Walter Herdeg

1908, Zürich


The year before Nazi Germany was defeated was 1944, and despite Allied army advance, Switzerland, neutral but not out of danger, continued to keep its frontiers closed fearing invasion from a desperate Reich. Despite many privations, the Swiss nervously attended to business as usual, hoping for peace. It was also the year that Walter Herdeg, a thirty-four-year-old Zürich-born advertising designer, decided to launch an international design magazine which he called Graphis, the Greek word for a writing instrument. Believing that normalcy would inevitably come, he wanted this publication to contribute to the applied arts, but moreover he wanted to help develop a new field of graphic design. Upon its publication, Herdeg stuffed a dozen copies of the first issue into each diplomatic pouch that left his landlocked country for Swiss embassies abroad, hoping that, like the proverbial note in a bottle, they would reach friendly and responsive hands.

After Germany's capitulation and the opening of Switzerland's borders a year later, Graphis was warmly greeted by its new-found constituents and soon became the proponent of an international cross-pollination of design philosophies and practices. Forty-two years and 246 issues later, Walter Herdeg has become, in the words of art historian Manuel Gasser, “a kind of graphic conscience of our age.” And now in his first year of self-imposed retirement, it is appropriate that the American Institute of Graphic Arts bestow its medal upon him, acknowledging his contributions to exemplary graphic design and illustration.

Graphis has been the clarion of a wide range of design approaches and the showcase for over four generations of fine talent. Herdeg purposefully introduced Americans to Western Europeans in order that each might learn and share their visual ideas. To Eastern Europeans, Graphis was perhaps even more invaluable. Herdeg not only opened a window to the practice of the West but also made the world aware of the otherwise unknown graphic innovations taking place within the Soviet bloc. Herdeg devoted special issues to isolated design communities such as those in Japan and Finland. And he focused on a variety of applied arts genres, including comics, medical illustration and children's books, in an effort to create equality and respect for the various forms. Herdeg was helped in this only to the extent that he developed a network of trusted international correspondents and a Zürich-based support staff, but the ultimate decision-making was his alone. In fact, Graphis was never simply the sum of its parts; it was always Walter Herdeg's statement.

He was its publisher, editor, designer and arbiter of taste. He analyzed, criticized and lovingly administered to every last detail. Hence, a feature story in Graphis was not merely a showcase for a designer, it was a verification that his or her work was admired by one of the most critical men in the field. Though certainly self-styled, the responsibility he gave himself was not misplaced. While those who were never paid notice in Graphis or in the Graphis Annuals might have been disappointed by his authoritarian rule, no one could fault his integrity or his standards in matters of design and illustration. He never succumbed to caprice, style or fashion, once stating that his rationale for whatever appeared in Graphis meant that a work “had to be fashionable for 50 or 100 years.”

Walter Herdeg was born in Zürich on January 3, 1908. As a youth, he loved drawing and hoped that it would be possible to get an artistic, meaningful job. However, he recalls, “There wasn't such a profession yet that I was aware of, so for me there was only the possibility of learning to become a lithographic draftsman in a printer's, which would not have satisfied me.” By chance Herdeg then heard at this time of the existence of a graphics class that had been established shortly before at the Kunstgewerbeschule, Zürich, and whose first teacher was Ernst Keller. That was his aim. But since his parents were too poor to afford tuition to art school, there were more pressing concerns. But as luck would have it, he met Ernst Keller, the sympathetic teacher and pioneer of Swiss poster art in the Twenties, who offered this apparently talented boy a full scholarship.

Upon graduation in 1928, Herdeg left for Berlin to study with Professor O.H.W. Hadank, one of the masters of German package and trademark design, at the Hochschule für bildende Kunst. He had saved only enough money to study for one semester, but when he announced that he was forced to return to Zürich, Hadank offered Herdeg a job in his studio working on cigarette packages, logos and doing calligraphy. In 1930 he returned to Zürich and established a little studio where he specialized in trademarks and lettering. His clients included Schwind Radio, Moinat, the furniture manufacturer, and others. More important, though, it was during this time that Herdeg met Dr. Walter Amstutz, the man responsible for publicizing the famed mountain resort, St. Moritz.

The relationship was a designer's dream, for Amstutz understood the need for good and effective publicity and trusted Herdeg's tastes implicitly, allowing him to create a unique, if not revolutionary, identity campaign. As Herdeg notes, “I was heading up a corporate design program without knowing that such a thing existed.” Although Peter Behrens had designed a corporate identity for AEG, a German electrical company, two decades before, this was certainly the first time a health resort ever tried to do “corporate design.” Herdeg created a memorable campaign based on a delightful trademark of a brightly shining sun which, to his credit, is till used today. And which he proudly had carved onto a ring that he always wears.

Herdeg was influenced by Claude Hopkins, the American publicity genius whose advertising philosophies emphasized the clear articulation of imagery and thus changed the visual tenor of the field. Although Bauhaus had exerted a great influence on contemporary practice, Herdeg eschewed what he believed was the cold rationality of the Bauhaus for a more eclectic approach. “My job,” he states, “was to bring people to St. Moritz. I knew that if I did abstract designs most people would not understand and so would not be motivated. I had to create an atmosphere that gives one the desire to breathe fresh air, soak up warm sun and ski. So I knew I must have color. Today I would use color photography, but in those days it did not exist.” His decision to apply bright colors with an airbrush to his inventive photomontages was concurrent with Herbert Matter's now iconographic Swiss tourism posters.

The six years that Herdeg worked more or less full-time for St. Moritz offered more than just a collection of fine portfolio samples. “The condition of employment,” he recalls happily, “was that I could travel to London, Paris and New York between seasons to work on my own besides making sketches for the various future campaigns.” These lengthy sojourns abroad increased his awareness of international design and thus strengthened his own vision as well. However, by 1938 with the specter of world war rearing again for the second time in 20 years, St. Moritz decided to terminate its long-range, foreign publicity plans, thus ending one career chapter and beginning another for Herdeg.

The two Walters—Amstutz and Herdeg—decided to continue as partners forming Amstutz & Herdeg Advertising Editions. Amstutz found the clients; Herdeg designed their trademarks, labels and brochures. Herdeg was particularly enamored of book design and pursued it as much as time and clients would permit. He was even more captivated by the idea of producing a design magazine from scratch.

During his time in Berlin, Herdeg was an avid reader of Professor Walter Frenzel's Gebrauchsgraphik, the Berlin-based magazine of international advertising art. He was proud the Gebrauchsgraphik featured his work for St. Moritz in a 1938 issue. But Herdeg felt that he could do such a magazine better. “Frenzel restricted himself entirely to advertising, and I wanted to do a magazine that showed other expressions of art, like the French journals Cahiers d'Art and Arts et Métiers Graphiques.” Frenzel died in an auto accident in 1939, and the publication of Gebrauchsgraphik ceased. As a consequence of war, any kind of artistic study—applied or otherwise—was also on hold. But Herdeg was still intent on starting a magazine. “I couldn't wait until the Nazis lost the war,” he remembers. “When Stalingrad fell, I came out with the dummy of my project, and in September 1944, I was ready to send the magazine out. We began with a meager 1,000 subscribers in Switzerland, and immediately after the war, we did a subscription campaign in America which brought in 1,500 more.”

Herdeg convinced the newly-founded Swiss Union of Advertising Designers to make Graphis its official voice, which would be governed by a board of advisors. But after the first issue, they realized the full extent of Herdeg's abilities and dissolved the board, giving him full support. It was clear from the outset that Graphis' high standards were to be maintained. Herdeg even deigned the few advertisements he had gotten from suppliers. The design of the entire magazine was as important to Herdeg as was the editorial content. Though some have criticized Graphis' design for being too stolid, its functional conservatism is its reason for success. “The layouts in Graphis, or magazines like it, must never be spectacular,” says Herdeg emphatically. “They must only serve the purpose, which is to show the work of an artist in the best possible way and to make it appear even better than it is. I call this a 'service layout.'”

Herdeg codified many rules, especially with typography, that underscored Graphis' distinct personality. There are critics who complained that his grid was too sanitized, too Swiss, too dogmatic, but Herdeg's organizing principle was not wed to any ism, but was based according to need. “My layout is not a Bauhaus layout. Nor was I ever in favor of the so-called 'Swiss typography,' which at the time practically only used 8 pt. sans serif type for everything. That was wrong. Typography has to serve a specific purpose; it has to be legible. Therefore my layout obeyed specific necessities: to show the work as much and as elegantly as possible.” Although the format changed in minor ways a few times over the 42 years, he never deviated from his love of Garamond as a text type. “When I began Graphis, I decided Garamond was a face that would be up-to-date for the next 50 or 100 years. It's not only beautifully designed, but it gives a great surface, allowing the pictures to sit unencumbered.”

Herdeg's tastes continued to be eclectic. He refused to subscribe to doctrine, and often during the early Fifties his preferences flew in the face of the prevailing Swiss International Style. Of the early period he recalls, “I appreciated Richard Lohse and Max Bill. They both did some exemplary work in typography, but I was more impressed by Jan Tschichold, the real typographic genius in Switzerland.”

Originality and talent were the standards by which Herdeg made selections for Graphis. “I was always under the impression that I had a special gift for identifying talent. If I showed something or someone that hadn't been shown anywhere before, I did so because the work was not just clever but inspired.” The Alsatian cartoonist, Tomi Ungerer, is one such artist that Herdeg discovered. But he had more established favorites, too. Ben Shahn, Saul Steinberg, Andre François, Ronald Searle, Heinz Edelmann, Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser, among other superb illustrators, were regularly recognized for their artistry. In fact, since Graphis tried to maintain a reasonable balance between graphic design, illustration and what one might call the finer arts, Herdeg's other criterion for selection was artistic merit. He chose, for example, to show an obscure Finnish tapestry and fabric designer over something like Steuben glass works because the latter “was too commercial and slick.” By featuring the lesser knowns in various applied arts (not just print) he hoped to encourage artists to express themselves in different media.

Herdeg was a conductor in the classic sense. He orchestrated the works appearing in his magazine with verve. The most important piece was the Graphis cover. For most artists, to be asked to do a cover was an honor, but then to have it accepted was a peak of professional recognition. Out of 246 (a few of which were done by Herdeg himself), there are some that have not aged well, but on balance the successes prevail. Herdeg had very definite ideas about what a cover should be, defining it this way: “In an ideal case, a cover should have meaning to everything that's inside. Therefore I couldn't use a Mondrian that has nothing to do with an issue. If it was something by an artist inside, that was a plus, but a cover should have a general appeal to the design world. However, that does not mean it should be a bottle of ink and a brush. In fact, there were often misunderstandings because that image is the first that comes to mind when an artist thinks about the arts.” Although a number of covers have unique “design” themes, many more are independent, powerfully expressive, or abstract images. For the loyal Graphis reader, the anticipation of what Herdeg had chosen for his cover and what variation on the logotype he designed was a significant part of the magazine experience.

Herdeg's process of scrutinizing and compiling work involved the exercise of looking at exhibitions, meeting a large number of practitioners, and being a member of Alliance Graphique Internationale. His job was made both easier and harder when he was convinced by his London correspondent, Charles Rosner, to begin publishing the Graphis Annual in 1952. Because there was never an entry or hanging fee, tens of thousands of pieces flooded his Zürich office each year. And Herdeg alone would wade through the material. “No one else had any influence in the choice. I did the selection and, for the first five years, the layout. Then I started to organize the layout in such a way that a gifted designer on my staff, who had the same ideas of structuring a page, could do it under my supervision.” The success of the Graphis Annual led the way for Photographis in 1966 and Graphis Posters in 1973, as well as a series of one-shot Graphis books including those on television graphics, comics, charts and diagrams, and ephemera.

Graphis had no political agenda although by the frequent showing of peace and other protest posters from around the world, Herdeg was making political statements. And by exposing Westerners to Eastern bloc artists and vise versa, cultural détente was created. Criticism was never overtly expressed because as Herdeg admits, “I am not a man of words. It would take me a lot of time to write a critique of something. I would rather ignore it. Therefore, it doesn't exist for me.” But the charge that Graphis took no critical stand is not entirely accurate. To the extent that Herdeg fostered a need to educate people to the beauty of the visual environment, a profound “critical” statement was being made. “My desire was to define what is beautiful in the world and who makes it beautiful. If I did an issue on pictograms, I wanted to show how much pictograms could help communicate without language, and that those pictograms could be done beautifully. To take another example, I think if a country has well-designed newspapers with decent typography, photography and illustration to support a good presentation of the news, that will educate people. I thought, even if it takes 400 years, in time, you can educate the people to a certain extent and teach them to see with different eyes. Maybe it is a silly philosophy, but without it, why do all this work? I wanted to penetrate the daily life with beauty.

In 1962, Graphis celebrated its 100th number with an entire issue devoted to the sun. Since Herdeg's career as an advertising designer began with his solar tribute to St. Moritz, it was fitting. Shortly after in 1963, his long-time and ultimately turbulent partnership with Walter Amstutz ended, with Herdeg retaining full control of the Graphis publishing company. In the years that followed, circulation was increased to approximately 21,000 copies in over 50 nations.

Despite changes in design styles and fashions, Herdeg kept Graphis on a steady course. His vision was inspired by the teachings of his eminent professors, Keller and Hadank, and influenced by the many talented and trusted friends and advisors around the world. But an acute understanding of art and design, influenced by technology and shifts in commerce, culture and politics, governed his decisions. During 42 years, Herdeg has witnessed and perhaps caused many changes in the design profession. ”Years ago a designer could just do an illustration or an occasional poser or typographically design for a booklet. But today they are influential in product design and have developed a whole new language in diagram design. This was impossible to think of 42 years ago.“ For the historian, Herdeg's 246 issues are fascinating timelines. While they ignore the timely and superficial trends, they focus on the significant talents. What Herdeg says about the last few years applies to his entire output. ”I think in recent issues there might even be some examples of Post-modernism in which I feel there was talent. But then I show them not even realizing that they are Post-modern. I leave that to others who are much more articulate than I. I am so much an 'eye' man. For me, it's all visual.“

Copyright 1987 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.