HI Visuelle

HI Visuelle Gestaltung is a Swiss design studio founded by Megi Zumstein and Claudio Barandun in 2007. With a background in typography and graphic design, Megi and Claudio combine their different approaches in a creative kind of ping-pong, then working as a welded unit on editorial projects for cultural institutions, type design and poster design or signage. Inspired by tangible elements such as space limits and working materials, Megi and Claudio are especially interested in the printed and constructed objects, but also in the dramatic aspects of projects. Through their play with shapes, colours and fonts, they aim to find a suitable viewing on a particular subject.

Interview by Erwin Bauer / 2011
Do you consider typography something of importance in your creative work?Definitely. If a font is convincing, most of the designing process is done already... Our interest for the usage of different fonts started pretty early – after all, they change or shape the character of a product significantly. For lack of finding the typeface of our very dreams, we started making it ourselves – right now, we are working on our first grotesque lettering, which is really difficult. Generally, we always want to find an individual, suitable typeface for each thing we are working on. The beauty and sheer variety of all the different ones is very tempting.
Wasn't it possible to express everything even 20 or 50 years ago, as there were already so many fonts existing...!?Sure, but fonts belong to the cycle of history repeating. The appreciation of a certain typeface is determined by a prevailing zeitgeist: German black lettering has been stigmatised up till now - but it will be used again one day, without its negative Nazi connotation.
There is a big “Futura” revival taking place at the moment. Why does this font – which is a true expression of the 1930's modern age – reappear at that very instant and fit at this point?It is already that old that its origins are not visible anymore – in this way it is possible to use it differently, without referring to Bauhaus or El Lissitzky. As for us, we love the “Futura” – maybe, because it doesn't adhere to the general rules of a reasonable typeface. The characters are all of a different size etc. – but still, it is a great font!
Why are classics such as the “Futura” that good – and how can they be distinguished?Classics manage to age well. If a font is not that good, it won't be used – or only pop up for a funny headline or other curious occasions. Whereas classics never disappear and shake off their dust every once in a while. So it doesn't surprise, that the “Futura” experienced another revival in the 1980s.
During the 1930s, the “Futura” was the most progressive expression of the zeitgeist. Do you ever happen to pick up contemporary trends, e. g. unpublished and brand new typefaces?We don't care if a typeface is the latest craze. But we do find it more interesting to use a font nobody is thinking of in this very moment. Therefore we are entitled to be more ahead of the times than zeitgeist itself claims to be.
What is the initial impulse for you to develop a new font, to explore its characters and its form?We created our first typeface for a poster. The somewhat absurd exhibition title “Zweite Zeit” (“Second Time”) should be visible from a distance, its subtitle in tiny letters. For this concept, we were looking for a monospaced font which wouldn't remind of the characteristic typewriter style – which doesn't work if used bigger than 10 pt. So we started to subvert certain conventions: e. g. by cutting out the serifs of the “i” and “l” – which automatically gives another rhythm to the whole type face. Every since then, font designing is something very intuitive and happens en passant.

At the moment we are developing the signaletics for a 1970's retirement home. Its foyer hosts an installation, an architectural pop art interpretation of a linden tree. We tried to refer to this work whilst developing the signaletics... this is how the first figure – “3” – came into being, then the rest of the numbers arose and finally, we built a full alphabetic system.
This project is actually a good example for our general mode of practice: First, we look what are the things already existing, what given conditions we are meeting. Then we start working on the project and develop the appropriate design solution. This applies not only to signaletics – which will always force you to respond to something visual like architecture – but also to print products. Maybe the starting point is not as visually evident, but there is always a theme we can react to and find an own visual language for. Of course you won't be able to detect the inspiration 1:1, that would be very one-dimensional.
Is manual work something of importance for you?Yes. We once designed the cover of a book by Bernhard Willhelm by hand. In his exhibition, two dinosaurs played a central role – so we tried to draw a dinosaur, the outcome was somewhat amateurish yet ambitious. Actually, we both can't draw that well and dilettantism wasn't such a hard thing. But we experienced periods we were really tired of computers and made many things by hand.
Still, computers are your basic tools? That's true. Working manually does have a very specific charm...but in the end, the result has to be authentic. In other words: We appreciate working by hand if the manual ductus makes sense for a certain content – but it's dangerous when being used for fast-selling purposes only. As for working with computers: The technique is in the back seat, as it is the general case in our times. Sure, you could give the same work a touch of letterpress, print it really small, scan it etc. But this is the very point where authenticity is missing. If it should look like letterpress, than is should be made that way. To be consequent, one would have to draw by hand with a grease pencil directly onto the offset plate – by the way, this is something we would really enjoy doing one day.
How would you explain this longing for all things handmade nowadays?Computers are not dynamic. You can gently touch a computer or beat it, that won't make a difference. There is only either – or, nothing is unpredictable. A fountain pen could possibly leak and you have to react to the stain which will occur. When computers came up, design just couldn't be clean enough. After a while, it became boring and designers wanted to have filthy hands when working. So this longing you mentioned is directed at something which doesn't exist in our everyday lives anymore. Such needs spread out and soon the longing of insiders is the next zeitgeist. When it is then used for a commercial, it is definitely time for something new.
Does graphic design step into the spotlight of public perception these days?Graphic design as a discipline has the problem that it doesn't stand by itself. If I am interested in a book, it will be because of its content. If my interest is caught by a poster, it will probably be because I am interested in the exhibition it announces. Graphic design is a transmitter, is in service for something else – and by itself hardly accessible in general. It is necessary to have a certain knowledge to discuss e. g. specific typefaces – which will probably only happen amongst designers. It is hard to value graphic design – but you can easily do it with other things. Furthermore, almost every person with a computer nowadays thinks, he/she could possibly be a designer – at least this might be a reason why graphic design becomes more visible.
I would like to talk about your team work: Do you ever have the feeling you need to reach out more and work with designers from other disciplines, because you hit your own creative walls?If we wouldn't hit our walls, we definitely didn't go far enough. As for the cooperation with other designers...we are not sure if such a collaboration widens the space within the own walls, probably it simply moves the borders. Still, we enjoy working with other designers – not least because they are able to reflect us completely different than we see ourselves.

At the same time, we are often faced with customers who are not willed to work on a wider scale, and produce professional pictures or illustrations – probably due to the easy accessibility of the visual culture. Everyone has a digicam nowadays; you can use Google for a random image search and will find tons of results. A single picture is the least significant bit and the comprehension of a difference between a “good” and a “bad” picture is lacking more and more. Working as a university lecturer in photography, it is really hard to teach students patience and tenacity for a single picture.
Some designers are approaching each project differently, others always have the same approach. How do you work – with a wealth of variants or with a clear signation?Working as a team, we probably maintain a distinctive authorship. We are interested in certain things, which will influence different projects although they might not be connected – in this sense, we surely are recognizable. But we don't force this inherently, as each situation deserves an own design. Otherwise we would soon be known for one specific design, which is indeed a trap – we couldn't escape because we would automatically disappoint expectations. Generally, we don't want to be perceived as “Hi” – only, if it is because of the quality of a work. But still, it is not possible to reinvent the world each day and of course we don't want deny ourselves. E. g.: We were using italics on the last couple of posters – recognizing this, we got our hackles up and decided to stopping using them for a while now. But as we don't like dogmas, we already did it....again.
Do you approach each project as if you wouldn't need it?Sometimes, if we are completely candid. But we have to make money, too. Still, we try to make the best we can within the given prospects, without carrying it to the extremes – which would be a waste of energy. This, by the way, doesn't mean that jobs which cause a plus in terms of money cause a minus in terms of creativity.
Does this mean you work rather pragmatically?It depends...but not really. If we notice the potential of a project, we are willed to perform more than actually required or paid effectively. But we don't, if our ideas don't meet a fertile ground. We try to channel our energies depending on the situation. Back in the days, after university, we were definitely more idealistic. We still are, but we can't afford taking extreme measures, we simply wouldn't have the time.
When is it worth carrying matters to an extreme?If a job offers an interesting postulate. We once made a poster for an exhibition called “Formlose Möbel” (“Shapeless Furniture”) at the Museum of Design Zurich. The project's process of development was really difficult and the whole communication was rather tasking. But we didn't give up and today, we are still satisfied with the result. Therefore we think it is important to be persistent, not thrifty – even if turns out to be disappointing.
Do you think it is important to claim authorship as a designer, to contribute something substantial to society?By definition, design is an applied discipline – otherwise it would be fine arts. Nevertheless, we are involved with the contents of our work, and we are able to decide which projects we dedicate ourselves to. Most of our projects happen to have a prolific development process: For instance, working on an editorial design for the edition of Patrick Frey, we maintain a very tight cooperation with publisher and author – a business triangle on a level playing field. This is when traditional roles such as “customer” versus “designer” dissolve – and we all work until everyone is happy and satisfied.

Referring to the social responsibility: We certainly wouldn't mind contributing our part – but probably we are in the wrong position to take meaningful action...this might sound like a lame excuse now. But how to reach people, unless those who are interested anyway. In the end, we are exercising our responsibility by doing our work with heart and soul – which hopefully beats all the mindless crap out there.
Designers are meant to bring a virtual message into an actual being – so after all, they are able to send a message themselves, aren't they?True. But our approach is rather different... Instead of doing e. g. an exhibition about “Social Design”, we'd rather design good teaching aids – school books are really lacking an appealing touch. We think this is has more impact on people than doing an exhibition for an interested and informed audience. To make a difference, it is important to hit even those who are not concerned with design at all.
Are you entitled to improve your own visual language?Of course, otherwise it would be dull and we would deny all the outer influences. But most important, we try to react on the materials we are confronted with and develop a project out of its given prospects. Sometimes, there is this moment when you realize something which will direct you and will influence future projects. But this is nothing we are aware of...we rather accept the circumstances following a pleasure principle.
In your point of view: What will be the next design trend?For a time, at least the Swiss seemed to reduce or downplay the whole design process, maybe played with this touch of amateurism we mentioned earlier. So in our point of view, this will be followed by a new appetite for opulence.