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We are confronted daily by an avalanche of printed material. All of this stuff is expeditiously discarded after its “newness” wears off, either winding up as landfill or being recycled to serve a new purpose. Regardless of the outcome, the intellectual lifecycle of a design is far more intriguing than its material lifecycle. Many discarded designs are not, in fact, new and original — instead they descend from past ideas, only to be reborn as something we perceive as “new,” thereby contributing to a creative continuum.

This continuum is sustained by the legacy of visual styles and theories developed in the early 20th century by European Cubists, Futurists, Expressionists, Constructivists, Dadaists, Surrealists and Modernists, among others, which still influences graphic design today. Over the past century these art and design movements became so influential that contemporary designers are now extremely challenged to create anything that seems really new, that is, without historic precedent. Developing authentic and original ideas demands careful observation of, and response to, technological, social, and environmental changes. It also requires independent thinking that is attuned to evolving attitudes and fresh experiences rather than cursory glances through history books and design annuals.

Any critical observer is well aware that today’s overemphasis on novelty has contributed to the gradual devaluation of the idea of newness, an attribute that was once considered an asset. Not so long ago the label “new” implied innovation, discovery, improvement and qualitative change. However, today’s “new” designs are mostly cosmetic modifications that only affect surface appearance. A closer look at these supposed innovations reveals that they are merely second-hand and second-rate. The impact of a product, message or brand introduction is often less stimulating and striking than its accompanying hype and publicity. Unveiled, what’s “new” already seems old.

By over-saturating the media and marketplace with mediocre ideas touted as new, communications professionals have created a visual environment where it is difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish anything as unique or exceptional. If and when a particular design stands out, is it new in a historical sense or merely fashionable? Has it been copied, plagiarized, appropriated, re-configured, re-cycled, or re-interpreted? What distinguishes a concept as truly original and authentic? New, unique designs introduce unfamiliar and inventive ideas that provoke people to think in a completely different way. Originality is a precious achievement: in graphic and typeface design it is, unfortunately, rarely found.

The perception of newness is always relative to the observer’s viewpoint and a design’s context. Understandably, students tend to interpret more designs as new and exciting than seasoned professionals who, with their more educated and informed perspective, are better able to distinguish innovation from mere trendiness. This sensibility gap explains why most design created today appeals more to young designers than to mature ones.

The following projects produced over four decades serve as case studies to demonstrate how a sense of newness can endure if a design is carefully considered to serve its intended purpose and offer a decidedly unexpected approach. Rooted in 20th century European modernism, these design solutions appear as fresh today as at the time when they were created.

Project I. Identity design for Merit gasoline stations

After emigrating from Switzerland to New York in 1970, I first worked as a designer at Anspach, Grossman & Portugal, consultants in marketing communications and design. Innocent about American design practices and naive about the coveted award system, I was eager to prove to my new American colleagues how a young designer with a traditional Swiss education could apply his skills to the fast-paced world of American corporate identity design, then a highly popular, quickly expanding graphic specialization.

Among my first assignments was the design of an identity program for Merit, a chain of independent gasoline stations located on the east cost between Philadelphia and Boston. Competing against much larger brands such as Exxon, Sunoco, BP and Arco, which identified their service stations with large, illuminated logo boxes mounted on top of a pylon, Merit needed a sign that would stand out. After making countless sketches exploring various design directions, I finally arrived at a solution that seemed perfect because it not only served as an identification sign but also as directional marker guiding customers into the service station.

One of the firm’s principals objected on the basis that my concept was too radical for the market at the time. He argued that it might be technically impossible to produce such an unusually sculptural design at full-scale and install it at nearly eighty service stations. With only rudimentary English, I was utterly unable to counter his arguments or communicate my rationale for the program. So I was both relieved and excited when the design was included in the final client presentation, signaling that the firm was likely to hire me permanently.

Presented alongside more conventional concepts, the Merit design solution stood apart as idiosyncratic and strange but also visually striking. The sign’s unusual asymmetric form immediately caught the client’s attention. My concept sold itself without great explanations or a targeted sales pitch. We soon received approval to proceed with a full-scale 21 foot-high prototype. Needless to say, I was jubilant. In hindsight it’s likely that this unconventional solution’s newness is the result of my being totally foreign to New York and, because of my language problems, working isolated and without inhibition on a project unlike any I’d ever faced before.

Project II. Fredrich Cantor: Strange Vicissitudes poster

In the late 1970s, many of my clients frequently requested design solutions based on the Swiss style then popular in America. My attitude towards this genre was lukewarm – having grown up and studied design in Switzerland it felt like traditional Swiss design had run its course and that I needed to explore new directions. So when Fredrich Cantor, a young, unusually gifted New York photographer asked me to design a poster for his first solo exhibit at a Soho gallery, I was thrilled to use the assignment as an opportunity for more creative experimentation.

His very low budget barely allowed for two-color printing or typesetting, but this did not dampen my enthusiasm. Produced before the proliferation of computers, I had to create all the typographic and graphic elements by hand using transfer type, and then pasting them together in layers on a mechanical, or camera-ready artwork, used for offset lithography printing.

After spending countless hours first establishing the overall macroaesthetic composition and later playing with microaesthetic details that contribute to the design on deeper, subliminal level, I arrived at a design that felt truly original. Fredrich Cantor, a demanding critic during the early conceptual phase, was ultimately very happy to have a poster unlike anything he’d seen before. Printed in black and red, with tints of the latter also used in the photographic duotones, the poster got wide attention and soon received several design awards. It was later hailed as a quintessential example of postmodern design, eventually becoming a collector’s item. Although I received no fee, the project proved to be fulfilling in other ways – both as a creative challenge as well as a career-building opportunity.

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Project III. Columbia lecture series posters

In 1984, James Stewart Polshek, then dean of the Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, hired me to create a new identity for the school that would be expressed by a series of posters announcing the fall and spring events for each academic year. I was very skeptical because it was not clear that seasonal posters would really do much to change the school’s conservative image. The assignment was also challenging because its frugal budget forced me to be pragmatic about size, number of colors, typography and illustrative elements without compromising the final product. In the end, a 12- by 24-inch format printed in two colors that folded down to an 8- by 12-inch mailer proved to be the most economical format.

The design for each poster builds upon two main premises. First, the arrangement of typographic and visual components is intended to simulate structural form, a metaphor for architectural space. Second, the design offers a graphic armature for guiding the dynamic placement of information. These annual pairs of posters provided an opportune testing ground for my typographical ideas, and allowed me the freedom to explore certain hypothetical notions. To establish the school’s identity as quickly as possible, I designed the earlier posters as pairs which share a certain metaphoric theme and structural form common to both the fall and spring semesters.

In 1989, the posters began to reflect the energy and vision of Bernard Tschumi, the school’s new dean. Each semester Tschumi invited a series of high-profile international speakers whose names had to appear prominently on the posters. Frequent changes in the lineup and lecture dates, often right up to press time, required graphic flexibility and sometimes made it difficult to stay true to the design originally envisioned. In the most extreme instances, I had to rethink the poster design completely.

During the Tschumi era the lecture program became very popular and gained tremendous momentum. Wood auditorium was always filled to capacity and increasingly larger audiences had to be accommodated by broadcasting to hallways and an adjacent cafeteria. Starting with a print run of 2,000 posters in 1984, by 2003 the school needed nearly 10,000 posters each semester. Many people requested to be added the mailing list just to receive the posters, which in time became collector’s items.

Working on the posters mostly on weekends, I spent countless hours obsessively introducing and refining microaesthetic details that are important to me but may be recognized only by typographic aficionados; I designed the posters as much for myself as for my university client. Until 1989 all type was set on the Berthold system at Typogram, New York and pasted up as mechanicals for offset lithography printing. From 1990 on, the posters were produced on my computer allowing ever more precision and technical refinement.

This work for Columbia University provided the inspiration for writing my book, Typography: Macro- and Microaesthetics, in which the posters serve as key examples of macro- and microaesthetic levels in typographic design. This poster series also demonstrates that a solid concept, refined and explored over time, can deliver a controlled sense of newness in phases, building audience expectation by presenting nuanced visual changes in a familiar context on a regular basis.

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Project IV. Typography: Macro- and Microaesthetics

In the course of teaching typography at various schools, I discovered that students are generally interested in macroaesthetics, the bigger picture or conceptual view of design, but neglect the microaesthetics, the fine details that make typographic solutions exceptional. While motivated students are generally eager to study macro- and microaesthetics, they were frustrated about the lack of books on the subject so in 1991 I decided to write my own textbook.

My projects for the Columbia University School of Architecture and other institutions seemed perfect illustrations to explain these theories about the aesthetics of typography, which I had spent much time exploring and refining for several open-minded clients. When I began to assemble material for the book, my primary focus was on the microaesthetics of typography. I soon realized that the book would only serve as an effective teaching tool if it were more comprehensive and wider in scope. After several months of working mostly on weekends and holidays, free from interruptions, I arrived at the preliminary content structure for a book of about 160 pages broken into four sections that would explain how the design process unfolds.

Part one would discuss typographic elements: the microaesthetic qualities of letters, numbers, and punctuation marks, lines, and geometric elements and their diverse applications. Part two would analyze the design aspects of space, structure, sequence, contrast, form and counterform, and illustrate their function with examples from teaching and praxis. Part three would demonstrate how typographic elements contribute to design on the microaesthetic level. Part four, based on a series of architectural posters, would analyze the interrelationship between purpose, macrostructure, and microaesthetics.

Over the next two years, I selected the visuals from the large inventory of my graphic design work, created the layouts and painfully wrote the text and the illustration captions. Realizing that my raw writing needed a serious polish, I hired a professional writer and an editor who did a fantastic job of rewriting the text and captions. In 1996, after working on a purely speculative basis without a publisher or a deadline for five years, I was ready to submit the book to various publishing firms.

Though their reactions were very positive, all the publishers wanted me to make changes to increase the book’s marketing potential. Some suggested publishing the book as an inexpensive soft cover edition, printing it in black and white to save costs, adding a chapter on website design, discussing aspects of three-dimensional design, including commercial examples from other designers, etc. I flatly rejected these recommendations because they would have ruined my vision and intent for the book. After six years and a staggering number of work hours, I was stranded without a publisher.

Feeling desperate, I contacted a former teacher of mine who agreed that the book needed to be published. He suggested Niggli Publishers, a firm that in the 1950s and ‘60s had published books by graphic design luminaries such as Emil Ruder, Armin Hofmann, Josef Müller-Brockmann and Karl Gerstner. Niggli immediately liked the book and expressed interest in publishing it with the proviso that a german edition would have to be published simultaneously.

While it was a relief to have finally found a high-quality publisher, I was flabbergasted about the length of time it would take to complete and how difficult it would be to translate the English text into perfect German. I immediately set to work and after another year with the collaboration of some colleagues in Switzerland the German translation was ready. Both the English and German edition were published in the fall of 1998, in time for the Frankfurt Bookfair. The response from designers and architects was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. Within six months the first editions of both the English and German were sold out and both books required a second printing. By 2002 the third English edition was followed by Chinese and Spanish editions.

Design will always express the continuum of ideas that have evolved over millennia. By developing an awareness and appreciation of this legacy the designer can establish his or her position at the forefront and determine where to go next. Achieving something “new” requires letting content rather than presentation drive design, as demonstrated by the case studies. Newness is the net result of dedication to substance, originality and appropriateness. The Merit program demonstrates that confronting an unfamiliar problem or working in a foreign cultural context forces the designer to think differently, unencumbered by outside influence. The Cantor poster project proved that ignoring trends encourages the design of an unexpected and original solution. The Columbia lecture poster series confirms that a visionary and committed client is key to developing a design concept that will renew itself over the course of many years. My books attempt to show that developing a strong, personal vision naturally leads to unexpected and unique solutions. Newness is not achieved by reading professional literature or being preoccupied with the output of other designers – it is the reward for hard work, patience and trust in the value of one’s own ideas.

Willi Kunz practices graphic design in New York. He is the author of Typography: Macro- and Microaesthetics (1998) available in English, German, Spanish, and Chinese editions; and Typography: Formation and Transformation (2003). He is a member of AGI (Alliance Graphique Internationale).

First published in NewWork magazine #3, January 2009
Copyright © 2008 by Willi Kunz