Willi Kunz
Hans Rudolf Bosshard on his 80th birthday

Undeterred by the aberrations of time

The “appreciation” or apology strives to cover up the revolutionary moments in the course of history. Most important to her is creating continuity. She only attaches weight to those elements of the work, which have already gone into its aftermath. She misses the jagged and ragged edges that offer support for those who want to go beyond it. – Walter Benjamin, “Zentralpark”

One can likely assume that Hans Rudolf Bosshard, who fifty years ago at trade school taught me the basics of typography, is a distant memory for me. This all the more since in over forty years we have only met sporadically, due to geographic distance, and having lived in ideologically opposed worlds like Switzerland and the USA.

Today Bosshard embodies part of my professional development and work in Zürich in the 60s, at the time an ideal world that in my romantic imagination continues to live on. In the meantime, Bosshard has developed significantly, but has not changed. His strength as a teacher endures. For me he remains a fixture to orient myself on typography, art, and professional literature in Zürich.

As one of his first students, I got to know Bosshard at the end of the 1950s in his typography class at the trade school in Weinfelden. New and inexperienced as a teacher, his lectures often seemed improvised; as students, we got the impression that he was learning with us while at the same time trying to find his own didactic direction.

Bosshard’s lessons often consisted of discussions about modern architecture and painting, as well as readings from books like Hans Arps “Unsern Täglichen Traum” (Our Daily Dream) which fascinated me, but raised the question of its relevance to typography. I soon realized that raising questions and doubting principles was his method of stirring new creative impulses. Looking back, it is primarily these didactic “detours” that broadened my cultural horizon and made me aware of the creative-formal relationship between typography, architecture, painting, sculpture and film.

With basic assignments in metal type composition, such as creating a business card, Bosshard made it clear to us students that even the most modest work requires utmost care and that the designer must never perform below highest standards. The latter a dictum that is often difficult to follow through in practice.

Despite great creative tolerance, Bosshard was a sharp critic. He dismissed the Helvetica typeface, which was new at the time and had just been introduced in the composing rooms, as stiff and called the concert posters created by Josef Müller-Brockmann dogmatic. He constantly reminded us students to be critical, ignore trends and do everything differently from accepted standards. Advice I still follow.

Bosshard was critical of the ideologies popular at the time in Zürich and Basel, which propagated sans serif as the only modern type, asymmetry as the only acceptable design, and the grid as the preferred organizing principle. Dogma was not his subject. For him, problems related to typography are too varied and complex to be solved with formulas.

Today, when every stylistic whim is accepted uncritically and carried out in an instant, the ideologies of that time seem archaic. Our urge at that time to improve the world through design remains a utopia: despite all freedom and unlimited design possibilities, the goal of a better world has still not been reached.

What really impressed me about Bosshard’s teaching was his effort to convey rational, objective knowledge and not nebulous artistic ideas. We learned that a comprehensive general education gained from books, an interest in architecture, painting, sculpture, film and literature as well as an open mind are essential to become good designers. This is in great contrast to today, where the general education of many students is shaped by Google, Wikipedia and YouTube.

The transition from lead type to photo typesetting shaped the 1960s as the epoch with the most serious consequences for typography since Gutenberg. Laser beam and film replaced the conventional typesetting materials of lead type, brass and wood – typography was dematerialized. Now the computer made it possible to manipulate the font, size, weight and slant of type as well as the spacing between letters, words and lines freely and thus to break the centuries-old principles of lead type. Coupled with the dissolution of the finely calibrated typographic measurement system – all sizes and spacing are now infinitely variable – this freedom led to results which, compared to conventional lead typesetting, generally were poor.

Computer typesetting required investments which for most printing firms were prohibitive or unrealistically high. Decoupled from the printing firms, typography was increasingly produced by typesetting services without the necessary awareness for quality and a lack of aesthetic feeling. Due to these radical changes in typesetting, designers specializing in typography were hired by graphic design studios, advertising agencies, and industry with the task to keep typographic standards high. For the typographic designer with the solid training and specialist knowledge, as taught by Bosshard, these were golden times indeed.

Today’s technology has severed most of the links to the past. We are in an unsteady, conflicting time in which tomorrow turns into yesterday faster and faster and constantly changing values ​​are displacing traditionally proven knowledge. The digital media have dissolved the technical and creative boundaries of typography and radically changed the way in which it is learned and used. With technical developments, the required specialist knowledge increases exponentially – so much so that while experimenting with various software programs the designer assumes the roles of typographer and image editor; it increasingly reduces the time required for learning the typographic principles and applying the acquired knowledge accordingly. Against this nebulous and uncertain background, endless debates about design and the training of designers take place.

More and more, education in typography is turning into an experiment, free of ideologies and theories. “Good design” is no longer credible; perhaps it fell victim to the desire to eliminate boundaries and norms at all costs. Today, countless styles exist side-by-side, all ready to be copied. Playful decoration is just as desired as strict modernism. When exposed to these different styles, the designer loses his direction. The result is confusion and chaos. Bosshard, open to everything new, seems to accept these changes, and even delights in today’s pluralism.

Bosshard, the teacher, would be incomplete without Bosshard the author and designer. This combination of talents is seldom convincing, because very few designers are able to articulate their thinking clearly. Bosshard has the talent to transcend the technical terminology and to make it, often even witty, enjoyable and clear for the reader. The design of his books derives from the content. No traces of pre-conceived, trendy, or gimmicky ideas – and a pleasant change from many of today’s publications, where content and design are reciprocal values, elaborate design diverting from the thin literary substance.

His 1970s publications “Einführung zur Formenlehre”, “Gestaltgesetze”, “Proportion”, “Kontraste” and “Form und Farbe”, document his theories related to teaching. Today they seem like the first steps towards his later textbooks “Technische Grundlagen zur Satzherstellung” (1980), “Mathematische Grundlagen zur Satzherstellung” (1985) and “Typografie Schrift Lesbarkeit” (1996). These brilliant publications, based on his profound knowledge, would have deserved greater dissemination through translations into foreign languages.

“Der typografische Raster” (2000) is Bosshard’s Opus Magnum. When studying this work, it becomes clear how incomplete and elementary the previous professional publications about the grid were. Bosshard gave this controversial, tired topic fresh impulses and revitalized the grid as a design method with new ideas. The German-English and a Chinese edition made the book an international success. I have fond memories of my visit to a bookstore in Shanghai, where standing in front of a stack of copies of the Chinese edition, I wondered how the Chinese designers were to interpret Bosshard’s grid principles.

In any artistic career, success is strongly influenced by promoting your own work and attracting the interest of others. Bosshard has limited talent for self-promotion, which is perhaps one reason why his reputation as an artist – despite his significant body of work – is not widespread.

Art must satisfy visually and intellectually. Bosshard’s paintings, graphics, concept art and photography undoubtedly meet these conditions. However, his artistic works are not easy to absorb; they require concentration and reflection. Unfortunately, today’s public interested in the arts meets these requirements only to a limited extent.

The use of electronic media such as iPhone, MP3 and DVD, with their ever-changing, endless stream of information, has severely reduced the audience’s attention span and concentration. Anything that cannot be easily comprehended is immediately ignored. Art is no longer absorbed by contemplating, but is superficially consumed. The intellectual depth of art is being replaced by optical sensations. If a video, with even the most banal content, is shown in a museum or a gallery, most of the visitors will be found gathered in front of the screen.
The over 500-year dominance of printing on paper has been interrupted by electronic media. Electronic transmission and screen technologies are replacing the printed media and are making the image – especially the moving image – the center of our society. We are developing into a society whose culture is increasingly played out on the screen. The ephemeral images on screen dissolve the role of the classical author and his authority. The past becomes a stream of data the viewer can manipulate and assemble in various ways; the present is fabricated on screen while the viewer jumps from channel to channel.

We are in the midst of a radical change from typographic communication to communication with images and pictorial signs; a trend made clear by the increasing number of books consisting primarily of images and short texts. The typography Bosshard taught and practiced with enthusiasm for forty years is in great danger. More images and less text, however, do not mean less communication. As long as letters, words and sentences are used to convey information, Bosshard’s way of thinking and his optical principles are essential for typographic design.

Published 2009 in Typografische Monatsblätter (TM)