How design became socially conscious: Get inspired with Dropbox and The Ulm School of Design’s new digital archive
In this never-before-seen digital archive, we dig deep into The Ulm School of Design’s many masterpieces and explore why it became an industry-defining period of design history. Thanks to Dropbox and its easy-to-use organisational tools, this exclusive digital archive marks a significant moment in bringing the design school’s treasured artefacts to a screen near you.
Design lovers among us can attest to its necessity when it comes to any aspect of modern life: functionality, efficiency, practicality, aestheticism and so on. But how many of us know the story behind how design came to shape these values? How did design become socially conscious? And how did a revolutionary school dedicated to egalitarian thought steer the way for democratic design?
Dr. Martin Mäntele, director of the HfG-Archiv Ulm, is an expert in the matter. He undertook the impressive task of documenting the history of The Ulm School of Design, one of the most progressive institutions for teaching design and environmental design in the 1950s and 60s. Though it only lasted for a mere 16 years, from 1953 to 1968, to this day, The Ulm School of Design is seen as one of the most significant design schools in history, equal to the Bauhaus. Ulm would go on to play a key role in defining modern design. Its influence is ubiquitous, from the pared-back minimalism of Jonny Ive’s Apple aesthetic to Dieter Rams’ industrial design for Braun. Aside from these stylistic similarities, however, Ulm’s legacy is most profoundly seen in the way we think about design today. “Rather than name more companies and names of individual designers,” says Martin, “I would say that a methodological approach and the idea of sustainability shows the impact of Ulm on designers working currently.”
Digging into this first-of-its-kind digitisation the school’s revered archive reveals hidden design jewels on how Ulm transformed the creative landscape for modern practices. Previously, the archive was only available to view in person, in the building that once housed Ulm in the southern German city of the same name. This exclusive digital archive marks a significant moment in bringing the design school’s treasured artefacts to a screen near you. As a multi-faceted tool which allows the user to dive into inspiring, undiscovered content and provoke new ideas in turn; this archive is testament to how something as seemingly simple as Dropbox has sparked refreshing innovations. It’s a power that’s also accessible to any readers looking to organise their own files in an interesting way. With Dropbox at the heart of this state-of-the-art digital archive, it allows anyone and from anywhere to immerse themselves in Ulm’s pioneering movement and all it had to offer.
The school was started by two people: Inge Scholl and her future husband Otl Aicher, a name that needs no introduction in graphic design. “Without Otl Aicher and his future wife Inge’s work, there would be no Ulm School of Design,” says Martin. “There is no doubt about that.” Best known for creating the pictograms for the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Otl’s contributions to the design sector began long before this, starting in 1945 with the end of the Second World War. After Germany was defeated, Inge and Otl were determined to work on a better future for Germany. Both Inge’s younger siblings were killed for their opposition to the Nazi regime in 1943 while Otl, on the other hand, had been arrested for refusing to join the Hitler Youth as a teenager. When drafted years later, he deserted the army and went into hiding at the Scholl family home.
“Germany was ready for change,” Martin tells us looking back on this period in time, “there was an almost desperate need to do something entirely different from the 30s and 40s.” For Inge and Otl, the path to change revolved around education and a new kind of democratic system where the generation that had been devastated by the Nazi regime, the war and its aftermath, could rebuild a better society. In this in-depth archive, the viewer can first-handedly experience this reviving vision for Germany, which in turn, influenced a universal understanding in the design of every day objects. The archive, categorised through a variety of materials and themes, offers a unique insight into this pivotal period of time, representing a wave of fortifying creativity to get stuck into; no matter what your background.
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Peace and Friendship poster, Visual Communication Department (Copyright © The Ulm School of Design)
The Inspiration Archive has been curated in a way that feels intuitive to explore, encouraging you to follow your curiosity and browse the archive through each of these categories: colour, size, theme, material, activity and physicality.
Poster design, 1964, Visual Communication Department (Copyright © The Ulm School of Design)
Design Congress Ulm poster, 1964, Visual Communication Department (Copyright © The Ulm School of Design)
“One should remember that industrial design was a new profession.”Dr. Martin Mäntele
In 1948, Otl and Inge met Max Bill, the Swiss multidisciplinary designer who studied at the Bauhaus under the likes of Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer, who became the third founding member of the Ulm. With Max’s input, the three turned their attention to a design school, remoulding some of the Bauhaus’ values marrying craft with fine art, and aesthetics with functionality. The new school even hinted to Bauhaus in its name, Bauhaus Dessau: Hochschule für Gestaltung, the latter phrase translating as ‘university for design’.
At a time when the role of designer was not only pivotal but abundantly open to interpretation, Ulm developed its own model of thought which arguably remains its greatest gift to the industry. This so-called “Ulm model” was described by Otl Aicher as “a design concept, based on and informed by technology and science.” It follows the notion that the designer should not act as an individual but rather “a lofty artist”. By this, Otl understood that the designer should be free from ego, using their talents for the benefit of the people rather than hedonistic ideals. He thought designers should be allowed to work in an interdisciplinary way, working with different people or trades in a fluid, methodological way. Importantly, “a designer working according to the Ulm model would be able to reason why his or her designs should be devised in a particular way,” says Martin. The idea of design having purpose or concept was quite the innovation back then. In another first for Ulm, the school initiated the Grundlehre, a basic design course (not dissimilar from a Foundation diploma) that involved students developing a certain set of skills and general knowledge before starting to work on specific designs.
“As art or design historians, we like to operate with the concept of style. However, I know that designers are almost allergic to the notion of style.”Dr. Martin Mäntele
When Ulm was founded nearly 70 years ago, the design landscape looked totally different. “One should remember that industrial design was a new profession,” explains Martin, pointing out how there were no universities dedicated to the discipline and instead, most practitioners studied engineering or art to form the basis of their education. Ulm was essential in changing this. It created a holistic educational system for becoming a well-versed designer, particularly industrial design at a time when there was no professional profile for the role while demand for their talents surged as countries across post-war Europe looked to reshape their landscapes.
Out of this darkness, the visionary fruits from Ulm School of Design flourished. Looking through the digitised archive, we can see the refreshing vastness birthed by such a pivotal moment in time where the possibilities of democratic design were endless. The archive can be browsed by a myriad of categories from colour to material, activity, physicality, shape and theme – each folder providing a wealth of inspiration to all manner of creatives or history enthusiasts. In the archive, we are presented with fascinating visualisations of a new kind of design; design that is timeless, sustainable and created for industrial production. We see the now-infamous first stackable tableware sets, electrical appliances, futuristic street lamps, concrete sculptures, kitchen gadgets, textile patterns, typography and vehicle design – the latter offering a surprise element to Ulm given that cars were seen as a symbol of capitalism and not in line with the democratic school of thought.
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Gouache on paper: Lecturer Tomas Maldonado, Student Urs Beutler, Basic Design Course (Copyright © The Ulm School of Design)
“By working with the archive material, the notes, letters and many, many administrative documents, the school shows us that it is worth trying to achieve good design, sustainable design, and not issuing trend after trend which uses up limited and costly resources.”Dr. Martin Mäntele
Each object bears its own story, many of which detail the groundbreaking nature of the design at the time. For instance, Hans Gugelot’s compact design for SK4 saw him transform the way we see electrical appliances. “Everything about this design is new,” says Martin, nodding to the sleek modernism of the combined LP player and radio. Prior to its design, electrical appliances were stowed away in cupboards or chests of drawers as they were unsightly and clumsy. But with this design, Hans Gugelot chose a fair coloured wood to complement a white metal box and a perspex lid in a revitalising display of the household object.
Despite the variety of designs on display in the archive, it’s fair to say there’s an overarching style that can be frequently found in Ulm’s archive. “As art or design historians,” continues Martin, “we like to operate with the concept of style. However, I know that designers are almost allergic to the notion of style.” Going through his seemingly infinite knowledge of modernist design history, Martin then cites how Walter Gropius, for instance, did not want to hear of a Bauhaus style. Gropius aside, Martin draws attention to the “enge Radien” meaning “tight radii” in Hans Gugelot’s work. The Ulm archive director describes these signature features as “very tight, slightly rounded edges, which one can also find in Braun’s work.” He also points to “the muted colour palette which includes white, off-white, greys, beige and wood, which are typical.”
Though aesthetic is important in design (and a crucial feat in Ulm’s enduring public interest), in a more salient sense, it is the approach of Ulm designers that sets itself apart from the crowd. Namely, the way designers created “a system of objects rather than singular objects”. To give an example, Martin says, “typically the design for a bus stop would be accompanied by the design for its seating, ticket machines, timetables, information posters and so on” as opposed to designing these elements individually in a similar way. This allowed every element of a series to be coherent from the beginning to end while showcasing the most important details in each respect too.
Ulm’s story intersects the past, present and future, and Martin was faced with this when teaching an introductory course in design history. “I found there was little general knowledge about design history with students in the field,” he says, underlining how as the future of the industry, “they should know what came before them.” As part of his work with the archive, Martin shows what The Ulm School of Design achieved, or tried to achieve. “By working with the archive material, the notes, letters and many, many administrative documents, the school shows us that it is worth trying to achieve good design, sustainable design, and not issuing trend after trend which uses up limited and costly resources,” he finally goes on to say.
Even though Ulm may not have succeeded in achieving its egalitarian ideals for all, this beautifully organised archive, thanks to Dropbox, is a testament to how it not only strived for the collective good but succeeded in creating awe-inspiring beauties along the way. With this in mind, we hope you enjoy this digital, never-bef0re-seen collection of artefacts. Whatever your background, wherever you are in the world, we invite you to galvanise inspiration with this fresh burst of stimulus that is sure to set your creativity alight with whole-hearted encouragement and motivation. On a final note, stay tuned to find out how two top practitioners today use the archive as inspiration for their respective practices.
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.