Bauhaus: Pioneers of Graphic Design

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Joost Schmidt

Although the Bauhaus school, which operated in Germany from 1919 to 1933, is probably best recognized for its creations in architecture and furniture design, its influence spread much farther.  There is no denying the fact that the Bauhaus style is still widely utilized today in all areas of design, however, its contribution to the field of graphic design and advertising should not be overlooked.

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Wassily Kandinsky

Prior to advances made by the Bauhaus, the field of graphic design did not really exist, instead advertisers were content to fill a page with images and text, but they failed to consider the message that layout can impart, or the impact that typography can have on an advertisement as it was considered secondary to the image used.  This attitude is easily apparent when viewing print advertisements of the time; they are typically overstuffed with imagery, contain unreadable text which is placed as an afterthought, there is no cohesive, harmonious feel and little white space visible.

 

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László Moholy-Nagy

However, with the establishment of the Printing and Advertising workshop at Bauhaus, led by former student Herbert Bayer, a professional studio for graphic design and commercial art was created, and its lasting influence helped establish the field of graphic design and permanently changed the face of advertising.

 

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Universal Typeface by Herbert Bayer

Under Bayer’s tutelage, students learned the mechanics of visual communication such as the communicative potential of letterforms and the importance of typographic layout.  Innovations created included the elimination of capital letters, the invention and use of modern fonts that were more legible and readable than the archaic and outdated gothic styles previously preferred, and the focus on composition that was based on geometrical elements and expressive color usage.  All of these advancements marked a move away from individually handcrafted and traditional advertisements and a move towards meeting functional requirements to produce results suitable for mass production and consumption.  In this way, the graphic design department helmed by Bayer became a reflection of the Bauhaus school philosophy and also generated a comprehensive graphic design theory complete with a reproducible style and set guidelines which could be followed.

 

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In addition to his faculty position at the Bauhaus, Bayer also created several new typefaces, most notable among them the Universal typeface, which is still widely used today.  The Universal, like all of Bayer’s typeface creations, was sans serif.  The term “sans serif” denotes letters that do not have the small projecting features, called “serifs,” at the end of each stroke.  Although traditionally it was believed that the serif helped guide the eye along an individual line within large blocks of texts, traditional serif fonts were often thick, overly ornamented and not well spaced, which decreased one’s ability to easily decipher words on a page.  In comparison to this style, the sans serif typefaces created by Bayer were clear, uncluttered and easily legible. Today, the sans serif font is preferable when creating text to be read on a computer and it is often used in advertising due to its visual appeal.  In addition, the predominant font of today, Helvetica, would not have been produced without the Bauhaus, as the typefaces that Bayer invented are obvious precursors to its creation.

 

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Along with the pioneering ideas and work presented by Bayer, Bauhaus students also benefitted from the knowledge provided by faculty members László Moholy-Nagy and Joost Schmidt. Moholy-Nagy invented several photographic processes and was one of the first artists to realize the potential of photography in advertising. He worked from the idea that typography was principally a communications medium as he believed that it was “clarity of the message in its most emphatic form.” His perspective was complemented by the contributions of Schmidt who taught lettering design. Schmidt focused on the structure and flexibility of letters in terms of their shape and size and instructed students of the effects of color and surface texture as well.  He also encouraged students to examine various aspects of advertising such as language, visual effect, psychology and economy.

 

 

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Modern Bauhaus

Taken all together, the Bauhaus style was characterized by strong visual communication which emphasizes function over form and contains no unnecessary elements; balanced layout, balanced color usage and sharp geometric lines and shapes produce a harmonious and cohesive result.  In addition, the typeface and text complement the advertisement and are an integral part of the overall design as they add to the visual message being conveyed.

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Modern Bauhaus

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Modern Bauhaus influence

Unlike many schools of thought and artistic movements which swept in, changed everything and then quickly disappeared or were replaced by a new movement, the Bauhaus ideals are still in existence today.  A quick look at web pages and print advertisements will easily reveal this lasting influence. It is a testament to the surety of their beliefs that the Bauhaus legacy is still alive and well so many years later; clearly, they were ahead of their time as ninety years later, we’ve done little to improve on their ideas, instead we are still utilizing what the Bauhaus first created.

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Modern Bauhaus influence

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Modern Bauhaus influence—Some theorize that the Obama team deliberately chose this style as a show of respect for the Bauhaus school which was at one time located in Berlin.

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Modern Bauhaus

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