22 October 2008
A review of Martin Woodtli's Works, by Majid Abbasi
A review of Martin Woodtli's Works
Majid Abbasi

20th century technological advances, paired with European political, social and economic factors, brought forth a generation of Swiss designers who were able to develop their influential talents using modern computer software. One such designers is Martin Woodtli. This designer exemplifies the Swiss tradition of choosing local clients' cultural projects over international or more high-paid ones. This gives Woodtli the freedom to express his creative side, using type to create imagery and experimenting with different technologies, setting him apart from his peers.

The new trends in Swiss contemporary design should not be considered as irrelevant to the methods that thrived in the 1950's and continued until the last decades of the 20th century. This method emerged by designers who left tremendous impressions on the world. The period coincided with growth and development of a design method that later became one of the most effective in the world. The Germans after Bauhaus and the destruction of World War II were not able to expand the design thinking but the Swiss who remained neutral in the war were able to continue the modern design method in Europe. Coherently, they progressed in every field in the most creative way and consequently in a very small country great designers and thinkers appeared.

Max Bill, a disciple of Bauhaus succeeded several times over to present a kind of mathematical outlook in the world of graphic design with his extraordinary skill in typography. Emil Ruder founded the typography major in the Basel School of Design and Armin Hoffman accompanied him as the head of the graphic design department. Josef Muller-Brockmann, the most effective designer in developing the Swiss style seriously posed constructivist design. Years later, the revolutionary Wolfgang Weingart exposed de-constructivism in the heart of Swiss constructivism. His photo settings and typographic compositions not only affected the next generations in Switzerland later on but also many other countries especially America. He brought the first Macintosh computer to the Basel School of Design and developed a kind of experimental typography.

Political, social, economic and cultural changes along with growth of technology and computers brought forth a generation of graphic designer who stunningly began working with modern software. Martin Woodtli is one of them. Born in 1971 in Berne he finished his preliminary studies in graphic design in Berne School of Design and graduated from the Zurich Academy of Art and Design in visual communications. He spent his training years in Stefan Sagmeister's studio in New York and after returning to Zurich opened his own private studio. Sagmeister in the book called "Area" states:

"Martin Woodtli is perhaps the most accomplished representative of the new design scene in Switzerland, where the joy of the design process (as opposed to monetary reward) seems to determine the direction of the studios. Swiss designers would rather work for small cultural projects to which they are often connected personally than to fall into the trap of large advertising conglomerates. While at first glance this may seem to be a complete break with all traditions of the famed Swiss International Style, the roots of the new generation are still firmly grounded in the world of Brockmann and Bill."

Poster designs by Martin Woodtli

He is therefore bound to accept clients that pay minimal wages but instead, he can display his individual creativity in working with them. His clients were originally small art groups, artists and gallery owners whose orders were limited to invitation cards, flyers and ultimately posters. In Switzerland it is not easy to find clients or orders for poster design. One of these clients was a group of a few young artists who worked on performance and installation art. The "Kiosk" invitation cards go back to that time. Even after 12 years this group still eagerly places orders with Woodtli and he too designs for them with a lot of enthusiasm because his early ambitions were shaped in designing these orders.

He began his designs by simple typography and use of different colored layers printed on top of each other. Later, three-dimensional pictures were added to them. Woodtli prefers to have a different manner from his peers with type which is creating image like atmospheres in typography. The poster "Sport Design" is a clear example of this kind of thinking in which the letter 'S' shows us a view of the winding car race track. His designs while being impressive and presenting a new outlook is sort of playful and humorous. While he recalls previous generations of Swiss style such as Brockmann with respect, he regards the works of that period devoid of any character.

Swiss design in the last decade of the 20th century underwent a recession and it became boring for young designers such as Woodtli. Their reaction therefore, in breaking the conventional Swiss structures is similar to David Carson and Neville Brody although contrary to his true desire he is heir to classic Swiss style. "I see myself in an atmosphere between graphic design and applied arts. My designs doubtlessly have something to say but they have their own language", he says.

Woodtli does not move according to previous plans and thoughts but what happens in the moment is also important for him. That's why he is very skillful in using modern software. He also constantly uses the copy machine to experiment the design process apart from computers by printing on glossy sheets and sliding them on top of each other. He is by no means after theoretical examples or pre-designed models that provide their own system for understanding and analysis. In his mind every work has its own set of principles and the reasoning is hidden in the spirit and format of the work. Every order requires its own particular materials and grammar that it maintains after achieving enough reasoning and ultimately transforms into the best representation.

Concept for the New Swiss Banknotes by Martin Woodtli

Martin Woodtli who started his first steps with small time clients was chosen as the second designer of new Swiss Bank notes in 2005 among twelve designers. Security reasons do not allow for printing the second phase of designing bank notes but he let us use the first phase of design to be presented along with his other works. He says: "I began with the smallest things and clients not from big projects and clients and now I have come to designing bank notes and received a prize of 20,000 CHF. To me success in design always paired with slow but continuous steps."

In 2000 Woodtli became member of the AGI [Alliance Graphique Internationale]. At that time he was the youngest member. His graphic design works have been printed in graphic design magazines throughout the world including Print, ID, Soda and Kak. In 2002 he received the most beautiful Swiss books prize for his book that contains a collection of his various works. The first prize in Chaumont International Poster Festival in 2005 and the second prize of the 7th International Poster Triennial, Toyoma in 2006 are among his other honors in the arena of international competitions.

This article and images originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Neshan Magazine, an International Design Media Network (IDMN) participant, and have been republished with permission.