Posters of protest
– an interview with
Felix Pfäffli

by Emma Tucker

Designer Felix Pfäffli’s vibrant posters are a cry for typographic rebellion, using expertly manipulated letterforms to prove that rules are there to be broken. In this feature from the Recorder, issue 2, Emma Tucker speaks to the Swiss designer about how his natural aversion to authority has played a role in his approach, and how his work aims to break the boredom of everyday design.

Detail from poster for the 2014 AGI Group Exhibition, in Sao Paulo

“When it comes to typography, I would say it’s more an abstract way of thinking. It’s about organising that mess of pictures you have in your mind.”

Designer, Felix Pfäffli

“When I think back, I have to say I had an incredible, beautiful childhood,” says Felix Pfäffli, the Swiss designer whose typographically rebellious work is breathing some much-needed life into the poster format. We’re talking about when his interest in type began, and although he can’t pinpoint a precise moment, his upbringing has almost certainly played a role in the development of his work. “My mother is a philosopher and my father was an artist and also a graphic designer,” he continues. “He had his studio in the bottom floor of our house. So of course I grew up with colours, pencils and ancient tools like airbrush machines. But for me it was always more about creating something or dreaming about it. Actually, I think it’s still the same today.”

The colour from his father’s studio seems to have spread into Pfäffli’s posters, which are as striking for their vibrant tones as they are their use of typography. “I see patterns, colour, structures and I have an idea how the product should feel when it’s finished,” he says. “But when it comes to typography, I would say it’s more an abstract way of thinking. It’s about organising that mess of pictures you have in your mind, and it’s about controlling the details. And that makes it interesting. But maybe that’s something I learned after studying.”

February poster for the Salzhaus
Poster for the Werkschau of the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences & Arts

Pfäffli’s first typography course was taught by artist Dora Wespi, who tasked her students with cutting out and gluing the letters of one word a hundred times onto small sheets, and using each sheet to create new meaning. As an exercise, Pfäffli says it played a pivotal role in developing his understanding of how much can be achieved, even with a single size and font. But despite his Swiss education giving him a thorough grounding in the rules of design, it also taught him not to be strictly bound by them – laws can still be broken, provided there’s a valid explanation.

His use of type has naturally changed and developed over the course of his career, although he explains it’s been as much influenced by his experience as it has been his own attitude, saying, “I like to have everything under control, and since I’m working in a very emotional way it’s difficult for me to work with fonts that give you a specific feeling, since I know exactly which feeling I want in the end.” This means Pfäffli mostly designs fonts for large use himself, and relies on designs like Helvetica for more informative purposes. “It’s been used so much that I think it’s no statement anymore. It’s like a dead font,” he says.

“I like to have everything under control, and since I’m working in a very emotional way it’s difficult for me to work with fonts that give you a specific feeling, since I know exactly which feeling I want in the end.”

Austra poster, for Südpol

With experience has also come confidence, and these days Pfäffli explains his work is less about conquering his fears of finding a solution, and more about trying to surprise himself with each project. Surprise is exactly what Pfäffli’s posters evoke, with type used less as a vehicle for information and more a two-dimensional sculptural medium. Over the course of the last four years his work for Sudpol – a cultural centre in Switzerland – has seen him manipulate type in a way that shows its enormous breadth of possibility. Letters are deformed and stretched, and traditional ideas of legibility are thrown aside to twist and bend type almost out of recognition. Completely bereft of other imagery, the posters rely only on Pfäffli’s manipulation of the letterforms, and he explains, “I knew they had to be as simple as possible to be as loud as possible. Which led me to reduce myself on typography.” The process of creating the posters isn’t always an easy one, however, and he explains he relies on “a lot of thinking systems” to imagine these kinds of typographic solutions.

“I think when it comes to that debate about legibility, it’s the designer’s job to know how far he can go and what is needed. And if he has to go far, he has to go as far as possible without losing the viewer.”

Ghostpoet poster, for Südpol

Pfäffli is part of a wave of designers who are purposefully throwing out the rulebook, and it’s an attitude he’s candid about. “I don’t really care anymore... there are no rules. The only rule you have as a designer is to transfer information. You can do it any way you want. I think there is no specific form that is beautiful. It’s always about relationships between various forms.” He confesses the rebellious nature of his work is partly to do with his own aversion to authority and convention, but also an understanding of the divide between legibility and experimentalism. “For me, the way you have to read a poster is a statement. If, for example, you have a band that makes complicated music, why should the band name be easy to read? I think when it comes to that debate about legibility, it’s the designer’s job to know how far he can go and what is needed. And if he has to go far, he has to go as far as possible without losing the viewer.” Although he won’t be drawn on who his specific inspirations are, he admits to admiring the work of more artistic and free designers. Mentioning Niklaus Troxler, a graphic designer in Lucerne, Pfäffli describes his work as having found a ‘beautiful way’ to express music through typography. It’s reminiscent of Pfäffli’s own approach, and the way he uses type as such an expressive medium. “Sometimes I just ask myself how I would speak if I would like to invite somebody to that event,” he says. “And then I try to design something that speaks that language. In comics for example they use different fonts if somebody whispers. That’s how I understand my designs. It’s about finding a language for a specific event.”

Monotales poster, for Südpol

It’s hard not to wonder how he pushes through such daring work, and he explains people often ask how he’s persuaded clients to allow him so much freedom. “My designs are often very experimental,” he agrees. “Of course that’s something you have to develop, and also I would say it depends very much on what people you design for. Sometimes you have to design very loud and simple, sometimes you have to challenge the viewer.” He also holds strong opinions on the role design plays in the surrounding environment, commenting on how much ‘bad design’ floods the streets. “Ninety-nine per cent of the posters on the street are incredibly ugly,” he states. “And mostly I don’t even understand what they exist for. How is that possible? Why would you choose to have a bad design that nobody cares about, rather than a surprising one?” Pfäffli believes that the reason for much of today’s uninspiring design is to do with people’s tendency to accept what they perceive as normal, seeing the role of the designer to push past this prejudice. “Sometimes I get the feeling my posters work because they’re surrounded by pure boredom,” he explains. “And it’s not just lacklustre, it’s also very badly designed. People complain about readability when they see a surprising design, maybe because they are too lazy to deal with it, but on the other hand they don’t question that 99 per cent. What about that? Is it okay if a design looks like somebody just discovered Photoshop?”

Of course it’s not just the audience that has created this problem, and Pfäffli suggests that designers too have played a role by adhering too religiously to rules. “It’s so easy to download a nice font and use it. So many people care more about the distances between two letters, but don’t really think about letterforms or even the whole picture of a composition,” he says. “I feel they are afraid of changing a font’s shape.”

“99 per cent of the posters on the street are incredibly ugly. And mostly I don’t even understand what they exist for. How is that possible”

Not restricted to posters, Pfäffli has started putting type in motion, bringing his distinctive approach to animated commissions for Wired magazine, as well as a type animation for the largest LED screen in the world, in Shanghai. He admits he’s only ‘just starting’, and that moving image comes with its own set of challenges. “You need systems that allow movement while communicating something, and in this sense it’s really interesting for me. The construction of design that looks good in every phase of an animation and is at the same time understandable is a very challenging task.” Although a beginner, Pfäffli’s motion work is just as beautiful as his static pieces, and I wonder how he maintains such a high level of output over time. According to the designer, it all comes back to surprise. “Almost everything loses beauty over time for me. I think it’s because I start to understand what is beautiful about it, or I know how it works and know what I will see. I would say I like things I don’t understand.”

This feature is extracted from The Recorder Issue 2. You can pre-order The Recorder Issue 3 from our Shop.