the Merz Akademie in Stuttgart from 1958 to 1960, where he familiarized himself with typesetting and the process of making linocuts and woodcuts.
Wolfgang Weingart is an internationally known graphic designer and typographer. He was born in 1941 in Southern Germany and attended
After this, he trained as a typesetter and discovered Swiss Typography. Wolfgang Weingart gained international recognition in the 1970s by instilling a desire for experimentation into the stagnant Swiss typographical industry.
Owing to this, and to his great influence as a teacher at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel starting from 1968, he became known as the father of the New Wave style. His work continues to influence designers around the world.
Yvonne Schwemer-Scheddin: The course at the Merz Academy was unstructured, in contrast to your current teaching methods at Basel, which demand strict discipline from your students. How do they react to these methods?
Wolfgang Weingart: On the whole I get on very well with my students. They know they can ask me anything, and that I’m there if they need me. This means that it’s a pleasure, rather than a hard slog, to do analytical work with them.
You have to make the teaching come alive, stage by stage. And you have to be clear about why the basic exercises are so important, explaining to students that they will need to know how to equalize capital letters in the outside world, for example when they’re doing signage on a building. The moment I space out a word, I become involved in an exercise in graphics. This in turn developed into a way of teaching. I took ‘Swiss typography’ as my starting point, but then I blew it apart, never forcing a style upon my students. I never intended to create a ‘style’. It just happened that the students picked up – and misinterpreted – a so called ‘Weingart style’ and spread it around.
By itself, typography is as boring as hell: what makes it exciting is how you interpret it.
Louise Paradis: What kind of teacher were you?
Wolfgang Weingart: I was friendly, but not tolerant. Maybe if the work had quality then yes, I was very tolerant. You can see it in the students’ work in TM. We made huge contributions. The idea was always to do something against Swiss typography, because Swiss typography had no chance to develop. If you did something different, then it was not Swiss typography anymore, and people were against you. If you took a step further, you were an outsider. My idea was to teach more than only typography. Everybody thought typography was boring, stubborn, made your hands dirty. I had to change all these kind of negative feelings in many students. I had to bring graphic design. So I created a bridge between typography and graphic design. That was one of my so-called tricks.
closer to art
No typographer was
doing the work I
was doing; it was
Yvonne Schwemer-Scheddin: They say imitation is the proof of success, but isn’t it also irritating?
Wolfgang Weingart: It was annoying at first. But it was also positive in that it forced me to look for new ideas to keep one step ahead of the pack. I did this with my posters, which make full use of the lithographic process. They are not so easy to imitate, because most people don’t know the technique. It’s also hard to copy the individually hand-worked screen foil technique that I developed. We went back to basics–to the elementary typographic problems which had been somewhat neglected–in an attempt to get away from the new, all-pervasive style. Of course you can always see traces of the hand of the teacher and, in our case, the spirit of the school. Besides, even reproductive design is a necessary step in the process of human development, for it gives rise to new creativity.
YSS: Is it true to say that you use the specialized technique and the day-to-day discipline of teaching as means of channeling unsettled, emotional impulses into more ordered, productive outlets?
WW: I find it hard to identify with some of the posters I have designed. I can’t see myself in them – which make me think they must have come from somewhere else, from another planet. Sometimes a technique will lead me to a new idea, but when that happens, I tend to think that nothing in the work is mine. I believe that technique is enormously important. There aren’t many designers like me who take on all the technical aspects of a job themselves. Over the years, I’ve been able to apply the collage technique I learned in the 1970s to film montage. I work out every visual and technical detail for the printer, from the design concept to the final artwork – the screen nuances and structures, line elements, surfaces. These recurrent visual elements have now become something of a trademark. The lithographic half-tone dot, which I saw as a new, self-contained graphic element, has possibly become part of my personal image.
YSS: The theorist Vilém Flusser has called you a ‘linear’ thinker. Do you think he said this because you deal with linear material, with type? Flusser has also said that type explains – and therefore destroys – the image. Are you a destroyer of images?
WW: I see type as a kind of picture that speaks. I am
a maker, not a thinker. What’s reflected here is my activity, not my inner being. I experiment simply to broaden my knowledge of the vocabulary and techniques of typography. What gives me satisfaction is the practice, not the theory.
YSS: Or are linear pictures an emotive thing to you?
WW: Perhaps. My travels through the mysterious, endless expanse of the Syrian desert, and the Orient, for example, conjured up typographic images. Dried-up riverbeds reminded me of curved composing lines, tended fields of straight ones. The pattern of houses and alleys on the edge of the desert made me think of hand-set blocks of type. But I don’t see my work as, say, the first stage in a new, consciously less ideological conception of typography. It’s simply an attempt, an experiment, that’s worth pursuing. My work is like a quarry. People see a stone they like, appropriate it and work it until there’s nothing left. When that happens, they go back and get themselves a new stone. In my opinion, most designers don’t think or develop anything for themselves any more. They just process fragments. The result is emotional chaos.
Louise Paradis : Do you define yourself as a typographer or a graphic designer?
Wolfgang Weingart: Oh nothing. I am kind of an artist. You probably know my book. I did woodcuts and linoleum cuts. They are very artistic.
LP: Do you think you contributed to the merging of the two professions?
WW: I don’t think about it. No typographer was doing the kind of work I was doing; it is closer to art. When I took the direction I did when I was 15 … I didn’t know what I wanted to do, I was inspired by artists like Kirchner and the Die Brücke … I always had an internal fight about what to do in the future. Then I became very enthusiastic about Swiss typography.
LP: You made a huge contribution to typography and graphic design. I think your work made every designer look at typography differently; even people who didn’t appreciate it.
WW: There were a lot of people against it at the beginning, but slowly they saw the value. Gottschalk and all those people were against it. But in the end they hired some people from Basel. Because they saw they had no other choice—they had to change something.
Yvonne Schwemer-Scheddin: For me the most surprising works at your recent exhibition were the sketchy, conceptual notes, not just because they encapsu-
late a spontaneous,
they seem to
give an ins-
music, the company
of friends and, in the past,
heavy smoking, those sketches and personal notes wouldn’t exist. Nor would that exhibition have taken the form that it did. My sketches show visions, moments of madness, idiocy. They contain nonsense, humor, animation, depression – everything that can and can’t be done in this funny, beautiful world. Sometimes, after a bottle of wine, I come up with some remarkable drawings which seems to reflect just how I feel at that moment. The craziest ideas come especially at night. I set them down in brief sketches and carry them around with me until I’ve forgotten what they were for, or I feel the time is right to make one more attempt to complete the project. This constant collecting of ideas, which are then set down in words and drawings, is an essential step towards further development. It’s a way of slowly working one’s way into the technical processes of the project and preparing oneself for a new encounter with technology.
Yvonne Schwemer-Scheddin: You said you can extract personal style out of a technical process. Shouldn’t it be the other way around, with the tool as the servant of the creative mind?
Wolfgang Weingart: For me technology is the ultimate challenge: it’s both a partner and a friend. But I’ll never be completely under its control, because I know how to do things by hand, how to draw. If you know about only the technical side, you’ll never produce a complete design.
YSS: But isn’t the new technology necessary for new ideas? What about the computer, which you introduced into your typography course at Basel in January 1985?
WW: For the most part, my hopes for the computer have not been fulfilled. In fact there’s nothing it can do that can’t be done by hand, or film montage. It hasn’t produced a new visual language. At the time I introduced the Macintosh to Basel, for example, New Wave was already at its peak in the States. I have to admit, however, that the computer has sped things up, leaving more time for design and conceptual thinking. The PC represents the second big revolution in typography since Gutenberg, but to take full advantage of it you still require a thorough, basic classical training in design. People who haven’t mastered the conventional graphic techniques won’t be any better on a computer. The computer has a considerable impact on teaching, but it is also a valuable tool.
Louise Paradis: There was a lot of change in technology. You started with lead type and then you saw the computer invasion. Did those changes affect your design?
Wolfgang Weingart: No. Some teacher in Düsseldorf said that I was the first Photoshop pioneer, and he was not wrong. What you can do now with Photoshop very easily, I did it with film. So the computer brought nothing new for me. I thought I could make different things with the computer, but it was only wishful thinking. For me, manual use, manual results matter much more than pushing buttons. But you cannot be against computers, because they are as necessary as food today.
LP: But the change from lead type to phototypesetting seems to have affected you, right?
WW: That is another thing. Photocomposing and computer composing are a totally different thing. Photocomposing was over film. There were the negative plates of the alphabet, then you made the text step by step, and if you made a mistake you had to start another film. I never worked with photocomposing machines, but I worked with lithography film materials. I got new results through transparency. Transparency was my great chance. It is the same principle with the computer: you have the layers.
What's the use of being legible,
when nothing inspires you to
take notice of it?