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Manuals 2 – interview with Michael Burke

The following is an edited version of the interview between Michael Burke and R. Roger Remington that appears in Manuals 2: Design & Identity Guidelines – available to pre-order now from the Unit shop (and shipping later this month).

Professor Michael Burke is a design scholar and expert on information graphics, and has enjoyed a career spanning England, the United States and Germany. Burke studied graphic design and later taught at Ravensbourne (formerly Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication) in London, at Ohio State University, Rochester Institute of Technology and the Dessau Department of Design, Anhalt University of Applied Sciences.

He is a professor at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Schwäbish Gmünd, one of Germany’s leading design schools, where he has been on the faculty for 20 years. As a design professional Burke worked with Otl Aicher on the graphics for the 1972 Olympics in Munich. He was a member of 8vo, the UK design team that produced the groundbreaking typography journal Octavo between 1986 and 1992 (see Octavo Redux). In 1998 he produced, with Peter Wildbur, the seminal volume Information Graphics. For the London Design Museum he curated a major exhibit on information design.

R. Roger Remington: What has been your experience with standards manuals?

Michael Burke: Primarily I have worked in Britain designing standards manuals for prominent architectural practices such as Building Design Partnership (BDP) and Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall (YRM). The issues are usually the same, whether the manual is for a corporation, business, organisation – namely, establishing basic graphic elements such as the symbol or logo, typography, colour, grids, format policies, etc. so that the look will be consistent.

In Germany I was also involved in the team that designed, under the supervision of Otl Aicher, the graphic identity for the 1972 Olympics in Munich. In this case there was no traditional manual, but standards were established within the group and applied as we went along.

We did have a set of subsidiary guides that were used for specific applications, such as signage. It is amazing how well the graphics were unified even though there was no formal guide or manual. More recently in Germany, with my colleague Jürgen Hoffmann, I designed a manual for Haus Lindenhof/Caritas which has since been migrated to a digital format.

RRR: In Germany with Aicher, you were under the influence of the Ulm School?

MB: At the Ulm School of Design (Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm) between 1953 and 1968 there were a number of designers who made significant contributions to standards manuals in Europe. Most likely influenced by the work at Braun, this group at Ulm had previously been involved in developing the graphics standards for Lufthansa.

A detailed standards manual exists for this airline, and I suspect that a copy is in the archive of the Ulm School. Teachers there, such as Herbert W. Kapitzki, designed a sign manual for airports and Martin Krampen contributed a manual for airport pictographs.

This kind of systematic methodology was natural for the faculty and students at the Ulm School because they all believed in a tight, rational approach to design.

RRR: Do you feel that traditional manuals limit the designer?

MB: Not really, if they are designed properly. They set up a structure and then the designer has a great deal of freedom within that structure.

RRR: How do you compare manuals in Europe with those in America?

MB: They both carry the same basic information in terms of graphic standards. It has been my observation that manuals produced, for example, in Germany have a tendency to be much more detailed.

RRR: In a historical sense, what are your views on the standards manual?

MB: Manuals have existed for a long time. My favourites from history are the standards set up for heraldry. This was the practice of devising, granting, displaying, describing and recording coats of arms and heraldic badges. It was a very tight system.

My sense is that the origins of heraldry stretch back into ancient times. Warriors often decorated their shields with patterns and
mythological motifs. Army units of the Roman Empire were identified by the distinctive markings on their shields.

Truly heraldic devices seem to have been first used in Carolingian times. Seals and banners confirm that they were being used in the Flemish area of Europe during the reign of Charlemagne (768–814 AD). Manuals have existed in many fields, such as in the military for badges, vehicles, airplanes and even camouflage. Typographers and printers developed type specimen books, which were nothing more than specifications and showings of available type fonts.

RRR: How can one see copies of corporate identity manuals?

MB: Historically, manuals are kept secret and are not for public consumption; they are for internal reference and for use with vendors and others who provide services for the organisation. As a professor I have often tried to obtain standards manuals for classroom reference but they’re just not available.

Part of the problem is that they were not produced in great quantities. However, as an annual Visiting Design Critic at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies in the US, I am aware that the Cary Graphic Design Archive at Rochester Institute of Technology has an extensive collection of corporate identity manuals.

RRR: In the design world today a common title is ‘information design’. Do you think that standards manuals come under this category?

MB: Definitely. Making standards and instructions clear and coherent to the user, explaining graphic relationships – all this is really the same thing.

RRR: Is there a difference between a style guide and a manual?

They both share the same purpose of establishing graphic standards for the organisation, however the manual is much more detailed and specific than the style guide.

A favourite style guide in my personal collection is the one for ADDO-X, the Swedish business machine company, designed by Ladislav Sutnar in the 1940s.

Thanks to our Kickstarter backers, Manuals 2: Design & Identity Guidelines is now available again to pre-order in a second edition from the Unit shop (shipping later this month).