On hfg ulm and design education, in three acts

Published:  September 15, 2015
Brad Haylock

In Ulm, a small city in the south of Germany, something happened during the years 1953–1968 that helped shape design as we know it. A design school was born, it shone brightly and then, through a combination of internal and external politics, it disappeared almost as quickly as it had arisen.

The legacy of the Ulm School of Design is great. Its influence is global and continuing. But its story is less well known than it ought to be, particularly in graphic design circles – probably because industrial design was the school’s flagship discipline.

For this reason, and because there is still much to learn from this short-lived experiment, I want to share a version of its story here.

Ulm 4

Ulm building
Photograph by Hans G. Conrad

The roots of the Ulm School of Design were pivotal in determining the ethos and the ambition of the school, and in guiding the innovative directions it took. The school’s unique character can be traced through the histories of its three founders. Firstly, there is Inge Scholl, whose siblings, Hans and Sophie, were key figures in the White Rose, a non-violent student resistance movement opposed to the Nazi regime. On 22 February 1943, Hans and Sophie were executed for treason, by guillotine, merely four days after being arrested for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets on the grounds of their university in Munich. The Scholl siblings are subsequently remembered as icons of the German resistance. After the war, and based on this personal and political foundation, Inge and her colleagues sought to establish an educational institution that would contribute to a new Germany.

The second key figure in the foundation of the school is Otl Aicher, an influential graphic designer and husband of Inge Scholl. Aicher’s oeuvre includes the groundbreaking corporate identity system for the airline Lufthansa, developed with students at Ulm,  and the identity for the 1972 Munich Olympics, which is remembered both for Aicher’s influential modernisation of the Games’ pictograms and for the introduction of the first Olympic mascot (a dachshund named Waldi).

The Ulm School of Design was conceived in a climate of national regeneration after the horrors of the war, but the school’s pedagogy has pre-WWII roots. A few glyphs point to this lineage. In German, the school’s name is ‘Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm’, which often appears in its abbreviated form as ‘HfG Ulm’ or, more accurately, and importantly, as ‘hfg ulm’. The latter version is important because a rejection of capitalisation is a canonical expression of modernism in typography. The words “wir schreiben alles klein, denn wir sparen damit zeit” first appeared in the footer of the letterhead of the Bauhaus during its Dessau years. In translation, it reads: “we write everything small, thus saving time” – a moral statement synthesising a knowledge of typography and of political economy. And so we segue to the third key figure in the early history of the hfg ulm: the Swiss architect, painter and typographer Max Bill. (Yes, this is the ‘Zurich painter’ of the infamous Bill–Tschichold debate.) Bill was a student at the Bauhaus in Dessau from 1927 to 1929, and he was central to the aim in Ulm to reinstitute the legacy of the Bauhaus. In 1955, Walter Gropius himself, founder of the Bauhaus, inaugurated the purpose-built hfg ulm building that Bill had designed. As Brigitte Hausmann has noted, “by inviting [Gropius] to speak, the Ulm School of Design positioned itself programmatically and aesthetically and signalled its desire to continue the modernism interrupted by National Socialism.”

Max Bill, 1954 Photograph by Sisi von Hahn

Max Bill, 1954
Photograph by Sisi von Hahn

The legacy of the hfg ulm is great. Among other innovations, the school introduced semiotics into design curricula. The science of signs is now required reading in design education. The hfg ulm consolidated the reputation and reach of the Bauhaus foundation course, a version of which can now be found in design schools around the world. And in the school’s short history, the faculty of the hfg, through dedicated research units, developed connections with industry that yielded iconic works of design for firms such as Braun and Lufthansa. These projects were realised with the input of senior students, and were thus an example of what universities now call ‘integrated scholarship’ or the ‘teaching-research nexus’, yet the calibre and the lasting importance of these Ulm projects would be the stuff of most contemporary designer-academics’ dreams.

Other commentators have written on the influence of the hfg ulm upon design education in, for example, Scandinavia and Latin America. Past students have shared their reflections upon ‘the Ulm model’. Alain Findeli has interrogated the epistemology of the hfg in comparison with the Bauhaus in Dessau and the New Bauhaus in Chicago. But here I want to offer a contemporary take on the legacy of Ulm. Specifically, I want to discuss three artefacts from the school – three things that embody lessons to be drawn from the hfg which, for design education, are today more important than ever. Each of these three vignettes is a proposition, or rather a provocation. These provocations issue from a room, an item of furniture and an unexpected typographic specimen, respectively. These are lessons drawn from the hfg, but not in the usual way.


The hfg ulm metal workshop, 1958

The hfg ulm metal workshop, 1958

Firstly, the hfg ulm metal workshop, seen here in a photograph dated 1958. The image speaks volumes about the school. A voluminous space, raw concrete, unadorned columns and whitewashed brick. And fluorescent light fixtures whose minimalism belies the complexity of their installation. Lathes, drills, vices, metal folders and presses and lots of space. Bill’s hfg architecture mirrors his typography in all of its unrelenting austerity – an admirable singularity of vision. (Architectural commentators would say instead that his typography mirrors the ethic of his buildings.)

Forward in the frame, a woman stands at a saw: her shoes are enlightening to contemporary eyes because of their evident impracticality in a workshop environment. The image thus clearly predates a conservatism vis-à-vis occupational health and safety that is no doubt important in principle, but which today threatens to suffocate whatever creative ambience remains in the physical studio environments of Western design schools. Whatever creative ambience remains, that is, in the aftermath of space utilisation audits. Seemingly, the fecundity of a design school as a creative environment is inversely proportional to a society’s litigious disposition and its drive towards an optimisation of occupancy that follows from rampant real estate values and quantitative managerial principles – no small irony for capitalism in the era of the creative economy.

Of course, in the context of a discussion of design education, the word ‘studio’ can refer both to a physical learning environment and to a pedagogical approach. I’ve been talking about the former here, but the metalworking tools, the high heels and the high ceilings are merely a metaphor. I’m interested in the hfg ulm workshop because it embodies a respectful understanding of tools and techniques, which, in turn, represent an emphasis upon a strong disciplinary foundation. This is a disciplinary foundation borne of knowledge of history and of materiality. For example, with respect to graphic design education, a strong command of type is harder won if you’ve never held a piece of it in your hand. And the best digital designers are surely those who understand the elegance of efficient code. Like the challenge of wrangling a piece of metal into a pleasing shape with simple tools, as we see in the hfg image, so staring at lines of code on a black screen instils an appreciation of what is good, bad or exceptional in the realm of the digital. However frustrating they may be at the time, when it comes to appreciating the materiality of the digital realm, and the impact of this upon design considerations, few experiences are as educational as the hours spent searching for a single errant character that is producing runtime errors. I’m talking about disciplines with discipline. It’s hard to be a contemporary, trans- or inter-disciplinary practitioner if you’re not first well versed in at least one.

But, back to the photo: nestled behind the saw manned by the woman with high heels, a diminutive timber stool can be seen, and it is this we come to next.


Ulmer Hocker, or Ulm stool, 1954 Photograph by Ernst Hahn

Ulmer Hocker, or Ulm stool, 1954
Photograph by Ernst Hahn

Constructed from three boards of spruce, with dovetail joins and a length of dowelling, this stool is a quintessentially modern, minimal instrument for sitting. The stool is important, however, because it is a tool for other things besides.

Designed by Max Bill, Hans Gugelot, and Paul Hildinger, the ‘Ulmer Hocker’ (Ulm stool) was conceived and built for the hfg. The stool evokes Bill’s heritage, since a comparison can be drawn with another icon of Swiss design: the Swiss Army knife. Although it lacks the mechanical complication of the knife, the stool is a versatile implement. When laid on its side upon a table, the stool becomes an impromptu lectern. When inverted, the rod that appears at first to be merely a strut becomes a handle, and the underside of the seat a platform for books and other objects in transit. This deceptively simple piece of furniture allows a practicum to become a lecture, thus eliminating the divide between the workshop and the auditorium, or between practice and theory. Or the seat, in one minute a site of contemplation, becomes, in the next, an instrument of relocation, mobilising students and their reading materials alike, allowing any level ground on campus, indoors or out, to become a classroom. An entire pedagogical worldview is embodied in these three boards and one rod.

The stool is an icon of the school because it both facilitates and manifests a synthesis of theory and practice, of epistemology and technology. But, more importantly, the stool also demonstrates a quality that design graduates themselves ought to display: agility. As Bruce Archer, who taught at the school briefly, has said of the hfg ulm, it was “not the aim to produce design but to produce designers”. The stool is a blueprint for graduates: like this quietly versatile piece of furniture, a designer must be adaptable, agile. But if adaptability was already a necessary quality of designers in the third quarter of the twentieth century, this can only be more resoundingly and more urgently true today. Contemporary design education ought to equip its graduates with an agile disposition because design is undergoing change. The tools and tasks of design are evolving more rapidly than ever before. Globalisation and the relentless forward march of technology are producing unprecedented communication challenges. Excellent craftsmanship is no longer an aspiration; it is merely a necessity in the face of increasingly complex design challenges. The need to design immaterial systems, services, platforms and experiences explodes but does not replace the need to artfully design artefacts. Design education must equip its graduates with a capacity to undertake jobs that don’t yet exist: the interface and information design problems arising from ubiquitous computing were, for everyone but the sharpest science-fiction writers, unimaginable as recently as thirty years ago – and the rate of change is only increasing. But design education must also equip its graduates with a readiness to adapt, in a different way, to the explosion (read: dissolution) of design jobs as we have know them: an agile disposition is a necessary graduate outcome because the global maturation of economic neo-liberalism is producing profound changes in employment, from which the design professions will not be immune. Design will not elude the expansion of the precariat, that new social class for whom a lack of job security and terminal underemployment, due to the increased casualisation of more and more workforces, produces profound social and psychological consequences.

In short, design education should engender agility in the face of precarity. On this militant note, we move to the third lesson from Ulm.


hfg students demonstrate in Stuttgart against the threatened closure of the school, 4 May 1968 Photo by Herbert Kapitzki

hfg students demonstrate in Stuttgart against the threatened closure of the school, 4 May 1968
Photo by Herbert Kapitzki

The third artefact: a placard. Or, rather, many placards. In this image, we see hfg ulm students demonstrating in Stuttgart, on 4 May 1968, against the threatened closure of the school.

Merely hours earlier: on the evening prior, and some 500 kilometres to the east, a riot in Paris marked the beginning of what would be a month of unrest. During May of 1968 in France, students’ campaigns against the acceleration of capitalism and a conservative political regime grew into a unified resistance by students and factory workers nationwide. Production in many factories ground to a halt. In that charged historical moment, the streets were both the site and the medium of resistance, as cobblestones were dug up and mobilised as weapons. The de Gaulle government endured the unrest, but countless Citroëns, overturned and repurposed as barricades, fared less well. For the Left, the events of May 1968 in Paris are resoundingly important: it is the twentieth century’s uprising par excellence, a moment in which industrial and intellectual labour stood together in a popular resistance that very nearly forced a change of government. Not limited in their effect to France’s borders, the events of May 1968 in Paris precipitated a spate of student activism worldwide (including Australia).

Graphic designers, meanwhile, remember the May 1968 protests for a different reason, namely for the vital visual language of the Atelier Populaire (‘Popular Workshop’), a student-run poster workshop, operating out of occupied studios at the École des Beaux-Arts (the School of Fine Arts) in Paris. The Atelier Populaire posters were weapons of resistance in the moment, but they have also given the protest an enduring visual form. The now-iconic posters of the Atelier Populaire synthesised an acerbic analysis of prevailing industrial and ideological conditions, a pithy illustration style and the aura of lo-fi silkscreen printing.

One famous Atelier Populaire poster reads, simply, “the struggle continues”. The statement is hand-lettered under an oversized fist emerging from a factory chimney, naively drawn. The more extreme posters depict workers forced to labour at gunpoint, or unambiguously equate the French gendarmerie with the Nazi SS.

Against the backdrop of this fervent milieu, and in contrast with the energy of the Atelier Populaire posters, the visual language of the protests in Stuttgart was, like the protests themselves, decidedly sober. At the protests against the closure of the hfg, one placard reads: “50 years of repression: weimar, dessau, berlin, ulm”. Listed in order here, in a tone that is dryly precise in comparison with the French posters, are the three German cities that were successively home to the Bauhaus. In each of those cities, political pressures led to the demise of the successive iterations of that famous precursor to the hfg, a history that repeated itself in Ulm. Closing the loop on the Bauhaus–hfg story, Walter Gropius himself made an appearance at these protests. This, however, was not by design, since Gropius was by then based in the USA and travelling to Germany on other business. There is no shortage of cruel irony here: Gropius was visiting Germany on the occasion of an exhibition celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the inauguration of the Bauhaus. Of course, there can be no mistaking the connection between the two schools. Another placard from the Stuttgart protests reads: “the resurrection of the bauhaus, the ascension of the hfg”. The Christian metaphor here seems strangely misplaced in combination with the apparently agnostic functionalism of the placards’ strictly lowercase, jobbing grotesque typography – yet this is immaterial, merely a ploy on my part to divert attention to the type. The different hfg placards are important not because of their literal statement of the Bauhaus–hfg lineage, but rather because of the tacit link between the two schools embodied in the placards’ typography.

In the context of May 1968, the programmatic typography of these placards is decidedly out of place, but underpinning this typography is another virtue of the school that ought to be carried through to contemporary design education, namely an ethic of commitment. The anachronistic typography of the hfg students’ placards embodies a commitment to an inquiry into the social responsibility of design, grounded in material thinking, initiated fifty years prior. On these placards, justice is done to the mini-manifesto that appeared at the foot of the letterhead of the Bauhaus during its heyday in Dessau. To the end, the hfg continued the modernism interrupted by National Socialism. This call for consistency may seem, at first, to contradict the call for agility I made above, but a commitment to a continuing interrogation is in fact necessary to ground such agility. A foundational ethics is necessary as a touchstone for designers, in order to assist the navigation of problems “which are ill-formulated, … where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.”


So, to summarise this short text, these three lessons learned from the hfg, this position paper on contemporary design education in three acts: the workshop embodies the importance of material thinking or applied theory; the Ulm stool represents the importance of an agile disposition; and the lowercase typography of the hfg placards typifies the importance of an enduring ethics or of a knowing inquiry that runs through or beneath a designer’s practice. A triad of social contracts also emerges from these principles, whereby design schools, design students and the profession ought to be equally and unrelentingly demanding of one another. Finally, encircling this triad, in the spirit of the hfg, and in the face of the full weight of history and the future both, is a moral imperative that schools, designers (or designers-to-be) and the profession face alike: the spectre of social responsibility.

All images copyright Ulmer Museum, HfG-Archiv, Ulm.

Brad Haylock is a designer, a publisher and an educator. He is founding editor of Surpllus, an independent press committed to critical and speculative practices across art, design and theory, and he is an associate professor of design at RMIT University, where he is program manager of the Master of Communication Design.

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