Poster for Pfäfferli+Huber Pharmaceuticals, attributed to Ernst Bettler, 1959
Can graphic design provoke real social change? Consider the example of Ernst Bettler.
In the late 1950s, Bettler was asked to design a series of posters to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Swiss pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfäfferli+Huber. Aware of reports that P+H had been involved in testing prisoners in German concentration camps less than 15 years before, he hesitated, and then decided to accept the commission. "I had the feeling I could do some real damage," he said later.
And indeed he did. He created four posters featuring dramatic, angular black and white portraits juxtaposed with sans serif typography. Alone, each poster was an elegant example of international style design. Together, however, a different message emerged, for it turned out the abstract compositions in the posters contained hidden letters. (The one above, for example, displays the letter A.) Hung side by side on the streets, they spelled out N-A-Z-I. A public outcry followed, and within six weeks the company was ruined.
So if you're looking for evidence that graphic design has the potential to change the world, you need look no further than the story of Ernst Bettler. But if you look a little further, you'll discover something disturbing: Ernst Bettler never existed. The designer, the posters, the company are all entirely made up.
Ernst Bettler was introduced in 2000 in the second issue of Dot Dot Dot. Nothing about the article, titled "'I'm only a designer': The double life of Ernst Bettler" and attributed to the London-based writer and design Christopher Wilson, identified it as anything less than fact. On the contrary, it was filled with convincing touches, including descriptions of each of the posters (only the "A" was pictured), portraits of a young "Bettler" in 1954 and today, and vivid details throughout. Here, for example, is Wilson's account of the reaction to the scandalous posters:
The reaction of the usually passive local populace was immediate. The posters were torn down in the streets, the offices of the Sumisdorfer Nachrichten were buried beneath an avalanche of complaint letters, and demands were even made for the company's managers to stand trial. In under six weeks Pfäfferli+Huber were ruined forever. Even today, the sooty mark left on the front of the factory building by the long-gone metal logo is less visible than the ancient 'Nazi raus' spray-paint around the rusted gates. If World War II had in part been fought on the battlefield of design, then Bettler's involvement in the downfall of P+H stands and a testament to design's power to change things since then.
The design community knew an irresistible story when they saw it. Adbusters featured Bettler's feat in its September/October 2001 "Graphic Anarchy" issue: "It's one of the greatest design interventions on record," the magazine noted approvingly. Creativepro.com noted Bettler's "brilliantly subversive work." In Michael Johnson's admirable textbook Problem Solved, Bettler is saluted as one of the "founding fathers of the 'culture-jamming' form of protest," and to demonstrate his ingenuity his A poster is helpfully placed between typeset letters representing the never-seen others in the series.
I bought the whole thing too, although I think I remember feeling something was off. I was a student of postwar Swiss design; why had I never heard of Ernst Bettler? What happened to the N and the Z and I posters? And, while like many others I found the idea of the downfall of P+H at the hands of a designer awfully satisfying, why would a subtle poster series be more effective than, say, a journalist's expose? But it was Andy Crewdson, writing in his now defunct blog Lines and Splines, who finally did the research and discovered that there was no evidence of that Bettler, or Pfäfferli+Huber, or even Contrazipan — the medication advertised in the poster — had ever existed.
Rick Poynor summarized the whole saga on the Eye website in February 2003. "What, then, is the point of the hoax?" he asked. "If the aim was to fool credulous browsers into perpetuating the story, then this latest development is a triumph. It's now a permanent feature in thousands of copies of an internationally distributed book produced by a major publisher, Phaidon, and it's likely to be taken at face value for years to come. It reveals how skimpy standards of research, validation and basic knowledge can be in design book publishing." But it also reveals something else: how desperately we designers crave evidence that our work has the capacity to truly make a difference.
At last month's Designism 2.0 event, critic Michael Wolff infuriated many in the crowd by calling the work of some of today's most committed designers banal, trite and ineffective. "The problem with using design as a disruptive force," he said, "is that everyone uses design as a disruptive force. So how do you break through the clutter? Someone figures it out, everyone copies, and you have to reinvent again." Design's value, he says, has been "inflated, and therefore devalued." What more resounding rebuttal could be imagined than the example of Ernst Bettler, the lone designer cunningly using his quiet skill to turn the machinery of evil against itself to devastating effect?
Bettler lives on today — perhaps more than ever, as Poynor feared. Do a search and you'll find him invoked on MySpace pages, fansites, and scholarly bibliographies. The same week of Designism 2.0, Bettler's P+H posters were nominated in a SpeakUp discussion on the world's most iconic posters. Not bad for a designer than never existed.
We need heroes, and we'll make them up if we can't find them any other way. It's been noted that one of the most compelling fictional heroes of all time, Superman, was invented by two midwestern Jewish kids in the 1930s. In a world where Nazi evil was spreading unchecked, how satisfying it must have been to invent a powerful figure who could burst from nowhere to take action on behalf of the most threatened and helpless.
The design world is full of Clark Kents. Are any of us ready to be the next Ernst Bettler?