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The Rhetoric of Neutrality

Author(s): Robin Kinross

Source: Design Issues, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 18-30
Published by: The MIT Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1511415 .
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Robin Kinross

The Rhetoric of Neutrality

"Informationdesign"hasemergedwithinrecentyearsasa distinct
areaof practiceandinvestigation,bringingtogether- amongprin-
cipalparticipants - graphicandtypographicdesigners,textwriters
entists. Riskingoversimplification,one mightsay thatthe infor-
mationdesignmovement(thoughmovementmaybe too stronga
termfor it) hasbeenconcernedaboutdiscoveringwhatis effective
graphicand typographiccommunication.It has been concerned
with the needsof usersratherthanwith the expressivepossibilities
presentin designtasks.Thisis its point of differencewith graphic
designas usuallypracticedandtaught.The movementis an inter-
nationalone, thoughcenteredin Britainandthe UnitedStates.It
has generateda good deal of literature,including,as forumsfor
discussion,two specialistjournals:VisibleLanguage(from 1971,
formerlytheJournalof Typographic Research,startedin 1967)and
InformationDesignJournal(startedin 1979).
This essayhastwo broadintentions.1First,to discuss,through
detailedexaminationof someof theproductswithwhichinforma-
tion designershavebeentypicallyconcerned,whetherinformation
can be neutral.And then to move on from this close criticismof
1) The essay was originally presented as a examplesto discussthe largersocialandpoliticaldimensionspres-
paper at the first Information Design
Conference, held at Cranfield, England
ent, even within the smallestand most mundanedesignedfrag-
in December 1984. The author is grateful ment. Thus, both explicitlyandby exampleof the mode of argu-
to the editors of Design Issues for their
criticisms of an earlier draft. In the text
ment employed, the essay makessome criticismof information
now published it seemed appropriate to designas it is so fardeveloped.
the aims and content of the paper to
retain as much as possible of its original
colloquial manner. Purity of information:some railwaytimetables
The startingpointfor this investigationis a passagein anarticleby
Gui Bonsiepethat has been a principalsourcefor recentwork in
visual rhetoric:"Informativeassertionsare interlarded[durch-
setzt]with rhetoricto a greateror lesserdegree.Informationwith-
out rhetoricis a pipe-dreamwhich ends up in the break-downof
communicationandtotalsilence.'Pure'informationexistsfor the
designeronly in aridabstraction.As soon as he beginsto give it
concreteshape,to bringit withinthe rangeof experience,thepro-
cess of rhetoricalinfiltrationbegins."2

2)Gui Bonsiepe, "Visual/Verbal Rhet- This is a clear statement of position and one that seems unexcep-
oric," Ulm 14/15/16 (December 1965): tionable. But then, three paragraphsfurther on, Bonsiepe appa-
30. See also these articles by Bonsiepe:
"Persuasive Communication: Towards a rently contradicts himself: "As examples of information innocent
Visual Rhetoric," Uppercase5 (1961): 19- of all taint of rhetoric, we might take the train timetable or a table
34; "Semantic Analysis," Ulm 21 (April
1968): 33-37; and, more recently, by of logarithms. Granted this is an extreme case, but because it is an
Hanno Ehses: "Representing Macbeth: extreme case, it is very far from representing an ideal model. For-
A Case Study in Visual Rhetoric,"
Design Issues I (Spring 1984):53-63; tunately communication is not tied exclusively to the perusal of
"Rhetoric and Design," Icographic 2 address books [or directories]. It would die of sheer inanition if
(1984): 4-6. In an article that leads up to
the present discussion, I have made some
these were to be its exemplar."3
criticism of the claims for visual rhetoric Taking up one of Bonsiepe's suggested categories of informa-
and semiotics: Robin Kinross, "Semio-
tics and Designing," Information Design tion, London North-Eastern Region (LNER) railway timetables
Journal 4 (in press). can be considered: the first from 1928 (figure 1) and the second
3) Bonsiepe, "Visual/Verbal Rhetoric," 30. from a redesign shortly after this date (figure 2). These examples
come from a publication of the Monotype Corporation, which
makes propaganda for their recently introduced Gill Sans type-
face. The major change is, of course, that of typeface. A change of
detail is the substitution of dashes for dotleaders in alternaterows;
also,the two dots in each element of the leader are further apart.
Otherwise, there is not much change.
Forty or so years later, in 1974 and now in the era of British Rail,
things are much the same (figure 3): another variation on the
theme of leaders, bold rather than medium as the standard for
times, few horizontal rules, and station namesnow set in lowercase.
These timetables, by the simple fact that they organize and
4) Oxford English Dictionary articulate and give visual presence to information, use rhetorical
means. A dictionary definition of the term rhetoric yields the fol-
Fig. 1) London North-Eastern lowing: "The art of using language so as to persuade or influence
Region timetable of 1928, as repro-
duced in Monotype Recorder 32 others; the body of rules to be observed by a speaker or writer in
(Winter 1933). order that he may express himself with eloquence. "4It is the sec-

(For trlsar on Saturdays oen PagM a to aiI

111I al iI... t
ILIl. I.i L. L.I. .
LIVERIPOOL T . .. dep.... 1(1u 10 10.. 13 .. 1 11401 . .. ..
Beth,lial (;ir 10 9. . ...1.. .... . .. .. t7 .. ..
Coborn d 104
.... 10 . ... .... 1118 ........ 11.4 ....

N,rBKOmT.dd de 09p
.. IO .. .. 1$ ..16 .....
8Budwell a&t. Gcog
.. 1.
1 ..
. 1Ig' ..
Stepny (Ea) ..- .... 1T11 ...... ...
110 ..
Burlett ..........
R .... ..... 1 4
ItotYtlod ... ..... 104 . 1115 121 . 46.
Brderle . t .:.. ..1... _ . . 1 .. 1 .. 0il .... .. 117 .. 1 . ..1. |
Sli tford ..
a1rr . 1 111 U&
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S'eliKnat..... 11 0 . . .. G1 -"
.117dep-l o_..1 05- ..II. m121
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.i.advi0 ..
?o12 ..11 1 1144 112
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Ilford ........... . . 3..i 111.. . 1 m o
Seven_ Kings ............ n. .. 1 .14
ave .... I1 . 1120 1 1 W U17 7
Cliadvell GIMalo" -. ............ .. 112 1124 1 0
... . d n
K;dr .o
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aIl old WoAi . ....... 1121 1139 .. . .
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0E1L3215ORD ...... .. .114
:.... ..

D TCallet Stratford to lake up pa:sencgr oily. B S.ooond clan carriages are not ruu on thes trUu.
r (alls cL lIfoi-d to take ia
u?p -i-act1e i n .)

Design Issues: Vol. II, No. 2 19

TABLi 13-cnatnul
(For tratns on Saturdayste pagse 63 to 69)
i04 ss s It
N 4 P p R k
. m.am0 Jm.m Lm. .m. p.ea p.m. Fm. pFm pem p m-
i0m 1153 ?<<*l
.. ..^*pM A. . 11m
LIVERPOOL STREiT ... id U0 46 11i0 ?13 1137 1141
112Sla,m 1151 12 C 12 3 12 5 1U19 1225 . . 1233 1241
_4ii 1MS - 1114 1141 12 7 1223 - 1237 1246
Betbel@Gr - - .10-3
1.63 109s :M' . 1118 ia- 1145 1211 IZS7 . . . 241
C oar,
Re .O . . Fod ...
. . 1042 i 12 5
FENCHIiUCH STREIfT dep/- i9" ii i II I II14 i23s
i032 1110 113
Shadwell asd St. Gtirl's Eat - 1034 1112 _ 12 9 1-7
Ills I
Steprey (Eat) . . 1037 tI43 12 I
Bardett Roaa - . , - 1043 1112 1117 1145 12 3 1242
. . 1043 1121 3 12 6 1217 1245 .
Market -. -- wr,. 1121 ll4 1222 12 0
t .e . 17 -.ol
- M T l ll 4
rA1e1t . 11 lla
11in WU 117C 19 _15 ~M 121
2 SS 1215 1245 252
15 ii) 1121 rs%
1152 12.3 .31 1213 1216 1232 1253
1052 112 1124 . . II 1136
1130 113 1215 _k14
?113 1235 1255
II iI UNW 1133 1141 I2I8 122 12I 1250
Mlaf d
{w Ll
.. . ..
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Harold Wood - II 21 1138 I 9
231 . . 4
Bmtrewoodand Wesley% .....
It 30 1145
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CHIELMSFOR 3 - ' - 4 - - ti 2 - - 122 -1 1238.2s--4 e_ i 18

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C calls to t dore pis#agerstely t RumnFrlday 15th. 2sed oriW * t t
Vl 29. a *ilyt
N lNotirslk 91 S"bUtlw i Satnd clu crr rI re not u ntS
Sfiohe r

Fig.2) LondonNorth-Eastern ond sense (the body of rules for eloquence) that seems to describe
1928,usingGillSans,as reproduced the case of the timetables. The system of tabulararrangementthat
in MonotypeRecorder32 (Winter these examples employ is like a figure of rhetoric: a framework for
eloquent articulation. But is there any rhetoric involved if another
definition (chronologically later and also more popular), such as
"language characterized by artificial or ostentatious expression"5
is considered? Not obviously, unless one regards the replacing of
5) Oxford English Dictionary
a leader composed of two dots by one made up of six dots as a sign
of ostentation. And, perhaps, within the sober and hushed
domain of the timetable, it is just that.
Another point of comparison is provided by the page from the
Dutch railway timetables of 1970-71 (figure 4). The main feature is
the use of color - lost, of course, in this reproduction. A green
strip along the top of the page indicates that the user is in the sec-
tion of the book that covers the northern and eastern parts of the
country. Then red is used in the network diagramabove the tables,
to show further destinations after changing trains. In the tables,
red is also used as the symbol for "Tempo" or intercity trains.
Other differences from the British examples: the absence of any
dotleaders, horizontal rules showing when a train stops for a
minute or more, and the use of medium charactersonly - no bold
- for the station names and the times.
Now, if small modifications in the form of dotleaders are
regarded as ostentations, how can this deployment of color be
described? It is hard to think of anything that is more like a rhetor-
ical device than this use of color, especially within so tight and dry
a context as a timetable. Color is perhaps like music: It can play on
our senses. How, we do not quite know. But suddenly we are
seduced. And is not this a rhetorical maneuver, in the sense of a set


Table 8
Mondays to Fridays
o Colchester
wiland Clacton
London to Colchester, Walton-on-Naze and Clacton Mondays 27 May, 26 Augult_od 31

X ;! x
London Liverpool 0
Street d 122 18 40 18 42 19 0019 64 19 3 t 34 201
20 26. 2 . 2. X1 21 021 3 ..
d '8biS ............... tb34 ..... 1 II 1L........
Romiord 6d ;*87 .'. . . 1sb46 .. 92 19b5 11 2 II
9645 .. 051' 2. .... 1. 2 .. ..
Shcn.feld d1
4F ........
It IS . 4
141 X00 .... 9158, -- .. 1 A 241 I.. .:.2 . ?
lr .... 22 4
Chtlmsford d 19 0 . . .. 19 2 I9 31 It9l a014
id 22 a
H&latild Peverel .... ..
d .
19 a ...............~9
1931 . 022
9d t 19 4~ .. .&M
Kelt*don ... .......
.. ....t ...
Ma,kt Tey .. 2.. .. 1) If '
.d .................
0 a 19 25
.... ( $t .....
. ...
... . .. ... ....
19 . 31 t 5119 5S 12021 21 4v1 .. Jl 29 2...2 ..... . *
d1 26 . .19 36 20 ..... ..... 1144 .... 3 .....
St Iotolphs ad . .... ... ....
42.... ..
d ............ 19 .... .........
Hy'hc 333
d . 4
. 1956 . .
2 II
21 ..31........
.. 21 36 .
.. ...
......... .........

h .....21 2.......... r
Vvee'y, .......... 3
c d 19 . . ... ........ .. ..... 21 31 .......
Th-,- At Sokn-
.. 2.....!.!..
d - ..~S20'- - |. .. 21 20 .. .. 2303
d l ........ 20 2 ...-.2( 22.......... .23 Sr
... .21 il 23 10
.*....21 #t......... ..... ..... . .....
_ _j _ , _ 1) _ _ .
Tho,- SSoe

Clacton 1t 5* ... 20 15 .... 120 2B...

43.. .

Fig. 3) From the British Railways of rules for making information eloquent and more easily under-
Board Passenger Timetable, 1974-
standable, and then - more than this - for sweetening it and slip-
75. Reproduced by permission of
British Railways Board. ping it down our throats?
At this point it is helpful to return to the meanings of the term
rhetoric, and to point to its sense of "the art of using language so
as to persuade or influence others." A distinction is customarily
made between design for information, for example, timetables,
and design for persuasion, for example, advertising, above all. The
argument of this essay is that this distinction cannot be a clear one.
Looking again at Bonsiepe's theses, it seems that on the evidence
of the examples discussed, his first perception was correct. As
soon as the move from concept to visible manifestation is made,
and especially to a manifestation as highly organized as a time-
table, then the means used become rhetorical. Here another defi-
nition of rhetoric might be tried, the art of directed communica-
tion - directed, that is, both internally to organize the material
communication and externally to persuade an audience. For there
is an element of persuasion here, which can be brought out just by
asking, why do transport organizations go to the trouble of having
their timetables designed and, even more significantly, re-
designed? These timetables are designed to say something persua-
sive about the nature of the organization that publishes them.
When quoting the two passages from Bonsiepe, an apparent con-
tradiction is highlighted. The contradiction is between his assert-
ing that information without rhetoric cannot exist in the real
world and his excluding the possibility that timetables could be
rhetorical. In his second passage, Bonsiepe is wrong. Even if one
takes rhetoric to mean artful persuasion, timetables can still enter
this arena.
Using metaphor, the fusty British trains of 1960 (plush seats,
patterned fabrics, carpets, lights with conical shades, little curtains

Design Issues: Vol. II, No. 2 21

^ ^ -- , - .. "

ib l

33t V 4.. e x Sv i 61 s t 4 S CM,
37 t :

5s20 .. . 7 17 1 * 74
4 0 #77ofiokoq
. a 34*;eA 71735

Fig. 4) Pagefromthe Dutch - a substitute for the bourgeois interior awaiting the traveler at
nation al railway timetable (Spoor-
either end of the journey) can be contrasted with a Dutch train of
boekje)) 1970-71; designed by Tel
Designi. Reproducedby permission the 1970s (seating of tubular steel, some tough synthetic seat mat-
of NV Nederlandse Spoorwegen.
erials, plain colors - a little severe but easy to construct and easy to
Fig. 5) Pagefroma British Railways keep clean). This is not, of course, to claim that these contexts can
Easter n Region "Services to be inferred from the two timetables (figures 4 and 5); but it seems
Germaany"timetable, 1960. Repro- . *
duced Ibypermission of British fair to say that the sense one has of each of these examples is of a
RailwaiysBoard. piece with their respective contexts. And "the sense one has" of
them is a consequence of the rhetorical devices they employ. All
these examples impart information of times, destinations, buffet
cars, and so on through the means of typography: typeface, type
style, rules, dotleaders, symbols, spaces, and color. And these
means constitute an "interlarding" (to use Bonsiepe's word) of
information, and this interlarding provides the data of cultural

The resonance of typefaces

To address more specifically the theme of the rhetoric of neutral-
ity, it is useful to isolate one component of these timetables: the
typefaces in which they are set. This is not to suggest that style of
letterforms - typeface - is the most important thing in typography
(in practice, it often seems to be the least important element). But
the choice of typeface is often telling, in that it indicates the ideas
and beliefs that inform the process of design.
In the progression from the first LNER timetable of 1928 to its

redesigned version,the changewas essentiallyone of typeface:
fromanineteenth-century seriftypefaceto GillSans,thesansserif
designedby EricGillfor the MonotypeCorporation. Itisinstruc-
tive to readthe explanantion put forwardby the anonymous
writerin the MonotypeRecorder,fromwhichtheseexamples
6) "An Account of the LNER Type Stan- come.6The typefacewas chosenas a standardfor LNER,the
dardization," Monotype Recorder 32 writerexplained,as a wayof givingallits printedmatterandits
(Winter 1933): 6-11.
signinga commonidentity.It wassuggestedthatGillSansalso
possessescertainintrinsicvirtues:It seemsto performwellunder
thecriticalconditions of railwaytravel.Toquotedirectly:"apass-
engerbeingjostled a crowdedplatformon a winterevening,
andtryingwithoneeyeon thestationclockto verifytheconnec-
tionsof a giventrain. .."; withoutserifsandwithlinesof fairly
consistentthickness,"itis so 'strippedfor action'thatas faras
7) "An Account of the LNER Type Stan- glancereading goes,it isthemostefficientconveyorof thought."7
dardization," 10. Butthewriterwascarefulto stopatthispoint.Heorshe(itmay
well havebeenBeatriceWarde,thenin chargeof theMonotype
Corporation's publicity) wentonto suggestthatsansserifsareless
legiblethan serif typefacesin extendedpassagesof text, and
rejected theideathatsansserifshaveanynecessary orspecialclaim
on the allegedZeitgeist.Thiswas the typicalvoiceof the new
traditionalism (asit hassometimes beentermed)in Britishtypog-
raphy,atthemomentwhenthevoicesof typographic modernism
8) For example, Jan Tschichold's program- werejust beginningto be heard.8For the new traditionalists,
matic statement "Wasist und was will die
neue Typografie?" (1930) had appeared typography neededto be modern- to usemechanized processes
under the title "New Life in Print" in the andto caterto the needsof the modernworld- butneededto
journal of the advertising trade in Bri- avoid"modernism." Thespecterof DasModernismus waskeptat
tain, CommercialArt (July 1930): 2-20.
bay, in this case the of a
by development sophisticated rivalto the
more rationally,geometricallyconceived,new Germansans
As exemplified by thetimetables shown(figures2, 3, 5), Gill
Sansremained in usein Britainasthenormalsansserifwellinto
the 1960s.Itspredominance wasthendisturbed by thearrivalon
themarketof Univers,thetypefaceusedintheDutchtimetable of
figure 4. Univers was designed in Paris, in
beginning 1954, by the
SwissAdrianFrutiger,andfirstbecameavailableas Monotype
matrices in 1961.Whenit wasnew,Universcarried withit anaura:
thatof system.It wasthefirsttypefacewhosetotalsetof forms-
the variantsof weightandexpansionor contraction - wascon-
ceivedat theoutset.Theclaimwasmadeimplicitly(inthename
givento it) andto someextentexplicitly(inpublicityforit)thatit
wasthetypefaceto meetallneedsinanytypesetting systeminany
language usingLatin characters.

Thefateof modernism
- theintroduction
Thechangesof typefacein thesetimetables of
Gill Sansin the late1920sandearly1930s,replacingninteenth-
centuryseriftypefaces,and then the introductionof Univers

Design Issues: Vol. II, No. 2 23


II das bauhaus
I -
in dessau I - I

$Smm_Imwnet SoS*AX *fv u,

WmW,o o i .s * , s,_


t iI
td dv __a t me
-U _o_m

Fig. 6) Letter of the Dessau 1
Bauhaus, designed by Herbert I
Bayer, 1925, as reproduced in Jan I
Tschichold, Die neue Typographie
6- .
(Berlin: Verlag des Bildungver- *
I*vwola A
k r w
.* ; , " - I- . In, , , . E . ,

bandes der Deutsche Buchdrucker,

~LI- l*_

_1 _Lc~

w*9_s, ,5i

- - .--
-.- +

- "i -14.)

-- '.
,+, I
I .
I .A

11 11.11 -

(from the early 1960s) to replace earlier sans serifs such as Gill or
the grotesques - are instances of larger historical shifts that under-
lie this subject. To put it ratherportentously, one is here discussing
the fate of modernism in the twentieth century: the attempted
social and esthetic revolution that took off, shakily, from the con-
tinent of Europe in the 1920s and began to suffer drastic, almost
fatal reversalsin the 1930s (in Germany above all) but which strug-
gled on, dispersed and diluted and which reemerged in the post-
war world of the West and somehow, rathermysteriously, became
a common visual currency during the 1950s and 1960s.
What has this to do with the rhetoric of neutrality and informa-
tion design? My suggestion is that the assumptions and beliefs of
information design can be traced to the period of heroic modern-
ism (between the two wars) and that they spring directly from cer-
tain post-World War II mutations of the modern movement.
Thus, in order to understand the present situation of information
designers, one needs to investigate modernism and its history.


- --
Wu-tbobjk"rrs -- - .i -
* 0*nfskn -- tmi" - int
' tBBB^^^^

_ _vtM
olte 26

plell fr. -.6 juni 1932t,

Fig. 7) Cover of the journal Infor- f.jl 2

For example,forconsider
style ofthis
but for
reasons the froma famous
most compelling
quotation artifact of
modernist typography, the letterheading of the Dessau Bauhaus
(in one of its several variations, figure 6): "an attempt at a
simplified mode of writing: 1. from all the innovations in writing,
this mode is recommended as the form of the future .... 2. text
loses nothing when composed only of small letters, but becomes
easier to read, easier to learn, essentially more scientific. 3. why
for one sound -'a,' for example - two signs, A and a; why two
alphabets for one word, why twice the quantity of signs when just
half of them would be enough?"
This example serves as a reminder of the faith of modernism:
the belief in simple forms, in reduction of elements, apparentlynot
for reasons of style but for the most compelling reason of need -
the need to save labor, time, and money, and to improve com-
munication. Text set in lowercase only is, it was suggested, "easier
to read." If we smile at this declaration now (how difficult to

Design Issues: Vol. II, No. 2 25

imagineanysuchstatementon a present-dayletterheading!), these
ideasdo becomeunderstandable when seenin the contextof their
time andplace:Germanysoon afterWorldWarI, when standar-
dizationwas an economicimperativeand when therewere pos-
sibilitiesof socialandpoliticalrevolution.However, by the mid-
dle 1920s (the time of the Bauhausletterheading)the utopian,
revolutionarymomenthad passed, and economicand social life
were attainingsomedegreeof stability.
It is fromthis time in the progressof between-the-warsmoder-
nismthatthe themeto whichinformationdesignis anheircomes
to the fore:the mood of Sachlichkeitanda governingbeliefin sci-
ence and technology.Thus, writingwith smalllettersis "essen-
Anotherdocumentfrom the periodprovidesfurtherevidence:
a journalpublishedin Zurich,whichgatheredwritersfromacross
the spectrum of interests - economics, science, education,
technics,andart- underthe bannerof Information(figure7). In
both formandcontentit is a typicalproductof the modernmove-
ment. This is not to suggest that with this journalthe modern
movementlaidany exactclaimon the word andthe ideathatnow
helpsto bringinformationdesignerstogether,butmerelythatthis
strandof modernism'stypical concernwith information- "in-
structiveknowledge"- is somethingthatpresent-dayinformation
In alludingaboveto the "reversal"of the 1930sin Germany,one
is, of course, simplifyingand, it could be argued, falsifying.
Revisionisthistorianshave effectivelydisposed of the myth of
some absolute break (in January 1933) between modernistin
9) For English-language readers, this is "goodform"andNazi kitsch.9It is clearthatthe modernmove-
most accessible in John Heskett's article
"Modernism and Archaism in Design in
ment in design,in Germanyas elsewhere,was alwaysa minority
the Third Reich," Block 3 (1980): 13-24. affair,justasit is obviousthatGermannationalsocialismaccepted
See also the recent survey by Jeffrey and exploitedelementsof modernity:industrialproductionand
Herf, Reactionary Modernism (Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, technological advance. In the sphere of esthetics, however,
1984). nationalsocialismarrivedeventuallyat neoclassicismas its pre-
ferredstyle in architectureandalso in typography.Thus, follow-
ing a Nazi Partydecreeof 1941,gothicor blackletter("theJewish
Schwabacher")was deposed as the standardletterformin Ger-
10) The decree is reprinted in Karl Kling- many;the new standardwas to be roman(Antiqua).10 The words
spor, Uber Schonheit von Schrift und of the thousand-yearReich,likeits publicarchitecture,wereto be
Druck (Frankfurt am Main: Schauer,
1949), 44. lent authorityborrowedfromclassicalRome.
The ambiguitiesof beliefs and forms of those yearsin central
Europeforce one to definewhat it was in the modernmovement
that is still alive in design now. For informationdesign, specifi-
cally, one might separateout a commitmentto the rational,the
sceptical,the democraticsocialist,the internationas playingno
partin nationalsocialistmodernization.This collectionof beliefs
andattitudes- includingalsomorespecificbeliefsin simpleforms
and economiesof effort- is somethingthat informationdesign

inherited from heroic modernism, but in transmuted form, over a
gap of years in which World War II figured as an enormous con-
vulsion. The after effects of this convulsion are described below,
without a pretense of understanding precise causes.

Information design in the postwar world

In the immediate postwar situation, the ideals of modernism
seemed to find a role again. In Britain, one thinks of the programs
of the new Labour government in housing, health, and education
and of the surrounding discussion and presentation. But with the
economic recovery of the 1950s, ideals changed. The dream then
envisioned an ideology-free or ideologically neutral world made
possible by advances in technology, by an abundance of material
goods, by the spread of representative democracy and the eclipse
11)The termideology,thoughbedeviledby of rival political systems, and by mass education.11 It was this
slippagein its meanings,seemsimpossi- dreamworld of the 1950s and the 1960s in the United States and
ble to avoid.In thiscontextof the 1950s
in the West, one thinksparticularlyof Western Europe that provided the context for the spread of mod-
DanielBell'sthesisof the "endof ideol- ernism in design. To return to the timetables, this was the context
ogy,"elaboratedin his book of this title
(Glencoe,IL:FreePress,1960).In a let- in which Univers - the universal, sans serif, sans-ideology type-
ter to me (11 October 1985),Bonsiepe face - could be designed and be so widely adopted. This was the
explainedthat he was, then as now,
interestedin "thepossibilityof introduc- context of the flourishing of Swiss typography: the style of techni-
ing argumentsinto the designdiscourse. cal advance, precision, and neutrality.12
And argumentsare anythingelse than
neutral"If it was wrongto seek a solu- If the word information can be used as a point of focus for some
tion in informationtheory(withits neg- between-the-wars modernists, it also has specific connotations
lect of the receiveror user),the problem
remainsa realone, unilluminated
that date from after World War II in the United States. This is its
by dec-
adesof designmethodology. use in the terms information theory and information technology.13
12)For moredetaileddiscussion,see Robin The science of information is then laid onto the pattern of modern-
Kinross,"EmilRuder'sTypography and
'Swiss Typography'," Information ism: partly fitting with and confirming it, partly modifying it. The
DesignJournal4 (1984):147-153. notable feature of the post-World War II concern with informa-
13)Thefoundingtextof informationtheory
is C. E. Shannonand W. Weaver,The tion is the way in which concepts developed in electricalengineer-
Mathematical Theoryof Communication ing and computing have been generalized and dispersed, so that
(Urbana:Universityof Illinois Press,
1949);for a popularaccountof the "in-
notions such as "message," "feedback," "redundancy,"for exam-
formation revolution," see, Jeremy ple, could become part of anyone's mental baggage- in particular
Campbell,Grammatical Man(London:
AllenLane,1983). any designer's. This seepage from the laboratory into the wider
world happened because such concepts could be of service. The
idea was put forth that human transactions might have the same
order and essential simplicity as an electrical circuit. One may sus-
pect here a desire for the human world to be as amenableto under-
standing and control and as free from unpredictability as an elec-
trical machine.
If information design can in many of its aspects be traced back
to between-the-wars modernism, then the other large component
in its formation would be this more recent matter of what has been
called the information revolution. The clearestinstance of the con-
junction of these two strands- or overlaying of patterns - is in the
work of the Hochschule fur Gestaltung Ulm (HfG Ulm), the
institution that fostered the work of Bonsiepe, which provided the
starting point for this investigation.

Design Issues: Vol. II, No. 2 27

The HfG Ulm was set up in the early 1950s to continue the
Bauhaus tradition, though tempered and developed for the post-
Fig. 8) Page from catalog (designed
by its printer) investigated by Gui
World WarII world (and the special problems of reconstruction in
Bonsiepe, with the collaboration of West Germany).14For example, there was at first a Department of
Franco Clivio, as reproduced in
Ulm 21 (April 1968). Reproduced Information to educate students in skills of writing and radio
by permission of Gui Bonsiepe. broadcasting. But the real point of contact of the HfG Ulm with

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this argumentis in the interesttakenby some of its membersin
communicationor informationtheory, cybernetics,and related
areasof inquiry.A good exampleof theseconcernsis an articlein
14) The conflict-ridden history of this school
lives on to obstruct attempts to docu-
whichGui Bonsiepe,usingthe Shannonformula,triedto quantify
ment its work, but see a recent special the respectivedegrees of order in two pages of an industrial
journal issue on "The Legacy of the
School of the Ulm," Rassegna 19 (Sep- catalog:the irrational,ad hoc approachto design in a printer's
tember 1984). existing version (figure 8) and an Ulm-designedversion of the
same information,concernedto reducevariationsof type size,
15) Gui Bonsiepe, "A Method of Quantify- text measure, picture size (figure 9).15 In his conclusion, Bonsiepe
ing Order in Typographic Design," Ulm ruminatedon the possibilitythatthe redesignwasmorebeautiful,
21 (April 1968): 24-31. This article was
also published in Journal of Typographic as well as moreorderedthanthe original.Thus, this projectcom-
Research 2: (July 1968): 203-220. binedthe lessonsof the new typographyof CentralEuropein the
1920sand 1930swith those of the Bell TelephoneLaboratoriesin
the 1940s.
The work of the HfG Ulm representsa marriageof modernism
of form and appearancewith highly developed theoretical
interests.The marriagewas a convenientone: Formalexpression
could diminishas the theoreticallabor- the work of analysis-
flourished.And this did seem to fit, at least for a time (the late
1950sandearly1960s),into the patternof WestGermany,in par-
ticular: the society of the "economicmiracle."The analytical
approachcouldfindapplicationin thecomplextasksof coordinat-
ing the design of productsof large concerns(a Lufthansaor a
Braun).The style that issuedout of the analysisworkedtoo: to
providea senseof efficiency,sobriety,seriousness.Thesewerethe
guidingvaluesof the Germanpost-WorldWarII recovery.So one
arrivesagainat the rhetoricof neutrality.If nothingcanbe freeof
rhetoric,whatcanbe done to seemfreeof rhetoric?The style (for
suchit was) of the HfG Ulm was one response.

This historicalexcursion- proceedingvia LondonNorth-Eastern
Regionrailwayin the 1920s,CentralEuropein the 1930s,Ulm in
the 1960s,andon up to thepresent- is intendedto serveasa simple
reminderthatnothingis freeof rhetoric,thatvisualmanifestations
emergefrom particularhistoricalcircumstances,that ideological
vacuumsdo not exist.In thecontextof thepresentratherintensely
chargedand volatile political atmospheresof even the "stable"
Westernnations,it maynot be neccesaryto laborsuchtruths.The
rhetoricalinterlardingthat these cultureseffect in their material
andvisualproductionhardlyneedsdecoding.Thatis certainlyso
if one thinksof the moreblatantproductsof the Westerncultures
16) "It is informally estimated within the
of consumption:advertisements,above all.16 But, amonginfor-
advertising industry that on any given mation designers,there has been a tendancyto escapefrom the
day the average American city-dweller
takes in roughly 2,000 advertising mes- assaultsof the widerworld, to deny any ideaof rhetoricalpersua-
sages;" thus Mark Crispin Miller, "Intro- sion, and to take refuge in immaculateblack machinecasings.
duction: The Critical Pursuit of Adver-
tising," Word & Image 1 (October-
Indeed,the whole revolutionof informationtechnologyseemsto
December 1985), 320. encouragethe view thatideology becomesincreasinglyreduced-

Design Issues: Vol. II, No. 2 29


miniaturized - in step with the development of ever smaller and

more powerful computing devices. Therefore, we need to keep
awake, applying our critical intelligences outside, as well as inside,
the black box: questioning and resisting.

Fig. 9) The catalog page redesigned

(halftone pictures represented
schematically), as reproduced in
Ulm 21 (April 1968). Reproduced ,, ' j , r:-:
by permission of Gui Bonsiepe. j
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