Playing a Graphical Game with Perception for Schendlingen School
Atelier Gassner – Visual Essays
Dornbirn separated itself from the old Postbus as early as 1991 and developed a “luxury bus line” as an individual solution. In fact from the very start this idea was conceived on a wider scale and ultimately was implemented throughout Vorarlberg.
It was around the beginning of 1991 when Dornbirn town planner Markus Aberer asked me whether I would like to take part in a competition for the design of the public appearance of a new “Dornbirn City Bus”. After reflecting for a short while, although the commission would have greatly interested me, I had to refuse the invitation due to other commitments. The aim of the competition was to find an overall design approach – bus, bus-stops, guidance system, corporate design and communication design. Dornbirn was confronted with the problem of a constantly growing amount of private traffic. The Postbus was the only available form of local public transport available in the greater urban area. But for many people this bus was not a real option and was regarded, at best, as a necessary evil. The vehicles in the typical yellow and orange Postbus design, the ubiquitous “H- wedge”, the stops, the timetables… everything looked outdated and not particularly attractive. The municipal administration took up this matter, examined the question of who should operate the service, examined new technologies, using current product criteria for local public transportation and considering local opportunities and needs. Before the competition itself a student competition was held in conjunction with the Schule für Gestaltung Zurich. Consequently, the town was well prepared to hold a professional competition.
At the end of 1991 I followed the implementation of the new “Dornbirn City Bus” with great interest. The competition was won by a team of two experienced Vorarlberg designers: graphic designer Reinhold Luger and architect Wolfgang Ritsch. The new bus was presented as “luxury bus line”. This had absolutely nothing to do with the old Postbus as we knew it, but also not with a touring coach with all the usual kitsch. It was more like a private car: modern bodywork – the powerful red paintwork edged above and below in anthracite, large, dark band windows, restrained lettering, inside elegant shades of grey, functional seating with lovely fabrics and finishes. The most spectacular aspect, however, was the chassis of the so-called “low-floor bus”, which can lower itself slightly towards the passenger and has two entrance and exit doors. This was something that people knew, if at all, only from airport buses. In connection with a slightly raised pavement area it made barrier-free boarding possible and 20 years ago that was, at least in our part of the world, something completely new for a public bus. The stop had a surprisingly modern bus shelter transparently built of steel and glass, with restrained lighting and fittings. The plain, slender columns indicating the stop were also most striking. The visual appearance was determined by the severe typographical design in a sans-serif New Helvetica. The use was consistent and geared for the future – which is something that can be better judged today. The buses, bus-stops and the means of communication were all committed to good contemporary form. Dornbirn had its own bus system for local public transportation, a functional timetable, a bus station and a dense network of stops at a high urban design level. Advertising and user guidance were based on modern visual communications. Through its temporal and spatial presence the “Dornbirn City Bus” shaped the image of Dornbirn – the town became a city.
The concern was not simply a packaged mobility service but an image and identity, a striking architectural and urban design pattern.
The new bus in Dornbirn was talked about throughout Vorarlberg. As well as the improvement to the service that resulted from more modern vehicles and more user-friendly intervals, bus and stops were now perceived as image-enhancing and identity-building elements. Hardly surprising: the stops positioned at busy locations and the buses that travel along main traffic arteries offer unbelievable opportunities for contacts in public space. It is not by chance that they are so often misused for advertising. But not in Dornbirn. The new buses and stops were kept free of advertising, or advertised just themselves. They said: we are Dornbirn, a city with a modern bus system that is “our bus”. This message, constantly repeated through its public presence, supported a feeling of community and belonging throughout the entire city. In the competition between the various towns and cities of Vorarlberg this was a clear plus.
These towns were already working on their own concepts: in 1992 Feldkirch commissioned our studio to design a public appearance for the Feldkirch city bus. The commission went clearly in the direction of city marketing and was conceived as an answer to the pressure of competition from Dornbirn. We developed design solutions with a strong connection to Feldkirch in terms of colour and typography. Around the same time we received an enquiry about designing the appearance for a new “Vorderland Country Bus”. This made me somewhat uneasy and mistrustful. I made enquiries which confirmed that several towns and associations of local authorities were engaged in designing their own bus systems and commissioning designers to produce further “island or isolated solutions”. I called up the deputy Governor and later Governor Sausgruber, who had an open ear for my reservations about this matter. Naturally, such an initiative was the responsibility of the individual communities but it needed to be linked and, in the medium-term, connected to form a transportation system throughout the province. In my opinion the need for a uniform appearance had been overlooked at the start, but even without my intervention it would certainly soon have been recognized. For me the question of what should happen with the well-established appearance of Dornbirn city bus was quickly answered. I proposed that all individual design proposals should be withdrawn and that the Dornbirn concept should be employed to generate an appearance that could be used throughout the province. The design solution in Dornbirn had the potential for supra-regional use. In fact I learned only later that, from the very start, the designers had taken into account the fact that the system might one day be used throughout the province. Those in positions of responsibility reacted positively and rapidly. The province acquired the rights to the architectural elements from Wolfgang Ritsch. Nolde Luger transformed the logotype using different names for other towns and regions and differentiated the various applications through individual colour schemes. Bludenz, for instance, has green, Feldkirch a rich yellow, Dornbirn the powerful red and Bregenz blue as the basic colour for the paintwork of the buses and the directional system. These colours are generally also corporate design elements for the respective towns. For the regions between the towns lemon yellow was used as a uniform colour, and Landbus (country bus) was added to the name, rather than Stadtbus (city bus).
The “touchability” of a good form has nothing to do with lofty detachment. It is there as something that can be experienced and accepted, with a human scale. In the city and country bus system it was realized consistently.
The modern line buses and the stops with the information columns soon became a familiar sight in the region. The stops work equally well as freestanding elements in the landscape and in inner-city areas. The harmonized colours used for the vehicles, columns and the graphic design of the timetables help to guide users in a highly efficient way. The sizeable state subsidy for the operation of the buses is tied to the requirement for the individual communal bus operators to observe all constraints with regard to the general appearance. To the present day this has served as a guarantee for uniformity and consistency. Unfortunately, this does not apply to the bus shelters and consequently in some place less than satisfactory shelters are encountered. These were erected by poster companies which save the local authorities the entire cost of building and maintaining the shelters and in return receive the proceeds from renting the advertising surfaces in them. For those in positions of responsibility in Feldkirch and Vorderland I worked out what renting areas for posters or placing advertising at the usual rates would cost the bus companies compared to using the buses and stops as an advertising medium for their own services. Further important arguments against “special solutions” of the kind outlined above are the damage to values that result from having outside advertising on communal vehicles and waiting areas and the opportunities to shape the appearance of a place that are lost by allowing an architecture that is alien to the system. The bus system used throughout the region has remained largely free from outside advertising – to the present day.
The completely unexpected increase in the number of passengers – in Dornbirn, for example, the figure rose from 2.6 million in 1991 to 5.2 million passengers in 2011, i.e. around 100% – is naturally not due solely to the good form. There are certainly other important factors, which I register less as a visual designer and more as a consumer: the organization of a Vorarlberg transport and tariff association, giving priority to buses in traffic planning and the continuously improved and self-communicating service. In Dornbirn alone, a city with a population of 46,000, today there are 20 line buses, most of which run at ¼ hourly intervals and serve 240 stops – 42 of which have bus shelters. The Dornbirn city bus provided the decisive impulse for the system of bus routes throughout the province. Thanks to the vision of people in positions of responsibility and to the advantage of all a service and design originally planned at a local level could be used supra-regionally and developed further. As a result the province and the communities obtained a modern public transportation service and at the same a strong, connecting building block for the construction of an image.