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The Always Curious Martin Woodtli

By Emma Tucker

Martin Woodtli is best known for precise isometric creations that blur the lines between illustration, architecture, and design. Blending color and experimental type, Woodtli has worked on everything from posters to infographics to animations.

Woodtli studied at the Zurich University of the Arts with poster designer Ralph Schraivogel, whom he describes as a significant influence not just stylistically, but as the source of a design philosophy that centers on “first just doing, and then reflecting.” Woodtli also thanks Dutch typographer Karel Martens for an approach that addresses the broader issues around sustainable graphic design and education. Woodtli himself now teaches at the Lucerne School of Art and Design. 

After he graduated, time spent working with Stefan Sagmeister and David Carson in New York gave Woodtli a chance to experience the “compressed and surprising” city so unlike his native Switzerland, and to gain a new perspective on life and work. He says that the two designers shaped his business skills even more than his art.

Left: Three-color offset poster. Middle and right: Four-color silk-screened posters.

It was perhaps this entrepreneurial influence that prompted Woodtli to set up his own studio in 1999, a time when he says design firms were keen to embrace a more diverse graphic language than they do today. Since its foundation, his studio's philosophy has been to celebrate manual craft. It is at the heart of everything Woodtli designs, despite the digital methods that often underpin his creations.

“To do something real, like cutting, coloring, or typesetting, is very satisfying for me,” he says. “I believe in doing, trial and error.”

“I also believe more in a handcraft method than in concepts,” he adds. “I'm working always in the crossover from analog methods—like drawing, painting, and cutting—and digital.”

Using a mix of Adobe IllustratorInDesignPhotoshop, and After Effects, Woodtli creates multiple versions on his way to the final work, often producing more than 100 initial designs and sketches. He prints the versions and hangs them on his studio wall. It’s a key stage in the designer's process; he calls it the only way to make the right decisions.

Here are just 11 of the versions Woodtli made of his famous Sportdesign poster.

PUSHING PRINT’S LIMITS

Woodtli's illustrative and typographic approach lends itself to poster design, and he has maintained a longstanding partnership with independent art gallery Kunstkanal in Bern, as well as creating designs for the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich. 

Despite print’s reputation as old school, Woodtli still finds opportunities to be experimental within the medium’s restrictions: “In the print medium, you have to bring the design more to the point than in the digital medium, because print is a frozen thing,” he says. “After production you can't improve errors. This simple property does still challenge me and gives me motivation to try something new.”

Woodtli created these posters for a diverse client list using a variety of printing techniques.

While Woodtli's posters have won him awards, he is perhaps best known for his isometric illustrations, which are often commissioned to depict architecture, cut-aways, or complex technical concepts. He started creating them in the late 1990s, combining 3D and vector applications in a way that marked him as a pioneer of the field. Today his name is a reference point for a particular clean-cut aesthetic that’s often mimicked but rarely done as well. 

This cutaway is Woodtli’s depiction of Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world’s longest tunnel.

In 2005, Woodtli had the chance to apply his characteristic style to a new medium when the Swiss National Bank invited him to create a set of notes as part of a paper currency redesign competition. “Banknotes have a crazy-high resolution,” recalls Woodtli, who competed alongside twelve other artists. “It's like you're working on a format the size of a football field that’s then compressed into a format as small as a dollar note.” 

He tried his hand at this specialized format again a few years later, when he designed a collection of notes for Wired magazine that represented virtual currency and was decorated with robotic vehicles and animals.

PAST OR PRESENT?

Woodtli's characteristic style has often been described as disregarding the rules of Swiss design, separating him from the formalism of many of his design forebears. However, he's quick to qualify this assessment. “Amin Hoffmann and Emil Ruder were equally disregarding in their time,” he says, and yet “after years people called their work the ‘Swiss etiquette.’”

“Graphic design is a mirror of contemporary culture,” he adds. “It makes no sense to me to design like the past did. We are living in another world with other focuses; we need another typography and pictures to understand.”

Woodtli identifies this project as one of his favorites because he worked closely with the client to develop an unusually corporate design for a subculture art gallery.

That doesn’t mean Woodtli embraces everything about the modern world. He believes that some of its aspects have had a negative impact on design; for example, he sees social media and blogs as responsible for removing the mark of the author's hand and making design seem increasingly homogenous. 

“Design is getting more uniform,” he explains. “Originality is disappearing. We are living in the sampling time—it's not about the content, it's about the likes.”

On the other hand, he admits that the development of the Internet has been integral to helping studios find more work, with projects no longer restricted by geography.  “Graphic design is becoming more democratic and open to everybody,” he said. “Today it is possible that a studio from Argentina can do font design projects for international clients. Fifteen years ago, it was rarer to find an example like that.”

Regardless of the direction of the design industry as a whole, Woodtli remains focused on personal development. “Some brain scientist found out that curiosity is one of the most important aspects to learn something new,” he says. “For me, that means listening to my curiosity and interests rather than what people expect from me, or short-term benefits.” 

May Woodtli always ignore short-term benefits—his curiosity continues to benefit fans of good design.

More of Woodtli's poster work.