Micha Weidmann, the Time Out art director who left the magazine last month to set up his own consultancy, opens a box and carefully upends the contents on to the table. In front of us are some 40 beautifully crafted wooden shapes with magnets running through them that can be combined to create a wide array of forms – animals and architectural structures among them.
Weidmann hasn’t played with the executive toy he designed in years, but concentration and deft experimentation quickly lead to a fox magically appearing in front of us. Throughout our interview, Weidmann has been explaining his use of systems as a way of underpinning experimentation and excellence in design practice, but this box of shapes illustrates his approach far more effectively than words. The spatial elements can be deconstructed and reconstructed endlessly, each time resulting in an outcome or conclusion that is very different from its previous incarnation, but obviously constructed using the same blocks.
If the animals are Weidmann’s finished projects, then the blocks are the design education, experience and knowledge that the designer has amassed since his college days in Basel some 15 years ago. In six years of Swiss design education, Weidmann gathered the first of his blocks – a rigorous training in typography and classic Swiss design. ‘We were expected to learn everything, from the absolute basics to the ability to experiment and conceptualise, and I think that’s what led to the analytical work process I have,’ says Weidmann. ‘It’s a process that enables me to be very explorative and experimental, but to remain in control, and that’s very important.’
Weidmann’s approach was further honed in early design experience; first with Roger Pfund, the Swiss designer renowned for his work with banknotes, then with experimental and collaborative design group Müller & Hess; the two could not have been more different, despite the Swiss tradition they shared.
Another vital block came when Weidmann came to London and encountered the world of high fashion. ‘It was a great time to be working in the luxury goods industry because it meant I could experiment and explore, and it led me to The Fashion magazine and editorial design,’ recalls Weidmann. Art direction enabled him to learn a lot about his practice. ‘It made me realise that you can be super-glamourous, you can be luxurious and you don’t have to just use Helvetica or produce a style – style is an important part of a design but it’s not the essence. The style element must work with the structural elements, so the directory of a magazine is just as important as the cover, and the two have to have a relationship that makes sense,’ he explains.
Weidmann has since made this relationship central to all his projects. Coming to Time Out in 2004, for example, Weidmann brought the magazine from the jungle of celebrity covers to communicating its unique essence. And he paid as much attention to the listings pages as he did the covers. ‘I wanted to make them look contemporary, but they had to be informative and useful – for example, you don’t need white space in listings, but you do need a real sense of authority,’ he says.
In a brochure for Harrods, decorative elements turn more than 100 pages of prices for beauty treatments from something boring to something beautiful and interesting. A series of invitations for Modus Publicity focuses on Weidmann’s love of typography to create sculptural, graphic pieces that intrigue and delight in their unexpectedness. And brand identities for architectural practice Public Works and florist Black Tulip project an appropriately strong, yet flexible, solution and a flowing, decorative, typographic interpretation respectively.
In deciding to start his own consultancy, Weidmann has no intention of abandoning art direction, but hopes to apply the flexibility and broad knowledge it requires to a broad range of graphic solutions. ‘I’m not a publisher, printer, technology freak or photographer – all these things are important to understand, but I’m a designer and my energy must go into that,’ he explains. ‘What I love about design is bringing all those things together – project managing all the different elements of a print project.’