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My Typography Instruction at the Basle School of Design/Switzerland 1968 to 1985 by Wolfgang Weingart
Originally published in Design Quarterly 130
With many thanks
to all my students, whose
and hard work have made
teaching exciting for me
Basle, November 1985
In this contribution to 'Design Quarterly' I hope to give you a brief overview of my seventeen years as an instructor of typography at the Basle School of Design/Switzerland - of the work we have done in the typeshop and the kind of work we will be doing in the future. I want to illustrate, with specific examples, my teaching approach, which is all about the process of learning rather than the philosophy of teaching. It is a learning process that engages a simple, direct and open attitude towards typography and life, a process not of making typography while suffering pain, but rather of having fun exploring all the possibilities of classical typography, systematic typography, ugly typography, research typography, rigid typography, computer typography, crazy typography, painting typography, do-it-yourself typography, Swiss typography, letter spacing typography...These are the typographic viewpoints represented on the following twenty pages. Although we enjoy great freedom in our work, a careful observer will see that serious care, critical judgment and visual sensitivity are our highest priorities throughout the design process.
When I began teaching in 1968, classical, so-called 'Swiss typography' (dating from the 1950s), was still commonly practiced by designers throughout Switzerland and at our school. Its conservative design dogma and strict limitations stifled my playful, inquisitive, experimental temperament and I reacted strongly against it. Yet at the same time I recognized too many good qualities in Swiss typography to renounce it altogether. Through my teaching I set out to use the positive qualities of Swiss typography as a base from which to pursue radically new typographic frontiers.
I try to teach students to view typography from all angles: type must not always be set flush left/ragged right, nor in only two type sizes, nor in necessarily right-angle arrangements, nor printed in either black or red. Typography must not be dry, tightly ordered or rigid. Type may be set center axis, ragged left/ragged right, perhaps sometimes in chaos. But even then, typography should have a hidden structure and visual order.
What does this teaching have to do with the profession. Perhaps educators should prepare students not only for today but also for the future. I have a teaching method I call the 'typography backpack system'. Through intensive investigations students fill their backpacks with a basic typographic vocabulary that they discover and develop. This vocabulary serves as a resource upon which they can later draw in job situations. Typographic ingredients and experiences can be added endlessly, to create still newer typography flavors and concoctions. This typography backpack system describes the fundamental process of our learning and working with typography.
Coming from a generation of typographers professionally trained in hand-composing, I believe in the importance of the role that hand-composing craft and technique play in the design process. Care in execution from the very beginning to the end determines the final quality of one's work. This uncompromising standard of excellence in workmanship is one of the secrets of my teaching and applies not only to our work with lead type, but also to work with transparent films, and to the infinite graphic possibilities of computer design.
In the late 1960s we worked exclusively with hand-composed lead type and hand-printing on letterpresses. (See timeline on pages 2, 3). Despite the obvious limitations of the letterpress, compared to all other more sophisticated printing techniques, it remains the simplest, most direct tool with which to teach students principles of color-mixing and printing quality. It is the most practical and effective means by which students can manipulate, experiment, alter and ultimately realize their typography ideas. After five hundred years, the flexibility of the letterpress as an educational tool has yet to be surpassed.
In the mid-1970s we discovered the fascination of transparent films -- a medium one can see through! Traditionally used primarily by trade workers and rarely thought of as an art medium, film presented us with horizons of a new, unknown design world. We tried combining two media: lead type with its fixed limitations, and film with its boundless possibilities.
Soon we discovered the consequences of working with the new media combinations: the more complex the media (regarding visual treatment and technical production), the greater is our need for the mastery of basic formal design principles and production techniques, before we can responsibly and effectively handle the media. So, in the late 1970s we returned to basic studies of formal design principles, but on a deeper, more analytical level than before. In early, 1985 we began to work with images we create on an Apple computer -- a medium new to Swiss design schools.
The work in this issue represents all of the various media and techniques we use in the typeshop: hand-composed lead type and the letterpress; transparent film collages made with a repro-camera; graphic images made on the computer; and lastly, new creations made possible by combinations of all of the above. The sluggishness of lead type combined with the magic of film craziness and the infinite graphic possibilities of computers are perhaps the language of a new world of typography.
School is an institution free of the concrete demands made by existing standards in the profession. Teaching programs should be open, constantly evolving and never bound by fixed opinions. It is important for society that school be a place for experimentation. Students should not be given irrevocable truths or absolute values, but instead should be guided in developing their abilities to independently search for knowledge and personal values.
Graphic design education at the Basle School of Design is characterized by a specific teaching approach and teaching substance. Our strategy is to incorporate traditional aesthetic values with freedom and change. Our educational goals are to provide a thorough and basic understanding of design principles. We teach students to explore constantly and to build upon new possibilities by creating differentiated design solutions. The results of such schooling are not pre-programmed typographers or graphic designers, but rather people who, upon entering the profession, have a firm grasp of the design process -- the ability to analyze, explore, conceptualize, recognize, apply and execute solutions to a vast range of design problems.
As a teacher I see myself as a guide and working partner who inspires lively, provocative exchanges of ideas with students. It is important that students open themselves to such a relationship with me, and that I allow students great freedom within a large, but nevertheless less defined sphere. In the midst of today's rapid technological growth, I try not to forget that new technology will not design for us. I teach, work and live into the future without a preconceived direction.
Wolfgang Weingart, born in 1941, was trained as a lead-typesetter. Since 1968 he has taught typography at the Basle School of Design/Switzerland. In the past several years he has also conducted typography workshops at the Yale University Summer Program in Graphic Design/Brissago, Switzerland. His teaching has focused on conventional and photographic experiments with typography. Since 1972 Weingart has lectured on his teaching methodologies throughout Europe and the United States (Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Westinghouse Design Center, Herman Miller Design Department, California Institute of the Arts, Yale University, Princeton University, among others). He is a contributor to the journal Typografische Monatsblatter St. Gall, Switzerland, and is founder of the periodicals TM/communication and Typographic Process. His work has appeared in international design journals and he has received awards from the Swiss Government for his posters and book cover designs. Weingart is a self-taught designer and educator. He is a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI).
Editor's note: Without permission for my Art 494 Special Topics: Visible Language class.
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