Summer 2005

A designer’s paradise?

One political party. One client. Yet the GDR’s designers enjoyed a surprising degree of freedom

‘We, the undersigned, are graphic designers, photographers and students who have been brought up in a world in which the techniques and apparatus of advertising have persistently been presented to us as the most lucrative, effective and desirable means of using our talents… By far the greatest effort of those working in the advertising industry are wasted on these trivial purposes, which contribute little or nothing to our national prosperity.’ Not a tract from a turgid Marxist polemic, but part of a heartfelt plea that should be familiar to most graphic designers. So what has it got to do with graphic design from the Cold War world of East Germany?

It is hard to believe today, but only sixteen years ago the German Democratic Republic (GDR) still existed, the Berlin Wall was still standing, and Communism still had a grip on Eastern Europe. The GDR died suddenly in 1990, but lingers on in the memory of many people now as a dull, repressive, unimaginative place characterised by cheap plastic, grey concrete, dreaded Stasi secret police and the Wall.

These memories highlight common Western stereotypes of the GDR. But in the real East Germany, the reaction of designers was not as docile as you might expect. The statement from the 1964 ‘First Things First’ manifesto (updated in 2000, see Eye no. 33 vol. 9) by Ken Garland becomes important because it asks a fundamental question. What does it actually mean to be a graphic designer? Is design an essentially neutral process of service provision (a currently ascending idea in British design education), or can it play a valuable and vitally important part in the development of everyday cultural and political life? The graphical culture of the GDR is a fascinating glimpse into how graphic design might have developed and functioned in an integrated system not based solely on the economics of supply and demand. Looking here for answers may seem an unlikely approach, but it yields intriguing insights.

East German graphics demonstrate the results of a collective intention that was not so far removed from the awakening conscience of ‘First Things First’. While British, European and American designers have constantly struggled to articulate an answer to this question of meaning, to square a creative and expressive desire through work which has been overwhelmingly consumer oriented, East German graphic designers had the chance to inhabit a designers’ paradise that Western designers might only dream about. Admittedly, the questions East Germans had to answer were not necessarily those which came by choice, but it is surprising how many designers will quietly admit that they actually enjoyed working there. Something made it worth their while, and it wasn’t money: it was a curious freedom that depended upon restriction. This sense of artistic freedom within a repressive system is what complicates a typically Western view of the Communist experience. (The concept should really come as no surprise to designers though; how many are unfamiliar with the tyranny of the blank page, the need to set up meaningful parameters?)

Design state
How did ‘the system’ function? Life as a designer, whether freelance or employed in one of the government agencies, was closely tied to the design education system, the supervisory organisations that oversaw graduates and the industry as a whole, and the requirements of the economic plans set by the government. The GDR had four main art schools that taught graphic design – Kunsthochschule Berlin-Weißensee, Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst Leipzig, Burg Giebichenstein in Halle, and the Fachschule für Werbung und Gestaltung Berlin – where a very limited number of places on courses meant that classes might consist of just three or four students. Out of a country of less than seventeen million, approximately sixteen students per year graduated as designers, four from each of the four main art institutions. Insiders joke that this roughly corresponded with the retirement rate of designers in the GDR. [...]

First published in Eye no. 56 vol. 14 2005

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.