Winter 1996

Reputations: Hans-Rudolf Lutz

‘I am addicted to teaching. I have a compulsion to explain the world to others, and to have it explained to me again and again by the students’

Hans-Rudolf Lutz was born in Zurich in 1939. After completing a four-year typesetting apprenticeship with the Orell Füssli printing company in Zurich, and continuing a career in the industry with the typographer Arthur Kümin and later the printer Anton Schob, he left Switzerland in 1961 to travel through Europe and North Africa. In 1963, he resumed his education in typography and design at the Schule für Gestaltung in Basel where his teachers included Emil Ruder and Robert Büchler. From 1964 to 1966, Lutz was the leader of the Expression Typographique group in Paris, at Studio Hollenstein, producing a range of graphic design, Hollenstein had developed the first photosetting machine, and the group responded by trying to produce an aesthetic that, in its modernity, matched the new technology. On his return to Zurich, Lutz set up his own studio and publishing company, Lutz Verlag. He has written, illustrated, typeset and produced nine books about visual communication. The latest, Typoundso and Ausbildung in typografischer Gestaltung, which were published this year, archive his own design work from the last thirty years. He has also published sixteen titles by other designers and writers. From 1983 until its recent disbandment, he was visual director of the avant-garde electronic music and multimedia performance group UnknownmiX. He continues to provide slide shows and visual contributions for live events. But Lutz is first and foremost an educator. Since 1966, he has taught at the Schule für Gestaltung in Zurich and in Lucerne, where he founded the typography department in 1968. He has also carried out assignments at colleges from the Hochshule für Künste in Bremen to Rhode Island School of Design.

Yvonne Schwemer-Scheddin: Lutz, you once remarked that “the Swiss are a nation of farmers and labourers”. Is that why you are more interested in doing work than theorising about it?

Hans-Rudolf Lutz: Did I say that? OK. Farmers, I like that. There is a completeness about that sort of work. I like to immerse myself in the visual world, observing things closely, collecting insights. Theory follows the visual, not the other round. I am against putting too much value on the theoretical. Theoreticians have a concept in their heads, and when they have written it down, they think the design has been done as well.

YSS: How do you approach a commission?

HRL: I try to construct a visual climate. Visual always means content.

YSS: Style is form, not content.

HRL: That is an eternal dilemma. Time and again, individual pioneers, or groups, emerge who achieve a perfect fusion of form and content. Then comes a whole wave of imitation, which reduces the form to an aesthetic shell. A while back, everything was put through the Ruder mill, then it was Weingart or Brody. Now it’s Carson.

YSS: Do you have a concept when you are working on your own projects?

HRL: There is always a work in progress. Twenty-two years ago, I published a sixteen-page supplement on my teaching for Typografische Monatsblatter [a monthly typographic journal]. Now that has expanded to 700 pages in my two books Ausbildung in typografischer Gestaltung [Training in typographic design] and Typoundso [Typography and so on]. Everything keeps expanding infinitely; it is difficult to say when things are finished.

YSS: But the texts you write are extremely short, precise ones, which evoke living images of people, education, design and society.

HRL: The biggest challenge for me is to reduce everything to its essentials. I write and rewrite the texts at least six times. I want them to be understood by more than just subject experts. Also, they always relate to the work illustrated. That means that I take care not to write anything that the images are already communicating, but try only to say things which bring new insights.

YSS: Your trademark is “engaged” typography; you say that “typography is not neutral”.

HRL: Yes. I want to put across an educational approach which is a socio-political ideal. But even if I didn’t want that - and this applies to all designers - there is no such thing as neutral typography. No one can produce design or write texts which say nothing. On the other hand, it is really unfashionable at the moment to say that you are political.

YSS: But you are a political typographer.

HRL: I want to participate in socio-political life in my role as a typographer, but I am not the only one who wants to do that. There are many who are political typographers, but they would not define themselves as such.

YSS: Could you bring yourself to do any sort of typography, less serious work?

HRL: If I Worked in advertising, then however politically “engaged” I was, I would still be saying the same thing in every piece of work: “buy me”. No one in advertising can escape that, not even by twisting or forcing the ideas, like Benetton do. If you want to work in a political way, rather than take on any kind of work, then you have to create the tasks yourself and take the means of production into your own hands.

YSS: Does this reduction of things to their essentials have something to do with Swiss character?

HRL: There are several explanations. One is our protestant, iconoclastic background. Protestantism cleansed the churches of all baroque excess – everything was whitewashed. That has an effect on people. I make a distinction myself: typography is reduction, but when I am creating picture, I love the baroque, especially disintegration. It’s all to do with the fact that design is always disorder and order at the same time. This is where I am different than other Swiss graphic designers, like Josef Müller-Brockmann, for example, who have made a principle of ordering and systematising, and not allowing any accidental or fortuitous elements. I am fascinated by both extremes, although there was a time when I was incredibly dogmatic. In those days, I thought of Emil Ruder as a traitor, just because he had used a bold line without giving it the function of separation. But then I spent two years travelling in Europe and North Africa and seeing other cultures, by ship, hitchhiking, and with no money. I worked as a sailor and an assistant cook, and as a typesetter in Algiers and Tunis. That broke down my dogmatism.

YSS: On the one hand, you demystify things by reducing them to their essentials, and on the other, you introduce archaic magic in your images.

HRL: Certainly, but the consistent feature is the archaic element, never the brilliantly-layered design. I cannot and will not do that, but I like it when other people do it, such as Wolfgang Weingart and now David Carson. They are more brilliant designers than me. I want to remain on a modest level, and not be a star. My books and my work do not constitute a “school”, and there aren’t any imitators. If students derive inspiration from me, it is because of my attitude, not a particular style.

YSS: How did you come to do your typesetting apprenticeship?

HRL: By chance. I didn’t know which profession to go into. Then, on one occasion, my sister’s boyfriend, who was in the trade, happened to bring round a couple of types, a roller and a small lithographic stone, and he inked and printed the characters on to paper. I didn’t want to become a typesetter, because I had read that it could give you lead poisoning, and then you had to drink a lot of milk. But he eased my fears, and then got me a place in his firm.

YSS: Typesetting is a job which is very much bound to the materials used.

HRL: The most important thing for a typesetter or typographer is to be able to deal with what is there and given. There is always something given, even in experimental work. People who find themselves unable to make something out of what is given, or who want to create their own conditions at every level, are unsuited to typography. It is important, though, to view the given as a challenge, and not as a dominant guideline.

YSS: Your design is not art, but it does have an artistic perspective, because you admit the two poles of intuition and function. This is especially evident in your posters and typography.

HRL: For me there is no great difference between the photographs which document decay and the act of reduction in the design process. In addition, there is the fact that 1968 was a decisive experience for me. It meant a great opening up of ways of seeing, and was followed by the explosion of popular culture and design.

YSS: I see in your fruitful polarisation, a bringing together of the male and female principles, or as you say, day and night, order and chaos. Is that the source of your inner creative tension?

HRL: I think so. I’m attracted by opposites, by alternatives. I could never really decide in favour of one or the other. Henri Lefebvre said: “human identity is determined by opposing needs.” Time and again, ideologies and sects try to deny that. Every living person has contradictory sides to their character. They may be ashamed of one side and suppress it, but it is still there.

YSS: That is expressed in your teaching, too. You seem to accept different approaches and foster different identities.

HRL: The teacher is there to help students realise the object they are striving for.

YSS: So that means that there are no Ten Commandments of typography for you?

HRL: No. I do believe in the dissemination of certain insights, for example, that design always expresses something, and is the third level of information, alongside text and image.

YSS: Digital processes alter design: they introduce ideas of time and space, speed, three-dimensionality. Has good design gone out of existence, except in special cases?

HRL: Design has been made neither better nor worse by the computer. There are good things, and there is the grey morass. Until ten years ago, we had those three grey columns of text all the time. The best thing about computers is the number of people who go through a learning process in design. It creates an awareness of design. Discussions with non-experts about typography are becoming more and more interesting.

YSS: You are directing your attention very much towards Sensationen Des Alltag [everyday sensations]. It emerges there too that “every human being is condemned of creativity and interpretation”. We cannot do other than design and create, even in the everyday world.

HRL: Of course. An example of that is language, which we modulate by the use of emphasis, gesture, and mimicry and by the way we look. That affects the meaning of the words in a similar way to the visual design of a printed text. Everything we do had a design dimension.

YSS: The loss of the middle ground, fragmentation and human isolation mean that we can only create out of our subjective experience. In art, that can be seen especially where the body is used as a medium.

HRL: The subjective has always been the sole basis to work from in our process of design. There are generations who proclaim and celebrate the rational, but it is just as irrational. There are others who say that everything must come from deep within. But life consists of both.

YSS: We are still yearning, then, for wholeness and harmony.

HRL: Is wholeness always harmonious? Consider my books. I do everything myself, and am even my own publisher. Working like this is very hard and stressful. I have to take on all the different professional roles and I can’t blame anyone else when things go wrong. If, on the other hand, other people worked on my books, it would give me a number of psychological avenues of escape: I wouldn’t have to accept responsibility for failure. A positive consequence of this holistic approach to a project is that the significance of things doesn’t get exaggerated. The multitude of small steps in the craft process produces a sort of modesty. No one is then going to say that this product will change the world. If as an artist, rock star or designer you are only responsible for the creative side, and a manager does everything else, you can start to overestimate the value of your product. The important thing is that everything should have been done well, and that every cog in the mechanism connects with the next as it meant to. In the processes of professional work today, many designers no longer see the completed end-product of their work. That is a human and social problem.

YSS: Would it interest you to design on-line publications, or Web sites?

HRL: The medium is not the decisive issue for me. What matters is whether I am designing for a large public or a small one. Usually, I decide in favour of independent productions, and those exist on the Internet just as they do in the world of print.

YSS: Do we want design in these new media?

HRL: Yes, certainly. One of the tragedies of the design scene is that it always acts too late. It was technicians and writers who originally made the design decisions in new media. The graphic designers have arrived a bit late, and now are amazed at how bad it all looks.

YSS: That is because technology is used in the first instance to maintain power structures. Aesthetic culture is considered to be a subordinate issue.

HRL: Yes, but it’s also because of lethargy on the design scene. I often compare the visual design scene with the writing world which is more aggressive, and often makes its own decisions about what to write. There are a lot more writers than designers on the Internet. But then new generation of designers is more proactive, and the computer puts them in a position to turn their participation in matters into reality.

YSS: What are designers doing to counter the growth of global uniformity in life?

HRL: Very little! All these corporate identity designers are working away like madmen to make very airport and railway station or museum on the globe just like every other. That is not international thinking, it is using the same formula for everything. It makes me pretty angry. Precisely because I think in global terms, I like to strengthen the distinctions between cultures and the identities of places, not swamp them with uniform design.

YSS: How does information become communication? Do you look behind the images?

HRL: I can only inform to the best of my knowledge and ability, and hope that communication will result from that. It’s entirely in the hands of the observer or consumer. Communication means dialogue, even contradiction.

YSS: You studied in Basel, under Emil Ruder. Do you count yourself as one of the protest generation against Swiss graphic design?

HRL: No. Ruder was certainly authoritarian, but he was an outstanding teacher. He was a star, and he was revered. I admired him too. But he saw me as a “chameleon”, and was never sure if I would stay on the straight and narrow.

YSS: Did you adopt the idea of combining design and production from Ruder?

HRL: That happened quite automatically as I was a typesetter who also designed. But Ruder did formulate the principles in such a way that they belonged together, and that reinforced my conviction that design and production belonged together. In the breaks between teaching sessions, Ruder would set the type for his book; he even made the linocuts for his posters himself.

YSS: Weingart went beyond Ruder in his design. How about you?

HRL: Certainly, visually, my work is closer to Ruder’s than Weingart’s because, like Ruder, I love reduction, simplicity. But in attitude, Weingart is very close to Ruder, which is exactly why he feels he has to distinguish himself from Ruder. Just as Ruder did in his time, Weingart is now concerned that there is a breakdown in values and “bad” design is taking over. But Weingart’s own work in the late 1960s was a massive break, and Ruder’s ability to recognise that, and overcome his own resistance, was an enormous achievement.

YSS: During your dogmatic period, you worshipped Akzidenz Grotesk. After that, it was Univers.

HRL: In 1963, Univers was the new typeface, the first comprehensive typeface. Ruder handled it very cleverly. Adrian Frutiger was an admirer of Ruder’s, and so we tried out Univers at our school before it was available to the professional compositors. We thought it was excellent. The range of weights – light, normal, medium, bold – made it possible to set finely-graduating grey tones, and the transition from typeface to image became more fluid.

YSS: Do you still use AG and Univers?

HRL: Univers rather less because I prefer AG on the computer; it suffered less in the transfer to digital form and is rougher. Univers is all right in the Berthold version, but bad in Adobe: the only thing left of Univers there is the name. At the moment, the one I really like is Sabon.

YSS: You have been teaching at the design schools in Zurich, Lucerne and elsewhere non-stop since 1966. Where does your motivation come from, and how do you manage to motivate students decade after decade?

HRL: When you are a teacher, it is as if you are on a permanent course in the development of your subject skills, and even being paid for it. The received view is that the teacher gives the students something, but I benefit enormously from my students. If you keep alive your curiosity and interest, then you need have no fear of losing momentum as a teacher. I have taught for 27 years now in Lucerne, and there has not been a single day when I did not want to go in to school. That may sound sentimental, but it is true.

YSS: Through your teaching, do you tackle themes which interest you personally as a designer?

HRL: You have to set yourself challenges if you are going to challenge students. I cannot set a high standard and then make no attempt to reach it myself. Also, as a teacher of design, I have to work on my image. The students don’t just want someone to help them, but someone who is important.

YSS: Are you a star?

HRL: Not a star, but not a total non-entity either.

YSS: The word is that you are very much in demand as a teacher.

HRL: Well, from the moment I walk into the school, I am besieged by students. But all teachers of typography who are familiar with computers are in demand today.

YSS: You see text and typography as a cultural factor. You manage on the one hand, with a certain charisma, to put across the idea of quality – an ethical value – and on the other hand, to set in motion the process of personal maturity and the discovery of identity.

HRL: I hope so. But it is underpinned by the Swiss education system. The students are between the ages of sixteen and 21, and we are together almost every day for four years. That leaves its mark, both personally and in terms on design. The students make no distinction between the creative idea and its realisation any more, so they want to do things well themselves. They also offer me hard but friendly criticism, and I see criticism, whether it comes from me or from the students, as one of the great ways of saying you like someone. It is not hard to be critical, but the act of giving criticism is difficult. You only criticise people you respect or like.

YSS: Your teaching of typography is very text-oriented. The ensemble of text, typeface and typography is not translated into information in an unreflected and schematic way, but is used for the embodiment of meaning. In the process, all kinds of things emerge: students write film scripts, poems, prose text and highly personal diaries.

HRL: That is because I started the student publishing house Verlag der Schuler back in 1968, and have been in charge of it ever since. Students can carry out the entire publishing process there, including the technical production. To do that, they need content, they have to have something to say.

YSS: Many of these texts seem to be a safety valve. How is it that all your students write? I don’t know of anything comparable in Germany.

HRL: Most of the texts are not set exercises. The students just write them for themselves and give them to me to read, because they know I am interested.

YSS: Are texts always set visually?

HRL: Only if the text itself does not evoke many inner images. It wouldn’t make sense, for example, to set a novel visually. When the design destroys the inner images, I have no time for it. But if someone sets the text of rock ‘n’ roll songs in a deconstructive way, that’s fine.

YSS: You are always offering stimulus through music, films and other events.

HRL: In design school, technical knowledge is not the only thing. Students need to find their individual forms of expression. You also have to work with the spirit of the times, and find the right medium. In the 1970s, it was Super 8 films with blood and gore and ketchup everywhere. Everything was spontaneous and angry. But those films, which were so exciting then, would look naïve now. Today’s students are more adult and cool. They want to design in a more professional and serious way and they are prepared to work for nights on end. Many people reckon the students work so hard because there are fewer jobs. But the main reason is that they no longer make any separation between the acts of creation and production, and often define the message themselves as well. That means they can’t shift the blame for uninteresting pieces of work on to the teacher any more. Freedom is a challenge and it can lead to punishing work schedules, which sometimes really scare me. Then I will say to them, hey, ease up a bit!

YSS: You collect pictograms from all over the world. They are symbols of an actual reality, but they are not understood in every culture. Do we need new sign systems for the digital context?

HRL: I only collect the pictorial symbols from cardboard boxes, the corrugated ones used for transporting good. They are not the work of professional designers, but of craftsmen-designers with little training. Their images retain a high pictorial value, and they invest them with sensory quality and consequently a high information value. These images – and this is what I find so clever about them – are comprehensible because they are not dogmatic. They utilise the whole spectrum from realistic to abstract. Professional designers, by contrast, tend to confuse simplification with schematisation and design their pictograms to death. That is certainly not the way to produce useful sign systems for the digital age.

YSS: Signs for whom? The greater the pictorial content, the greater the retreat into the magical and the archaic. The Mexican and other images you love so much can at most remind us that we should behave in a human way towards the life we have, and rank man above the machine. We can transform these signs or other archaic forms of expression, but can we adopt them at face value?

HRL: But they already exist, and we need them, wherever there is any mercantile or touristic exchange between regions of different national language. As a European, if I am in Japan or India, I rely on pictorial symbols. Otherwise, at an Indian airport, you wouldn’t even know where the toilet was. There is nothing magical about that. We could learn a lot from the approach of these practical craftsmen. Language is not always as precise as it seems. The same word can have different meanings for different people. Sometimes, pictorial images can be more precise.

YSS: Less so, surely, if the content is abstract.

HRL: Pictograms enable me to visualize a concept in a much more individual way: dramatic or reserved, loud or quiet. At the same time, there are various possible gradations in terms of content, which are not conveyed by a single word.

YSS: Today, the context in which we live is still the text, the alphanumeric mode of thought, but the images are increasing. Typography and text type are becoming subcomponents of a digital landscape. Is a change occurring in the relationship between text and image? Is text decoration, or is it even superfluous?

HRL: I try to show that the boundaries between the pictorial image and the text type are fluid. In each piece of work, you have to consider what you want to convey on the pictorial level, and on the textual level, and then on the level of setting or presentation. The last of these is what gives the “design image”, and that is the third information level.

YSS: So text and image are read and interpreted on several levels?

HRL: Image and text are always read through the eye of the aesthetic. The style of the whole affects the meaning of the text, and that of the image. Its reception depends on the interplay between the three levels. In Ausbildung in typografischer Gestaltung, I give an example from the civil war in San Salvador when revolutionaries were writing protests against the government all over the place. At night, the government sent out squads of painters to paint over them. The texts were transformed into images, which told the tale of repression in their turn. Of course, the process of decay eventually turns every text into an image.

YSS: You document states of decay. What is it that fascinates you about them?

HRL: As soon as a piece of design work, such as a poster, goes out into the world, time takes over. A permanent process of recycling reclaims the poster and takes it back into the ecosystem. New images take shape, which are almost always more exciting than the original ones – usually banal advertising messages. The decay of print objects is the best illustration of time that I know.

YSS: In Typoundso, there is also a quotation from Fernando Pessoa about the dreamer as the man of action, whose life is more enjoyable than that of a one-sided, practical man. In your teaching, you find room to deal with illness and death, drug dependence and the subconscious. You give visual form to dreams. This is difficult subject matter, which teachers generally avoid.

HRL: Themes like these are always there, it’s important not to suppress them. For example, one student had a traumatic experience as a child. Her favourite tree in the garden was cut down. Her reaction was to feel it had been killed, but when she asked her parents about it, her questions went unanswered – as adults they just did not understand. She published an excellently designed publication about it, and dealt with the trauma. It was enormously important for her. Everyone has things like that. You simply have to try not to suppress them, and then the next step is possible.

YSS: You pick up a quotation from Emanuel Tschumi, a former student: “School is learning life, not for practical application.” That applies to you. You bring more life than learning into your teaching.

HRL: This artificial distinction does not exist for me; it is one which the theorists have set up: that school is learning for life and for practical application. The students sometimes think that learning is a serious matter, too, that it cannot be done in a playful way. But you can’t separate life and work, heart and mind, order and disorder.

YSS: Are you training a host of resistance fighters?

HRL: From the point of view of the 1968 vision, the march through the institutions was not very successful. Nor is it any use to turn young people into temporary revolutionaries, if they are not like that by nature. An anti-authoritarian training results in a new generation which is very good at integrating itself into the system. The best way of training resistance fighters is authoritarian brow-beating, which tries to derive all opposition out of the student.

YSS: But your students are clearly able to see, hear and make judgments, and are successful.

HRL: Thank you for the compliment. What I count as success, and see as the minimum goal in my teaching, is that I have not helped to make them reactionary, fascist, or racist.

YSS: So critical vision and thought is a good aim?

HRL: Certainly. But today, the advertising world prefers to appoint those who are critical and have the spirit of opposition. Advertising is no longer afraid of people with the spirit of opposition. They need a high degree of cheek because it’s then put through the mill and ground very fine and still comes out the other end luke-warm and tasteless. I have successfully trained many students for advertising, precisely because we have always encouraged a critical stance. The most critical students have become the best advertisers.

YSS: Typoundso communicates in a spontaneous and narcissistic way through the silver dust jacket.

HRL: In the first instance, it is a mirror. When you pick up the book, all you see is yourself in the mirror. If the observer sees that, a moment of communication opens up. If it is mainly seen as a visual stimulus, there is no such communication. One reader sent me a photograph he had taken of himself with Typoundso in front of him – that is real communication, and it was provoked by the cover. But the word communication is being co-opted more and more by advertising which declares: “we are communicating!”

YSS: How did you hit upon the title Typoundso?

HRL: Like most Swiss, I am a poor orator. I struggle with language. I hesitate, fail to finish sentences, keep making fresh starts, have to search for words. When I was asked what the book was about, I said, “typography and so on, related matters”. It sounded clumsy, and as time went on, I reduced it to Typoundso. I hate pretentious texts. They are not my style.

YSS: Typoundso does not conform to the norms of the book trade, either. It has no ISBN number.

HRL: I would have to work out this unspeakable number, but for me, it makes no sense. These things wear me out, and I do not like the thought that every book in the world can be summed up in a number: this wish to catalogue things, like this dreadful efficiency.

YSS: That is the voice of the subversive, Lutz.

HRL: It is a luxury that I allow myself. Perhaps the end effect is not so very wrong. I cannot compete with the great figures, so I prefer to do something completely my own. I enjoy the idea that my books will disappear some day, because they are not catalogued.

YSS: How do you view yourself as a designer?

HRL: I can’t answer that. I know that I am addicted to teaching. I have a compulsion to explain the world to others, and at the same time to have it explained to me again and again by the students. The environment created by this process of mutual explanation is one in which I feel most at ease.

YSS: What would you most like to do now?

HRL: A pictorial opera. I do already have a start in that direction, with slides and music: it is a sort of film and at the same time a space in which scenic events occur. In Zurich, we haves students who are very good DJs and composers. For me, that would link up with the time with UnknownmiX, because they were one of the first bands to work with repetitive elements and sampling, and produced design settings which were consistently thought-through visually.

YSS: Sampling and creating new associations, in the way the music scene does – is that a new visual language?

HRL: Sampling is one of the greatest possibilities which the digital revolution has brought us. The re-assessment of what is there is a fascinating business, and unavoidable, given the incredible availability of the entire stock of material. But there is more to it; sampling alone is not necessarily creative. It can be no more than copying. You need a creative vision. The uniqueness of genius was always an illusion. In the past, it was easier to indulge the idea, because people travelled so little, and didn’t know what was happening in the world. Uniqueness is unimaginable now that we have the presence of the media. Sampling is more honest.

YSS: But surely we still want to continue to classify things as good or bad? We can see whether something is a banal piece of copying, or a creative idea?

HRL: Defining criteria for judgment in words is something we can probably only do piecemeal. I would need examples to show you what, in music or visual design, is dull and unimaginative, and what is creative sampling. Only experience and constant reflection on it can show you that.

YSS: Throughout your life, you have consciously allowed yourself to be exposed to just this: you have tried to make sense of the way you have constructed your life – lucky students!

HRL: … and overworked Lutz!

First published in Eye no. 23 vol. 6, 1996