Herbert Bayer and the Ethics of Design

Anja Neidhardt

Anja Neidhardt is a writer and curator travelling between languages, countries and various fields of design. Neidhardt has worked with Timelab, German Design Council, Slanted magazine and as an editor for FORM design magazine, for which she still regularly writes. She holds a Master degree in Design Curating and Writing at Design Academy Eindhoven in the Netherlands with a thesis on ‘The Smartwatch and Its Countermovement. Designed Time Systems Today,’ and has also studied Communications Design at the Academy of Visual Arts in Franfurt/Main in Germany.


Herbert Bayer was a significant designer. A lesser-known aspect of his work, alongside his commercial work, is he also worked for the Nazi regime. An essay investigating the responsibilities and ethics of designers while creating a form for a message.


PART 1. The Case of Herbert Bayer

Herbert Bayer (1900–1985) was a remarkable designer: talented, smart, innovative, and years ahead of his time. He shaped Modernism and the Bauhaus, and he influenced designers both in Europe and the USA. But, he also contributed to Nazi propaganda.

Herbert Bayer’s Berlin years (1928–1938) is the chapter of his life that had been untold for a long time. It is thanks to the work of academics like communication studies professor Patrick Rössler, who did profound research and curatorial work in this field, that we can finally begin to see the bigger picture. 1

Born and raised in Austria, Herbert Bayer first apprenticed under the artist Georg Schmidthammer in Linz, then worked with the architect Emanuel Josef Margold in Darmstadt in Germany and finally studied at Bauhaus in Weimar where he later on became one of the masters, especially profiled in the field of advertisement. His practise was informed by the great variety of areas in which he was active. For the execution of his ideas he combined multiple disciplines like photography, sculpture and architecture, and exhibition, textile, ceramic and graphic design – an approach that he named “total design”. He had strong ideas and convictions, and was able and willing to stand up for them: not only did he contribute to the development of modern typography and to the implementation of DIN standards, he even aimed to revolutionise German written language by solely using small letters. 2 When his mentor Walter Gropius resigned as director in 1928, Bayer too left the Bauhaus and went to Berlin to start working with Dorland, one of the rising advertising agencies at that time.

As freelance graphic designer at Dorland, Herbert Bayer continued developing his ideas and expertise, created principles of modern advertising design and established his own style and creative signature. After only two years he became (still self-employed) art director for the studio and found appreciation both on a national and international level. His visual language was characterised by a combination of photography, collage, and airbrush illustrations with classical illustration techniques. He designed hundreds of adverts, posters, flyers and brochures for the consumer goods industry, a great variety of book and magazine covers for several publishing houses, and many publications that accompanied propaganda exhibitions commissioned by Nazi government agencies and close to the state institutions.

1   Patrick Rössler, 29 October 2013. Mein reklame-fegefeuer. Herbert Bayer und die deutsche Werbegrafik 1928–1938. University of Erfurt, Germany.

2   Patrick Rössler, 2013. Zur Einführung. p 11. In: Bauhaus Archiv (pub.), Herbert Bayer. Die Berliner Jahre – Werbegrafik 1928—1938. Berlin: Vergangenheitsverlag.

Herbert Bayer. Das Wunder des Lebens. 1935. Source Danziger Collection. Courtesy Sean Adams.
Herbert Bayer. Das Wunder des Lebens. 1935. Source Danziger Collection. Courtesy Sean Adams.

Herbert Bayer himself always played his work for the Nazi regime down, but there are various designs of publications, for instance in the context of the three big exhibitions Deutsches Volk, deutsche Arbeit [German people, German Work], 1934, Das Wunder des Lebens [The Wonder of Life], 1935, and Deutschland [Germany], 1936, that are undoubtedly to be interpreted as propaganda for the aims of the so-called Third Reich. Especially these three exhibitions were media events held by the Nazi regime to construct, establish and promote its ideology based on social Darwinist thinking. 3

In his only comment on a brochure that he designed for the exhibition Germany, Bayer described solely its stylistic characteristics, without addressing the content at all. 4 Most of all he was proud of his photo collages and wanted to look at his work by focusing on the formal aspects of it. To get critical feedback on his design he even sent 20 copies of the publication to famous national and international designers, not reflecting on his own political attitude and the message that he sent together with his drafts. 5 He didn’t think, or didn’t want to think, about the content.

However, Bayer’s contribution to Nazi propaganda cannot be denied. By applying his advanced style in the design of the publications, he created an aura of modernity and supposed progress, and helped heroising the political system. For the 24-pages publication accompanying the exhibition The Wonder of Life, for instance, he linked the utopia of an Aryan society with modern visual aesthetics. 6

Herbert Bayer did not believe in the ideology that he helped to propagate. He was not a member of the NSDAP and it is known that he complained about the stultification of the German people. Nevertheless, his occasional negative comments on those in power are only documented from his private sphere, and normally referred to work-related disadvantages within the frame of commissioning, as Patrick Rössler says. 7 Actually, Bayer put up with the fact that he (in)directly contributed to Nazi propaganda by working for close to the state institutions. 8 Apart from this, private issues like his affair with Walter Gropius’ wife Ilse and the separation from his wife Irene seem to have occupied his mind and took part in keeping him from further trying to understand the whole political situation. In his diary, Bayer did not even mention the radical political changes in January 1933. 9

Even though being a former Bauhäusler and despite the fact that his wife had a Jewish background, the situation was not too troublesome for the couple and their young daughter. As long as he worked for National Socialism as graphic designer and stopped working as artist (one of his paintings was included in the exhibition Entartete Kunst [Degenerate Art]), Bayer could follow his visual program relatively undisturbed, even after 1933. Close friends called him (ironically) the “star of the propaganda minister”. 10 “Bayer’s perspective, the efficiency of advertisement, went well with the aims of the NS propaganda”, says Rössler. 11 Working in the field of advertisement implied for Bayer to make compromises: he called it “mein reklame-fegefeuer” [“my advertising purgatory”]. 12 He understood being pragmatic as being loyal towards each and every commissioner.

During his Berlin years, Herbert Bayer became the probably most influential, top-earning German advertising designer at that time. He was famous, handsome, and internationally recognised – and he certainly didn’t want to lose all of this. 13

In contrast to some of his Bauhaus friends, Herbert Bayer was not forced to flee Germany. Even though his order situation got more complicated, it was not until Walter Gropius offered him the job of organising and installing the exhibition Bauhaus 1919–1928 at MoMA in New York and he, additionally, had a position as lecturer at New Bauhaus in Chicago in prospect that he left Germany in 1938.

After his (for the most part financially secured) emigration he continued working as a successful art director, applying the same design approach and language – with the sole difference that he was now based in the USA and his commissioners came from the American consumer industry. Through his work for the Bauhaus exhibitions in 1938 (MoMa) and 1968 (touring exhibition, IfA), he also became one of the most defining figures of Bauhaus reception. However, “all his life Bayer contributed little to the illumination of his [Berlin years]”, says professor Patrick Rössler. 14 He refers to Jost Hermand, professor of cultural history, and states that Bayer’s behaviour resembled a “marked based producer attitude […], that – next to its consciously chosen efforts of distraction – as ever primarily corresponds to the managerial classes that strive for achievements and profit and that try to adopt to every regime.” 15

Herbert Bayer devoted himself to thoroughness and reflectiveness in his work. He was able to develop his own thoughts and ideas, and to fight for them. He convinced people and introduced new standards. He was a smart designer, otherwise he could not have been that successful. But he decided to be ‘pragmatic’ and to not question his commissioners and their ideology. Especially when working for the Nazi regime, he avoided critical thinking and drew a line between form and content. He acted business-like and put up with the situation.

There were private issues keeping him busy, yes, and maybe politics even back then were only one part of life – however, he had a choice and made the decision to let himself being instrumentalised. Later on, in the US, when he worked through his archive and contributed to how his story was told, he had the opportunity to reflect upon his past and to ‘deprogram’ 16 himself. But instead of changing his self-perception and the myth about his person and work, he actively manipulated the perception of his designs: he concealed certain details, changed the dates of some documents, translated various titles only fragmentary, and tried to influence researchers. 17

3   Patrick Rössler 2013. Als Gebrauchsgrafiker im Nationalsozialismus. ‘Mein reklame-fegefeuer’. p 51. In: Bauhaus Archiv (pub.), Herbert Bayer. Die Berliner Jahre – Werbegrafik 1928—1938. Berlin: Vergangenheitsverlag.

4   Ibid. p. 48.

5   Ibid. p. 54.

6   Ibid. p. 51.

7   Ibid. p. 49.

8   Andrea Radtke, 29 October 2013. Mein Reklame-Fegefeuer. Über eine Ausstellung und eine Annährung an den Menschen Herbert Bayer. University of Erfurt, Germany. (Accessed 17 January 2017.)

9   Patrick Rössler 2014. Der einsame Großstädter. Herbert Bayer. Eine Kurzbiografie. pp. 126—127. Berlin: Vergangenheitsverlag.

10   Patrick Rössler 2013. Als Gebrauchsgrafiker im Nationalsozialismus. ‘mein reklame-fegefeuer’. p. 59. In: Bauhaus Archiv (pub.), Herbert Bayer. Die Berliner Jahre – Werbegrafik 1928—1938. Berlin: Vergangenheitsverlag, 2013.

11   Andrea Radtke, 29 October 2013. Mein Reklame-Fegefeuer. Über eine Ausstellung und eine Annährung an den Menschen Herbert Bayer. University of Erfurt, Germany. (Accessed 17 Jan 2017.)

12   Patrick Rössler 2013. Als Gebrauchsgrafiker im Nationalsozialismus. ‘mein reklame-fegefeuer’. In: Bauhaus Archiv (pub.), Herbert Bayer. Die Berliner Jahre – Werbegrafik 1928—1938. Berlin: Vergangenheitsverlag.

13   Andrea Radtke, 29 October 2013. Mein Reklame-Fegefeuer. Über eine Ausstellung und eine Annährung an den Menschen Herbert Bayer. University of Erfurt, Germany.

14   Patrick Rössler, 29 October 2013. Mein reklame-fegefeuer. Herbert Bayer und die deutsche Werbegrafik 1928—1938. University of Erfurt, Germany.

15   Patrick Rössler 2013. Zur Einführung. In: Bauhaus Archiv (pub.), Herbert Bayer. Die Berliner Jahre – Werbegrafik 1928—1938. Berlin: Vergangenheitsverlag, 2013.

16   In the way that Sarah Schulman uses this term in her latest publication Conflict Is not Abuse.

17   Patrick Rössler 2013. Als Gebrauchsgrafiker im Nationalsozialismus. ‘mein reklame-fegefeuer’. pp. 57—58. In: Bauhaus Archiv (pub.), Herbert Bayer. Die Berliner Jahre – Werbegrafik 1928—1938. Berlin: Vergangenheitsverlag.

Transformation of Housing Block – Paris 17°, Tour Bois le Prêtre. Druot, Lacaton & Vassal. Paris Habitat, 2011. © Druot, Lacaton & Vassal.

PART 2. Design and Ethics Today

“[Herbert Bayer’s case] raises questions that are not easy to answer”, writes Sean Adams, graphic designer and Executive Director of the Graphic Design Graduate Program at Art Center College of Design and active in AIGA, in an article published on his weblog. “Who do we work for? Are they good? What are the levels of wrongdoing we will tolerate if we are lauded and rewarded for our work?” 18 Those questions are not only difficult to answer, they could also not be more relevant than they are right now.

An ideal collaboration between designer and commissioner puts both on an equal level and allows them to learn from each other. Unfortunately this is not always the case and there can be a great temptation, especially for designers who are just starting their career, to put up with a situation and simply do the job that is required and take the money. But, “[should] a young designer work for a bad client who is abusive and disrespectful? – No.”, says Sean Adams in a conversation with me. 19 Because “bad clients know other bad clients” and the designer will be referred to the next one and treated poorly again. But since this also goes the other way around, good clients know other good clients, it is worth using “the time and energy to find new work with respectful clients who challenge you”, as Adams says. 20

Are honest conversations with the clients possible? Do they, if relevant, allow a discussion of the company’s name, even though the designer should actually “only” create a new logo? Is the payment reliable and fair? 21 It is important to insist on good working relationships – if designers do not, in the first place, value and respect their own education and expertise, who else could believe in them and their work?

If the commissioner does not reach the basic requirements, then one should refuse working with them. In our conversation, Sean Adams reminds me of a designer, who found himself in a similar situation to the one of Herbert Bayer:

“[…] [When] Will Burtin was summoned to Adolf Hitler’s office to design propaganda for the Nazi party [he] declined stating that his wife was Jewish. But Hitler said that was no problem. [Burtin] then convinced Hitler that he needed a vacation to think about the great task at hand and would start upon his return. He and his wife left Berlin under the pretence of going to the 1939 Worlds Fair in New York, took only a suitcase and typographic sample sheet of Caslon, and never returned.” 22

The story of Will Burtin shows that there is always a choice and that Herbert Bayer could have acted differently. However, looking back at Nazi Germany from today’s perspective, this is also an easy “Good or Bad?” scenario. Many times contemporary designers find themselves in situations that are more complicated.

“Few organizations, companies, or clients of any kind have flawless records”, says Sean Adams. 23 One can always dig deep enough and find something unpleasant, but what is important, he emphasises, is what commissioners are doing today. “The line is personal for everyone and should be a matter of choice”, he continues. “I make the decision based on this question: ‘Is the client helping individuals and the community, or harming?’” 24

18    Sean Adams, 15 April 2011. Die Unzulänglichkeit Menschlichen Strebens. Burning Settlers Cabin. (Accessed 18 January 2017)

19     Sean Adams, 25 January 2017. Email correspondence.

20   Ibid.

21   Max Kuwertz, 30 January 2017. Personal conversation. Berlin, Germany.

22   Sean Adams, 25 January 2017. Email correspondence.

23   Ibid.

24   Ibid.

Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor. Designed by Irma Boom, 2006. Image courtesy www.typographischegesellschaft.at
Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor. Designed by Irma Boom, 2006. Image courtesy www.typographischegesellschaft.at

He brings in an example:

“Consider this: I design a new identity system and define the brand message for a corporation that makes combs. The solution is successful and the comb company sells more combs. The management team receives raises. New employees are hired. These employees now have more money to send their children to college, or fix the broken washing machine. The washing machine company does better, and the process continues.” 25

As for the project itself, the content is important, not only form. Form and content go hand in hand, they are interlinked, and cannot be looked at and judged separately.

Dutch graphic designer Irma Boom, for instance, reads each and every text before bringing it into the shape of a publication. She also sees the people who approach her with a project as “commissioners” and not as “clients”: “I think of my work as being commissioned by ‘commissioners’, rather than by clients: my work is a collaborative effort on an equal level”, she says. 26 This enables her to engage not only with the content, but to also bring in her expertise as professional designer and to develop the project further. This can include informing commissioners about certain risks, asking critical questions, and showing alternative options that they might not be aware of.

“The question is: to what extent am I able and willing to allow and support opinions that differ from my own?”, says Berlin based designer and art director Max Kuwertz. 27 In our conversation he describes the example of a designer who personally sympathises with left-wing parties, but is willing to work with a liberal party, since he does not only believe in democracy and free speech, but is also convinced that graphic design’s task is to give everyone a voice. However, if this designer acted consistently”, says Kuwertz, “he would not work with a radical right-wing party or a politician like Donald Trump, because they are a threat to democracy. 28

French architectural studio Lacaton & Vassal has developed an approach to buildings that they call “Reuse, never demolish”. 29 Commissioners had initially approached the studio with the task to tear down an old housing building and to then build a completely new one. Instead of just doing what they were asked to do, the studio did their own research and found out that it is actually more economic, timesaving and environmentally friendly to reuse the building. Lacaton & Vassal shared their findings (facts and figures), and discussed alternative possibilities with the commissioners who respected and trusted their expertise and finally did not only reuse solely this building, but asked the studio to collaborate in similar projects.

Chicago-based architectural and design studio Moss draws some of their inspiration from activism. Through engaging with topics like the need for gender-neutral public bathrooms, they developed own design solutions and ever since introduce their ideas and concepts to commissioners. 30 If partners or code viewers within the frame of a project do not agree, Moss is not afraid to fight for their convictions. It certainly is empowering to team up with like-minded people, search for coalitions, and to share knowledge and findings with fellow designers to make them aware of certain issues and their importance, and to also show possible approaches. 31 Pushing boundaries and questioning commissioners or customs can contribute to change established frameworks that allow a continuation of injustice, discrimination, radicalisation and exclusion, among others.

However, Herbert Bayer did not work in the field of architecture, but in advertising design. And is there actually a difference between “propaganda” and “advertisement”? Are not both of them manipulating people?

“The idea of propaganda is to sway the viewer to believe a particular point of view”, says Sean Adams. In his definition, propaganda typically raises one group and diminishes another. For him “[propaganda] is a clear violation of morality”, because there is no strive for honesty or objectivity. Adams makes clear that he hopes “all designers share to be constructive, not destructive”. 32

In contrast to propaganda, Adams defines advertising’s goal as “to convince the [viewers] that [they] will be happier, more attractive, confident, and socially popular by purchasing a product”. He refers to the history of the discipline that evolved as a product of the industrial revolution, when the public was suddenly faced with the question, “Which of the several teapots should I buy?”. 33

Finally, Adams adds the definition of a third term, “promotion”: “I would consider a poster I design for an upcoming lecture series at a university to be promotion”, he says. “While I am doing my best to make the event appear attractive to the right audience, I am being truthful about the content and presenting clear information. As a designer, I am aware of the effect on the viewer. And hopefully it is a positive effect.” 34

Following Sean Adam’s definitions of propaganda, advertisement and promotion, a graphic designer can choose, which method to use. Of course the method is linked to the message and the intention of the commissioner. But surely in a good relationship a designer should be able to explain why they refuse using propaganda, and propose an alternative solution instead – or quit working with the commissioner, if they would not show any interest in changing their point of view.

Designers do have the choice with whom and how to work. One part of being creative is also to find solutions. And being responsible means to not just execute or put up with a situation in which lies are told and facts or people are manipulated, but to engage and work through difficulties.__

25   Sean Adams, 25 January 2017. Email correspondence.

26   Irma Boom, 8 Dec 2016. Thursday Night: Focus, a conversation with Irma Boom. Het Nieuwe Instituut. Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

27   Max Kuwertz, 30 January 2017. Personal conversation. Berlin, Germany.

28   Ibid.

29  Anne Lacaton, 20 September 2016. Reuse, never demolish! Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment. TU Delft, Delft, the Netherlands. (Accessed 25 January 2017.)

30   Anja Neidhardt, 16 Feb 2017. Safe and Accessible Bathrooms. Form – Design Magazine issue 270.

31   Matt Nardella, 2 Nov 2015. Smart Architecture Solves the Political Problem of Gender Neutral Restrooms. Moss Design Blog. (Accessed 1 February 2017.)

32   Sean Adams, 25 Jan 2017. Email correspondence with the author.

33   Ibid.

34    Sean Adams, 25 Jan 2017. Email correspondence with the author.

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