Six Lessons from the Bauhaus: Masters of the Persuasive Graphic

Anni Murray

published on January 16, 2013 in Design

The Bauhaus school of art and architecture in early 20th century Germany was the birthplace of a revolution in modern design. Founder Walter Gropius’ form-follows-function philosophy transformed advertising, typography, architecture, people’s living spaces, and the public’s aesthetic expectations in fundamental ways. The Bauhaus mission — to provide affordable, artistic, utilitarian design for every class of person — was a smashing success. Today, their crisp, geometric style is reflected in successful design everywhere: from billboards to infographics. And it still serves its original purpose: to honor functionality with beauty, to please the eye and capture the mind.

So what can today’s graphic designers learn from the Bauhaus? Let’s go to school!

1. Form Follows Function

Everything made at the Bauhaus School was meant to embody one central tenet: form should always reflect and enhance function. Utility comes first.

The lesson: never sacrifice your message for your design. Focus on readability, narrative, and information first, artistic flair and frills second. Use your design to reinforce your message, never the other way around.

2. There is Always a Connection Between Color and Shape

One of the school’s most famous thinkers and artists, Wassily Kandinsky, strove for a universal aesthetic: a visual style that would transcend cultural differences and language barriers. He believed certain shapes and colors complemented each other and communicated a specific idea or emotion to the viewer. For example, he believed yellow and the triangle were natural partners: they strengthen each other’s sharpness. He tested his students on this theory, presenting them with a circle, square, and triangle alongside the colors red, blue, and yellow (blue, a spiritual color, corresponded with the circle while red, an earthbound color, corresponded with the square.) Amazingly, the vast majority of his students (and of all people who take the Kandinsky Questionnaire today) make these choices.

The lesson: colors and shapes may hold deeper connections than we realize. Consider your combinations carefully.

3. Clean, Powerful Typography Matters

In the world of graphic design, typography is perhaps the Bauhaus’ great legacy. For the Bauhaus, the words were an integral graphic element. They were architectural — like a chair in a room — functioning on their own, as words, and as artistic tools in the space. Bauhaus typographers were pioneers of wrapping text, and of setting words at sharp angles. But again, the meaning of the words always came first, clever design second.

The lesson: be as imaginative with your typography as you are with every other tool in your toolbox, but make sure it never detracts from your message.

4. You Don’t Have to Abolish Capital Letters, But Sometimes It Helps

Like Kandinsky’s universal aesthetic, Herbert Bayer’s universal alphabet was designed to foster communication. At the time of its invention, almost all of Germany’s printed text was in Fraktur: a strange, antiquated, difficult-to-read typeface; a remnant of an age when monks and scholars published manuscripts for other monks and scholars. You’re probably familiar with Fraktur. It’s available in many modern font packages and in some versions of Microsoft Word.

Fraktur represented the opposite of the Bauhaus ideal. Its ornate illegibility reflected the elitism of old-fashioned German intellectual culture. It was a typeface for the upper classes. In stark contrast, Bayer’s universal alphabet was all lower-case and sans serif: simple and legible. It was a typeface for everyone.

The lesson: Make your design accessible. If you’re hoping to appeal to a wide audience, avoid over-stylizing. Reduce your design to its most essential elements.

5. Share and Collaborate

The Bauhaus was founded on collaboration. Even though its founders and teachers were all giants in their fields, they also all served a greater purpose: design enlightenment. Not that there weren’t disagreements, but they managed to achieve an openness and collaborative style few groups of artists ever have. Their timelessness is a testament to that.

The lesson: Work with others, share ideas, and don’t live in fear of losing credit. Sometimes getting better and learning is more important.

6. Imitation is the Highest Form of Flattery: The Bauhaus is Everywhere

Art is a continuum of great ideas. Many of the best ones have been done before, but you can always frame those ideas in new ways. Even if you didn’t know anything about the Bauhaus before reading this article, you probably recognize the look. It’s a cultural eye-worm and for good reason: it works.

The lesson: When you see a great graphic idea, be inspired.

An original Bauhaus advertisement from 1928:

A poster advertising Obama’s visit to Berlin in 2008:

Let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen without the class-distinctions that raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us desire, conceive, and create the new building of the future together. It will combine architecture, sculpture, and painting in a single form, and will one day rise towards the heavens from the hands of a million workers as the crystalline symbol of a new and coming faith.
- Walter Gropius, “Manifesto,” (1919).

Anni Murray is a writer, editor, multimedia artist, amateur mycologist, and bat lover. She is currently working on Prism, a speculative science fiction story cycle. Follow her on Twitter.

Download our exclusive eBook to learn how to make your content work harder.