Expressing Ideas Through Typography

The Art and Craft of Typesetting and Type Design

Buchgestaltung Visuelle Identität Erscheinungsbild Schriftgestaltung Book Editorial Visual Identity Type Grafikdesigner Grafik Design Grafikdesign Studio Wien Vienna Nguyen Gobber

One of the most straightforward ways of visually conveying an idea is to simply write it down for others to read. Now, as soon as it is about writing, we are in the literary domain and there are countless exciting artistic, scientific, and philosophic perspectives to consider. Among all those, we want to focus on understanding writing, and more precisely, the usage of a writing system as a method of visual communication. Thinking of it as a first and foremost visual act invites us to reflect on all the visual aspects that influence writing instead of focussing on the mere rules of the writing system itself.

From a designer’s point of view, this shift in perspective means that we have entered the domain of typography, the art and craft of setting type. In some definitions, the design of typefaces is considered to be part of typography as well, and for now, we want to use typography as this umbrella term that encompasses both typesetting and type design. Some consider typography to be “good” when all technical parameters are adjusted to achieve the highest possible readability. Such an approach aims to make the text evenly spaced, pleasantly sized, harmoniously justified or ragged, clearly visually hierarchised, and so on. Understood this way, the typographer’s goal is to reduce any kind of friction that typography could potentially cause in communication.

“Typography in itself is capable of expressing ideas as an active and sometimes even the central component in visual communication.”

However, typesetting and type design go way beyond making a writing system visually accessible. Typography in itself is capable of expressing ideas as an active and sometimes even the central component in visual communication. It can visually tell a story even before a single word is actually read. If done properly, typography is an interpretative act in which something is added to the ideas expressed within the writing. It is, therefore, not only about optimising the accessibility of the text but also about creating a communicative surplus.

This greater dimension of typography is something that others have already pointed at. In the seminal writing “Detail in Typography” by Jost Hochuli, for example, the Swiss designer talks about an atmospheric quality that a typeface can add to the design: “Once again, we encounter the phenomenon that typefaces—regardless of their optical legibility—trigger particular feelings on the part of readers simply through their appearance, and can have a positive or negative impact. This seems to be pragmatic evidence to show that, over and above their primary and essential task of acting as a visual means of transport for language, typefaces are also able to communicate atmosphere.” (Hochuli, 2008, p. 54)

An example of this can be given with Lucifer, a typeface that features an almost menacing appearance thanks to its sharp, exaggerated serifs. This specific aesthetic that a typeface like Lucifer brings with it has inevitably an effect on how the text is read. The design of the used typeface will introduce a specific tone of voice into the piece of writing through purely visual means. What otherwise could have been interpreted as rather calm and descriptive might be understood as something that is expressed in a much more alarming manner or even as a threat when set with Lucifer. 

Robert Stöcklin’s hand-lettering juxtaposed with Lucifer

The communicative surplus of typography, however, is not only limited to this rather atmospheric quality that a typeface might convey. The choice of typeface can also introduce a historical reference that situates the text. Lucifer, for example, is based on Robert Stöcklin’s hand-lettering for a poster design he created in the 1920s in Switzerland. Now, whenever something is set in Lucifer, it is connected to this specific time and place the typeface is based on.

In the book “Baslerische Landsitze – einst und jetzt” (in English: Basel Country Estates—Then and Now) the typefaces Genath and Neue Haas Grotesk were chosen to fit and emphasise the topic of the publication. The book is an annotated and expanded reprint of a historical art portfolio with detailed, hand-coloured woodcuts of country estates in and around Basel. Thanks to the choice of typefaces, not only the topic of the publication but also its typography are deeply connected to the history of Basel, as both typefaces Genath and Neue Haas Grotesk are linked to Basel’s Genath Type Foundry from the second half of the 16th century which was later renamed to the well-known “Haas’sche Schriftgiesserei”.

Traditional enamel house number

So far, the mentioned examples only demonstrate the communicative potential of type design and/or the conscious choice of typefaces. However, the typesetting itself—regardless of the used typeface—can express ideas as well. This can work through rather minor typographic design decisions as exemplified by the numbering of the country estates shown in Baslerische Landsitze. The individual numbers are framed within a specific shape and set next to the corresponding name of the country estate. This way the numbers look similar to the traditional enamel plates that designate the house number of a building. As a result, the typesetting suggests a particular idea of how one should experience the reading of the book, namely as a metaphorical stroll through the streets in and around Basel, Switzerland.

However, there are not only these small decisions in typesetting that add one or the other reference to the design. There are also typographic designs that are much more comprehensive. The Future Tense, a publication that accompanied Russell Perkin’s art installation of the same name, is a good example of this. The sound piece is based on the oldest surviving polyphonic requiem and deals, among other things, with the lack of space to mourn those who passed away in the recent pandemic. The artwork was exhibited in a large, elongated space, a setting reminiscent of a cathedral that visitors could freely roam through to experience the piece.

Ground plan of Laon Cathedral, Source: Wikipedia
Ground plan of Cologne Cathedral, Source: Wikipedia

The typography of the publication was inspired by the artwork itself as well as its particular exhibition setting and essentially used them as the source for a metaphorical design concept. Both of the essays contained in the publication were set in parallel referring to the polyphony of the requiem. The shapes of the paragraphs were purposefully modelled after typical ground plans of cathedrals through which the writings appear to be roaming through. Also, just like Russell’s piece, there are fragmentations and stuttering within the typesetting. This occasionally results in rather empty pages that reflect both loneliness and the much-needed spaces to mourn the ones we lost. And lastly, the cover design of the publication represents the multiply framed and decorated main entry of cathedrals, hence the typesetting and repetition of the title The Future Tense.

Main entrance of Notre-Dame de Paris, Source: Wikipedia

There are countless more examples to demonstrate how typesetting and type design can be used to express ideas. The chosen projects should illustrate the wide range of possibilities that lie here and show that it is always worth considering the communicative potential of typography. When designing, one should not stop at—by all means important—questions of accessibility but go further and express ideas through typography itself.

Hochuli, J. (2008). Detail in Typography. London: Hyphen Press.

last edited: 07-06-2022

Visualising Utopia

On Creative Means Against Lost Futures

Buchgestaltung Visuelle Identität Erscheinungsbild Schriftgestaltung Book Editorial Visual Identity Type Grafikdesigner Grafik Design Grafikdesign Studio Wien Vienna Nguyen Gobber

During the COVID-19 pandemic, doing the right thing meant adapting to a different way of living. Especially in the very beginning, the drastic change of everyone’s lifestyles was almost univocally accepted as it was the proper way to react to the previously unknown but potentially deadly virus. Some of the measures included the cancellation of travel plans or in-person meetings and events. This went along with a big shift towards the digital realm that helped us to socialise while not having to be physically present at the same place. We started to wear masks in public and disinfect our hands much more frequently. Taking the global economy into the picture, we witnessed a significant downscaling of the enormous efforts in production, transportation, marketing, and so forth. This is remarkable as it showed that one of the most central environmentalist demands, which are usually put down as totally unrealistic and economically unthinkable, is in fact very much feasible. These and many other things changed almost overnight, making it painfully obvious that the world we are living in is contingent. There are alternatives to the way things have become, and living in this or a radically different world is only a matter of collective choice.

“There are alternatives to the way things have become, and living in this or a radically different world is only a matter of collective choice.”

While these changes in our lives were widely accepted, it is worth taking into account that they were mainly tolerated as temporary measures. The longer people had to keep their distance and do without a lot of what makes their lives worth living, the stronger the longing to go back to “normality” became. Yet, some more visionary thinkers saw a unique opportunity now that Margaret Thatcher’s dominant paradigm of “There is no alternative” was disproven by a virus. They saw the ideal time to imagine and eventually shift towards a different future rather than just going back to “normal”. And there are good reasons to do so. May it be for environmental, social, or political reasons, simply continuing with the “normal”, pre-pandemic life can in many ways be considered highly problematic. So why not take this unique situation as an opportunity to change things for the better?

In pre-pandemic 2019, the Academy of Art and Design in Basel held a symposium called “future sense” to address the question of how artists and designers can contribute to a sustainable future. One of the speakers, the futurologist and sociologist Harald Welzer, pointed out that modern society seems to have lost any idea that it could be different, better than it is. It is a society that no longer has a horizon of desire but already seems to have its future behind it. However, this was not always the case. At some point on the way to the 21st century, futures must have been lost, so to speak. Welzer’s diagnosis of the lack of visionary ideas in today’s “futureless society”, echoes the observations Mark Fisher shares in his seminal writing “Capitalist Realism”. He remarks that apparently “[i]t’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. The task of the utmost urgency for Welzer is, therefore, the “reintroduction of the future” or, in other words, to get people to imagine a different, better world ahead of us. He sees a possible solution in the creation and visualisation of realities that have a concrete connection to the lifeworld and situation of its contemplators.

“These images [of desired futures] are essential as they make alternatives visible, better worlds imaginable, and motivate to take action.”

As the pandemic disrupted our everyday life, many started to question the status quo and ponder over the kind future they truly desired after the pandemic would be over. For some people their reflections manifested themselves through visualisations of speculative worlds and settings. Such images are probably one of the most crucial ways of contributing to a better world. They should not be mistaken as merely decorative, visual side notes to the supposedly more important non-visual thoughts and ideas about the way we live. These images are essential as they make alternatives visible, better worlds imaginable, and motivate to take action. Just like Fred Scharmen points out in “Space Settlements”, to name just one example, images are an often underestimated catalyst to get people going. His book retraces the impact of Rick Guidice’s and Don Davis’ speculative illustrations and shows how these images motivated and inspired a wide range of architectural research and scientific work on artificial space habitats.

“Cutaway view, exposing the interior” of the Stanford Torus. Art work by Rick Guidice, 1975. Source: NASA Ames Research Center

When creating such impactful images it is worth mentioning that the depicted alternative world only needs to be different, not necessarily better. As long as people are able to relate to these altered realities, they can get inspired by them and eventually overcome their lack of imagination of a better future. The onlookers will either imagine the presented realities further or even create their own positive images of the future. For designers this is exciting as shaping new, divergent worlds and making them not only visible but also approachable can be understood as a design task at its core. The futurologist Welzer agrees with this observation as he as too sees designers in a decisive role.

“To create images of alternative futures means nothing less than visualising utopia.”

To create images of alternative futures means nothing less than visualising utopia. According to the political scientist and dedicated expert on utopia Thomas Schölderle, “utopia” is first and foremost a means to criticise the status quo. The critique is given by presenting a rational fiction of an alternative world that differs from the actual world in all the aspects it considers in need of improvement. It is therefore crucial to note that utopia, unlike our common understanding, does not necessarily need to be a better or even perfect world. It only needs to be different in the aspects it wants to criticise. A dystopian world that differs in making some aspects worse, often by taking a tendency given in the actual world and pushing it to the extreme, is not the opposite of utopia but a variation of it. On the other end of the spectrum of utopias are the ideal, perfect worlds which are called “eutopias”.

No matter if the alternative world is dystopian (bad) or eutopian (good), visualisations of such rational fictions can be achieved in numerous, sometimes unexpected ways. When researching examples, we could identify nine different strategies to visualise utopias:

— Spatial Plan Drawing
— Spatial Illustrations and Renderings
— Modelling
— Object Design
— Prototyping
— Forged Evidence
— Chronicles
— Depicting Lifestyles
— Documentary Photography

To illustrate the range of approaches used by creatives, we decided to pick three examples that relied exclusively on one of those strategies and point at one of our projects that combined multiple approaches.

The first example of visualising an alternative world is Manuela Pfrunder’s atlas “Neotopia” in which she depicts a world with radically equal distribution. She drew maps that show how the world would look if everyone had the same access to water, mountains, forests, meadows, urbanised land, and so forth. She extends this way beyond geographical aspects and shows what it would mean if resources like coffee, cacao, cheese, sugar, fish, meat, and similar would be distributed equally as well. She even goes as far as imagining what an equal distribution of human suffering as in hunger or political persecution would look like. This makes Neotopia a striking critique of the existing inequalities in our current world. At its core, the atlas shows a different reality through visualisation of spatial relations. For that reason, it is a perfect example of the visualisation strategy “spatial plan drawing”, a particularly helpful approach as soon as concrete numbers are used to explain the alternative world.

Another approach to visualising utopia is to prototype objects that inhabit the utopian world one is imagining. There are numerous interesting examples of this in the domain of speculative design. One of those would be a set of objects created by the designers James Chambers and Tom Judd. They asked themselves how the famous British wildlife filmmaker David Attenborough would have designed everyday objects if he would have become an industrial designer. Under the name “Attenborough Design Group” they started to create prototypes that use self-protection mechanisms from nature. One result was “The Gesundheit Radio”, a radio that sneezes to free itself from accumulating dirt as soon as it gets too dusty. Another object was the disc drive “Floppy legs” which jumps on its little mechanical feet as soon as liquid is spilled near it. The third object was the “AntiTouch lamp” which protects its sensitive light bulb by moving away as soon as someone or something is getting too close. By creating this sophisticated, speculative technology, the designers show us a world that is sustainable and eco-friendly. Instead of planned obsolescence which purposefully shortens the lifespans, the devices have built-in mechanisms that make them last longer. It is therefore an indirect critique on the fast-moving and wasteful nature of today’s electronic devices which is heavily contributing to the current ecological crisis.

Birmingham Movement. Protest against racial segregation organised by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Martin Luther King. Birmingham (Alabama), 1963.

A third strategy for visualising utopia is the use of documentary photography. The example we want to show here might be unexpected, yet insightful as it demonstrates the wide range of what creating images of alternative worlds and possible futures can mean. Photographs can document numerous things. Depending on what is shown they can evoke strong, maybe even shocking or disturbing reactions. Being aware of the effects photographs can have, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) organised a nonviolent direct action protest against racial segregation in 1963 in Birmingham. Back then, the city of Birmingham was known for being one of the most racist places in the United States. The organisers chose this place purposely because they knew that the situation would likely escalate, get violent, and result in striking images of white brutality and violence against black people. And as the photographs from the protest, unfortunately, show, this is exactly what happened. For the city of Birmingham, the photographs might just depict the way things actually were. However, for many other places in the U.S. and beyond where such extreme racism was not common it was a glimpse into a dystopian world. It was a threatening image of what might become the reality in other places too if the injustices against the black community and the manifold acts of racism would not be counteracted. As such, it was a powerful visualisation of a dystopia that got people to stand up for a better future.

The projects above and numerous other striking examples show that there are many ways of creating visualisations of alternative worlds and futures. They are not about some Sci-Fi world-building for the sole purpose of entertainment but have an impact that goes way beyond. They are visualisations of utopia and as such get people to imagine and eventually contribute to a better world. Lastly, we want to point at a project in our portfolio: SWISSTOPIA AUTOMATA. Multiple approaches were combined to create a report that visualises a utopian Switzerland beyond the labour society as we know it. Have a look at the → project documentation.

Dunne, A. & Raby, F. (2013). Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Fisher, M. (2009). Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?. United Kingdom: John Hunt Publishing.
Pfrunder, M. (2002). Neotopia: Atlas zur gerechten Verteilung der Welt – Atlas of equitable distribution of the world. Zürich: Limmat.
Rogger, B., Voegeli, J. & Widmer, R. (Eds.) (2018). Protest: The Aesthetics of Resistance. Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers.
Scharmen, F. (2019). Space Settlements. New York: Columbia Books on Architecture and the City.
Schölderle, T. (2012). Geschichte der Utopie: Eine Einführung. Köln: Böhlau.
Welzer, H. (2019). Alles könnte anders sein: Eine Gesellschaftsutopie für freie Menschen. Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer.

German versions of this article were published at ↗ FUTURZWEI and at ↗ skug.

last edited: 10-11-21

Communicating Expertise

Insights from Doing Graphic Design for Experts

Buchgestaltung Visuelle Identität Erscheinungsbild Schriftgestaltung Book Editorial Visual Identity Type Grafikdesigner Grafik Design Grafikdesign Studio Wien Vienna Nguyen Gobber

When asked about what we do at Nguyen Gobber, we usually answer something along the lines of: “We help people by creating compelling appearances for their knowledge and ideas.” A more straightforward term for those, whose knowledge and ideas are worthwhile to be communicated, would probably be “experts”. So, if you want to boil our answer down to the shortest possible version, it would be: “We help to communicate expertise.” And we do so because expertise does not matter too much if you are not able to communicate it properly. There is no meaningful impact to be expected if nobody takes notice of your skills and knowledge and gets access to your insights.

“There is no meaningful impact to be expected if nobody takes notice of your skills and knowledge and gets access to your insights.”

In our practice, we had the chance to gain some insights into how one can communicate expertise best, and, in the spirit of the statement above, we want to share it. From our own experience of doing graphic design for experts from the academic, cultural, and social fields, we learned that there are a handful of ideas and aspects that are particularly helpful when crafting your communication. They are relevant, no matter what type of expertise you want to convey. In fact, these insights are even applicable to other types of communication beyond graphic design, as long as they remain unidirectional, meaning that there is no back and forth, no opportunity to respond and clarify.

Just like in any other endeavour, one should first get a basic understanding of the situation they are dealing with. In our case, we need to define expertise so we can pinpoint what we are exactly trying to communicate. Expertise can be understood as what distinguishes an expert from a novice. This does not tell us too much, though. So we want to determine the decisive factor that makes someone an expert. If you open a dictionary, you will read that an expert is a person who represents “mastery of a particular subject”, “someone with special knowledge and skill in a particular domain”, or that an expert is “somebody who has a broad and deep competence […] in a particular field”. No matter the phrasing, it is the surplus of knowledge and skill that makes someone an expert. Hence, it is also this surplus that we are referring to when we are talking about “expertise”. It is worth noting, though, that in practice we tend to only call someone an expert if it is not only a slight but a significant surplus of knowledge and skill.

If it is common knowledge or expertise depends on the context.

This definition of expertise, however, is not absolute but relative. Expertise is determined by comparison and therefore the reference group matters. Depending on the reference group you consider, the person with a significant surplus of knowledge and skill in a given subject might change. A primary school teacher might be the expert in maths within the class they are teaching but not at an international conference on advanced mathematics. This relativity of expertise implies not only that the role of the expert may wander but also that the threshold which differentiates common knowledge from expertise can change depending on the context. This has consequences for the communication of expertise as well. For graphic designers, it goes without saying that visual communication needs to be tailored to the target audience in mind. When communicating expertise, the design has to keep the reference group in mind and be adjusted accordingly, as they are decisive to whether the subject matter you want to convey can even be considered expertise.

“Expertise is determined by comparison and therefore the reference group matters.”

Communicating expertise, especially when looking at the visual domain, is not limited to designing aids that help to explain a subject, such as an infographic, an article, a research poster, and so forth. In fact, a lot of visual communication of expertise must have inevitably already happened before these kinds of visual explanations get relevant. It is the kind of visual communication that signals expertise and thereby guides those who are interested. Just think about it: Before you buy a book, you look at its cover. Before you hire a consultant, you visit their website to learn about them. Before you book tickets to a conference, you read the event flyer. Consciously navigating to a source of expertise is only possible if you are literally looking for it. Hence, carefully designing what one will be looking at is crucial. If the first contact point does not clearly signal expertise, the onlooker will not realise that they just found the path to the expertise they were looking for.

Now, expertise does not have a colour, shape, or specified dimension. However, there are a few associations that commonly go along with experiencing expertise. In our design work for experts, we try to evoke these associations. This way, expertise is signified through a visual communication design that is consistent with what it refers to. One of these common associations is expertise usually being perceived as something of high value. For that matter, visual communication of expertise generally avoids looking cheap, which is why you probably will not find a PhD thesis published as a stapled booklet. Also, there is a certain confidence associated with expertise. That's why one can be equally confident in their design choices when communicating expertise, as long as there is a good argument backing it up.

“If the first contact point does not clearly signal expertise, the onlooker will not realise that they just found the path to the expertise they were looking for.”

However, the number of these broadly known, general signifiers of expertise is very limited. In many cases, we need to take our time to get a better understanding of the subject matter so we can determine fitting signifiers of the concrete instance of expertise at hand. Our poster for the FHNW lecture series “Wir Sind So Frei!” (German for: “We are so free!”) could be an example of such a contextual signifier. The lecture series discussed problems and insufficiencies connected to various concepts of freedom. In our design, we playfully explored the spatial and grammatical limits of “freely” rearranging the words which form the conference title. This way, the design itself visualises the debated problem and thereby references the critical thinking that recognises this issue and the enhanced self-reflective capabilities which the invited experts – most of which were from the philosophical domain – are known for. Determining such more contextual signifiers of expertise and incorporating them into the design is especially rewarding as they are usually the most convincing.

Once the interested are guided to the source of expertise they were looking for, it is time to craft communication that facilitates the transfer of knowledge. Expert knowledge is usually complicated enough on its own. Therefore, its communication needs to be as clear and easy to follow as possible while not getting too boring and dull to look at. It is a challenging task to provide visual clarity without sacrificing engaging aesthetics. Crafting something that strikes this balance is not easy. It requires skilled and experienced designers to get such a job done, so the necessary resources need to be allocated to afford them. Unfortunately, more often than not decision-makers do not account for this and as a result, we have to witness how accessing valuable knowledge is hindered by poor graphic design.

“Expert knowledge is usually complicated enough on its own. Therefore, its communication needs to be as clear and easy to follow as possible while not getting too boring and dull to look at.”

There is an argument to be made that, especially in the scientific domain (and here most of all in natural sciences), the perceived complexity does not stem from the subject matter but from the terrible visual communication that makes the presented knowledge unnecessarily inaccessible. If the compositions are chaotic; gestalt principles are disregarded; visual hierarchies are unclear; every corner is plastered with visual clutter as if designing a layout is a game of Tetris; and so on; then the onlooker is occupied with making sense of the visual mess instead of learning about the subject which should have been communicated. Obviously, such design mistakes are often the result of a layperson at work, so we do not want to judge their efforts too harshly. [Side note: We made a ↗ helpful guide to designing better research posters.]

The last thing we want to mention as something we have experienced as helpful when communicating expertise is to apply one of the most well-known writing techniques to the domain of visual communication, namely “Show Don’t Tell”. It is a technique used in various kinds of texts to allow the reader to experience the story through actions rather than through the author's description. So, instead of simply writing that the hero is brave, this technique would suggest demonstrating it by telling the story of how the hero faced the threat while everyone else was running away. In our context, this technique basically says that one should not just claim expertise but prove it.

In “An der Grenze der Lesbarkeit”, the knowledge of the borders of readability and the potential quality in design one can achieve by working at its fringes is not only described in written form but also demonstrated in numerous visualisations throughout the publication. Even before the onlooker opens one of the two books to read and learn about this topic, they can witness the expertise in action when looking at the cover design. The title got split into multiple syllables and playfully spread across the spines of both books. This typesetting at the border of readability creates an appealing cover design and thereby proves the expertise the reader can expect to learn from when reading the book. While this example shows how beneficial it is to not only claim but prove expertise, it also needs to be mentioned that on many occasions this is not possible. Sometimes the medium one is using simply does not allow one to demonstrate the type of expertise one is dealing with. In any case, though, it is worth looking for opportunities to demonstrate the communicated expertise in the design itself as this hardly fails at achieving truly compelling results.

We can summarize our insights in four questions that we have learned to ask ourselves whenever we need to communicate expertise:

1 – What exactly counts as expertise in this specific context and therefore needs to be communicated?

2 – How can we authentically signal said expertise to guide the interested to the source?

3 – How can we achieve the necessary visual clarity to make expert knowledge accessible without looking dull?

4 – How can we demonstrate the relevant expertise within the design itself rather than just putting some claims out there?

Finding answers to these questions in the design process has proven to consistently yield better results when communicating expertise.

last edited: 19-02-23

A School’s History Reflected in Design

The Basel School of Design Campaigns 2019/2020

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In 2019, the Visual Communication Institute [today: Institute Digital Communication Environments (IDCE)] of the Academy of Art and Design in Basel commissioned the conception and design of a campaign. The goal was to generate more interest for both of the postgraduate programmes offered at the institute. One of them was the Master of Arts in Visual Communication and Iconic Research [today: Master of Arts in Digital Communication Environments], which connected the practical knowledge and methodology of visual communication with the scientific domain by developing new approaches in image research. The other postgraduate programme was the International Master of Design UIC/HGK, mostly referred to as MDes. It was a collaboration between the Visual Communication Institute in Basel and the University of Illinois in Chicago. It gave students the unique opportunity to graduate with an internationally accredited Master of Design from UIC and the Swiss equivalent, a Master of Arts. Both of these programmes shared the same heritage as they evolved from the renowned Basel School of Design. For that reason, the institute decided to choose the title “The Basel School of Design” for their campaign. This put emphasis on a very specific design tradition born in the late 1960s in Basel, which was also one of the main points of reference for the conception of the campaign design. So, what exactly is this design tradition?

Building of the Basel School of Design at Vogelsangstrasse, Source: Wikipedia

Back in 1968, Armin Hofmann and Emil Ruder conceived a postgraduate programme at the Basel School of Design, the Weiterbildungsklasse für Grafik / Advanced Class for Graphic Design. It offered an intensive study of design principles and a very influential, form-related design methodology. The programme attracted students from all over the world and became an outstanding model for a modernist design education. The designs developed at the school were the results of a process-oriented approach in which many variations were created and thoughtfully compared with each other. After sequentially improving said variations, the final design oftentimes featured a clear formal expression of an underlying idea combined with a reduced colour scheme and matter-of-fact typography. This style in design, which is now referred to as “Swiss Style”, would become world-famous and so influential that iconic pieces of graphic design such as the wayfinding system of the New York Subway or the corporate design of Lufthansa are in many ways shaped by it. While “Swiss Style” certainly was not solely created by a handful of people in a small Swiss town, many experts would still point to the Basel School of Design and the designers associated with the programme when asked about its birthplace.

The first design developed for the campaign in 2019 played with the idea of those extensive variations typical in the design process taught at the Basel School of Design, by experimenting with one, if not the most, basic shape, a circle. Such a series of slight or more drastic formal variations was not only typical at the Basel School of Design back in the late 60s and 70s but also one of the preserved traditions in both postgraduate programmes offered at the academy. As the variations for the intended campaign design in 2019 seemed a bit too arbitrary, Prof. Michael Renner, who was involved from the commissioner’s side, proposed to create variations of visualisation for the idea of friction. Even though it was not intended first, the topic “friction” was quite fitting as it pointed towards crucial aspects of the history and development of the Basel School of Design.

“The designs developed at the school were the results of a process-oriented approach in which many variations were created and thoughtfully compared with each other.”

While Armin Hofmann and Emil Ruder had been teaching design very much according to modernist standards, a later protagonist of the Basel School Wolfgang Weingart popularised a different take on graphic design, specifically in regards to typographic treatment. It was an incident of friction between an established approach and a new way, which would later be described as New Wave or Swiss Punk Typography. In many ways, Wolfgang Weingart broke with the preceding modernist understanding of design and implemented a postmodern approach. The idea of “good” (typographic) design shifted while the strong focus on the formal qualities and a design process involving an abundance of variations was maintained. Later, when Prof. Renner took over the direction, he was involved in transforming the programme into an academic degree course, the Master of Arts in Visual Communication and Iconic Research. By doing so, he again caused an incident of friction as he shifted from the form-focused programme to a more intellectual study of imagery with the ambition to use the methodology of the Basel School of Design as a tool for scientific research.

Poster for Gewerbemuseum Basel, 1963 by Emil Ruder, Source: eMuseum
Poster for Kunsthalle Basel, 1977 by Wolfgang Weingart, Source: eMuseum
Book “What Images Do”, co-published 2019 by Prof. Michael Renner, Source: HGK FHNW

In addition to referencing the variations-driven design process of the Basel School of Design, the theme of friction became relevant to the campaign design. Different notions of friction were defined as points of orientation, and multiple series of abstract, geometric illustrations were then developed to visualise the different facets of friction. While the output was rich in formal variations, the colours were reduced to greyscale to reflect the iconic style of the Basel School. 

The design was then combined in a composition to be used as the key visual for the main component of the 2019s campaign, a foldable poster that was sent to different academic art and design institutes. The design featured a rigid layout in which the various visualisations of friction were placed. On the back of the poster, information on The Basel School of Design and both of the postgraduate programmes were set within the same grid system. The foldable poster was printed with silver instead of grey, which led to a very specific visual quality that is unfortunately mostly lost in the digital reproduction of the prints. Apart from this centrepiece of the campaign, many further applications such as an animation, graphics for social media, and printed advertisements were designed. The effort proved to be worth it as the campaign successfully increased the number of applicants for that year. 

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For the 2020s edition of The Basel School of Design campaign, the theme of variation was revisited. This time, however, the second theme was the question of visual identity instead of friction, which shifted the focus from a reflection of the historical development of the institute towards its current state. Interestingly, the Visual Communication Institute which was the academic successor of the original Basel School of Design does not have its own visual identity. There was only a corporate design of the FHNW University of Applied Sciences and Arts, of which the Visual Communication Institute was a part. This loss of an independent visual appearance coincided with a broadening of visual styles that were taught and produced at the academy. The key visual reflected this circumstance in a playful way by showing a rich pool of plausible but also absurd logos. 

The logos were again shown as parts of a series of variations and put together to create the key visual. This time, however, the strict layout and rigid grid were abandoned to create another visual reference to the wild proliferation of styles and design approaches that were and still are visible at the academy. The reduced colour scheme of only black and white as well as the strict typographic layout on the back side of the poster remained so that the hint towards the roots of the Visual Communication Institute was still given. Just as the year before, many further design applications apart from the poster were implemented. Altogether, the 2020s iteration formed a successful continuation of the series of annual campaigns for The Basel School of Design.

last edited: 22-09-21

Metaphorical Thinking in Poster Design

How a Cognitive Theory Brings About Better Graphic Design

Buchgestaltung Visuelle Identität Erscheinungsbild Schriftgestaltung Book Editorial Visual Identity Type Grafikdesigner Grafik Design Grafikdesign Studio Wien Vienna Nguyen Gobber

Metaphorical thinking or metaphorical concepts are most prominently discussed in the context of political communication. Most often, when you hear about framing an issue in a certain way for political profit, this framing is done with the help of a conceptual metaphor. Depending on your political point of view, you might either describe taxes as a financial burden or a contribution that you give back to the community that helped you grow. Speaking of a “burden” frames taxes as something that is first and foremost (extra) weight you are forced to carry, something that immobilises you to a certain degree. It is the way you talk about something that restricts your freedom, whereas the metaphorical framing of “contribution” shifts the perspective and makes paying taxes appear like a virtue. Either the virtue of helping those in need or the expression of gratitude to the community that allows one to prosper by “giving something back, now that one can do so”. One metaphorical frame is that of carrying weight, the other one is that of keeping a fair balance.

“What makes those metaphors so powerful is that they provide conceptual systems that guide our way of thinking [..].”

It is important to recognise that metaphor is not understood as a mere figure of speech but as a way of conceptualising things. It is not that we are just saying “burden” or “contribution” instead of “tax”. What makes those metaphors so powerful is that they provide conceptual systems that guide our way of thinking about an issue, in this case, taxes. “Burden” might be just one expression, but it activates a whole set of corresponding ideas that include aspects like “weight”, the feeling of being “dragged down” and hindered to “move forward” in the “journey” of life. Thinking of taxes as a burden frames them as negative and something that should be “taken off of our shoulders”. Clever politicians and PR consultants know the power of conceptual metaphors like these very well. They use them in more or less noticeable ways to influence their audience’s opinions. Once you know about these conceptual metaphors, you start noticing them everywhere. Just think about prominent terms and expressions used in today’s political debates. You might have heard of “waves of refugees”, “war on terror”, “climate change”, or others.

Typical illustration of “tax burden”, illustrator unknown

In cognitive sciences, there is the so-called conceptual metaphor theory which tries to explain these kinds of thinking. The theory was first popularised in the late 1980s and has been further developed ever since. In its foundational book “Metaphors We Live By” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, the essence of metaphorical thinking is boiled down to “understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another” (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 5.). Even though the focus was put on political communication so far, the given definition of metaphorical concepts makes it clear that we should be able to find them in other contexts as well. One of the most interesting contexts to look for conceptual metaphors is the domain of graphic design. In numerous cases, understanding the design or at least some parts of it in terms of something else has led to unexpected and truly original designs.

Poster for Filmpodium Zurich by Ralph Schraivogel
Poster Campaign “Curls” for Rowenta by Publicis
Poster for S AM by Claudiabasel

What would happen, for example, if we would conceptualise the poster as a city map? Ralph Schraivogel showed us when he created the poster design “Woody Allen” for Filmpodium Zürich. As Woody Allen was the topic of the advertised event, the reference for his poster design was not just any city but New York City, or more precisely Manhattan. The typography was set along the streets making them look like street names while the images were positioned as if they were buildings or possibly parks of the imagined city map. In a campaign designed for Roventa’s new curling iron, the designers of Publicis developed another metaphorical design concept that led to a very creative result. The campaign’s title “Curls” (the original title in German is “Locken”) already gives away the point of reference for this original design solution. Instead of coming up with a graphic composition at all, the designers decided to conceptualise the printed matter itself as curly hair for this campaign. Another example to prove the creative potential of metaphorical thinking is given by the visual identity and corresponding poster series for S AM, Swiss Museum of Architecture, designed by Claudiabasel. The typographic composition was set according to the logic of architecture. This means that the most fundamental text got put at the bottom and, with decreasing importance, the remaining text material was built on top of it, just as every building starts with a fundament and ends with the lightest and smallest components at the very top.

As one can see, being aware of the conceptual metaphor theory helps tremendously to identify and describe these kinds of designs. It is safe to assume, though, that in many cases the designers were not aware of the cognitive principle that was structuring their ideas. However, what would happen if one was consciously using the insights of the conceptual metaphor theory to create design concepts? For now, we have just begun to explore its fundamentals, but the theory has much more to offer and explore in the context of graphic design. The book “Designing in Metaphors” (the original title in German is “Gestalten in Metaphern”) offers a deeper insight into this topic and even provides a foolproof method to come up with your own fitting metaphorical design concepts. While it is not possible to squeeze all of the book’s content into these few paragraphs, it might be interesting to present a few results of the design method taught in the book. As proofs of concept, different poster designs were developed for the publication, some of which visualised an early version of the method itself.

One of these designs focussed on the very definition of a method. Depending on the source you are referring to, the phrasing might change, but essentially, a method can be defined as a series of steps to take in order to reach the desired goal. “Proceeding step by step” became the guiding conceptual metaphor of one of the poster designs created with the help of the book’s method. The typographic composition functions as a visual interpretation of “taking steps”. As the final poster design shows, the numbers 1 to 5, which represent the steps taken, do not only lead forward but also upward to an “elevated” result.

Another metaphorical design concept produced with the book’s method is centred around the theme of “lighting up” which is often used in representations of coming up with or understanding ideas. Just think about the glowing light bulb used to illustrate this in children’s cartoons or expressions like “having a bright idea” or “an illuminating talk”. In the context of the poster design, the motive “lighting up” obviously refers to coming up with a metaphorical design concept.

Many sketches tried to visualise this motive by creating compositions in which a dense, dark structure in one or multiple areas of the format opens up and transitions into white space. On many occasions, this coincided with a playful treatment of contrasts within the poster design. The final design does not only feature lines that represent light rays but also a composition in which said lines are positioned with increasing density from bottom to top. This effectively produces a brightness gradient that dominates the poster design as a whole. In addition to these graphical elements and their composition, the poster was printed on fluorescent paper as a further reference to the motive of “lighting up”

Both, the posters of fellow graphic designers mentioned earlier and those discussed just before, should showcase the benefits of working with fitting metaphorical design concepts. For sure, the visual interpretation is always bound to the skills of the designer. However, using the method proposed in the book “Designing in Metaphors” or otherwise coming up with a metaphorical concept improves the design as it guides many of the design decisions. Furthermore, it helps to prevent one of the biggest, and unfortunately quite frequent, problems in contemporary graphic design: The total lack of any kind of underlying idea which results in arbitrary, decorative graphics of which the only point of reference were current trends.

When It’s Not the Right Time for Flowers

Art Direction of the Next Generation Campaign 2018

Buchgestaltung Visuelle Identität Erscheinungsbild Schriftgestaltung Book Editorial Visual Identity Type Grafikdesigner Grafik Design Grafikdesign Studio Wien Vienna Nguyen Gobber

Every year the Basel Academy of Art and Design commissions the “Next Generation” campaign, a year-long series of advertisements for their academic programmes, graduations, and various informational events. For each iteration, a new key visual gets determined for the campaign design. In 2018, a photographer was invited to shoot a series of photographs that should be used as the central visual elements. The photographs were supposed to reflect different aspects described with keywords such as “encounter”, “collaboration”, “authentic”, “self-confident”, “no party, but fun exchange”, “young”, “contemporary”, “diverse”, and so forth. 

With the help of a scenographer, a space was created to which students of the graduation year were invited. They were asked to bring flowers and plants to exchange with each other and use the occasion to celebrate with drinks and music. During the event, a series of photographs were shot to capture a somewhat authentic scene of young students sitting together, exchanging ideas, and enjoying themselves.

After the photographs were produced, the task of art directing and designing the campaign was handed over. At this stage, however, a few significant decisions were already made without the involvement of the art director/designer which led to three challenges in particular: Firstly, the diversity of students at the campus was not really shown in the photographs as they predominantly depicted young white women. Secondly, all images were taken in portrait format which is not ideal for the campaign’s implementation in a wide variety of media and formats, including animated web banners, newspaper advertisements, email signatures, and so forth. Finally, while the depicted party scene with bouquets of flowers perfectly lent itself to advertise festivities, it seemed rather off-topic for a wide range of informational events the campaign was supposed to work for as well.

To create a compelling annual campaign design, the art direction, therefore, had to find answers to three specific questions: How to reflect the diversity of students on the campus when the photographs depict mostly white women? How to make the design work in a variety of media and formats when the photographs were exclusively shot in portrait format? How to design a campaign for various events over the course of a full year if the photographs depict a party scene?

A first approach to tackle the issue of diversity was to avoid Unica77, the corporate typeface of the academy. Unica77 is a wonderful typeface on its own, but it has a very clean, modernist aesthetic. This tends to point towards ideas and values like “conformity”, “normativity”, or “conventionality” rather than “diversity”. Instead, a few typefaces were sketched to broaden the aesthetic qualities within the campaign design. The idea was to include more rough and peculiar visuals that create a contrast to the one-sided photographs. This way, the campaign would reflect the diversity of students and the variety of artistic positions coming together. However, with limited resources at hand, it simply turned out to be an unattainable goal to properly draw multiple typefaces for the campaign.

While this initial approach was dropped, the general idea of counterbalancing the photographs with other visual elements and themes was further worked on. This resulted in showing the photographs not solely as the main part of the campaign design. Instead, they were used as only one of several elements that made up a composition with a strong typographical arrangement. The images and typographical elements were superimposed, nested, and interwoven within each other. In addition to the photographs and the titling, the names of the academy’s institutes were set in small sizes and repeated over and over again to create a laminar typographic pattern. This effectively created a third visual element that could be combined with the photographs and the bigger typography. The result was a composition that became a metaphor for the idea of “encounter” and “collaboration” as a “diverse” range of visual elements were “coming together” to shape the design.

The decision to work with compositions of multiple visual elements rather than singular photographs resolved the second issue as well. It was liberating to use more than just one portrait photograph as the key visual in all of the various media and formats. To create a banner design with portrait photography, for example, would have meant to choose between showing only a small section of a picture or having to deal with vast amounts of unwanted white space. Instead, the compositions circumvented this issue as they could be easily adapted to fit the media and format at hand.

The campaign exhibited at grafikSCHWEIZ18 in Zurich, 2018

Making the photographs less dominant in the campaign also helped to push the discrepancy between the depicted party scenes and non-festive events out of the onlooker’s focus. To fully resolve this issue, though, additional steps had to be taken. The introduction of new wording proved to be a viable solution to make the campaign work for various academic events during the whole year. Instead of writing “NEXT” on all different applications as it has been done in the previous year, the words “OPEN”, “INFO”, and “APPLY” were used for the corresponding occasions. This idea turned out to be particularly helpful in differentiating the events as it allowed to keep the visual identity consistent. For that reason, it was continued in the following years by the other annually changing art directors/designers.

All things considered, the main challenge of the Next Generation campaign 2018 was the realignment of the campaign’s central imagery with the intended purpose, the messages it should communicate, and the media and formats it had to work in. This became necessary due to the late involvement of the designer and therefore the lack of proper art direction from the get-go. Creating carefully designed compositions, however, turned out to be the best way to move forward. They expressed central ideas like “encounter” and “coming together” by interweaving a variety of visual elements which reflected the idea of “diversity”. In passing, this also resolved the issue of the original photographs not being suitable for a variety of media and formats. Instead of singular portrait photographs, the composition as a whole became the key visual. And finally, the introduction of new wording helped to create fitting advertisements for events besides festivities. Despite the challenging circumstances, though, the campaign turned out to reach its goals. It successfully attracted the attention and interest of the relevant audiences and even was honoured and shown in multiple design exhibitions and festivals.

last edited: 30-09-21