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U&lc Online Issue: 25.4.2

The Road Taken/Paul Shaw


Reviews by Paul Shaw


As we approach the millennium the nihilism that has dominated graphic design for the past ten to fifteen years seems to be in disarray. Neville Brody and Emigre have been around so long that they can rightly be seen as the status quo. David Carson’s star has quickly fizzled after prematurely declaring of The End of Print. And there is no clear successor to his title of Typographic Design Star. There have been pretenders to the throne – such as Bruce Mau, Why Not Associates, Tomato, Jonathan Barnbrook, and P. Scott Makela-but none have grabbed the crown. The giddy excitement of breaking the age-old typographic rules – whether those of Morisonian traditionalists or Swiss modernists – has faded and nothing has emerged to fill the void. Design and typography feel marooned today. Thus, it may not be coincidental that a small number books touting the values of Swiss modernist typography have begun to surface in the past two years. In the ebb and flow of all fashion – including typography – a retreat from typographic chaos and licentiousness would seem inevitable. Are we ready for a return to the pure typography championed by Willi Kunz and Helmut Schmid, two former Basel students living and working in New York City and Osaka respectively?

The road to Basel (Schmid, following Max Bill and the Bauhaus, prefers to dispense with capital letters) is an homage to Emil Ruder (1914–1970), longtime teacher of typography at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel. Helmut Schmid, one of Ruder’s students, has gathered together reminiscences of Ruder by his colleagues and former students alongside a few examples of Ruder’s work and that of his students. A short essay by Ruder, “Vom Teetrinken, Typographie, Historismus, Symmetrie und Asymmetrie” (Typographische Monatsblätter 1952 /2), is also included as a sort of afterword.

The colleagues who contributed to the road to Baselare Karl Gerstner and Kurt Hauert. The former students are: Harry Boller, Roy Cole, Heini Fleischhacker, Fritz Gottschalk, André Gürtler, Hans-Jürg Hunziker, Hans-Rudolf Lutz, Fridolin Müller, Marcel Nebel, Åke Nilsson, Bruno Pfäffli, Will van Sambeek, Helmut Schmid, Peter Teubner, Wolfgang Weingart, and Yves Zimmermann. The reminiscences are very uneven. Several, including those by Gerstner and Hauert, are too laconic to be of interest. But there are others that are long enough to reveal small facets of both Ruder’s personality and his teaching. Together they fail to fully reveal Ruder the man and only tantalize the reader with a sense of Ruder the teacher. But they do succeed in illuminating the aura surrounding Ruder the typographic guru in the 1950s and 1960s, thus explaining why designers from all over Europe as well as throughout Switzerland took “the road the Basel”.

In the early 1950s, Swiss typography was primarily confined to the apprenticeships that compositors undertook within the printing industry. Ruder’s signal contribution to the development of Swiss international design was the establishment – at first informally within the Kunstgewerbeschule and later with official backing as the Advanced Design Course of post-graduate study in typography as distinct from composition. From 1954 to 1968 the post-graduate study course catered to two or three students a year. Hans-Jürg Hunziker recalls that when he applied to join the course – upon the recommendation of his mentor Adrian Frutiger – he had to wait three years to get in. (He spent those years working with Jan Tschichold.) Obviously, Ruder’s status as “the god of typography” (in Peter Teubner’s words) was fueled as much by the exclusivity of the post-graduate course as by Ruder’s typographic work. Yet it is clear that those lucky enough to study under Ruder found him as exciting and demanding as they had expected. With a few exceptions – Hans-Rudolf Lutz and Wolfgang Weingart – these former students quickly and permanently fell under the sway of the “charismatic and ambitious” Ruder.*

Ruder promised a new functionalism derived from the Bauhaus. (He had studied at Zurich under Johannes Itten.) His was a new approach to typography that went beyond the technical fundamentals of metal type composition to embrace modern art (especially that of Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian). Ruder focused on the point, the line, the plane, and the way in which typography activated space. His article “Die Flache” (the plane or the space), following lessons he had learned from The Book of Teaby Kakuzo Okakura and from modern art, stressed the activation and destruction of space as the goal of typography as well as of art and architecture. Alongside the post-graduate course in typography, Ruder taught a course on poster design and lectured in the evenings on modern art. (Ruder’s ex-students remember him as much for his advocacy of modern art as for his typographic teaching.)

Ruder’s typography is defined by asymmetry and an emphasis on counter, shape, and negative space. Nilsson recalls that “asymmetry was a matter of course, whereas symmetry was regarded as rigid, hierarchical, and formalistic, and unsuitable for a natural development.” In his essay “Von Teetrinken, Typographie, Historismus, Symmetrie and Asymmetrie” (on tea-drinking, typography, historicism, symmetry, and asymmetry), Ruder declares: “our task is to place elements on a surface, to make them harmonize and to relate them to a higher order.” This approach would seem to lead to formalism, notwithstanding Ruder’s opposition, were it not for his emphasis on morality in typography.

The moral aspect of Ruder’s typography – actually of much Swiss typography – comes through very strongly in the road to Basel. Harry Boller writes that Ruder and his students were “Puritans on a mission, serious, humorless. We had been led to a morality, and strong convictions remain.” Banality, lack of imagination, and swiping of ideas were all ridiculed, while “sincerity of expression” was encouraged. Gottschalk says that Ruder taught courtesy, ethics, and modesty as much as he taught typography. (Apparently modesty applied to Ruder himself: in Gürtler’s words, “his way was a concern for a constant search for quality in all things and he was reluctant to accept applause.”) He also emphasized values over style and viewed good craftsmanship as every bit as important as good design: “Technical realization should not become detached from creative work.” (Lutz) In arguing against a Basel style, Ruder wrote, “We want: good typography, developed from the intellectual, technical, and economic prerequisites.” The moral dimension in Ruderian typography, coupled with an emphasis on quality, has kept it fresh for its adherents and saved it from becoming merely another style. In this it differs significantly from today’s typographic floundering and style surfing.

Schmid says that Ruder “cultivated an honest, subtle, and contemporary typography” before there was such a thing as “Swiss typography” or a school at Ulm. His typography was “distinguished from the so-called Swiss typography through elegance, naturalness, and substance.” (Schmid). These characteristics have made Ruder’s typography timeless, and “more relevant today than it ever was, when one sees what the PC gurus are offering as new creative tools” (Müller). Ruder’s typography was progressive – in contrast to the conservative typography of Jan Tschichold – and “geared toward the future” (Gottschalk). In 1958 Ruder wrote: “Our profession is to give form to language, to give it duration and to transfer it safely into the future.” Schmid believes Ruder’s legacy is still alive in this age of typographic confusion precisely because it has the capacity to rejuvenate itself and evolve. The computer has not made Ruder’s typographic teaching obsolete. Instead, it has confirmed its value, for, in the words of Schmid, “It is still the eye which decides the detail and it is still the brain where ideas originate.”

For over thirty years Schmid has remained committed to the Ruderian concept of typography at its most minimal and pure. This is evident in the design of the road to Basel.The book is an optical square (9.875" x 10"). Its jacket is pure white with only the title on it, in German, English, and romanized Japanese. The interior design is equally sparse. The empty space of the page design is accentuated by Schmid’s penchant for Univers 55 in a single small size (the type looks to be 7.5/9) without any rules or other distracting elements. Two examples set in a yellow-orange and six examples with a touch of red are the only bits of color in the entire book. the road to Basel is not only an ascetic memorial to Ruder, it is a quiet rebuke to contemporary typography’s love of excess.

While the road to Baselis an homage to and defense of the Swiss typography taught in the 1950s and 1960s, Willi Kunz’s Typography: Macro- + Microaesthetics is a vigorous argument for its contemporary relevance, albeit in a new guise. As portrayed in Schmid’s book, the Swiss typography of Ruder was minimalist, relying almost entirely on a single typeface – originally Akzidenz Grotesk (not Helvetica) and later, after 1961, on Univers – and the use of rules. Kunz’s typography is richer, though without sacrificing Ruder’s moral and ascetic components. The big difference between Ruder and Kunz is that the latter has wholeheartedly integrated geometric forms into typography.

Kunz’s interpretation of geometric elements is not confined to the traditional square, circle, and equilateral triangle, but extends to any shape that can be created by “combining, cutting, and distorting” these forms. The addition of these elements – plus their layering – gives Kunz’s typography a postmodern look rather than the modern one of Ruder’s typography, yet both are built upon the same foundation: the activation of space. Kunz uses lines and other geometrical elements for more than strictly functional ends. In his typography they have structural, representational, and semantic meanings that reflect the impact of semiotic theory on design in recent decades. Kunz’s typography is actually much closer in spirit to that of Wolfgang Weingart, Ruder’s successor at Basel.

The emphasis in Kunz’s book is on typography’s role in design rather than the rudiments of typographic setting. He introduces the basic elements of type-letters, numbers, punctuation, and other marks – as well as the importance of letter-, word-, and linespacing, but only cursorily touches upon the myriad typeface variations that exist today. Instead, Kunz makes an impassioned plea for the use of a single typeface: Univers. In his opinion, Univers is still contemporary, functional, appropriate, versatile, and – with its large programmed family-comprehensive. Although Kunz acknowledges that “the final choice of typeface is a question of personal preference and taste,” he has relied almost exclusively on Univers throughout his career. In his singlemindedness Kunz joins a select, but distinguished, company that includes Victor Hammer, Jack Stauffacher, Wolfgang Tiessen, Gunnar Kaldewey, and Anthony Froshaug as well as Helmut Schmid.

A large part of Typography: Macro- + Microaestheticsis devoted to an analysis of several projects, followed by a portfolio of Kunz’s work. The portfolio is heavily skewed toward his work for the School of Architecture at Columbia University, for whom he has designed a series of outstanding posters to announce events, competitions, and programs. These posters – created over the course of a decade and a half – are a marvelous study of the possibilities inherent in a limited set of design options. For the lecture and exhibition posters Kunz has restricted himself to one size (a double square), one typeface (the Univers family), two colors (black plus another color), and geometric shapes. They are the best advertisement for the effectiveness of his approach to typography. And the section where Kunz analyzes how geometric and typographic elements come together in several of his posters is the book’s high point.

Typography: Macro- + Microaestheticsmakes a distinction between fundamental visual principles - “space, structure, sequence, contrast, form and counterform” - and traditional technical standards, in arguing for the relevance of the Swiss aesthetic/ethic in today’s computer-dominated typography. Kunz argues that without fundamental principles “typography could no more communicate visually than could language without grammar and vocabulary communicate verbally.” They are a necessary grounding if the more personal, visual criteria that seem to rule contemporary typography are to succeed. This view echoes those of the contributors to the road to Basel.The computer is nothing more than a tool for production, able to speed up the generation of ideas and aid in the creation of more complex designs.

Kunz’s typography is a direct descendant of the Swiss typography of Ruder in other ways. There is still an emphasis on rationality, communication, and planning, as well as on the moral component of design. Yet there is one area where Kunz breaks with Swiss typography (or at least its popular stereotype): the use of the grid. He is willing to abandon the grid if it is not useful, rather than turn it into a prison. His book contains chapters on designing both with the grid and without it. This flexibility is one of the keys to the success of his architecture posters. The emphasis on rationality runs counter to the intuitive approach to typography championed by David Carson in recent years. Does this mean that the typographic pendulum is beginning to swing back, or merely that Kunz is stuck in the past? We will have to wait and see.

Typography: Macro- + Microaestheticshas been designed by Kunz himself in several sizes and weights of Univers (7.5/11 Univers 55 for text). It is printed on a thick, matte-coated paper in black and – for the examples of Kunz’s work for Columbia University’s School of Architecture – full color.

Paul Shaw is a letter designer and educator who lives and works in New York City. He is a partner in LetterPerfect.



The road to Basel
(der Weg nach Basel): typographic reflections
by students of the
typographer and
teacher Emil Ruder

Helmut Schmid

Typography: Micro-
and Macroaesthetics: Fundamentals of
typographic design

Willi Kunz


Road To Basel
(Osaka, Japan:
Helmut Schmid
Design, 1997; 96
pp.; available from
Helmut Schmid
Design, 3-24-14-707
Tarumi-cho, Suita-shi,
Osaka-fu, 564 Japan;
tel. (06) 338-5566,
fax (06) 338-6699)









*Weingart writes, “One of my strongest convictions in teaching was, and remains, not to imitate Ruder, but to rediscover typography and graphic design as a harmonious unity.”



































Macro Micro
(Sulgen, Switzerland:
Verlag Niggli AG,
1998; 161 pp.;
distributed in the
United States by
Willi Kunz Associates,
2112 Broadway, New
York, NY 10023;
tel. (212) 799-4300,
fax (212) 877-7024