Müller-Brockmann vs Neugebauer

I recently picked up a copy of Josef Müller-Brockmann’s Gestaltungsprobleme des Grafikers (tr. as The Graphic Designer and His Design Problems). Though broadly familiar with this designer’s work (which I find of widely varying quality and success), I had never read any of his writing. At first glance I found it laughably doctrinaire in its Modernist reduction of everything to the rational, the functional, the anonymous – and in the betrayal in the book’s design (or at least its execution) of some of its loudly trumpeted tenets.

All this immediately made me think, by contrast, of what is in some ways an analogous book, Friedrich Neugebauer’s Kalligraphie als Erlebnis, Baugesetze der Schrift (tr. as The Mystic Art of Written Forms), in which the great calligrapher wrote most rhapsodically about the intensely personal expression to be made by the lettering artist.

¶   It is often objected, without justification, that the individuality and personality of the designer cannot be displayed under such conditions of work [i.e., rejection of ‘the old free subjective manner of representation’ in favor of the use of ‘anonymous and objective’ elements]. This disregards the fact that in modern designing the personality of the artist is just as much manifested in the way in which he has mentally mastered his theme and organized it to make a graphic design as it is in illustrative art, only in a higher form. The withdrawal of the personality of the designer behind the idea, the theme, the enterprise or the product is what the best minds in architecture, industrial design furniture design, photography and graphic art are all striving to achieve.

¶   The essence of anything unconsciously hidden becomes exposed and legible in writing – there is no chance for falsehood or disguise to go unnoticed. Personal lettering is the subtlest detector of one’s substance and character; and lettering is the scribe’s confession, the score composed of his states of being, his impulses and his emotions – all the things that move him at the moment of communication. The scribe is subject to a rhythm that comes from his pulse, from the movement of his blood. A special kind of cardiogram, flowing and ebbing, a translation of invisible mental states into the visible. Each movement is a spiritual act and finds its appropriate symbol. Thus is lettering: royal and humble, vulgar and noble, muddled or freely structured and self-evident. A grand procession of all human conditions, bound together by the rhythm of a significant act.
¶   Personal expression is an integral part of high quality lettering, but it grows slowly from the classic models, almost undetected, becoming stronger through time and practice.

¶   Lettering should be regarded primarily as a vehicle for ideas, only secondarily as a form of art. Only an unpretentious lettering can perform its function as a medium for lucid expression. The call for functionalism is in keeping with the spirit of the 20th century and is valid in architecture, painting, sculpture, music and in the design of all artistic media.
¶   This should not be construed as a denial of all beauty to roman lettering. Yet its expression of an individual concern with form – the decorative feet, the growing and diminishing thickness of the up and down strokes – belongs to the spirit of a past age.

¶   The design of harmonious letters comes mostly from feelings and instinct. Fixed standards and rules of design often do more harm than good. A sound program of lettering instruction will highlight the tension between order and chaos, the importance of the tiniest details, and the universal laws that are present at the root of every creative act, be it the building of a cathedral, the design of a book or the layout of a stamp. A feeling for beautiful form, proportion and rhythm is central to all the fine arts.
¶   The ideal forms can be found on classical Roman monuments, carved into stone wth timeless beauty and grace.

And yet, despite these differences in starting point (and the mostly different milieux in which the two men worked), there is more in common than first meets the eye. I give here a few examples.

First, a concern for overall form and context, and for text as communication:

¶   The arbitrary, fortuitous and individual composition of typographical elements is to be replaced by an objective design in accordance with typographical principles.
¶   The paramount requirement is an unadorned typographical form serving purely the needs of communication.
¶   Used in this way, typography becomes functional, objective and informative. Functional in respecting the technical premises of the art, objective in the logical composition of letters to form words and of words to form sentences, in the arrangement of sentences according to their contents and, finally, in the formal organization of the contents according to its inner coherence.

¶   Letters only reach their real value when they exist within the context of words. Remember: Lettering is communication, form, and rhythm all at the same time.
¶   The distinct character of hand and tool working together is what dignifies lettering and lends it style, often helping to both simplify and strengthen a design.
¶   Writing is a clasping of hands across the millennia; the realization of our yearnings for communication, tracing our path from the dawn of our origins to the mysteries of the future.

¶   The multiplicity of the problems arising in the course of the graphic artist’s work – many of great cultural or economic significance – make it one of the most universal of the artistic professions. Mental grasp, intuition, an eye for form and colour, the ability to design constructively and architecturally and an assured sense of composition – these are the indispensible apparatus for creative work.

¶   Most of our work concentrates on the placement and layout. This is the source of creativity in lettering, experiencing and giving order to the page through form and rhythm.

Next, a concern not only for text as a visual artefact, but also for the language which it encodes:

¶   The care a nation bestows upon its language is an indication of its cultural level. In this field the effect of advertising has been disastrous. To do proper justice to the importance of language, it would be necessary to include a writing course in the training of the graphic artist.

¶   We must see to it that responsible and sensitive use of language moves out into the world as a whole, well beyond the narrow confines of the book world, so that it permeates all that we encounter and even what we consume.
¶   We as individuals and lettering artists can help to preserve our oral traditions by choosing texts that are meaningful and that shed light onto our lives; the resulting written language will have significance and integrity. This approach to work and art could be a new beginning: the reaffirmation of our age-old linguistic traditions and the establishment of positive directions for our future use of language.

And finally, a concern for the integrity of the designer’s work in the context of society as a whole:

¶   If we consider the effort put into graphic art and the general level of its achievement and compare these with the intellectual and material value of the themes, enterprises and products which are advertised, we often find that the quality of the graphic design is superior to the matter advertised. With the aid of a striking graphic idea and good design the artist has imparted interest to the contents of the advertisement, enhanced its value by formal means and falsified it, thus boosting its effect beyond the merits of the article concerned... This question whether a work is fulfilling or perverting its purpose must not be thought of trifling importance. Taken seriously, it leads to a fresh evaluation of the graphic artist’s work; new demands are made on his attitude to society and on his sense of responsibility. A thorough and serious consideration of the question has far-reaching ethical and sociological consequences.

¶   If we are to succeed as the custodians of our oral traditions, it is essential that we all choose and create texts that have real meaning for us, so that people reading the words at a later time will sense the emotional solidity and truth in what they read...

Perhaps it is inevitable that these Germanic contemporaries should have certain ideals in common, despite the divergences between the world of advertising and corporate graphics, and that of hand-lettered books, monuments, and ephemera. Many modernists have been avid students of history and tradition, and at the same time, in the typographic arts at least, modernism was ultimately a very salutary corrective to much Victorian and Edwardian printing. Grids and geometric proportions are, after all, an ancient part of making written material, and there are earlier Western medieval manuscripts (the Codex Hubertianus comes to mind) that look surprisingly modern in their disposition of the text, just as the wide measures, dense pages and bold types, and rejection of constant capitalization (in German particularly) in a way hark back to early printing and early Western writing.* Today, though there is still too much shallow, shouting graphic design and weak, incoherent typography, and too much distance between the two disciplines, we are in the fortunate position to be able to learn from the analytical discipline of modernism, the warmth and richness of handcraft tradition, and even the playfulness of various avant-garde movements, and from those who in some ways have embodied and even synthesized them in various ways. In a world characterized by ever more contact but not necessarily more communication or connection, and rife with the manipulation of data and its consumers, clarity, honesty, and concerns for beauty, truth, language, and culture are to be sought and welcomed wherever they may be found.

*  (It’s also worth noting that Neugebauer’s book is designed and set in a broadly modern[ist] manner, in a squarish format with unjustified sans-serif [Optima] text in a wide column: and the text of another of his books, Schrift als Kunst, is set in Helvetica.)