A 21st Century

The Ulm Age of Methods

‘The result is the Ulm Model: a model of
design supported by technology and
science. The designer is no longer a lofty
artist, but an equal partner in the
decision-making process of industrial

Otl Aicher
Mirroring the Bauhaus school’s emergence in central Germany after WWI, came a new school to southern Germany, founded in the town of Ulm following WWII. The Ulm School of Design (Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm), or HfG for short, sprang from a similar resurgence of altruistic visions of the future. Founded by the writer and educationalist Inge Scholl, the graphic designer Otl Aicher, and the Swiss architect Max Bill, they were all committed to contributing to the reconstruction of a more progressive German culture.
Re – Quote #3 — THE AIM
People links between the HfG and the Bauhaus were numerous. Max Bill was of course a former student, whilst the teaching staff included former Bauhaus instructors Josef Albers, Johannes Itten, and another former student Helene Nonné-Schmidt. The original Bauhaus founder, Walter Gropius, even visited from his new home in Massachusetts in 1955.

The year before the school officially opened, Max Bill was already beginning to imagine a future where a designer from the Ulm School would affect the public at two levels:

1. As a responsible citizen.
2. As the designer of products that were better and cheaper than all the others and thus help raise the standard of living for broad levels of the population and create a culture for our technological era.1

For Bill these principles applied to every area of consumer goods production, and all forms of design – from housing to modern transport. This was a rejection of a designer’s tendency to retreat into dreams and fantasies, and instead, as the art historian Hatje Cantz explains, a concerted effort to devote a designer’s energy ‘quite pragmatically to the everyday world and its needs.’2

The school began teaching in 1953, and with a foreign student population of up to 44%, it was, like the Bauhaus, quite unique for the time. The city of Ulm itself provided much of the financial support. And further following patterns set by its predecessor, ‘the Ulm school howled in the face of many traditionalists’, providing ‘plenty of fodder for public discussion.’3

WWII’s unique manufacturing demands, combined with the widespread devastation that it caused, had cemented the role of the mechanised production line on the making of practically all forms of goods. Where the HfG and the Bauhaus differed most fundamentally was how they viewed the designer’s relationship with these new means of production. From the Bauhaus’ somewhat lofty beginnings, the role of a designer at the Ulm was set to diversify to become an essential coordinator between an increasing variety of production processes.4 This involved people of all roles and skill sets – from semioticians to logicians, and material manufacturers to engineers.

This came to be known as the ‘Ulm Model’, a flexible, methodological, multi-disciplinary and collective approach to the task of solving design problems. As Tomas Maldonado, planning the new teaching model, explained in 1958: ‘The designer will be the coordinator. His responsibility will be to coordinate, in close collaboration with a large number of specialists, the most varied requirements of product fabrication and usage; his will be the final responsibility for maximum productivity in fabrication, and for maximum material and cultural consumer satisfaction.’

The sense of sheer potential was huge. Quite unparalleled in reach as part of the post-war rebuilding programme, the opportunity was there to redesign, redefine and repurpose all the objects and artefacts by which the world operated. Everything from petrol pumps, lorries, vans, cars, train carriages and traffic lights to radios, record players, ashtrays, dinner sets and corporate identities were touched, questioned and redefined to their best understanding of the time.

For the product designer studying at the HfG in the 1950s, such was the involvement of commercial enterprise that the students were privileged to have breakthrough new materials at their disposal. Almost without exception, materials were provided free of charge from companies like BASF and Bayer AG, in return for innovative and attractive product designs directly from the workshops of the school.5 New materials like plastics, offered previously unimagined opportunities to take completely different approaches to making. And this new style of relationship, linking students directly with the materials suppliers, maximised the possibility of innovation.

The world’s first fully synthetic plastic, a nonconductive material called Bakelite, was first developed by Leo Baekeland in New York in 1907. As the century advanced, so too did the grades, uses and materials science of the plastics being used. By 1952 industry fairs such as one held in Dusseldorf under the title ‘Wunder der Kunststoffe’ (Wonders of Plastics) attracted thousands of visitors.

Such was the contagious excitement around these new materials that their fame spread as far as Hollywood, making a surprise appearance by the swimming pool in the 1967 film The Graduate. Back at the Ulm, a student named Eva von Seckendorff decreed: ‘We’ll throw out the gold and silversmith shops and install a Plastics Workshop!’6 (Oh how we need to throw out the plastics workshop right now!)

From the Ulm School came many ingredients that we now associate closely with the most iconic achievements of Modernism. Designers such as Arne Jacobsen, Eero Saarinen and the Eames pair were all much admired at the Ulm. Otl Aicher’s team designed for Herman Miller, Olivetti and Braun, to name but a few.

Hatje Cantz observes: ‘Max Bill was of the opinion that design could be useful to propel the culture of the technological age.’7 This was reflected by the 56/57 school programme, which declared all school activity was to be orientated towards creating this new culture. Bill, like William Morris before him, saw art as a healing balm for society, whilst he failed to see the full ‘emancipatory potential of industrial technology.’

Here in the midst of this dichotomy between art and technology, the world was changing too fast even for Max Bill and his students to keep up. Outside the school, it was largely the culture of the consumer operating within the capitalist system, which was using design as a tool to propel itself. Consumer culture was busy permeating everything around it, and it would not stop for aesthetics or a clever science of methods. It only wanted more growth, and it wanted this growth to be ever faster and all-consuming.

As the 50s slipped to the 60s, the people of Germany were beginning to enjoy what would become known as the Wirstschaaftwunder, or ‘economic miracle,’ which powered the West German recovery. By the time the European Common Market was founded in 1957, West Germany’s economic growth had vastly overshadowed that of its neighbours, while post-war hardships still endured in countries such as the UK.

Potentially helped by the ‘unofficial contributions’ of up to 250,000 US occupation troops, earning as much as four Deutschmarks to the dollar, spent largely on leisure or luxury items, real wages for West German people doubled. The school’s insistence therefore that ‘the people’s needs’ be met over the ‘needs of luxury’ offered increasingly less relevance to a wave of consumerism that within the space of just a few years was propelling their economy back to the position of a global power.8

At the dawn of a new decade, artistic expression was giving way to maths and formula. The western world was embarking on a space race, which began with the Soviet Union’s Sputnik Space programme in 1957, and peaked in 1969 with Neil Armstrong’s first lunar steps. On the flip side, the cultural backdrop was also changing quickly, morphing towards the revolutionary protest mood of the 60s. Contemporary movements in pop, protest and youth culture dominated countries such as Britain, Italy and America.

The Ulm’s methodological strictness occupied no easy space of relevance next to these movements of free love and opposition to war and racial prejudice. Meanwhile Gropius’ magical thinking of the 1920s had given way to a scientific logic in favour of a modern mass society.

Otl Aicher’s 1962 corporate design for Lufthansa, whilst groundbreaking in terms of aesthetics, signalled an end to the school’s foundations being based on purely social enterprise. In just one decade the school had flipped to a wholehearted embrace of commercial projects. By 1968 the Ulm School of Design was forced to close, largely for financial reasons and the withdrawal of state funding. The school had helped increase the marketability of German industrial products, but consumer culture had accelerated so fast that a purity of approach, and the minimal functional style which the Ulm held so close to its heart, could no longer keep up.

As the economist E.F. Schumacher explains: ‘The relationship between producer and consumer changes with every new economic phase, the position of the product varies as well.’9 This is quite a challenge for even the very best designer-director-producers. In the midst of these constantly spinning cycles, it is much easier for the designer to retreat into the world of part-fantasy.

The HfG came at a time when the race was on between creative and capitalist forces. Would it be art, and the products of design, which would meet and elevate the needs of society? Or would the powerful forces offered by the growth of the ‘market’ be enough to cure the world of its ills? This same struggle epitomised the tension between the forces of capitalism and Modernism which we’ll explore more in the next chapter.

The Ulm vision assigned such a significant role to the process of design that the world was yet to catch up. Or perhaps the world was so distracted that it was yet to care. But throughout this time, designers, capitalists and consumers were certainly a long way from grasping that infinite growth was simply not going to be sustainable. (During the 1960s the process of recycling was still predominantly limited to returning glass bottles.) Pretty much everyone involved failed to recognise that the designer's responsibility would need to encompass the future of a product and its components, long after the expiry of its first lifecycle. In 1968, the HfG was one of the first Modernist institutions to fail, engulfed, as Cantz concludes, ‘by the very same forces of development it had once sought to direct.’10

As a resurgence of interest into the methods behind making and the designer's collective responsibility gains only greater relevance, the HfG’s influence should not be underestimated. The school was an early benchmark which helped consolidate within the world some fundamentally important values. The widely celebrated designer Dieter Rams collaborated with the school during the 1960s on the development of a forward-looking approach to designing products for Braun. His ‘10 Principles for Good Design’ were very much an outcome born from the school's interrogations, and continue to influence young designers today.

The HFG's gift to the world was then the idea of a system of ‘methods’, and it is entirely within these boundaries where there exists today the greatest opportunity for more thorough investigation. After all, it is in a much tighter embrace of ‘methods’, where we will see the Sustainable Movement’s activity expanding the most.

The designer Bruno Munari acknowledged the continuation of this trend in 1977 when he defined the creative process this way: ‘Creativity is indispensable in the area of design, assuming that one understands the concept of “design” as a method which, although free like the imagination, is one of the exact methods, like that of inventing.’11 Yet as long ago as 1882, Charles Sanders Pierce (an American philosopher, logician, mathematician and scientist, sometimes known as 'the founder of pragmatism’) could already see these new roles emerging: ‘Humankind was entering an age of methods, and a university that intended to be an exponent of the conditions for the life of the human spirit must be a university of methods.’12 This sentiment could be an equally appropriate foundation for any design school teaching circular methodology today.

Towards the end of the 20th century, capitalist and consumer culture had skewed our use of ‘methods’ predominantly towards financial efficiency, leading to an obsession with cutting costs which was to dominate all forms of manufacturing. Red tape and systems previously put in place to protect workers were increasingly side-stepped by moving production overseas.

Compromises to quality, ethics and working conditions continued until in the late 1990s, this push for economic efficiency as the servant of profit margin came to the forefront of the public imagination with the negative publicity surrounding sweatshops. A series of tragic disasters, from the Kader Toy Factory Fire near Bangkok in 1993, to the Rana Plaza Factory building collapse in 2013, which killed over 1,000 workers, helped highlight some of the many concealed pitfalls of the neoliberal experiment.

Here the Ulm School’s theories surrounding methodology hadn’t necessarily been lost, but they had been betrayed to a different overarching system of values. Compare these humanitarian tragedies to Max Bill’s vision in the 1960s that ‘incompetent or commercially minded artists ought never to be allowed near the design of mass-produced goods because he believed the task held great responsibility and was accountable by moral duty to the community.’13

Alas, as Peter Kapos explains: ‘The moment for the heroic declaration of avant-garde programmes had passed’, at least for the time being… ‘surpassed by the total absorption of design within the process of neo-capitalist development.’14

Illustration – Subtleties

As we take stock of the complex landscape surrounding us today, during an entirely unpredictable period of mass upheaval – where goods and products are increasingly targeted at ever more niche and sophisticated groups, and where people now find their own personal data the target of capitalist growth – one ambition remains neglected and demands to be revisited: ‘Design must meet the overarching needs of society.’ Conversely, if design actively (or even accidentally) creates division between different social groups, or at worst attempts to exploit the gaps between them. Then it jeopardises one of the frameworks that humans depend on for their harmonious coexistence.

Here a much deeper ‘age of methods’ patiently awaits us. Involving a more rigorous interrogation of entirely new levels of detail, reframed by completely different ideas of ‘who’ and ‘what’ our methods are placed to serve. New partnerships must emerge with renewed vitality, but also with a much greater reach than those which sprang from the Ulm. The role of the designer is all but guaranteed to diversify amongst a whole new realm of specialities, whilst a whole new array of specialities will need to work together to establish more sustainable methods of design.

A renewed contest also begins between the methods and values that we choose to use, whilst volatile forms of politics and economics will continue to exercise their own influence. Age-old forces of distraction too will further cloud the picture, as emerging technology offers us seemingly limitless options. This time around, a designer's methods (working to fundamental underlying and overarching needs) cannot afford to finish last once again.

Illustration: The New Normal

Next ︎
Chapter 9 —
Modernism and the Ongoing Project

Credits & Notes

1 – 3 / 5 – 6 / 10 – 13
Hatje Cantz
Ulmer Modelle / Modelle nach Ulm, Ulmer Museum | HfG-Archiv (2003)

Otl Aicher
cited by Hatje Cantz
Ulmer Modelle / Modelle nach Ulm, Ulmer Museum | HfG-Archiv (2003)

7 – 8 / 14
Peter Kapos
The Ulm Model
Raven Row (2016)

E.F. Schumacher
Small Is Beautiful
Vintage Books (2011)


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