08 November 2006
A talk with Kurt Weidemann
A talk with Kurt Weidemann

What will corporate design be like in the future? What do the old hands in the design business have to say, and how do the newcomers view it? Together with Daniel Karczinski and Peter Martin we would like to open up this debate and also initiate a discussion with you, the readers. Kurt Weidemann is the first to get the ball rolling, in this chat at the offices of Martin&Karczinski.

METK: We have already talked once about the DB logo. At that time we asked why the Deutsche Bundesbahn didn't change its visual image when it had the opportunity to do so. Not only that, but why they had fallen back on the old familiar stuff. You told us that you had simply worked with light, and had increased the distance at which it was legible from 80 to 120 metres. Are innovation and functionality mutually exclusive?

KW: Not at all. The question is whether a company is in a position to risk innovation and if that innovation will in fact achieve something. One suggestion of DB was to repaint all the trains. But taking an ICE out of service to repaint it costs around 250,000 euros, and you can t use it for three months. For a company which at that time was DM 67 million in debt, this was a virtually criminal proposal. But the time was right. First Germany had changed over to the new postcode system, which meant that new business paper was needed. And, second, the trains from the former East Germany were still all running around with the old Deutsche Reichsbahn (DR) logo on them. That just had to be changed. And so it was also a good time to rethink whether the old DB logo was still doing its job.

METK: What do you mean by 'doing its job'.

KW: By that I mean, was it still immediately recognised etc. Anyway, a competition was held to design a new logo. The new proposals all had to keep to the same size as the old logo, keep the red and white DB colours, and keep the letters D and B.
I was asked at the time by G nther Jauch from Stern-TV, how long I had worked on this symbol. My answer was that I did it in less than 45 minutes. Yet still the new logo was better. Tests have shown that it s more legible than the old one - for long-distance recognisability we put the sign on stations. For more close-up situations bold Antiqua sans serif has distinct advantages. Serifs always break off, which creates a nice mess on faxes or photocopies. Also, the information is given not by the sign, but by the product. So, for example, you could still put the Bavarian coat-of-arms on an ICE, and not make people think it would travel slower. 99 percent of the product gives you the message - dynamism, speed, etc. With the remaining one percent, the information, you can do what you want.
Take a look at the logos other railways use, like the modern ones in England, for example. All of them somehow point left and right. That has the psychological effect of making them look like model trains.

METK: The logo for the German railways stands still.

KW: No - with DB, you arrive back where you started. That has a positive effect on the subconscious. In England the railways logo symbolises a departure with no return.

METK: Going out of the picture.

KW: As a graphic designer, I don't know there where I would cut it off. With the DB, I do know. In design terms, I gave edges to the curves. They were a bit feeble before. The whole thing is also easily divided, 9:6 I think. In short, I made it functional. The railways save themselves 250,000 euros per year in screen-printing costs because of it. Together with the print products, the export papers for vehicles, the flags and the newly designed rest, this also justifies the fee. Also, saving a bankrupt company 250,000 euros a year is no bad thing. The worst thing you can do for it is come up with crazy, creative ideas and then turn them into lots and lots of wonderful things.

METK: So, the CD of the future will be restricted by expediency?

KW: Restrictions are always there. When one of my students comes to me with a problem, I ask him to sketch it out on a beer mat. If he complains he can t because there s already something on it, then I tell him that later with a company it ll be no different. There is always something there already - a logo, a company colour etc. Seldom do you find a blank canvas, where you can start at zero.

METK: Is that to say you can only produce the CD of the future on a blank canvas?

KW: No. You can have such a good idea that it makes any pre-existing designs absolutely useless for the 21st century. But that s a very tricky question. There s the example of flour bags: A company packaged its flour in grey bags with a simple label. A new, colourful bag was made, with information and recipes printed on all four sides. All nicely distinctive etc. The company nearly went bankrupt. Why change a design that works when you already have your market? Why turn it all on its head?

METK: So students and young communication designers should learn to keep the old stuff?

KW: No, not at all. Today they have to know how to work with media that has completely different requirements. The problem is that these media have not yet found their artistic form. My ideal would be to work only with the twelve-to-fifteen-year-olds in Karlsruhe. They really know how to use computers and one day they will find the artistic expression that is better than what the engineers have so far come up with.

METK: A large part of our job is to try and understand communication and then to structure it. Do you think that the training we receive is adequate?

KW: No, because the professors are actually only second-best. Most of them are in their early forties, and they just didn t make it in the design world. So, they go into teaching. The really good ones, like Hans Sielmann and G nther Kieser only went into teaching very late. Which means that young people are somewhat left on their own in the training institutes. Another problem is technology that is more and more alien to visualisation. In the past you could represent the function of 'weighing' like this [he imitates a balance scales using his arm]. Nowadays it s all about digital figures dancing on weighscales, alarm clocks and so on. Technology has moved further away from visualisation. You have to find translations for it which means that our job has to get more intelligent.

METK: Consultants and designers - how can we do both? Half McKinsey, and half top-designer, preferably someone who has full command of the typographic rules of the last 1000 years. How can we bridge this gap?

KW: You don 't generally find both in the same person. You have the eunuchs, who say how things have to be done, but aren t capable of doing it themselves. And then there are the others who can do it, but don t know how. They don t think, all they know is that they are good. Having inborn creativity plus the skill to control this using your brains, is seldom combined in one person. But it is becoming more and more essential to use your brain, as knowledge changes within the communication profession every ten years at the outside. I have had to relearn my job at least three times.

METK: We try to find out about company structures and core messages that can be written on the banners of a company. Is it in fact possible for a designer to delve so deep into the substance of a company so as to really be able to give that company added value?

KW: It should be. When you design a symbol for a company, you must have detailed knowledge about what that company does. Especially when they only want that design for a short time. Also, it s quite possible that a company will then go on to buy other companies that have absolutely nothing to do with what that company originally produced.
For example, the logo for the Bankgesellschaft Berlin, which is a merger of three Berlin banks. There was the Landesbank, which had four slanting red lines. Then the Bankgesellschaft Berlin, which had a thick and a thin B as their symbol. And finally you had the Berliner Hypothekenbank which had the silhouette of their bank s headquarters in blue. It looked like a Bechstein piano with the lid up.

Which reminds me, you should never depict the company building, except when you want to advertise it for sale. Images can change. In the past all factories had notepaper headed with an image of their factory, complete with smoking chimney, a sign of success. Nowadays that s unusable, as smoking chimneys are a sign of the worst kind of environmental pollution.
With the three banks I took as a base the company colours of the three institutions: red, yellow and blue, all as lines. So, they all kept something of their old logo, but now it was brought together in a symbol for the new organisation. That s all. But the most important thing about this logo is that it wasn t yet a registered marque. There are around 1700 internationally registered bank logos. Nowadays making a new logo is like trying to shoot into a forest and not hit a tree.

METK: I want to show you something: Here the subject is Viadee, an IT consultancy. The basic idea was a punched card. We conducted interviews with employees to establish what the company s core messages were. Then we visualised them like this: we symbolised the full-service approach using a circle; the circular chain broken through at the bottom illustrates unconventional thinking, and tells the client he won t get off-the-peg IT solutions here. The next point was future-orientation, which we expressed using an arrow. The hole-punching stands for overview, penetration, analytical competence and transparency. The colour yellow visualises human warmth, high EQ and social competence. Does that count as future-oriented with you?

KW: Yes, it does. But the starting point is the punched card and the punchcard principle. Which is like Adam and Eve to the computer age. The question is whether it must be so far apart, or whether it should be more compact. Signs are always compressed.
The worst of all to read is the large, unspaced capital lettering. I can read the basic font at the bottom much better than the one above. Bold capitals belong on gravestones and nowhere else.

METK: We always say 'tell the logo'. You know Ottl Aicher who postulated 'Don t touch the logo'. Then came the Eurex logo from Eclat. A tectonic symbol that you could suddenly move. Also called liquid identity. We go one step further and want to imbue the symbol with stories. Which we think puts us on the road to the future in corporate design. What do you think?

KW: The thinking is correct. But you have to go back along the same road, and take a look at the target group that works with this company. Ask it what they think 'tell the logo' means, and ask yourselves whether you can fit this in with the company.
Apart from that judgements are passed much too quickly. For example, I always take along to a meeting with a client as many copies of the proposals as there are decision-makers present at the meeting. I ask them to hang up all the copies in their offices for four weeks, and then tell me which one they like best. After all, the design is supposed to last at least one generation, and I can't predict immediately which ones are going to stick.

METK: Assuming that a CD could convey more by creating an identity that projects towards the inside, and which enables people to tell their logo. In our opinion, in future the battle will not be just about logos, but about who can tell the better story.

KW: That s o.k. But what has a bitten apple to do with a computer, for example? I see you ve still got the Expo logo there.

METK: Yes, I wanted to say something about that.

KW: This logo is absolute rubbish. You can t bring something that only works in motion, to a halt, and thereby rob it of any meaning. A logo should not be meaningless, it must be quite clear. I really can t agree with this kind of logo.

METK: And so we are back to Ottl Aicher.

KW: Ottl Aicher was a Franciscan and we no longer need Franciscans, because time has moved on. Perhaps we ll get back to that, but not for the moment.

METK: Is it perhaps a question of taste, not a question of benefit?

KW: No, there are no questions of taste.

METK: You just said something really interesting - What does a bitten apple have to do with a computer? If I understood you correctly, it s not necessarily about the sense, but about whether it creates identity.

KW: Yes, and a brand new one.

METK: But that's the same with Expo. Before Expo I hadn t seen any symbol that was so variable, and so ideal for the new media.

KW: Then it should only be used in the new media and not painted on trains, where you can use only one of the umpteen variants.

METK: But you could always recognise the symbol and you always associated it with Expo.

KW: You 've just got to have enough money, and then you can put out any old rubbishy logo. It s like that with E-on, Aventis, etc. etc.

METK: Take a look at the Eurex logo. That was really something new and it has won many prizes. What do you think to it?

KW: Good. As a first impression. But you would have to let me take it home to have a look at it there for a couple of hours. Then I could judge. But at first sight, the colours are good, and the layout. And I like the cutting-out of the figure. Someone must really believe in the strength of the figure, otherwise they wouldn t do it like that.

METK: Does 'touch the logo' mean anything to you?

KW: Yes, it does.

METK: Is that the future?

KW: How should I know? It could happen, for example, that we get a movement that takes us all back to the old-fashioned values. Things can change just like that.

METK: Do you think one night you will wake up having dreamed the CD of the future?

KW: No! I m not interested in that at all. Of course, you are. You have to live in the here and now and look for trends.

METK: With these examples we want to illustrate certain directions that were taken. One of these is without doubt Ruedi Baur and his visual image for the Centre Pompidou. What do you say to this work?

KW: That doesn't impress me at all. Take a look at 'les mots en libert ' by Marinetti. He did that in 1890. Or at what El Lissitzki and the Russian constructivists did. That is much more interesting than this crap. Stuff like this is spat out in about 10 minutes. It s just wallpaper or samples. There s millions more like this.

METK: And is it suitable as a CD?

KW: No, that 's nothing to do with it. It looks quite good, but it s badly done fine art. If you want to do pictures, then go into art. There the wind blows in a different direction. You aren t allowed to churn out crap like this there. It s all been seen before, not once but thousands of times.

METK: Why is it so successful then?

KW: Is it?

METK: Ruedi Bauer is not a name you can dismiss.

KW: Sure. I rate him, too. He s not bad. But this here is just arbitrary.
In the 70s I met a French composer who had done film music. 400 melodies for a film on the computer. For the next it was just 128. The fifth was taken. That s arbitrariness.
Not that I m recommending going back to the good old days of craftsmanship. I am often misunderstood here. But it s about not only seeing form, but also experiencing it, like on a potter s wheel. Why do people go in their thousands to classic car exhibitions?
Because there they can see cars that haven t been styled by cw value and engineers. The car makers of the 1920s knew about technology and sex appeal. A wheel arch on those cars is every bit as beautiful as the curve of a woman s shoulder. And it s just that kind of thing that has been lost.

METK: You say that the old stuff can still apply today.

KW: It has done for at least 200,000 years! You don t really believe that we are all that far away from Adam and Eve, do you?

METK: So there is, you believe, a universal language of aesthetics?

KW: Yes. For example, I divided the symbol for the Bankgesellschaft Berlin according to the golden section. And most of my letter figures follow those proportions, too. It s simply an epically beautiful proportion.

METK: And what about all those young people who try to invent something new?

KW: We have around 25,000 different alphabets, and you could happily sink 24,985 of them in the Atlantic without any loss to our culture. Do you know Werner Tissen? He does wonderful books, typeset by hand. He uses Jansson Antiqua in sizes 12, 14 and 16. For illustrations he brings in an artist. His books are absolutely fantastic.

METK: And how does he get on with the Web? After all, we all use the Web nowadays?

KW: You could say he is a dinosaur or someone who has lived 150 years too late. And you d not be wrong. But your question was whether there is basically a universal aesthetic or beauty. Of course there is. Just as there is always a longing for beauty. On the other side, there are also disturbed people who simply destroy everything that is beautiful. In the design world, too, we live with people who have psychic problems, and who do their own therapy by producing stuff like Mr Carson. But that s just not knowing what to do. If we accept that there are waves in art, then at the moment we are right down in the trough. Our butts are scraping the bottom. Don t for one moment think that our age has anything lasting to offer the history of art.

About this article
Article was first published in novum World of Graphic Design 07/02 and is reprinted with permission. Visit the forum and have your say to this topic. Next interview-partner in novum 08/02 is Prof. Claudius Lazzeroni. The interview was held by Martin et Karczinski, Munchen/Munich.