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- Graphic Design

The case for greater autonomy in the arts

Hooligans one day, a team of bowlers the next – Professor Fons Hickmann and his students at the Berlin University of the Arts have always had the knack of making the group photos not just a pose but a laugh. In each of his three roles in life – university professor, designer, author – commitment and personal passion drive Hickmann to stir, to stimulate and to walk new paths. Susanne Schaller asked some questions …


Fons Hickmann m23, your studio, has taken care of corporate design for the Semper Opera House in Dresden since 2009 and your work there has already attracted several design awards. What are the constants in your approach?

For working with any cultural institution, not just Dresden, we prefer a flex?ible corporate design. Rigid systems don’t work nowadays, because they don’t live and breathe. Conservatism in design brings results in the medium term, sure, but not beyond that. To convey our particular way of working to a client, I liken corporate design to a human body: the various organs and parts of the body make up the living entity. And as the body is an entity, we see it ?holistically; every part of it matters to all the other parts, and if we are going ?to keep the body healthy we must take account of all these internal processes. One in??ference we can draw is that we should not consider digital and analogue media separately. These days, to go on thinking in separate boxes, one for analogue and one for digital, is outdated nonsense, modern only to arch-conservatives. Logo, typographical and colour choices, the website, app and classical print media need to be designed by a single studio. Otherwise they will not harmonise and will not interact. Another very important point is that a CD must be able to change. In the same way as a body or a personality changes, a cul?tural institution must be able to change too. It’s quite sufficient to retain a single strong component, for instance the logo or a significant typographical feature. That way one keeps an essential minimum of recognition value and gains maximum flexibility. After all, I’m not going to run about in the same suit of clothes for the next twenty years, am I? I’ll want to wear things according to the mood of the moment. But the core does not change.


The most famous houses tend to come with a legacy of tradition that they expect you to carry on. How do you deal with that?

Like everything else in our culture, it comes from somewhere and is going somewhere. Nothing is without influence. Even recently launched festivals such as the Impulse Theater Festival and the Wiesbaden Biennial may be assertively cutting-edge, and yet still embody tradition. Even when I repudiate tradition –? perhaps precisely then – what I do starts from tradition. Resistance and re?bellion cannot exist except as reactions to the status quo – and so are inseparably tied to it. Likewise refusal or revolt is a reply to what preceded? it. Culture generally, the zeitgeist, is a permanent tussle between standpoints, perceptions and emotions. Culture lives from this conflict. Impose constraints, whether politically, ethically or economically motivated, and culture will stiffen and die.

Programm für das »Impulse« Theaterfestival


When you start thinking in earnest about your new concept, do you have primarily the theatre director in mind, or the audiences?

I don’t know. Frankly, while I am of course interested in what the intendant thinks, and while audiences matter too, my design proposals arise from my own independent thinking. If your work requires you to stay attuned to the zeitgeist, intuition will tell you what to do. Working up a design – just like other artistic disciplines, writing or painting, say – is a highly personal confrontation. There is a hidden kernel of individuality, and you have to find it. I see most of my designs as my personal interpretation of intellectual subject matter (if it’s a book or a play) or of emotional subject matter (music or film). I translate these reactions into visual form using the expressive media avail?able to me: image, form and typography. Sometimes my interpretation accords with the zeitgeist, in which case people love it and give me great feedback. It makes me happy – for the moment. But that moment is fleeting and should not count for much. Sometimes one has to do things that will not be popular.

Programm der Wiesbaden Biennale

What about government arts policy? Do political decisions affect your work, directly or indirectly?

They certainly do. Arts budget cuts, for instance, which always hit freelance colleagues first. However, the original trigger may well have been a change in social policy. In Dresden we have worked for years with various cultural institutions. But recent years have seen significant growth in anti-foreigner feeling expressed in movements such as Pegida and AfD, with their high-profile campaigns and demonstrations. The result has been a sharp drop in attendance at cultural events. Who wants to visit a city which outsiders can expect to encounter open and covert hostility?! For Dresden the result has been a fall in visitor numbers of almost twenty percent in two years, which means a corresponding loss in revenue and in positive publicity. And so the city is short of funds, and that in turn means budget cuts, less culture and redundancies, etc. It is a telling illustration of how the right-wing thinking that likes to pose as defending German culture is in fact precisely destroying German culture.

CI für den RIAS Kammerchor


Is a major cultural achievement ever possible on a small budget?

What culture can bring us is seldom determined by budget. How many great novels can you think of that were born amid luxury? There are a few, but general?ly the most enduring were written in circumstances of want. Now, I don’t want that comment to be misconstrued as advice to creatives. I think cre?atives, those who produce culture, are almost always underpaid in Germany: in fact, in recent years, an intellectual »precariat« has emerged, a class of those barely managing. Even so, I cannot accept that a causal relationship exists between budget and cultural achievement. Many of my projects for NGOs or political campaigns still go through on a small budget. But looking at our websites, I can assure you that quality is entirely independent of budget.

Spielplan-Broschüre RIAS Kammerchor


Are theatre-makers, festivals, cultural institutions in fact always »dream clients«? We remember a CPC lecture of yours, you had things to say about your experiences with the Berlin Volksbühne …

Regrettably, the once magnificent Volksbühne is not a client we are prepared to work with. The new direction which the theatre and its actors have ?chosen to take initiated a development with which I don’t want to be associated. It all culminated in an invitation to pitch to my agency offering a fee that would make any other client blush in shame. What is happening there I can sum up in three words: »Culture exploiting culture«. One sometimes encounters an attitude in cultural institutions of holding the work of designers and also of their own providers of culture in such contempt that I am at a loss to understand how such individuals come to be occupying the positions they hold. Unfortunate?ly, untalented cultural supremos are often appointed by equally incompetent politicians in arts ministries. A dilemma for our arts policy-?makers, and a compelling case for the arts to be allowed greater autonomy.


This interview was first published in novum 01.18 (main topic »theatre«). Single copies are available: