14 minute read

Matthias Hillner: Supreme Educator

Matthias Hillner Supreme Educator

When did you first think about design as a profession and writing about design and typography as something you wanted to do?

Matthias Hillner

To begin with, I was simply looking for ways of using my creative capabilities as much as possible. My art teacher in school warned me not to become an artist, because earning a living was thought to be far from easy. When I asked him about design, I was told that this would be a much better option. In retrospect I also realized how important design is for culture and society, for innovation and for creating sustainable futures. My problem was that to study design in Germany requires having an internship. As I could not secure any, I decided to train in advertising photography first, before embarking upon my design education. I did not know anything about typography and of its cultural significance until I was half way through my under graduate studies. However, I am generally attracted to the unknown, and I felt that excelling in typography might be the only way for me to prove myself worthy a graphic designer. I did not want to rely too much on my photography skills to succeed with my studies. It is ever so easy to turn an ordinary layout into an impressive spread or poster using stunning photography. Through working without photographic elements for a couple of

years, I forced myself to push my typography and layout skills. Connecting typography with multimedia and digital technologies was just another step for me. Animating type on screen allowed me to explore aesthetic experiences which static information could not produce. Using means of animation, and through the orchestrated fluctuation of visual ambiguity, I tried to emulate the aesthetic impact which good quality photography can produce through atmospheric means such as light, depth, selective focus, obscurity.

How did that evolve into the position you hold now?

Design by Matthias Hillner

This was a long journey. After publishing my first book entitled as ‘Virtual Typography’ in 2009, I was regularly invited to speak at conferences and to give visiting workshops. Thus I learned how to share my skills and knowledge with design students of different caliber and cultural backgrounds, and this inspired me to think a little bigger. At the time I was working at a range of British design institutions in and around London. Here I taught numerous exchange students from Singapore who impressed me not only with their extra ordinary commitment to their studies, but also with their proficiency, design knowledge and experience. When I gave a workshop in Kuala Lumpur in 2015, the opportunity to lead a few design programmes in Singapore emerged, and I decided to emigrate to Asia. The progress that can be made here within a short period of time is extraordinary. This is partially due to the continuously growing range of development opportunities and partially due to the working mentality you typically find here in Singapore. In half a year ago, I received the offer to join Glasgow School of Art Singapore as the local Director of Programmes, and I could not have wished for more. Through this role, I joined one of the world’s top-ten art and design institutions, and also a very seasoned team of research-active academics. From 2012 to 2019 I carried out a PhD study in innovation management, and GSA provides me with the perfect environment to bridge design and

"Myths become dreams, dreams become goals, goals become reality."
Sculpture Installation by Mattias Hillner

(continued) innovation within a very wellestablished academic framework. So now I am back with a British employer, but at the same time located in a country which will most certainly be one of the world’s future frontrunners in design and innovation.

" I had very limited exposure to art and design practices. What drove me more than anything was my curiosity and ambition."

Were you encouraged or discouraged by family, friends, teachers, mentors?

I would almost say the contrary. My parents were very skeptical of my career choice, until I received my first few awards. Soon after, one of my mentors in advertising photography, Manfred Rieker, who was based both in Stuttgart and in Greece, was rather disappointed when I told him that I would go on to study design instead of accepting his employment offer (although I did carry on working for him freelance for a couple of years whilst studying). My first design mentor, Rolf Müller, now deceased but at the time AGI* president, was equally disappointed when I told him that I would go to the Royal College of Art (RCA), instead of joining him in Munich. Again, we stayed in touch and he was very

respectful of my career choice. I think to explore unchartered territories, one must be self-motivated, and be able to rely on one’s own perseverance and stamina, perhaps follow one’s inner vision. External support and inspiration do not suffice here. As James Dyson puts it in the subtitle of his autobiography: One must be able to defy the odds every once in a while.

What kind of kid were you? Where did you grow up? What were your influences?

I do not remember much of my childhood. Maybe too much happened since. I grew up in a small town in South Germany spending a lot of time wondering how big the world really is. I had very limited exposure to art and design practices. What drove me more than anything was my curiosity and ambition. When I took my first job in advertising photography in Ingolstadt, the town where Audi Headquarters are based, there was talk in the studio of this person who invented his own photographic lighting system, and then secured an exclusive contract with Audi, and subsequently set up his own open air photo studio in Greece. I was amazed by this story. It seemed somewhat mythical. About three years later, I would work for that very person, Manfred Rieker. I remember him telling me his story over a gin-and-tonic when we were on a

shoot in Greece. Myths become dreams, dreams become goals, goals become reality. But then it is time to watch out for new opportunities. Even adventurous advertising campaigns can become a routine affair, unless you introduce something new from time to time.

Your style and way of handling design & typography is very unique. How did you arrive at that way of doing things and why?

I was trained in a very modernist way at the College of Design, Schwäbisch-Gmünd, Germany, an offspring of the famous (or infamous?) Ulm School of Design. Everything was logical, had to be rationalized, intellectually analyzed and justified. But how do you rationalize atmosphere and poetics without suffocating it. The Royal College of Art in London, UK, was the polar opposite of Gmünd: liberal, student-led, non-dogmatic. It shares a lot of characteristics with Glasgow School of Art, actually. I felt quite lost half way through my MA. I had lost track of my agenda. I remember traveling to Paris in my summer break to meet Gerard Paris-Clavel from Ne Pas Plier in order to talk to him about my dissertation subject. But the meeting was cancelled. So I went to the Centre Pompidou instead to see a Picasso exhibition. There was one piece of work that puzzled me, a sculptural sketch

Sculpture Installation by Mattias Hillner
Sculpture Installation by Mattias Hillner

aimed at a piece of work in tribute to Guillaume Apollinaire. This was very different from Picasso’s other works. When I sat in the museum café afterwards, I felt inspired by Picasso’s three-dimensional assembly of mostly straight lines, I started scribbling a font, imagining it to be three-dimensional. This was the typeface I later called Futura. I first created physical prototypes cast in resin, and then rendered it digitally. I did not do it for any purpose other than to demonstrate that it is rather easy it is to do something out of the ordinary. But I remember Gert Dumbar, who was Visiting Professor at the RCA at the time, being really fond of this interim project of mine. So creating three-dimensional typefaces became a bit of a hobby. When I worked for Pentagram Design, in 2001-2003, I would spend the days in the office, and return home to fiddle with three-dimensional fonts during the evenings and during weekends. A commission to create a music video provided an opportunity to explore possible applications of the typography work in 2003. This was the start of my independent, perhaps slightly unusual, typography art and design practice.

Generally, I am quite hands-on. However, having held managerial posts for a few years, my daily practice has shifted towards the theoretical kind. Therefore I had to learn to be creative in relation to leadership and management. Fundamentally art and design is as much a matter of decision-making and so is the running of an institution or a faculty. Thus I enjoy my new role at Glasgow School of Art very much. Writing too is a creative activity if you look at it in the right sort of way. I am now embarking upon my second book publication, which will focus on Intellectual Property, Product Design and Innovation Management, and I can barely wait to get started. I think it is important that we feel passionate about what we do, be it writing, designing or creating fine art work. I much enjoy getting my hands dirty, and no matter what the surrounding circumstances, there is always a piece of work or two in the making. “Sometimes (I hit the nail on the head but mostly I don’t” was a project that I brought over from UK to Singapore. I finished it here, and it was exhibited as part of a joint exhibition at LASALLE College of Arts Singapore in 2016. The statement was used in tribute to a project presentation, which I gave at Ravensbourne College during a study exchange in the late 90s. My tutor told the group of local students that “I had hit the nail on the head”. Due to my poor English I understood “I had hit someone with a nail in the head”, and I thought I had done something really bad. When I received a first, I was not only surprised, I had also learned a thing or two about language metaphors. Metaphors have become really important for me, as they allow to trigger unusual thought processes. During my first solo exhibition in Singapore in 2017, I exhibited “The (not so) Great War”, an installation piece which I had created in memory of World War I. When I pursued my MA, the concept of the “reflective practitioner” was quite popular, sometimes this is referred to thinking-through-making. GSA’s studio-based practice is a good example thereof. The key is to connect critical reflection, design research and writing effectively with design practices. This can pave the way towards new directions in art and design.

In your position now do you still work as a designer or are you strictly on the administrative side?

Sculpture Installation by Mattias Hillner

is much more than that. It is about understanding the future and leading staff and students towards it. It is about building and managing relationships with industries and other stakeholders in the creative sphere. As much as we ought to connect design theory with practice, I also like to connect academic teaching and learning to industry practices in order to futureproof and enhance design curricula. I am inclined to believe that design teaching and industry practice will be increasingly interwoven in the future, and that design-relevant skills will be increasingly embedded in other areas of industry practice.

How has working on the computer vs traditionally affected your work and the work of your students? Have creative people become too dependent on using tech?

I think that there is an interesting, though coincidental parallel between my personal experience, and the way in which GSA Singapore works. When I started studying design, the PowerMac just came out, and the internet began to conquer the world of telecommunication. Throughout those years I became increasingly interested in digital technologies (although I never neglected the significance of concepts.) My aim was to decelerate communication processes through creating immersive experiences. After exploring animated typography on screen for several years, I explored how similarly captivating experiences can be created through sculptural work and installation-like arrangements. None of these explorations were of a pragmatic nature. I sought to raise questions about visual communication in the context of digital technologies, perhaps raise awareness for certain issues. At GSA Singapore we drag students away from the computer during the beginning of their studies in order to enhance their critical thinking

and their creative skills. Later they can use those skills in order to engage with digital technologies in unprecedented ways. As regards trends, I think it is difficult to comment on the creative community as a whole. We are looking at a very diverse group of people here. Technologies bring challenges and opportunities, and it seems only n atural to engage with those. Some people may be more creative than others, or more daring, if you like, and they will occasionally push the boundaries of common practice. In the late 90s there were concerns about

I see value. I enjoyed my investigations so far, but because of the experience that I had, not because of the end-result or the added line in my CV. I do think that research plays an increasingly important role in conjunction with design practice and innovation. This is why I think engaging with sound research methodologies is of value. Design research can be surprisingly creative. As much as originality matters in relation to design studio practice, the point here is to make a difference, to do something out of the ordinary.

Sculpture Installation by Mattias Hillner

technology-driven design, partially because technologies were somewhat restrictive at the time. This has changed. Computer technologies provide a wide scope of possibilities for creative engagements, and the benefit of "thinking".

I’m fascinated by the fact that you have a Philosophy doctorate. How do that play into your role as director and as a designer/teacher?

Personally, I do not give too much significance to titles. There are good PhDs and there are not so good ones. When speaking to people, one quickly realizes how much individuals have to offer in terms of new knowledge, or in contribution to the creative community. Doctoral degrees are often seen as a tick-box exercise, not only by individual researchers but also by academic institutions. I would recommend contemplating carefully what is worth investigating, to focus on what one is truly passionate about. A good book or speech can be more valuable than a mediocre PhD. Having engaged in design research at various levels, commissioned research included, helps me to support and inspire colleagues at times. Therein

Can you explain a little about “Virtual Typography”?

This term was born out of a somewhat unusual train of thought which my MPhil supervisor, Jon Wozencroft, the author of the book “The Graphic Language of Neville Brody”, and I constructed during a conversation. Digital communication has been accelerated beyond that which the human brain can process. These days texts are scanned rather than read, and the US-American philosopher Michael Heim argues that there is a reciprocal relationship between the amount of information obtained, and the meaning that is conveyed. Jon and I concluded that to make communication more meaningful, it needs to be slowed down. And instead of defining ‘virtual typography’ simply as screen-based typography, we argued that virtual typography is that which is ‘virtually’, i.e. almost typographical. So, as typographic forms emerge from ambiguous graphic patterns, they undergo a process of transition during which they appear “virtually” typographical. This can be visually intriguing and entice viewers to focus on text information for longer periods of time. I must admit that I doubt that this lends itself to communicating larger amount of texts, but it can be quite effective in the context of branding. When I embarked upon my research, British TV Channels such as Channel 4 began to use emerging forms of type more and more frequently for branding purposes. By the time my book came out, the idea of emerging type had already become mainstream practice. This was perhaps part of the reason why I shifted my focus towards possibilities of creating transitional type within physical environments. If you want to make a difference, you cannot remain still.

I have always striven towards a universal language. Therefore my work is usually not very location specific. For the students that is a little different because they are encouraged to engage with topics of local relevance. We help them to understand their cultural heritage, and to contemplate Singapore’s future. Both London and Singapore are interesting cities which provide plenty food for thought. But Singapore is developing at a rapid pace. So it is comparatively easy to make new discoveries every day. Both cities are creative hubs, but Singapore seems a little more transparent, and it feels easier to engage with the right sort of networks.

Why should a student consider your school as opposed to other great art schools around the world?

GSA has been founded in 1845. As an art school, it carries unique history and heritage. But interestingly it is not hindered by that: GSA is guided by an underlying ethos, but there is no dogmatism. There is a liberal collegial working culture which impacts equally classroom practice, research, and management styles. Having worked at quite a number of colleges and universities, I have never encountered anything like it. There is a positive supporting atmosphere everywhere you go. Learning is by and large student-led, and programmes are kept intentionally small. GSA attracts a very large number of student applications, which results in strong cohorts, which in turn enhances the peer learning.

institutional and geographic boundaries. My continued work in the field of fine art is mentally liberating, it allows my mind to breath from time to time, and to be open to emerging opportunities. Being a full-time artist will perhaps be my retirement occupation. I will then have come full circle and look back at my art teacher’s comment and ask myself: Was he right? Was he wrong? Chances are that that won’ t matter anymore.

Matthias Hillner became the Director of Programmes at GSofA Singapore in 2019. He oversees undergraduate programmes in Communication Design and Interior Design.

Previously an Associate Lecturer at Royal College of Art, London, Matthias then became Programme Leader in BA(Hons) Design Communication and in Diploma Design Communication at LASALLE College of Art, Singapore, following which he become Head of School, Design Communication in 2016 before starting at GSofA Singapore in early 2019.

Authoring multiple peer-reviewed papers, Matthias’s research interests include typography, digital communication, media design, intellectual property, design entrepreneurship and innovation management and has completed two postgraduate research inquiries both of which were nourished through conference papers.

What’s the future hold for you? Any ultimate goal?

I am very grateful for the position that I am currently holding. I want to support Singapore in their ambition to become an innovation-driven nation. I want to help connect design and innovation meaningfully and effectively. Overseeing GSA’s provision of design education in Singapore is likely to play an important role here. Introducing competencies developed within GSA’s Innovation School in Glasgow to design teaching and learning in Singapore can make a significant difference to the performance of Singapore’s creative industries. Since summer 2018, I have begun to support the development of a startup incubator, Rockit Venture, which has emerged within Singapore’s investment scene. So I hope to help establish clarity about the synergies here, to build bridges between the stakeholders, and foster creative collaboration. We need to think beyond design here, and also beyond