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Book Review

Max Bill kontra Jan Tschichold: Der Typografiestreit der Moderne

Reviewed by Maurice Meilleur on January 29, 2014

Too many good ideas and interesting arguments about typography and design are trapped behind language barriers, inaccessible especially to Anglophones — I’ll pick on Americans, being one myself — who more commonly don’t read or write any language but their own. Translators, and authors like Erik Spiekermann who speak and write fluently in English as well as in their native languages, can only do so much to mitigate the problem. There remain many talented authors whose work would enrich English conversations but whose voices haven’t made the jump. Hans Rudolf Bosshard’s is one of them.

Bosshard, born in 1929, is a Swiss typographer, book designer, and former teacher of typography. He has written many books, among them Technische Grundlagen zur Satzherstellung (1980), Mathematische Grundlagen zur Satzherstellung (1985), Typografie Schrift Lesbarkeit (1996), and Der typografische Raster/The Typographic Grid (2000), the last of which Willi Kunz, one of Bosshard’s former students, has called his “magnum opus”. 1

The table of contents of Bosshard’s most recent book, Max Bill kontra Jan Tschichold: Der Typografiestreit der Moderne, is a bit misleading. One might conclude from reading “with an essay by Hans Rudolf Bosshard” that the book is an annotated presentation of the two articles, originally published in Schweizer Graphische Mitteilungen in 1946, comprising the debate in print between the two designers. In fact, Bosshard’s essay is the book’s center of gravity; Bill’s and Tschichold’s articles feel like documentary evidence included so that the reader can check his work. Even Jost Hochuli’s afterword displaces attention from Bill’s and Tschichold’s articles. I don’t think this is a flaw of the book, for reasons that will become clear soon enough.

Bosshard’s thesis is this: The arcs of Tschichold’s and Bill’s careers brought them, for a short time in the 1930s, into very close aesthetic (and geographic) proximity; their disagreements after the war were more complex and qualified than either principal would likely have admitted (or, by extension, than many subsequent commentators recognized); and finally, and especially, the accusations of being absolutist and authoritarian, not to say objectively pro-Nazi, that each leveled at the other were without merit. But there is something substantial to learn from their debate all the same.

As he develops his defense of this thesis, Bosshard offers the reader (among other things):

  • a brief historical reminder that controversies over typographic layout and decoration are nothing new, with appearances by Friedrich Bertuch, Giambattista Bodoni, Filippo Marinetti, William Morris, Georg Schmidt, and Stanley Morison;
  • a reflection on Alfred Loos’s claims about ornament, and whether subsequent commentators properly understood Loos’s position (Bosshard’s answer: not really);
  • selected reviews of Bill’s and Tschichold’s print and graphic work (especially their typographic work), and of their political/social opinions and aspirations previous and subsequent to the debate; and
  • many informed, and humorous, asides — on concrete art, the true nature of modernism, Bill’s comic drawings for newspaper advertisements, and more.

Bosshard’s essay is noteworthy for his playfully ironic voice and his lightness of touch, both of which he uses to great effect to introduce nuance into his accounts of both Bill’s and Tschichold’s positions. It is true, as another reviewer of this book has noted, that Bosshard’s affinities lie mainly with Bill. 2 Aesthetically, this might be clear enough from the way the book is designed (presumably by Bosshard himself). But regarding the debate itself Bosshard’s position is more qualified. He is certainly sharply critical of Tschichold’s response to Bill’s challenges, finding it arrogant and bombastic. Yet he also notes where Tschichold qualified his arguments, or tried to reconcile them with Bill’s, and he points out where Bill himself crossed lines — most clearly so in a letter Bill sent to Paul Rand later in 1946, in which he wrote that “Tschichold is getting ready to leave Switzerland, which means we’ll finally be rid of the evil we invited here in the first place” (Tschichold ist daran, die Schweiz zu verlassen, und so werden wir das Übel endlich wieder los, das wir von vornherein eingeladen haben). Moreover, Bosshard takes every opportunity to note where both Bill and Tschichold might have found common ground. His aesthetic choices notwithstanding, Bosshard wants us to learn from the debate, not choose a side.

“One cannot assign ideological worldviews to symmetry and asymmetry as such. Try it anyway and you’ll only bloody your own nose and make a fool out of yourself.” — Jost Hochuli

Bosshard questions a facile connection between design (and specifically typographic) aesthetics and ideology. It’s easy to be drawn by commentary and reflections on the debate into missing what at least to Jost Hochuli (as he writes in his endnote) seems obvious: “One cannot assign ideological worldviews to symmetry and asymmetry as such. Try it anyway and you’ll only bloody your own nose and make a fool out of yourself.” While Bosshard understands the urge that Bill and Tschichold felt to ask whether what graphic artists contribute to society is for good or ill, he makes it clear that neither of them framed the question in a reasonable and useful way.

Their accusations against each other boiled down to this: Prompted by second-hand reports of Tschichold’s remarks in a lecture that the New Typography had outlived its usefulness, and was best used only in advertising and not suitable for books, Bill charged Tschichold (not by name) with having returned to a Heimatstil, conservative-cum-reactionary design principles that helped (even if unwittingly) to clear the path for more political movements, like National Socialism, that exploited the same sentiments. Tschichold in turn accused proponents of the New Typography, including Bill (whom he did name) and his (Tschichold’s) own younger self, of being absolutist, impatient, and unyielding, fixed upon an absolute and universal devotion to order that resonated with and thus supported (even if unwittingly) reactionary and fascist political ideologies like Nazism.

In 1946 it was no small matter for German-speaking Europeans, one of them a political refugee from National Socialism, to accuse each other of being objectively pro-Nazi. Of course the charges in both directions were overblown; Bill and Tschichold both were sympathetic to leftist causes and parties and opposed to the Nazi regime, and neither was as inflexible or reactionary as the other made him out to be. But the interesting question Bosshard’s essay raises is: Why did it occur to either of them that such charges were plausible in the first place?

One answer could be that the Nazis themselves believed that aesthetics and ideology were closely related. Consider the infamous 1937 traveling exhibition of so-called “degenerate art”, or the regime’s persecution of those associated with “cultural Bolshevism”. And of course, other totalitarian parties, like the Italian fascists, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and the SED (Social Unity Party) in the German Democratic Republic after the war and partition of Germany, shared this belief.

But as Bosshard points out, Italy’s fascists were notoriously opportunistic about their aesthetic tastes, espousing classical or twentieth-century typography and design depending on their message and audience. Soviet Communist party leaders were less ambivalent about their preferences, but instead of rejecting modernism, they embraced it (or at least a version of it). As for the DDR, again as Bosshard explains, while it was true that immediately after the war the SED party line was averse to anything but strictly classical, axial typography, they reversed their position in the late 1960s. And even the Nazis initially used blackletter-traditional type treatments for consumption inside the Reich only — the preferred type treatments in communications intended for foreign audiences was modernist. Moreover, in 1941, the Nazis rejected blackletter type altogether, having found themselves an occupying power and needing to communicate with people in parts of Europe where this style of script was completely alien.

So, Bosshard concludes, that someone embraces or rejects the New Typography as such tells us nothing about that person’s ideological preferences, still less about the political consequences of holding them. 3 Could there be other, better reasons that Bill and Tschichold had for thinking their charges were meaningful? In his article, Bill connects Tschichold to the Nazis by claiming that Tschichold’s traditionalism — call this the substance of his aesthetic — made him an ally of National Socialism. Tschichold, on the other hand, refers more to the attitude of the designer; it was how Bill and other moderns espoused, expressed, and enforced his aesthetic preferences that was ideologically problematic. Perhaps thinking in terms of one or the other of these approaches can help us understand why they argued as they did.

The problem, though, is that Tschichold’s recovered traditionalism apparently did not extend to any design elements, such as blackletter type, that specifically corresponded to Nazism (and given how the party leaders had shifted their aesthetic ground during the war, it’s not even clear how much difference it would have made had it done so). Also, Tschichold’s renewed preferences for axial typography and seriffed faces were perfectly welcome at Penguin Books, where he began to work in late 1946 — and Penguin, it should go without saying, was hardly a nest of reactionary traditionalists. As for the idea that Bill’s impatience and absolutism made him a natural ally of Nazism, ten minutes of reading Tschichold is enough to demonstrate that he was often even less encumbered by tact or polemical nuance. At best we could say Tschichold was too inclined to criticize in others what he suffered from himself. In any case, it undermines his association of attitude and ideology.

And of course, even if there were something to either line of argument, the two principals would have been arguing past one another anyway. This would make it difficult to extract any meaning from their debate regarding the nominal object of their disagreement, namely typographic modernism.

Yet, having shown that the clash of the typographic moderns wasn’t quite the definitive argument over the ideology of typographic style it’s been made out to be, Bosshard doesn’t dismiss its significance. He cites with approval both Bill’s 1988 rejection of much contemporary design as Gestalterei, “design for design’s sake” — noting in his final observations that Tschichold would have agreed completely with Bill on this point — and he endorses Paul Rand’s suggestion that Bill and Tschichold should have avoided the question of style in their debate altogether. For Bosshard, as for Rand, the real issue at stake in their argument was quality and judgment.

Here I think is where we can find the real political significance to their argument as well. Consider the values associated with design modernism, many of which Bill and Tschichold invoked in their debate: honesty, sensitivity to context (expressed in phrases like “organic” or “contemporary methods”), simplicity, earnestness, practicality, efficiency, progress, purity (of form), precision, function, harmony, standardization, reproducibility, accessibility. Think also about the values these contrast with, some of which again appear in Bill’s and Tschichold’s arguments: fashion, decoration/ornament, “Heimatstil”, nostalgia, tradition, absolutism, arrogance, impatience, disengagement, exclusivity.

It would be easy to aestheticize some of the positive values, like purity and function and efficiency. As Otl Aicher has pointed out, many moderns in fact did so — specifically, members of what he called the “second” wave of modernism: those, like the Bauhäusler, informed mainly by their experience with fine arts. 4 Aicher argued that in so doing they became too enamored of the consistency of their commitment to these values, neglecting their obligation to negotiate these values in a constellation of contingent social, historical, and material circumstances.

Bad design (like bad writing) is bad not only because it is aesthetically unpleasant, or neglects a set of stylistic rules. It is bad because it prevents us from thinking about what we are doing.

But we can reconstruct from modernist values a higher-level view of design that many moderns themselves may not have fully appreciated in their own work. To understand what I mean, consider George Orwell’s short essay Politics and the English Language, which coincidentally also appeared for the first time in print in 1946. One can read it strictly as a writing guide, and focus on its examples of terrible prose, its humorous analogies and snarky evaluations, and its checklist of principles of style. (This is how most people in the US who have encountered the essay do read it, because it was a mainstay of basic composition curricula in colleges and universities for decades.) But doing so misses Orwell’s actual point: that bad writing is bad not only in the sense that it is aesthetically unpleasant, or neglects a set of arbitrary rules of style. It is bad also, and more importantly, in the sense that it prevents us from thinking about what we are doing (to steal a phrase from Hannah Arendt) when we are writing or speaking. It makes condoning atrocities easier by deadening our imagination, perception, and perspective, even to the point of hiding from us how we might be perpetrating those atrocities ourselves.

In other words, Orwell criticized bad writing because it obstructs political judgment. It detaches words from meanings, indeed from the practice of making meaning in the first place — making them literally “bullshit”, as the philosopher Harry Frankfurt understands the term — and allows us to seem to write (and talk) about the world while holding it at arm’s length. 5 Eradicating the bad habits Orwell described was a way to make it more difficult for us to engage in this sort of political stupidity, because clear prose and conscious, reflective composition undermines our ability to hold simultaneously mutually-contradicting positions and to deny direct experience.

Improving our prose, then, is more than an exercise in aesthetics or a clash of different styles (florid or plain, indirect or direct, polysyllabic or concise, and so on). It is a political activity, helping to prevent the degradation of political judgement — more precisely, to prevent the conditions under which our political judgment is likely to suffer. His stylistic preferences notwithstanding, what is most important to Orwell is that we are actively choosing to write the way we do. We don’t allow tradition, habit, fashion, or ideology to supplant our judgment of what quality writing looks like.

This might seem like a roundabout way to make a point about the political significance of a debate over modernist typography. But “design bullshit” is not a bad translation of “Gestalterei” — not just design for its own sake, but design for its own sake that presents itself as design not for its own sake. It is design concerned mainly to impress upon the viewer/reader/user that it is Designed, and therefore Meaningful and Good. And this kind of pretense quickly outstrips the capacity of experience and feedback to keep the designer’s judgment in check, making it all the more likely that judgment will fail.

By contrast, Bosshard finds beneath Bill’s and Tschichold’s arguments over style a shared sensitivity to the ways that obsessing over aesthetics can eclipse a genuine concern for function and purpose. When Bosshard discusses the high modernism of a few of Tschichold’s later projects (like the cover of the English translation of his 1935 Typographische Gestaltung), for example, or Bill’s advertising and comic illustrations, he reveals in both designers a capacity for judgment and stylistic flexibility in service to the quality of design that puts their falling-out over the New Typography into proper perspective. That they may not always have been aware of this capacity themselves, or that their judgment may have failed them at times, doesn’t diminish their significance.

And the capacity for critical reflective judgment in design is no less politically significant than it is in writing. The ability to choose and articulate reasons for choosing design strategies makes it more likely that a designer will be able to strike the balance Norman Potter describes when he writes that while “designers are not privileged to opt out of the conditions of their culture, but are privileged to do something about it … to act for the community, as (in limited respects) the trained eyes and hands and consciousness of that community.” 6 Both the inability to extricate one’s judgment from those conditions and the desire to place one’s judgment entirely above them invite the sort of thoughtlessness that makes political catastrophe of any ideological flavor more likely.

In his afterword, Jost Hochuli reveals for the first time anywhere his discovery of an account of a chance meeting between Tschichold and Bill long after their exchange of essays. Sometime between 1967 and 1974 — Tschichold’s daughter-in-law, Lilo Tschichold-Link, who related the story to Hochuli, couldn’t recall exactly when it happened — the playwright and author Max Frisch had invited Bill to visit him at home in Berzona, Switzerland, where Tschichold also lived. Bill came an hour too early, and decided to look in on Tschichold. The two of them, Tschichold-Link recalls, sat in Tschichold’s garden and conversed over a glass of wine (she unfortunately couldn’t or didn’t tell Hochuli what they talked about). “Humanity wins!”, exclaimed Robin Kinross upon being told of their meeting.

The story told in Hochuli’s afterword is an invitation to leave the hyperbole, the clashes of style and personality and pride, where Bill and Tschichold did.

This story, I think, we read best as Hochuli’s — and Bosshard’s — invitation to leave the hyperbole, the clashes of style and personality and pride, where Bill and Tschichold did. And perhaps this is why it doesn’t seem unusual that Bosshard’s and Hochuli’s commentary overshadows the two essays that are its nominal object.

Bosshard’s remarkable achievement in this book is to show us that there is far more to the “clash of the moderns” than the opportunity for subsequent readers to choose a side. The debate is really an opening into a more interesting and fruitful discussion about the real significance and quality of design and the nature of design judgment. A book with so profound a point to make, and so pleasant to read, is surely worth translating. It might even be worth learning German for.

    Notes

  1. Kunz makes the remark in his essay on the occasion of Bosshard’s 80th birthday, Unbeirrt durch die Irrläufe der Zeit, reprinted online at his website
  2. See Martin Z. Schröder’s review of the book. Thanks to Indra Kupferschmid for pointing me to the review. 
  3. One could question just how different absolutisms of the right and left really are, and answer Bosshard by arguing that the ideological split would be better thought of as being between democratic beliefs, on the one hand, and authoritarian or totalitarian beliefs on the other. But even this would be problematic, since, as Andreas Koop has noted for example, the typographic preferences of both the modern bureaucratic state and of anti-authoritarian political movements tend toward modernism, as least as far as the serif/sans question is concerned: they both prefer sans serif faces. See Koop, Die Macht der Schrift (Verlag Niggli, 2012). 
  4. See Aicher’s essay die dritte moderne, reprinted in die welt als entwurf (Ernst & Sohn, 1991/1992). 
  5. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton University Press, 2005). 
  6. Potter, What is a designer, 4th ed. (Hyphen, 2002), p. 35. 

Maurice Meilleur is a recovering political theorist turned graphic designer and committed typophile. He currently works and teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is also a student in the graphic design MFA program.

6 Comments

  1. erik spiekermann says:

    Noticed that you changed Bosshard’s origin from German to Swiss. That depends: he was actually born in Germany, in a village surrounded by Swiss territory, but spent most of his professional life in Switzerland (and some time in Stockholm). FWIW he’s a German-born Swiss typographer. He was never part of the schism between the Basel and the Zurich school – perhaps one advantage of having outside roots.

  2. Erik, I changed HRB’s nationality per a comment from a representative at Niggli. I suppose ‘German-born Swiss typographer’ would better describe him, given that I suspect you’re right about his roots and allegiance to the Basel/Zürich schools. If I’m fortunate enough to meet him someday perhaps I’ll ask him how he thinks of himself.

  3. erik spiekermann says:

    Maurice, the only reason I even mentioned that is his very particular background: born in pre-Nazi Germany, educated in Switzerland during the war. So he must have got across the border just in time. I correspond with him a lot and I’ll ask him.

  4. If he’s willing, please share with us what you learn. I didn’t know this about his early years.

  5. What a completely beautiful article.
    The best I’ve read on Typographica.

  6. David H. Hundley says:

    I’ve come late to this review but found it absolutely superb and interesting. I was a student of Armin Hofmann in Basel and my typo-hero was Josef Muller-Brockmann. I met Max Bill through Josef. I remember them telling me that you could not be a good typographer without knowing a different language, playing a musical instrument and knowing how to draw.

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Typographica is a review of typefaces and type books, with occasional commentary on fonts and typographic design. Edited by Stephen Coles and designed by Chris Hamamoto. Founded in 2002 by Joshua Lurie-Terrell. Relaunched in 2009 by Coles and Hamamoto.

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