When I picture Hans Kleefeld, I see him across from me at one of our lunches at the Musket, a German-Austrian restaurant in Toronto’s west end. Patrons could enjoy hearty plates of wiener schnitzel or the “delicious and delightfully tender barbecue port hox,” served with foaming steins of draft Weissbier.
The serving frau, however, would look contemptuously at our modest sandwich orders, washed back with coffee or water, and would leave us to our own devices for long stretches. Hans usually brought printed samples of good and bad design – culled from magazines or books, or snagged online – used to illustrate the columns he wrote for the graphic arts magazine I then edited.
Hans was silver-haired and elegant, always eloquent on the subject of design, as befitted one of Canada’s design pioneers, responsible for some of our most celebrated and enduring marks. While he remained passionate about good design, he was never high-handed about it. He gave my opinions respectful consideration, even though, in truth, the wading pool of my journalistic knowledge was laughable beside the ocean depths of his experience.
After I left the magazine to pursue freelance writing, in 2013, he sent an encouraging email:
Read your blog. As always, on the mark! Volume of info is staggering. I’m told that more and more people read less and less. Looks like only ‘power-pics’ and words that really ‘smite’ will get through now.
I told you, I think, that I came down with a bout of pneumonia. Ten days in hospital. Slowly getting back to normal.
A lunch at the Musket beckons. I hope not too far in the future.
Keep up your fight against the humdrum of mega-babble!
All the best,
Chasing Shards of Memory
When I heard of Hans Kleefeld’s death on March 10, 2016, at the age of 87, I felt sadness, followed by a wave of guilt for a lunch that never happened due to my busyness. As I saw the tributes roll out, I didn’t think there was much I could add.
The facts of his life were well reported. Born and educated in Berlin, Germany, Hans became a type compositor apprentice at a newspaper publishing house, a position obtained by his father, who wanted his son removed from a school that had become infested with Nazi propaganda. Hans later studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin.
The young designer immigrated to Canada in 1952, with only $20 in his pocket and a duffel bag of clothes. After starting out at TDF artists, he went on to work for Stewart & Morrison, where he hit his creative stride and did graphic identities for the likes of Air Canada, TD Bank, Bank of Montreal, Air Jamaica, Stratford, Inco and others – many still used today. He also designed packaging for clients such as Canada Packers and Labatt’s.
To remember Hans, I thought about reproducing some of our conversations at the Musket but realized that I didn’t remember what he said clearly enough. I had general impressions of his love for wife and family, his enthusiasm for teaching at Sheridan College and his abiding passion for all things design, but could not recall his actual words.
I recall him once coming to lunch wrapped in lingering sadness. He had just visited one of his children in a long-term care facility. Try as I might, I couldn’t remember whether this was a son or daughter, or what condition kept them there. I had been too self-absorbed to give Hans my full attention.
Since my memories were fragmented, I decided to search my computer’s hard drive to see what remained of Hans. And I found that sloppy file keeping has an upside. Although I had deleted old work files, versions of stories that Hans had written still floated around – some raw copy and others from various stages of editing.
I decided to sift through these – to conduct a solo search through the fragments of his prose, so see what aligned with my fuzzy memories.
The Education Gap
Hans was a committed educator, teaching design first at the Ontario College of Art and later at Sheridan (which recently instituted the Hans Kleefeld Design Excellence Award). Apparently on his deathbed in the hospital, he was still doing critiques of student work.
While Hans loved teaching design students, helping mould their raw talents and enthusiasm into work-ready skills, he saw that there was huge gap between his preparation for higher education in Germany decades ago and Canadians’ today:
While studying graphic design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Berlin many years ago, I made an interesting discovery. I had inherited several volumes of the German magazine Gebrauchsgraphik, one of less than a dozen publications covering applied arts at that time. Reading through these issues I was surprised to learn that the majority of graphic and exhibit designers, illustrators and photographers active in the mid-20th century had never formally studied at any college, academy or university. All had risen to professional prominence from a start as apprentices.
I myself had been admitted to the academy only upon evidence of a partially completed apprenticeship as a compositor (the normal three-year apprenticeship had been waived due to the turmoil following the end of the Second World War). I also had to pass a weeklong admissions exercise, consisting of about a dozen projects, to be satisfactorily completed on the academy’s premises.
How does this compare with gaining an entry into what is now called the profession of communication design? During my four years of study, everything was completely hands-on. It was, after all, long before the execution of graphic designs became more mechanical, with, for example, Letraset’s transfer type, colour sheets and other ready-made imagery. The challenges of laying down a perfectly flat colour, poster-size, in gouache with a brush, or to hand-render 10-point Bodoni was enough to have weaker spirits consider switching to something less taxing – maybe milk delivery.
At OCA, he sometimes participated in admission interviews and discovered students poorly prepared:
Here we faced mainly kids straight out of high school, with portfolios that typically ranged from barely acceptable to awful. Rare was an individual who, by choice or accident, had received some rudimentary professional guidance and developed a measure of personal discipline.
Teaching became more challenging with the introduction of digital technology:
Computers virtually eliminated any need for a steady rendering hand; an explosion of graphic design and how-to references invaded – if not overwhelmed – eyes and brains.
Digital technology allowed everyone to do their own thing. These developments strongly encouraged a review of both teaching and learning methodology. For instructors, the vast amount of design and how-to imagery that students could access on their laptops called some traditional classroom activities into question. For students, apart from mastering the routines required to generate and manipulate imagery digitally, the really big challenge became: How do I find my way through this dazzling complexity of entirely new options and come up with effective communication design solutions?
The real trap was access to too much information:
Many students are now constantly distracted by trendy work from all over the planet, and by too much “flatlife” imagery generally (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). Admittedly, some truly original ideas surface here, but their graphic execution rarely has any merit.
For student designers to be successful, they must return to basic design principles:
Students have to fully appreciate that any visual communication design ever created and will be created is simply a combination of only any two, three or four basic components: letters, colours, pictures and graphics. However, in each category, options for variations are virtually limitless. These graphic particulars must be considered not so much as purely visual/aesthetic phenomena, but in their capacity to convey particular messages from senders to receivers. They serve as “visual language,” designed to be understood by not very visually literate audiences.
Type Shouldn’t be Lady Gaga
If you understood fundamental design principles, Hans felt that you were in a position to judge the merits of just about anything, from magazine ads to brochure covers, to the presentation of text on a smartphone screen. He was a staunch proponent of the legibility and visibility of type over “creative” typography and its “preoccupation with purely graphic effect.”
We are surrounded by words difficult to read, often too small in size, but mainly in perversely mangled letters plucked from idiosyncratic alphabets – on signs, pages or screens. . . . One gets the impression that extravagant design efforts try to compensate for shallow or insignificant content, or reflect someone’s ego. . . .
If words are meant to succinctly make a point or tell a hot story, why inhibit their legibility? I recall a comment by a master visual communicator, American designer Herb Lubalin, who once observed that “the best typography never gets noticed,” meaning that the effect of powerful and unique statements are the words themselves, not their visual appearance.
That clearly cannot be said for much verbiage, delivered in ways that evoke Lady Gaga costumes excess, in frantic bids to be noticed at any cost.
Bad Image Relationships
Hans believed that a piece of visual communications would rise above the humdrum when it formed “new and meaningful relationships between previously unrelated imagery.”
To be judged “creative” may occasionally equate with something like sainthood (or at least stardom) in a profession focused on helping businesses or governments to persuade people believing life really is as they see it pictured in print or on screens. As the seductive power of such manufactured reality has been shown to be highly effective, as well as immensely profitable, creativity has become almost sacrosanct. But is it?
Is every newly formed assembly of colours, typography, pictures and graphics necessarily meaningful – let alone good or bad in its effects on viewers – just because it is new, and just because it has cleverly combined previously unrelated imagery? No, there are many examples of squandered creativity in this vein.
He provided these before-and-after logos for the Ontario Government as an example of a squandered creative opportunity.
This is an instance where something new, and seemingly different for difference’s sake, has replaced a design that is more effective. Look at the current “three-men-in-a-hot-tub” trillium identity (top) for the Province of Ontario, where a wimpy illustrative graphic took the place of a strong mark (bottom), proving the maxim of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
To counterbalance the bad examples of design, Hans always provided positive ones, like this ad for Apple, following death of Steve Jobs.
Here’s a recent and brilliant, though sad, example of a great twist on a well-known image. To see the profile of the man who created one of the world’s great companies, and conceived its society-changing products, replace the bite mark of the apple graphic that identified his enterprise surely exemplifies creativity at its best: a new and meaningful relationship between two previously unrelated images.
In one of his best columns, Hans reflected on how the human figure is treated in advertising art, in which “the presentation of a singular human likeness both personifies a specific message and inadvertently reveals something about the mindset of the time.”
Among his favourite depictions of the human form is this “striking pre-computer presentation of a nude female, here serving the promotion of an entirely legitimate event – the 46th Annual Exhibition (in 1967) of Advertising & Editorial Art & Design of the Art Directors Club of New York.”
This stunning fold-out piece measured in length an amazing 63 inches, or more than five feet (!), when fully laid out – an effect that guaranteed to knock the blinkers off even seasoned pros. It captured a unique vision of the human element, both seductive and innocent at the same time (often copied thereafter, but never equalled).
Compare this to an ad for a man’s fragrance:
Out amid all the sweet eye-candy gloss now pop up characters – male or female – whom I, personally, would rather not have laid eyes on, such as this oily, aluminum foil or Saran Wrap-supported promoter of Bang fragrance (created by Marc Jacobs). I don’t know who coined the expression “design porn,” but they are the words that came to mind when I turned the page that revealed this ad. Someone seems to have slipped from erotica to sleaze.
Reflect, for a moment, on the vast cultural, spiritual and artistic differences between these characters addressing us, but particularly on the gulf between the New York AD Club’s almost demure painted model and Bang’s splayed-out honcho, and what that tells us about where we may be headed. That latter direction seems to be one more example of a “pushing-the-envelope” mentality creeping through the world of advertising and entertainment, apparently bent on ripping off Adam’s fig leaf once and for all.
Cue the one-eyed snake?