An Interview with Wolfgang Weingart

By Rudy VanderLans

This interview was conducted on November 29, 1989 in Basel. It was first published in 1994 in Emigre #14.

Rudy VanderLans: When I wrote you my letter explaining that I was planning an issue about young Swiss designers, you wrote back saying you were wondering what I would write about, because you feel that there’s not much new or exciting work being done in Switzerland at the moment.

Wolfgang Weingart: I said you don’t have to come to Switzerland to see imitators. You have plenty of designers in the United States who can design like some of the Swiss “punkers” whom you picked for this issue.

RvdL: I could not help but admire these young Swiss designers. To do this type of work, for some rather large companies, in a country that has a graphic design tradition that is based on a clean, structured and rational approach, I thought was quite amazing. I wondered what had happened to their cultural heritage? I see nothing Swiss. They stated that they don’t consider themselves a product of Switzerland per se, but as a product of a culturally and visually complex world in which they have to find their own place, their own direction. This is how they justify their erratic and often changing work. And perhaps this work might look very much like work that’s now also being produced in the United States, Holland, or England. It’s a modern phenomenon that more and more, people are experiencing the entire world and not just their own city or country.

WW: Yes, that’s apparent everywhere. Now, in Middle Europe we eat the same “nouvelle cuisine” as they do in France. There is no typical food here anymore. And that's a shame, because food used to be very good here. We used to have very nice, simple food. Now they serve you these big plates with a bit of food here and a bit there. It’s true for anything. Look at fashion. Designers go to Africa and come back with new ideas they copy from primitive tribes. They are big successes and become millionaires.

RvdL: What do you think about this loss of cultural identity?

WW: I think nothing about it. I don’t care. I never cared about nationalism. To me “Swiss” design, or the so-called “Swiss Typography,” such as Emil Ruder’s work, was never typically Swiss either. It all happened by accident. Sure, it is Swiss in the sense that it is clean and clear, but the Germans are very much like the Swiss people; very strict, clean and disciplined, and yet they design very differently. After Ruder left Basel, I came here purely by accident. My ideas were totally different from Ruder’s. They were somewhat parallel, but I continued where Ruder had reached a dead end. Swiss Typography was not too exciting, it was almost repetitious. There was a need for something new, a new impact, and I happened to be around at that time, which is now some twenty years ago. These happenings were all accidental and had nothing to do with Switzerland directly. They had perhaps something to do with the Swiss educational system. Here, it was possible for every professional to teach. In Germany you need a certificate from a higher school of education and pedagogic training. Here they hired you straight off the street, although it’s not as easy here anymore either.

RvdL: But your ways of teaching and your work, which was partially a reaction against Ruder’s dogma, were not entirely an “accident.”

WW: It was an accident that I happened to be in Basel. The important designers, Hofmann and Ruder, were on my side. My ideas were parallel to theirs. Ruder’s values were very much the same as mine, only mine were much more complex and open. Ruder accepted this. He acknowledged that there were new possibilities. And he acknowledged that this progression was positive, that it was constructive, and that it created a new energy. It created the possibility of building a new house. The results were new and different. The students loved it, and therefore Ruder supported me every time. But many other colleagues and other designers in Switzerland were totally against what we were doing. They laughed at us. And look at them now.

RvdL: Last time I talked to you, in California, you said you were tired of having to do the same interview time after time and of continually seeing the same Basel work reproduced in design annuals. You felt that you’ve said everything there is to say because you hadn’t done much design in the past years. Did you get bored with graphic design?

WW: You have different interests from decade to decade. In the past five years, I’ve become more interested and have gotten more involved in teaching. My heart is with the students, and I care more about the quality of their work than my own. The energy that is necessary to keep fifty people excited is quite draining. And teaching is getting so much more complex, too, especially since the computer was introduced. I brought computers into this school, the first school in Switzerland to use them. This required a lot of organizing and rethinking of the curriculum. Besides teaching, I also lecture, and it still takes me about ten to twelve weeks to prepare the special themes for my lectures. And then I’m involved in quite a few exhibitions and publications these days, which also require a lot of organizing. But to come back to your question, it’s not that I’m bored with design, it’s just...Look at what the Japanese are doing. It’s such beautiful work. They design beautiful posters in Japan of which I’m very jealous. We don’t need to do other designs anymore, because it's all been done.

RvdL: We can’t just stop. We’ll always want to explore the new and unfamiliar, that’s human nature.

WW: Well, we are exploring. Especially with the computer, we are finding out new possibilities, new ways to communicate. This will be the next explosion. But now we’re just exploring.

RvdL: You have been teaching for over twenty years, educating young designers, but you say that there is nothing interesting going on in Switzerland. As an educator you’ve had a great opportunity to do something about this.

WW: I have nothing to do with this problem. The reason there aren’t any good young designers in Switzerland is not my fault. Many of my students are foreigners. They come to Basel to study and when they finish, they leave and return to their own countries. Switzerland is a boring country to start your career as a designer. Swiss clients are seldom open to new ideas. There is only a handful of people in Switzerland who have somewhat succeeded in breaking out of this conservative climate, people such as Odermatt & Tissi or Jean Robert. But the designers that you have picked, if you dedicate an issue to their type of design, you will give your readers in California the impression that this is work that is being produced in California. What you want to show your readers is exciting work that is genuinely Swiss. You want to show work that will make people believe that they are doing fantastic work in Switzerland, work that continues in the Swiss tradition of design.

RvdL: That is what we’d like to do, but we consciously decided not to show the work of Odermatt & Tissi or your work or Armin Hofmann’s, because that’s the type of work Swiss design has been associated with for the past twenty or thirty years. We thought it would be interesting to find out if Swiss design had progressed, and hopefully show some new work. I mean, all these designers that you mention, including yourself, have all been teaching or working for so long. Where are the results? What happened to this progression, this “house” that was being built?

WW: Well, in a way things have stopped progressing, although you may find out differently when our typography book about my courses in Basel is published. Emil Ruder stopped a long time ago. Personally, I have stopped my typographic experimentation because I am involving myself in other things, such as teaching. But at school, in Basel, we follow typographic rules less and less. We have some very elementary rules, which I think you need, but in general we’re very, very open. We have certain limitations; if it becomes chaos without sense, if we just stick stuff together and print it, that’s wrong. That’s what I see in the work of some of the designers you selected for this issue. Sometimes there seems to be no rules. It’s like painting. It’s fun to do that, once, but you see, the problem is ...

RvdL: But we’re looking at a menu here! It CAN be a painting. We’re not talking about a signage system for the highway.

WW: Actually, I’d like to see those young designers do that sometimes, and I’m certain they’d do a great job.

RvdL: Some of the designers in this issue also do some very functional work. ECLAT, for instance, has worked for the Swiss telephone company. They design instruction booklets, very rational “Swiss-looking” graphic design, which they do very well. But I feel anybody can do that. Anybody who graduates from Basel can do this. It’s when they experiment, when they are exploring, that their work is very strong.

WW: You are right, but nevertheless, I’m very skeptical. It’s like playing; unfortunately, the end result is foggy, it’s unclear. For me it’s a formalistic problem. Everything I communicate must be clear. I can show you crazy, chaotic things I did twenty years ago, but I cannot repeat them. I come back to very simple and clear work, like ...

RvdL: ... Emil Ruder’s.

WW: Different. Ruder didn’t integrate elements. He’d put a kilo of type here, and a kilo of type there, with lots of white space. He didn’t modulate the page. That’s my opinion of Ruder. Hofmann modulated the page, he was a much better typographer.

RvdL: These are struggles to conquer the computer, in itself a valuable thing to do, because the computer will eventually make design more affordable. And I know it’s more about the computer than about the actual solving of a communications problem, but that’s the price we have to pay for a little while.

WW: I can say that in general I’m quite tolerant, but I am against, or better, suspicious of, designers or groups of designers who change their face from one day to the next. Their rule is: Today we do April Greiman, tomorrow we do Milton Glaser. I am very much in favor of developing slowly.

RvdL: I’m not in favor of copying, but don’t you think it’s an advantage for a designer to be able to work almost as a chameleon? Designers work for different clients. The design should not be about the designer. The design should be about the client. Therefore, it’s good to be able to work in different ways. This is applied art, not fine art.

WW: Yes, but the designer should not letter-space when it’s not appropriate. This makes no sense, it’s a copied vocabulary. It’s like learning a text in your head and repeating it, like an actor. I’ll guarantee that these Swiss New Wavers won’t show any of their work in twenty years, because they will realize they did dumb things these days. These pieces are a result of copying other people’s work. Whether it's good or bad is not the question. Their vocabulary is one hundred percent adoption of existing styles. This is my criticism of so many designs that I see today, but not with April Greiman. My criticism of her is that she continues to copy herself. I truly believe that she can create a new vocabulary for a new world, but now she repeats and repeats and repeats herself.

RvdL: People might say that about you, too.

WW: That’s the reason why I stopped.

RvdL: That should be a reason to go on.

WW: No. I had to stop, in order to let the things that I produced sink in, and wait until the next, real explosion comes, so that designers in the new decade can copy me again...

RvdL: The real explosion? Where will it come from?

WW: From myself. I am waiting for the next explosion. It will happen.