advanced Class of Graphic Design, consisting of international students, most of them from the United States. All were self-motivated, eager to learn – there were no tests, no grades, and no degrees. Some were recent graduates from US art and design schools that were interested in studying advanced typography; others had practiced for some time and sought a fresh professional perspective.

Regardless of experience, each student started at the elementary level. The first exercise involved setting in metal type a short text by hand; flush left, rag right; justified left and right; middle-axis; and free arrangements of lines. By picking letters from a type case, and placing them in the proper sequence in a composing stick to form words, the students learned to appreciate the subtleties of letter and word spacing, as well as the fact that typography has both an aesthetic and a material quality when set in metal type.

During the summer and fall/winter semester, assignments included the design of a series of book covers for “Expanded Cinema,” the design of a series of advertisements for “Air Inter,” and the design of stationery for “Remington Rand,” a computer processing company. Each of these assignments had clear subject content that could be expressed with type.

Assignments were conducted in three phases: a) use of one type size; b) use of two type sizes; c) use of several type sizes. Advanced students were encouraged to include lines and geometric elements in their design explorations.

The objective of each assignment was to develop an open attitude towards all aspects of working with type, and to make the students aware that good typography develops from an idea or a concept. Many students found the first phase of the assignments too rudimentary but at the same time were challenged by having to work with a limited number of typographic elements. As the assignment advanced, the talented students progressed, while others were frustrated.

Sketching of type or working with dummy text was discouraged. The length, weight, and idiosyncrasies of a word or a line of type can only be fully appreciated when they are composed and printed in type. For the assignments, each student set the information in metal type by hand and printed a set of proofs on one of the hand-proofing presses. For the design exploration, letters, words or lines of type were cut from the proofs and loosely placed on layout sheets printed with an outline of the specified format. This technique allowed observing how slightly shifting an element can affect the entire composition. To eliminate the slight shadows cast by the loose individual elements, an 11×14 in. glass plate was placed over the composition. Lines and geometric elements could be added on the glass plate with magic markers, then easily changed or removed by wiping them off with a tissue. The final layout was affixed with transparent tape to the layout sheet.

The classroom was a place to experiment, free of commercial constraints. Each assignment was an open-ended and inventive exploration. Students were to learn the essence of typographic design: optically organizing type in a predetermined space, taking into account legibility and readability. Good typography, however, always reflects the personality, imagination, intellect, and artistic talent of the student. A solution was ‘good’ when in a large series of explorations the student could appreciate difference between earlier and later stages and comprehend why a particular solution was preferred.

12 Typographical Interpretations

My teaching position was a great opportunity to have unlimited access to the excellent type shop at the school in Basel. Besides teaching I had ample time to pursue an independent project I had planned for several years.

In 1968/ 69 I read Marshall McLuhan’s books “The Medium is the Massage” and the “Gutenberg Galaxy” in German. I was very impressed by his ideas about communication, typography and printing. Then, in 1970, I bought a copy of his book, “Culture is our Business”. The mosaic McLuhan created by structuring a visual interaction between text and picture fascinated me. This innovative concept for a book struck me as a more open and dialectic approach to idea representation.

In 1971/ 72 I began to read many more of McLuhan’s books. Repeatedly in “Counterblast” and “The Gutenberg Galaxy” I encountered useful and illuminating ideas exploring the relationship between communication, typography, and printing. Then, as I studied the texts more critically, I found that some of McLuhan’s most important statements got lost in the abundance and complexity of his style.

From his books I began selecting some of his most striking statements, intending to use them for a series of typographical interpretations. And with the professional type shop and hand-proofing presses of the school at my disposal, I was finally able to realize my ideas.

While the projects in class focused primarily on typographic syntax, I wanted to address the semantics of McLuhan’s statements. I was envisioning some kind of visual poetry created with type, line elements, and linoleum cuts – all common materials in the school’s typography workshop.

Weingart showed great interest and made constructive comments on my McLuhan text interpretations, which were in a very early stage. The teaching schedule allowed me to work on the project for several hours every day, including weekends.

By the end of November 1973 Weingart had returned to Basel. In discussing the student’s work, he thought that my teaching was similar to his approach, which was somehow inevitable. The students would have been unhappy if I veered too far from what he was teaching.

I had completed a series of interpretations – he liked many of them, and suggested combining them in a limited edition book. The intricate typographic compositions and numerous forms cut in linoleum required a large page size of 12×12.5 in. Because of the book’s Japanese binding, the printing sheets were 25×14 in., a size that was challenging when using a small hand printing press. Printed in black, with secondary colors of warm red and metallic silver, as well as the special black ink required for the linoleum cuts, all the sheets had to pass through the press numerous times. Composed of metal type in a wide range of sizes, brass lines, and linoleum cuts overprinted with metallic silver ink, the production of “12 TypoGraphical Interpretations” was a technical tour de force that required Weingart’s expertise and his unerring eye.

In January1974 Weingart resumed teaching and my teaching contract expired. Generously, the School allowed me to continue using the typography workshop to finish my project. In summer 1974, “12 TypoGraphical Interpretations” were finally completed in a limited edition of 36 copies.

In fall 1974 I sent a copy of “12 TypoGraphical Interpretations” to Prof. Marshall McLuhan, Director, Centre for Culture and Technology, University of Toronto, Canada, whose books originally were my inspiration for this project. His enthusiastic thank you letter, that arrived shortly after, made me forget the backbreaking work of printing and binding the book. I was elated.

Return to Practice

In 1976 I accepted the position of design director at William H. Sadlier Inc., a successful, medium size 150-years old New York educational publishing firm specializing in language arts, mathematics, and catholic school programs. The company had recognized the need for a more modern approach to book design in an increasingly competitive market. I was eager to test on real life projects the typographic design I had been teaching and saw the position as an opportunity to continue my interest in educational processes.

Adapting to fast-paced, high-volume publishing was difficult as I was used to a slower pace. The constantly high volume of projects on tight deadlines left little time for experimentation and to explore various design directions. Frequently interfering with design were author’s alterations and changing marketing objectives.

The enthusiastic staff of talented young designers educated at PCA, Yale, and RISD I had hired very much agreed with my design philosophy. However, the pressure to produce high quality work, a situation they were not used to from school, was frustrating.

In little more than a year, through radical changes in typography and layout, we were able to create a new image for a line of mathematics books. I was satisfied with their quality; a remarkable transformation had taken place and feedback from the Sadlier company management was very positive.

Weingart was curious to see some of the work produced under my direction. To the samples I presented to him in Basel his reaction was mixed. He criticized the work as not being experimental enough and not on the level of the projects produced in class. I found our discussion interesting in that once more it confirmed the big difference between teaching and practice.

A rift between us developed and it would be years before I would meet with him again. In his retirement from teaching he had become more reasonable in his empathy towards colleagues, former students, typography, and the world in general.