Markus Weisbeck, designer and Professor of Visual Communication at Bauhaus-Universität Weimar, has for a long time been involved in the development of animated visuals accompanied by digitally generated sounds. He heads the Space for Visual Research at his university, where he and his students together research new methods for generating innovative pictorial worlds.
Furthermore, he and the Studio Markus Weisbeck in Frankfurt develop branding for cultural institutions, design album covers and publish music. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the band Kraftwerk, we spoke with Weisbeck about the branding strategies of the legendary German group.
Interview by Gerrit Terstiege.
At Kraftwerk’s live shows, Live-Synthetic sounds merge into 3D animations and retro-futuristic visuals. How would you describe the brand essence of today’s Kraftwerk?
Markus Weisbeck: As a constantly evolving corporate identity. For Kraftwerk, change is part of their brand essence. What is remarkable about it is that the brand’s parameters always have a relationship to the then-state-of-the-art technologies. After historical, ready-made material, like for Trans-Europe Express, the 3D worlds now celebrate the brilliance of RGB technology with exaggerated, positive colour spectra.
Does there happen to be anything you learned from Kraftwerk as a designer?
Florian Schneider, one of the band’s founders, once said that Kraftwerk designs “acoustic posters”. In a way, the sounds do reinforce the poster-like messages and thematic spectra of the tracks, like Autobahn, Tour de France or Home Computer. This kind of timelessness in the themes, melodies and arrangements is something that has to be done right first! When we design visuals, we deal with completely different parameters. We arrange spaces, lines, words and imagery into graphic compositions. They are created as individual pieces, in a symbiosis of technical and cultural knowledge, skill and an understanding of our present day. “Breathing life” into this synergy, which is usually arranged on a computer, is an art that the four Düsseldorfers master superbly.
To a certain extent, the musicians became brand ambassadors for Germany 20 years ago with the refrain “Man Nature Technology” for the Hanover expo. These days Kraftwerk can be spoken of as a global corporation with German roots. Is the brand’s international success also attributable to the strong emphasis on the band being “made in Germany”, similar to Audi and Mercedes?
There are certain to be many fragments that condense into this image.
The first thing to mention here would be the aspect of continuous sound research, a more of a scientific approach that leads to artistic output. Secondly, the continuous definition of expectations for the future and making them a brand message. And, in recent years, the modification of their own topoi in the same manner as an automotive facelift. In a similar vein, Audi will never stray far from its brand DNA, irrespective of fossil-fuelled combustion engines or the e-tron. Indeed, Audi’s “Vorsprung durch Technik” slogan could also stand for Kraftwerk. Innovation and relaunches belong to the band’s brand essence, not only in relation to music but also in terms of creating and maintaining a strong brand.
Kraftwerk has this dispassionate, rational, technical aura, and arouses emotions precisely for this reason. The same applies to Braun design, for example. How is that possible?
Kraftwerk’s image is the result of an attitude that breaks with the expectations of a band. Yes, the band’s behaviour is precisely the contrary of those expectations. The histrionic gestures of rock bands – intended to underscore the performance – are transformed into the opposite. The musician becomes a sound technician, a technocrat. Whether on stage or in the promotional photography, this attitude becomes a brand with Kraftwerk. A similar distinction took place with Braun beginning in the mid 1950s. While products in the 1960s were still stuck in formally expressive space-age design, especially American consumer products, we do not find any interpretation of speed and aerodynamics in the product language spoken by the appliance maker’s designs. The functionality of a device was not exaggerated; kitchen appliances do not need a good drag coefficient that certifies how aerodynamic they are. It is precisely this determined attitude that prompts feelings of respect and amazement among Braun fans today. It resembles the way that a work of minimal art can touch people, for instance, just because of its simplicity and formal sobriety.
The “Kraftwerk” word mark exists in numerous typographical variations. The thing that became a pictorial symbol, though, was a graphic representation of a traffic cone. What does the emblem stand for in your eyes?
The brand’s typographic presentation was always secondary to the visual subject of each album released. Many artworks are certainly in the spirit of the time they were published in. The Russian suprematism referenced in “The Man-Machine” and Bauhaus graphics were the fashion during the 1980s’ New Wave. There are parallels that can be seen between the traffic cone on the cover of the first album, released in 1970, and things like Andy Warhol’s screen print graphics. In the context of “Es wird immer weitergehen …” (Techno Pop, “It will always go on”), animated 3D graphics and robot dummies partly come into play after being created in collaboration with artist Rebecca Allen and the New York Institute of Technology.
Whether by car, bicycle, train or Spacelab, transport had a key role in the band’s works. In other songs they sing about technical objects such as Geiger counters, computers and, of course, robots. As a result, the band covers unconventional subjects in a fully individual way. But why have there not been any new Kraftwerk songs about new modes of transport and current technology?
It is definitely more difficult now to predict the longevity of technical terms than in the most productive stages of the group’s formation. Hybrids, Segways and G5s, for example, are terms whose meaning could be lost to us in ten years’ time. So, it is better to bypass them with a “reset” and polish up the repertoire; nevertheless, I would still be excited to listen to a post-pandemic Kraftwerk song about “travelling in the hyperloop”.
Kraftwerk has also influenced some areas of design to a certain extent. There is the “A59” lamp by Volker Albus, which brings the Autobahn to the living room. The latest collection by young fashion designer Sophia Schneider-Esleben plays with the emblem of Trans-Europe Express, which was created in collaboration with Kraftwerk’s graphic artist Emil Schult. Can we speak of a kind of image transfer here? Or are these rather references that pay tribute to the band?
Sophia already did a brilliant transfer with the work of her grandfather Paul Schneider-Esleben, the father of Florian Schneider – a show of respect towards architecture using the tools of fashion design. Her new homage to the theme of Trans-Europe Express shows all the things that these visual ideas can still do beyond their original intention. The designs inarguably deserve to be transferred to a new context through sampling and modification. That is how they delight younger generations, too. I would also like to see the A59 lamp by Albus rereleased for a new context. Perhaps for road markings when a part of the eponymous Autobahn is finally renamed after Florian Schneider.
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