Cover and Backcover: Signage system Parseval school, Bitterfeld (2000)
Previous double page: Signage system refectory, Stuttgart University, Stuttgart-Vaihingen (2004)
Contribution for Designers' Saturday, Stuttgart (2001)
MORE LURING THAN LEADING
BÜRO UEBELE ANDREAS UEBELE
Kimberly Lloyd: Andreas, how would you describe your mission? Would you call yourself a happy designer?
Do you agree that there are badly designed or even ugly public spaces?
Andreas Uebele: Mission is too strong a word. Making your own work decisions is certainly a great privilege. You basically get to fulfil yourself while earning a living. Our job is about the pleasure of making things – it’s not a mission. I’m convinced that happiness can only be achieved through work, but maybe this is a very Protestant way of looking at it… I consider our task to be the production of beautiful things. When speaking about self-fulfilment, I suppose you mean choosing to turn your favourite activity into a profession. As far as I am concerned, working on a factory assembly line, for instance, would certainly make me unhappy. I believe that people do what they are best at. If money is important to someone, they will earn money. The factory line is a bad metaphor inasmuch as it makes people intrinsically unhappy. But this is not to say that manual labour cannot be enjoyable. Besides, people don’t always choose their profession according to the activity they like most. I think it would make sense to teach young people to find out what they’re good at.
To a certain extent, yes. There are certainly a lot of ugly public spaces. In terms of finding your way around, there’s nothing worse than carelessly designed signage. It’s not only an offence to the eye, but because it is unappetising it will also fail to do its job. What do you consider to be beautiful? There are squares on which different people dwell at different times of the day. The square caters equally to the needs of strollers and children who want to play or skateboarders. You can sit in a café and observe how the square changes its appearance. If you were given the opportunity to design or redevelop a public space, where would you begin? There are so many small streets and places that could be improved with just a few changes – inexpensive things such as new surfacing, good lighting, plantations and nice urban furniture, which have a tremendous impact. Good examples of this can be found in Spain, Italy and France.
I sense that your experience with public contractors has taught you to be diplomatic. Could you provide some examples in Luxembourg or Germany? I don’t know the situation in Luxembourg. As for Germany, public spaces have gone to the dogs. Maybe this is because we have exterminated the people who used to form the upper middle classes – the class of urban citizens. They were wealthy entrepreneurs who supported the arts and architecture. We have never recovered from that loss. Today there are hardly any entrepreneurs left – in the sense of people who own and run their own business – but only managers who cannot be held accountable when things go wrong. And these people are more concerned with efficiency than beauty. This is downright stupid, because beauty is actually a hard factor in trying to source good manpower for your company. Munich and Berlin are highly attractive – this has measurable consequences for businesses, and hence the city. But no one seems to feel responsible for the public space. Communes have not recognised its potential, despite the fact that a well-designed city attracts more tax-paying residents. Good design in public space is the basis for a successful industrial culture. How good to see that you have remained an entrepreneur yourself. On the other hand, you are now heading a big agency. How do you evaluate the advantages or disadvantages of this development in terms of your creative process. I see nothing but advantages. The more the office grew, the more I was able to
withdraw from the management side of projects. This in turn gave me the necessary freedom and distance to think about design as such. In our office meetings, I’m no longer the advocate of the concept but a critical observer. Our work has thus simultaneously increased in complexity and improved, since the staff is more closely involved in the projects. How much of you remains in those projects? Some creative directors have contended that the agency’s signature style had been watered down. Do you agree with that assessment? I’m involved in every project. Nothing leaves the agency without me checking it first. Therefore my personal handwriting is obvious in each project. In other words, I take part in the shaping of things. The process leading up to the final design, however, involves a constant dialogue between the project manager and myself, but also the participating artists, architects or philosophers on whose know ledge we draw. Watering down is the death of any agency. Avoiding this entails presence. Every little detail is discussed with me – not because I demand that it should, but because my collaborators appreciate dialogue. The German Bundestag is among your most important clients. How did you secure this project? There was a countrywide competition, in which 54 agencies took part. Twelve offices were pre-selected, three of which went on to the final round. It was a very good procedure, which involved more professional jurors than lay assessors.
And your project was eventually selected… We won the competition although, or maybe because, we had taken substantial risks. You mean by competing as a small agency against the big players? Or did you have a conceptual advance over them?
Signage system Osnabrück University of applied sciences, Osnabrück (2004)
Contribution for Designers' Saturday, Stuttgart (2001)
The competition tender stipulated that it was strictly forbidden to alter the design of the existing federal symbol, the eagle. This particular eagle is in fact a threedimensional artwork that hangs in Parliament and is known throughout the world. More importantly, it is a familiar and well-established symbol that is free from political, historical or social connotations. It therefore made sense to use it as a sign. On the other hand, the finely detailed structure of the sculpture was not fit to be printed, for instance on business cards. We therefore redesigned it. This entailed a complete overhaul based on printing and display requirements, while formally still referring to the existing eagle. It was of course a daring approach, and we are very happy to have convinced the jury. I would contend that clients are easily convinced by technical arguments such as printing applications. The modernised German eagle may be well adapted to business cards and stamps, but hasn’t it lost its opulence and tradition? Does everything need to be constantly modernised? No, the design of the Bundestag was
nowhere near perfect before our intervention. There was no corporate design whatsoever. Each department had sort of tinkered with their own design. It was about time that this administration – the highest democratically elected body, with a staff of 6,500 – had an unified corporate image. Artistically speaking, Ludwig Geis’s eagle, which hangs in the former assembly hall in Bonn and now as a slightly modified version in the Berlin Bundestag, is a great piece. But in terms of printing, the linear transcription of its shape (Studio Laeis) would have suffered significant losses in smallsize printing. Moreover, there was no corporate typography, no rule book for colour or formats of printed matter, no signs, nothing. The saying goes that the bait is for the fish to like, not the fisherman. Which rules of communication do you follow when working with administrations or public bodies? We treat all our clients with equal respect, regardless of their size or presumed importance. We listen to them and acknowledge their desires without loosing sight of our main concern, which is to produce a good design. We aim for durable solutions. For that matter, I believe your saying is wrong. It’s exactly the other way round: we as designers have the task to free ourselves from the wishes, demands or expectations of our customers in order to come up with a surprising and better solution – to design something new with improved functionality. Beauty itself is a function. We have the obligation to say no, because there is enough stupidity around as it is.
Dgf Stoess AG Signage system, Eberbach (2002)
Dgf Stoess AG Signage system, Eberbach (2002)
Are there no specific rules of conduct in dealing with public officers? I imagine them as complex and apprehensive characters. And isn’t it a widely known fact that designers often have issues with public institutions? No, each professional realm is a crosssection of society. Our collaboration with the German Bundestag was very pleasant. I wouldn’t say that working with a private business such as Daimler, for instance, is any different. The public officers working for the German Parliament are ‘very normal’ people. There are a few rules of protocol, but if you want to talk to the CEO of Daimler, that’s presumably no different from trying to get an appointment with the President of Parliament. The interesting experience in working with these two ‘businesses’ was that, during the competition for the new corporate design of Daimler, we never got a chance to present our project to the final decision-maker, CEO Dieter Zetsche, whereas the President of Parliament not only sat on the jury but also attended subsequent project presentations. When tricky issues needed solving, getting an appointment with him proved unbureaucratic and fast. In other words, the clichéd view of public offers being complicated and apprehensive, as opposed to the private sector being flexible and open-minded, certainly deserves to be revised. The ideal client! Would you agree to work for a radical political party? No.
Signage system Hypovereinsbank, Munich (2005)
What if this party were radically pacifist and, incidentally, shared a platform with Greenpeace? Radically good, radically beautiful, radical… What is it supposed to mean? It means getting down to the essence of things, reflecting on fundamentals in a fresh and unbiased way. This is something fundamentally positive. But using the word in its vernacular sense, I have no sympathy for radical groupings, be they concerned with saving the world or the souls of its inhabitants. Institutional clients mean secure budgets, and in your case, they have helped you gain fame. Each client has a distinct financial framework and rightfully expects that we operate within his budget. I’m not interested in the size of the budget as long as it’s more or less appropriate. I’m more concerned with the client sharing my interest in good design and sensible solutions. Fame does not depend on the importance of your clients but on the quality of your work – an aspect which may just as well manifest itself in projects for small and supposedly unimportant customers. How commendable! Am I right to presume that you support the notion of providing corporate designs to artists and gallerists at preferential rates? Not at all [laughs]. I believe this is a very bad idea. Design has an intrinsic value which, according to me, is not sufficiently appreciated by artists, museums or the art scene in general, at least in
Germany. My colleagues working in this field invariably complain about lacking etiquette and low fees. But let me give you another example. Three years ago we had a customer coming to our office who wanted to launch his own gallery. He had previously approached three of my colleagues, and we all offered him pretty much the same deal. It turned out to be too expensive for him. I liked him, and he seemed to like me, so I proposed that we work for free and that he pay us later, once his gallery was making profits. It was a bit of a gamble, but I sensed that it would be good to work with him. And this is precisely what happened, and he kept his promise. At our own request, we were given artworks in lieu of fees, and we were very happy with this solution. Ah, the good old bartering economy… Which absolute moral values do you pursue and how do you integrate these into your work? And, more importantly, how do you combine this with your work for the government or political parties? Let’s be clear: the German Bundestag is not a political party. It is the highest democratically elected body. Irregardless of the customer, our values are adequacy, timelessness and beauty. The things we design should be functional and contemporaneous. This is what we try to achieve in each of our projects, and that includes the German Parliament. Corporate design is a finely woven fabric of colour, form and typo graphy. The overall sense radiating from our design is sovereign but not condescending.
I would argue that what you refer to as adequacy, timelessness and beauty are the basic standards and tasks of any designer. Which moral values do you pursue, and how do they manifest themselves in your dealings with clients?
want to read Massimo Vignelli’s insightful essay on the subject.
It would be great if those terms, as you suggest, would come to be expected as basic standards, but that’s not the case. That said, I do agree that they should be the norm. That’s basically all I aspire to. We are craftsmen and simply abide by a high code of ethical craftsmanship, as previously described. I believe it’s best to focus on these simple ideals, which are effectively hard to attain. By doing so, one eventually lives up to common moral standards or they simply fulfil themselves. Working under moral aspects is difficult. This is what Otl Aicher has described, whom I highly respect. But the things he designed were always plain beautiful. He pursued beauty with consistent inconsistency.
Well, that reference was off the mark, you’re right… What do I teach my students? Among other things how to create a book, a poster, an exhibition or a visual identity, but also to have an attitude.
Do you think the Germans are still good at design?
Floor designation Hochhaus am Pariser Platz, Landesbank Baden-Württemberg, Stuttgart (2005)
I believe they are. For me, design is to do with structural thinking, any maybe Germans are good at that. It also has to do with tradition. Italy, for instance, is renowned for car, furniture and fashion design. Architecture is a major discipline in Italy as well as in Switzerland and Scandinavia. There are obvious reasons for this (which cannot be expounded here). Conversely, graphic design is largely underrepresented in Italy (with the exception of, for instance, Leonardo Sonnolli and AG Fronzoni). You might
Thank you for the tip – although I would point out that Vignelli is an Italian… What do you teach your students?
Could you explicit this? I teach them the basic tools. I show them how to create a grid. I show them the micro-typographical finesses. I demand a lot from them, and they are really required to work hard. I evaluate their work, offering tough but honest and factual criticism. I train them to speak publicly about their design and teach them tricks how things are best presented visually. Incidentally, I speak about our everyday work and show them how beautiful our job is. My final question: what should budding signage ethicists take to heart? That’s a tough one. Rather than looking at themselves, they should observe the world around them. Thank you for this conversation.
Signage system trade fair, Stuttgart (2008)
Signage system car dealer Pappas, Salzburg (2006)
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This catalogue is published for Andreas Uebeleâ€™s lecture at Mudam Luxembourg on May 20, 2010 organized by Design Friends within the Design City project.
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More luring than leading