Walter Herdeg, editor and founder of Graphis

Essays by Steven Heller
731 words4 min read

Some called him the quintessential Swiss. Indeed Walter Herdeg, the founder and editor of Graphis, was firm and unflappable, but that was only his business side. When it came to graphic art he was like a kid at a ball game - a real fan. He knew all the players’ stats, collected as much of their work as he could get, had passionate likes and dislikes, and a few heroes, too. He followed illustration and design with fanatical fascination, but he didn’t just sit on the sidelines. In his own right he was a formidable designer of posters and advertisements, but his most significant contribution to international design — indeed the entire history of the field - was the bimonthly magazine which he co-founded with Walter Amstutz in 1948 and which he alone edited for over forty years, and the Graphis Press annuals and books that he edited and published until his retirement in the 1980s. Like an all-star team manager, Herdeg, who died at the age of 87 this past December, 1995, was the man who introduced the world to some of the West’s key veterans and rookies, as well as scores of unknown players from Eastern Europe and Asia. At the same time he developed a standard of excellence that helped define the post-war design aesthetic and scene. Everyone aspired to be in Graphis, and before the proliferation of annuals acceptance in the Graphis Annual was the top honour in the field.

Through visually expansive portfolios, Herdeg gave Push Pin Studios its earliest international recognition, introduced such illustrators as Andre Francois, Roland Topor, Brad Holland, Paul Davis to each other and the world, and spotlighted Pentagram, Chermayeff & Geismar, Herb Lubalin, Lou Dorfsman, Lou Silverstein, and other leading practitioners in the same issues that he introduced promising newcomers. To be assigned a cover for Graphis was one of the great tributes. And although Herdeg seemed rigid in his personal design preferences, he was extremely catholic in his editorial tastes, as evidenced by the wide variety of cover art. Although he was the epitome of a post-war Modernist, he celebrated design excellence in a wide range of forms.


Everyone who knew Herdeg has a unique memory of him, and some owe him distinct debt. I, for one, am indebted to him for publishing my first two articles in a 1979 Graphis, and continuing to assign me to write profiles until he retired. I often suggested subjects to him which he would respond to exactly two weeks to the day I sent my letter. And there were always two types of responses: If he liked the suggestion he would say ‘I believe that so and so is ready for a feature in Graphis,’ and then give me an exact character count. If he was not impressed, he would simply say that ‘so and so is not yet ready for a feature in Graphis’ and that would be that. Upon receipt of my manuscript with its precisely adhered to word count he would write back ‘I am pleased to have your article’ and rarely did he ‘edit’ for content. But one time he sent me a rare special delivery letter that asked me to please change a critical comment I had made regarding Graphis. The letter was so officious that I was worried I had insulted him and called him in Zurich to apologise. To my surprise, when he got on the phone he so sheepishly apologised for the tone of his letter that I couldn’t believe I was addressing the real Herdeg. Of course, I made the requested changes.

But he was always like that. He ran a tight operation, but it was an effort of total commitment and love. Often Graphis lost money, but Herdeg believed that it was his mission to keep it running at his high standard regardless of the obstacles. When he retired in 1980s he was awarded the AIGA Medal and the Herdeg Prize from Parsons School of Design in New York, which has become an ongoing award to exemplary practitioners, for a remarkable contribution to the field. I think these were the two happiest moments of a life that brought insight and inspiration to others.

© Steven Heller, no republication without permission of the author.

  • Art director of the New York Times Book Review and founder and co-chair of the School of Visual Arts, New York MFA/Design Program. He is the former editor of the AIGA Journal of Graphic Design and author or editor of over 80 books on popular culture, graphic design history, and political art. His most recent books include The Graphic Design Reader, Allworth Press, The Education of a Design Designer, Allworth Press, and Counter Culture: The Allure of Mini-Mannequins, Princeton Architectural Press. His forthcoming books include: From Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Progressive Magazine Design of the 20th Century, Phaidon Press, Cuba Style: Graphics From the Golden Age of Design, Princeton Architectural Press, and Graphic Humor: The Art of Graphic Wit, Allworth Press.