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Design fault

"We don't want anything to do with Nazi . . . "

Published måndag 7 mars 2011 kl 15.20
"There's just stuff out there in the air"
(6:28 min)
This shopping malls signage has drawn criticism for its resemblance to the notorious Arbeit Macht Frei sign at Auschwitz. Photo: Brett Ascarelli / SR

What happens when you come up with an idea that you're proud of, and then a few months later, you find out that it means something totally different to other people than it does to you? In fact, to them, it means something bad. Something having do with the notorious Auschwitz sign that's been in the news a lot over the past year or so, ever since a Swede masterminded its theft.

"I will never, ever do an upside-down turned B again," says graphic designer Petter Johansson.

One of his clients is Bruno, the name of a trendy shopping mall in Stockholm. A few months ago, Johansson took upon himself to give the mall's logo a facelift. He thought it was too complicated the way it was and wanted to simplify it but still give it some kind of kick. When it came to the first letter, a capital B, he played around with it and eventually ended up turning it upside-down and backwards.

"It's not even turned upside-down. It's designed upside-down!" says Johansson, explaining how he gave form to the top-heavy B.

It just so happens that during World War II, Jan Liwacz had a very similar typographic idea. He was a Polish prisoner at the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz, and the head of the metalworking detail. He and his fellow prisoners had to craft the sign Arbeit Macht Frei, or Work Makes you Free, that would later arch over the camp's entrance gate. As either a symbol of resistance or a signal that something was dreadfully wrong at the camp, they turned the third letter in the sign upside-down and backwards. It was the letter B.

"Yeah, I actually saw this after I did the design," says Johansson. "It's a problem."

"My client got an e-mail just a few weeks ago sent to her with this picture (of the Auschwitz sign), and she called me, and I called my assistant and asked what the f-– is going on, and he started to do a lot of research."

Johansson found out about the Auschwitz prisoners who had resisted through the creation of the sign. "It's a really lovely story," he says. "It's about when typographic things could really be used in the correct way!"

He says that although he had followed news articles about the sign's theft, he never noticed that the B was upside-down. He seems to wish he had known the story of the B before, and says that he will foot the bill if the client decides to change it, which he says they are considering now.

"When you do some kind of public work as you do as a graphic designer," says Johansson, "I think you should have the knowledge not to do mistakes like this." Nevertheless, downplays the mistake. "I can't say that I have done anything wrong here, because it's just an upside-down B."

Johansson defends himself, saying there are a lot of symbols--and combinations of symbols--out there to keep track of. For example, a yellow star against a red background means something totally different than a white star against a blue background. "If you do global communication, it's impossible to be totally correct about it," he says.

Dr. Ronald Jones is a professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University College of Arts, Crafts and Design here in Stockholm. He has written about and delivered talks on art and ethics. What are the odds that the same symbol would turn up in two places that couldn't be more different – a concentration camp and a shopping mall?

"I think the odds are according to how aware any given designer is, not just about design history – because this is not about design history, but about world history. And, maybe that threshold is lower than what we would like. And therefore, the odds are pretty high."

Jones believes that people are now swimming in oceans of information, and he says, "The effect, I think, of that, is that there's just stuff out there in the air that people quote without knowing that they're plagiarizing or pulling a stunt or even making a statement. And that represents a new set of values, I think."

Jones says that universities should train artists and designers in world history, but that can be hard to do with so much information available.

Our journalism is based on credibility and impartiality. Swedish Radio is independent and not affiliated to any political, religious, financial, public or private interests.
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