Andreas Uebele’s award-winning work stands at the intersection of architecture, typography, and information design. He'll be a featured speaker during the 2014 SEGD Conference in Atlanta June 5-7!
In his book Signage Systems & Information Graphics, Andreas Uebele sets out to explain the rules of sign system design. Then he proceeds to disregard many of them.
“No handbook and no instruction manual can do away with the necessity to think for oneself,” he advises. “And every time a rule is broken, it marks a step in the direction of good design.”
The work coming out of Uebele’s Stuttgart-based studio, Büro Uebele Visuelle Kommunikation, is known for its clarity, bold use of typography, and willingness to break the rules. Whether he is rendering type on the wavy surface of a guardrail, designing a white-on-white wayfinding system, or providing directional information on floors or ceilings, Uebele seeks solutions tailored to place, brand, and architectural context, not doctrinaire rules. His firm has received more than 270 national and international design awards, including Europe’s prestigious Red Dot Grand Prix for communication design.
Q When did you first know that you wanted to be a designer?
It happened by coincidence when I was 17 years old. Writing letters to the ladies, it was clear to me that my messages got better results when they were designed well. I designed the envelopes and then I saw that design is something that suits me.
Q You studied architecture and urban planning as well as art. What pulled you toward graphic design?
I studied architecture and urban planning at the University of Stuttgart, and art at the Stuttgart State Academy of Art and Design. After my diploma I worked for five years in the office of [prominent deconstructivist architect] Günter Behnisch. Even there, I worked as a graphic designer: I designed a great exhibition about Behnisch’s work, and also designed the catalogue.
Typography and graphic design—I cannot explain why I chose it. I also like architecture, product design, fashion design, and literature … but I know that I can do graphic design best.
Q You have done an astonishingly diverse array of projects, from signage and wayfinding for institutions and corporations to a reinterpretation of the visual identity for the German Parliament.
What is your favorite type of project or client?
I like every project. I like the diversity of thinking in environmental design and corporate design. I like to work with clients who appreciate our efforts to work together on the design process and find a solution to their problem. And I don’t care if the client is little or big, famous or not.
Q Much of your work is in Germany, which many would consider a relatively controlled and regulated environment for design.
Is there a unique zeitgeist or sensitivity to German design, or an affinity to certain ways of working or thinking?
German design is ... straight? clear? anyway poetic? powerful?
I have no problem saying that our work is a little bit “German.” There is a tradition and you have to accept it, even if you don’t like the controlled and regulated spirit. Our work is in one way very controlled and on the other hand we try to overlay this rigid layer with poetry, what is also a German tradition, even in the south, were I am from.
Q You often seem to “break the rules” in your work, whether by using type in nontraditional ways or ignoring clients’ edicts (such as redesigning the German Bundestag’s eagle logo). Is rule-breaking a part of your ethos or mission, or does it just seem to happen? Why?
Breaking rules is important in design. Nothing new will happen if you accept all the rules. But we don’t break rules because we think it’s funny or exciting. It just happens. When you are working seriously on design, the process leads you to a certain form. The solution is always embedded in the matter (affair/case/object). If we are convinced that the briefing is wrong, we break the rules by designing something unexpected. Sometimes we are lucky; sometimes we lose.
Q Back to diversity—which is the theme of our upcoming conference in Montreal June 1-4. How important is diversity in your studio team and in those you choose to collaborate with?
We collaborate with philosophers, writers, architects, and artists.
It enriches our work. Working with other disciplines, our design gets more subtle and varied. We don’t think that only we have the right answer for design problems.
Q What is your design philosophy...what principles guide your studio’s work?
To be authentic, faithful, and honest.
Q What do you mean by faithful?
Don’t design things! Don’t even think you can design something.
Try to look to the object or to the matter and listen to what the matter is. You can only give a form to the object.
Q What inspired you to write a book about wayfinding and signage? What was it like trying to articulate all your years of experience in a book? What did you want to add to the conversation?
It was a job—the editor asked me to write a book with clear rules about how to design a wayfinding system (I prefer calling it a signage system). It was the most horrible job for me. I didn’t know how to do that.
As I mentioned, it is necessary to break rules. How could I write a book of rules? Three years went by without any layout or design, and the editor became nervous. Then I wrote down all my thoughts about color, typography and so on. Once the concept of the book was clear, the design was easy. It took two years more to finish it.
Q As the world becomes increasingly technology-driven, complex, and fast-paced, how do you cope with the demands of shorter project timeframes and the pressure to create good design ever faster?
Working fast is okay.
Q Really? You like it fast? Well, what do you find most challenging about the work you do today, versus how you worked 10 or 20 years ago? Are clients different, are their expectations different?
Yes, I think working fast is good training. The more you do, the faster you have ideas. I don’t see any difference in clients now from 10 years ago. Clients want good work, and there is no excuse for ugly or bad design. We can say no.
Q So given how complex and crazy the world is, and how complicated our built environments are, is this a prescription for the kind of clarity and simplicity your work delivers?
There is no prescription. We try to avoid it. Listen to the matter…
--Editor's note: Portions of this article originally appeared in eg magazine No. 07, 2013, eg magazine No. 06, 2013, and segdDESIGN No. 31, 2011.