Visual Culture

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Monday, October 6, 2008

VC Exclusive: Hans Allemann

Visual Culture presents a conversation with esteemed graphic designer Hans Ulrich Allemann. On the eve of his retirement, the renowned designer and educator discusses key elements of his distinguished career and sheds light on the the matter of the newly redesigned FISM identity.

VC: When were you asked to design the FISM logo?
HA: The process began in 1989; The Franklin Institute had been a client of Allemann Almquist & Jones for 5 years. In the early years we helped them implement a new logotype, designed by Kramer Miller Lomden Glassman. We developed an application system for the new identity and we redesigned all of their communications and marketing materials.

VC: Why did The Franklin Institute Science Museum want a redesign of their identity in 1989?

HA: They were rebuilding the institution – adding a new addition – which was named “The Future Center.” This expansion with new exhibits triggered the need for a new identity. Along with some other design firms, AA&J was invited to respond to a request for proposal. After some follow-up interviews, we were awarded the project. A year later, in 1990, a new identity was rolled out.

VC: Tell us a little about the process involved in developing the FISM logo.
HA: At the time, the goal of the administrative leadership was to make the institution known beyond the boundaries of the Philadelphia region. With their physical expansion and new plans for the development of educational and outreach programs, the administration felt it necessary to reposition The Franklin Institute as a serious educational institution and science museum. Early on we talked about adding science museum as a qualifier to the existing name. I know, it’s a mouthful, but there was no way around it. The objective behind this change was to clearly communicate nature and mission of this institution to a national and international audience. Our original research findings proved that, locally, The Franklin Institute is an established institution, a well-known place that, for most people, triggers memories of their childhood. Internationally, however, the word “Institute” is confusing. It refers to a teaching institution.

We worked with a five-member steering committee consisting of representatives from the Franklin Institute’s marketing and communications team and the administration. At our studio, five designers were involved in the concept development process. All of us submitted sketches and ideas for a new identity. As always in this phase of the design process, we posted our findings on a wall to see what would survive. At a certain point we decided that a mark should be developed to serve as the umbrella identity. Initially the mark was to be combined with a nomenclature system for the different centers of the institute. This concept was later abandoned. After our initial concept presentations and discussions with the steering committee I began to play with the idea of a sun. It took a while for it to fall into place. I envisioned an identifier that was universal in concept, a mark that symbolized energy, light and life. It had to be simple enough so that a child could identify with it and complex enough to appeal to an adult or a scientist. In short, it had to reach a broad and very diverse audience.

VC: As you said before, The Franklin Institute Science Museum is a mouthful. How did you make it work? Explain the thinking behind the type treatment.
HA: After testing different fonts, Futura was selected as the basis because of its high legibility. Given the long name the legibility issue was a major concern. I modified the font by adjusting the x height. It was made larger than normal. Also the letter “M” was modified. It’s a completely new drawing. This resulted in a signature where both mark and lettering were completely drawn and carefully calibrated in size and proportion. In the follow-up the signature was tested for small-scale and large- scale applications and appropriate final modifications were made.

VC: Did The Franklin Institute approach AAJ last year to redesign the identity?

HA: No, we had no idea that a new identity was in the works.

VC: In your opinion, what was the strategic thinking behind the redesign?

HA: From the way it was explained to me, the Institute’s Board of Directors together with the VP of marketing initiated the idea for a redesign. Red Tettemer, their ad agency, was engaged to develop a new branding campaign for the museum. The goal was to develop an ad campaign that would present the museum in a new and different way – which, in concept, was a good idea.

Where I think the whole concept went awry is when the agency also presented the argument for a name change and an entirely new logo that would go along with their ad campaign. The ad campaign and the new identity were presented and approved by the board. When the new identity was unveiled, many of us were puzzled by the name “The Franklin” and even more so by the proposed new mark.

VC: Describe your initial reaction to the new identity?

HA: I found it to be a missed opportunity and a failure. It’s ill conceived and it doesn’t function on any level. A new ad campaign coupled with the old identity would have been an excellent step forward. Even better would have been the collaboration between our firm (specialized in branding and identity) and Red Tettemer. Together, I think, we could have created a unique identity for the future of the institution, a mark or logotype that would be strong, memorable and also functional at the pragmatic level. The new mark does not fulfill any of these criteria.

Also the roll out of this new identity was unfortunate. Given the ad campaign and the name/identity change, I don’t think that the general audience realized who the “The Franklin” was. This undermined the objectives of the “Curious” ads, billboards and TV spots. In this case, a combination of the old mark coupled with the new name “The Franklin” would have helped as a bridge solution. A completely new identity should have been introduced and properly rolled out as a follow-up.

VC: People have had a couple of months to live with the new mark. What’s the general consensus?
HA: Initially most people had serious reservations about it and many still do. The new identity was introduced and all parties concerned had to accept it. As far as I know, there was no internal consensus building throughout the process. Once published, there were quite a few negative reactions coming from the local design community. Meanwhile some online design blogs are discussing the new “Franklin” identity… the debate and the controversy go on.

VC: At this point, I’d like to ask you a few questions in regards to your remarkable career as a designer/educator. How did you get your start? Did you always want to be a graphic designer?
HA: As a kid I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in the creative field, but at the time I had no idea what that would be. I grew up in a small village in the countryside near Basel, Switzerland. My father was a schoolteacher and my mother was a wonderful storyteller. Her elaborate tales would capture my imagination. Once one of her sequels was finished I would grab my box of color pencils and I would draw the images her story had left in my mind. I guess that’s where my propensity for visualizing information began. Later I decided to go to art school. With hard work and some luck, I found my way into the graphic design program at the School of Design Basel.

VC: What prompted your emigration from Switzerland?
HA: A phone call in 1966, from my teacher and mentor Armin Hoffman. This was a year after I had graduated. Together with my classmate Inge Druckrey I was working as a designer at an agency in Zurich. Armin told me that he had received information from the Kansas City Art Institute. The chairman of the Graphic Design department, Rob Roy Kelly, was interested in hiring somebody who had studied at the Basel School to teach in his program. Unfortunately I had to turn down the offer because I did not know any English. I told Inge about the opportunity. She talked to Armin and decided to move to Kansa City. A year later she called me and told me that the department was interested in hiring another Basel graduate. This time I accepted. I had enough time to sign up for 12 lessons of conversation English at a Berlitz school before I left for Kansas City in the summer of 1969. A professor from Oxford taught the Berlitz course. When I landed in the Midwest I couldn’t understand a single word (laughs). This is how I came here the first time. I had a visa, issued under the cultural exchange program between Europe and the United States.

The two years in Kansas City were a life changing experience for me. It was not just the opportunity to teach, which I had never intended to do, but also because of what was happening at the time. This was the late 60s! I came from a completely different world. Compared to Europe, the US is a young country. As big as it is in size, it seemed to be more agile, open and full of possibilities. This is what intrigued me about this country and its people. I was only 23-years old.

VC: You’ve been a design educator for over 30 years now. Explain some of the changes in design education you’ve observed over the years.
HA: In 1973, working in Zurich again, I received a phone call from Ken Hiebert, then chairman at the Philadelphia College of Art. I knew Ken from our school years in Basel. Ken had an open teaching position because Steff Geissbühler (another school mate of ours) had decided to move to NYC, and Inge Druckery, who had moved to Philadelphia in 1971, had accepted an offer from Yale University. I accepted the invitation and I returned to the US. My idea was to stay for 3-5 years. If that would have been the case I should have left around 1978…well, I’m still here (laughs).

From the beginning up until now, the program always changed and evolved in response to what was happening in the profession but also related to our own observations from working with the students. The main focus of the program was to teach students to observe, think, analyze and communicate visually. It was, and still is important for us to give our students a solid foundation and a knowledge from which they can draw and continue to build when they enter the profession.

VC: Describe how the introduction of the computer impacted the design program at The University of the Arts.
HA: In the late 70’s there were already speculative talks and presentations about computers in design. Once the first Mac was a reality in the mid 80′s the topic of how to integrate this new technology into educational programs turned into serious discussion and debates. Like other institutions, we too wrestled with how to incorporate the computer into our existing program. Initially we decided to phase it in after the sophomore year. Over the years the course curriculum changed and by now, the computer is completely integrated at all levels of our three-year program.

Needles to say, our students have changed also. By now our sophomores are entering the program with technical knowledge students in the 80’s and 90’s didn’t have. However, the hand skills our earlier students had have since been lost. This includes skills to communicating ideas through sketching, mapping, diagramming. For this reason the drawing program we had instituted in 1977 remains in place. We maintain the belief that drawing is fundamental and essential in a student’s development. It also helps to strengthen observation, critical analysis and visual thinking…even in our digital age.

VC: Can you share some of the highlights of your distinguished career?
HA: The biggest thing for me is the partnership we started in the fall of 1983 with Jan Almquist and Dana Jones, and working with all the young designers (mostly PCA and UArts graduates) who have passed through our office over the past 25 years. This has been a privilege and a truly amazing experience for me. Also working with my students over the past 34 years has been truly fulfilling.

VC: What’s your favorite identity – by another designer – and why?

There is an identity that was done about 6 years ago for the French National Parks by Pierre Bernard. It is one of these creations that you look at and you wish you had thought of it. What you first see is a life spiral with fuzzy edges. But looking closer you realize that the spiral is made up of a multitude of various life forms such as plants, animals insects etc. It’s a fantastic mark. It’s unique, it’s memorable, it’s a great concept, beautifully executed.

VC: What’s next for Hans Allemann after retirement?

HA: I am really looking forward to doing a lot of things I haven’t been able to do. There are all these books that I haven’t had a chance to read. I also would like to do some creative work, – for myself only. Get back to drawing and painting, play around and experiment just as I did when I was a student. Maybe I’ll also do some printmaking, which I love and haven’t done since I graduated. I also want to brush up and take French lessons again. I once was fluent in that language but I lost it over the past 45 years. I also hope to do some traveling to places I haven’t seen in the US and in Europe. These are some of the things I look forward to doing in the time ahead.

Interview by David Oberholtzer

posted by Oberholtzer Creative Staff at 7:36 am  


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