The optimism of modernity: recovering modern reasoning in typography

Michael Twyman wrote this obituary soon after Ernest Hoch’s death on 1 June 1985. It was published as a 4-page leaflet by the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading, and later appeared in much abbreviated form in Design magazine (‘Typographer who left his mark on UK design’, October 1985, p. 19).

The leaflet was published as an immediate record and celebration of Hoch’s life and professional work, and also to solicit contributions to a fund for an award in his name: ‘In recognition of Ernest Hoch’s contributions to the theory and practice of typographic design and graphic design education, the University of Reading has established an award, known as The Ernest Hoch Award. It is granted at intervals to a student pursuing as assignment relating to one of Ernest Hoch’s main interests.’ The award still (2008) supports students.

Paul Stiff has added the notes.

Ernest Hoch, 1913–1985

Graphic design lost one of its most self-effacing and tireless promoters with the death on 1 June 1985 of Ernest Hoch, at the age of 72. He was well-known and much respected in design circles throughout the world and served a number of organizations with dedication over a long period: SIAD, STD, ISTC, Icograda, ATypI, BSI, ISO, [note 1] and others too, all have reason to acknowledge his contributions in their respective fields. He was a Fellow of the first three of these organizations and became a Council Member and, in 1968, a Vice President of SIAD. In 1974 he was awarded the President’s Trophy by Icograda for outstanding services in the field of standardization.

Ernest Hoch was born in Vienna on 26 April 1913, the younger son of Dr Otto Hoch, a well-known dermatologist, and Eliese Hoch, an accomplished pianist. He was educated at the Gymnasium [note 2] in Vienna and had a traditional academic education which included both Greek and Latin, and which clearly helped to shape his design thinking in later years. While still at school, he became involved in the fight against Fascism in Austria. He registered at the University of Vienna in 1932, first to study Law and then Chemistry, but readily acknowledged that his choice of course was determined by the opportunities it provided him for his underground political activities. No account of Ernest Hoch’s career, however brief, would be complete without some reference to this early period in his life, with its emphasis on these struggles to bring about change for what he believed in. Only after vigorous moves against those university students involved in such political activities did Ernest Hoch turn in the direction of graphic design.

He left the University of Vienna having studied chemistry for three years, but without a qualification, to join the Graphische Lehr- und Gebrauchsanstalt [note 3] in Vienna in 1935. It was never made clear to me what accounted for his new choice of course; though his family say that he was good at drawing and showed an interest in visual things while at school, it appears to have been one of the few ‘irrational’ decisions in his life. The course he followed at the Graphic College provided a craft training in printing. He was 23 at the time and later described himself as being an old man amongst a group of boys who had just left school. He stayed at the Graphic College for two years, learned the rudiments of printing and preparation of material for it, and gained a diploma for his efforts in 1937. After qualifying he did some freelance work as a designer for the studio Spitz-Kindl and Hübner’s (the well known Vienna hotel and restaurant organisation). Shortly after this, life in Austria became impossible for his family and, one by one, they left for England to start a new life. Ernest Hoch fled first of all to Munich, thinking that this was the best escape route from Austria. From Munich he went to Czechoslovakia, where he stayed for six months and followed a course in English in Prague. He finally arrived in England in November 1939 [note 4] via Denmark, having taken a special non-stopping refuge train across Poland.

He worked for a couple of weeks on a Czechoslovakian refugee farm in Hampshire undertaking such unlikely tasks as milking cows, but with the fall of the Maginot Line he was interned. [note 5] Together with many other ‘enemy aliens’ who had escaped from Nazi tyranny, he was shipped to Canada under circumstances that must even now be a cause of shame to Britain. He spent 1940–42 in internment in Canada. During this time he became involved with what was called the Camp University and was also one of the winners of a competition organized by the Canadian Government for the design of a set of propaganda posters.

In the short period he was in England before the war, Ernest had met Ruth Bernstein, who was later to become Ruth Hoch. She had also fled from Vienna, where she belonged to the same underground organization. Though she knew Ernest Hoch by name while in Vienna, she first met him at the group’s meetings in London. Later on she received music tuition from his mother. Such was Ernest Hoch’s disregard for the chronology of his own life, that he always managed to convey the impression that he met Ruth in Vienna before the war. In fact they married at Islington Registry Office in 1943. They remained close and devoted partners and I like to think that Ernest (or Ernst as she continued to call him) somehow chose to involve her retrospectively in his memories of Vienna.

During the latter part of the war Ernest Hoch was employed as a laboratory assistant with the Willesden Rubber Company, but in 1945 came his first employment as a graphic designer. The position was with John Tate and Partners, [note 6] where Ruth Gill was Art Director. After experience in a number of other London agencies, he formed his own company in 1948, with the help of Herbert Spencer, called Quill Design Developments Ltd. [note 7] In 1952—53 he spent the best part of a year working in Austria for the United States Special Mission for Economic Co-operation. The major outcome of this work was a book of building specifications for Das österreichische Fertighaus (The Austrian prefabricated house). This gave him his first real experience with the design of complex technical material, which was later to become his forte. When asked to talk about an item of his own work many years later, this was the assignment he chose to discus. The book already displayed his concern for typographic solutions that stem from the structure of the material, and it was organized with an economy of means and graphic precision found only in the best modern typography of the period.

This is not the place to chronicle in detail later developments in Ernest Hoch’s life. These early activities are given emphasis here because they seem to have played a crucial role in shaping some of his attitudes to the theory and practice of graphic design. They also help to explain why he turned his attention to design education. He did so initially through his professional involvement with the Society of Industrial Artists (as it then was) and the Society of Typographic Designers. Like many other professional designers at the time, he felt that education in typography and graphic design failed to match up to the needs of individual students, the design profession, and society at large. After spells of part-time teaching in various colleges he was instrumental in setting up two working groups of the SIAD and STD in the mid sixties: the Working Party on Typographic Teaching and the Typographers’ Computer Working Group. The first was solely concerned with education in the colleges, whereas the second had to do with making designers aware of developments in computing that affected their future.

Shortly after this, Hoch took up a full-time appointment as Principal of Coventry College of Art and Design, becoming the first Dean of the Faculty of Art and Design at the new Lanchester Polytechnic [note 8] in 1970. This must go down as one of the least rewarding periods in his life; it clearly left its mark on him as a person and cannot have done much for his health, which was already beginning to suffer. Eventually he decided to resign, and was immediately offered a part-time Readership in Typography & Graphic Communication at Reading University. He took up his appointment in 1971 and remained there until his retirement, aged 66, in 1980.

In contrast to his stressful days as Dean, he found Reading a place that was sympathetic to his educational views. He continued to run his own practice while there, but threw himself wholeheartedly into the work of the Department and played a major part in its development. Even before his appointment he had been involved with its work, and was the first External Examiner for the new BA course in Typography & Graphic Communication. He identified closely with the Department and, right up to his death, would still refer to it in terms of ‘we’ and ‘us’.

Already by 1970, however, the beginnings of his long and courageous struggle with his health had become evident, and in 1972 he underwent major surgery for Crohn’s disease. Thereafter he continued, with amazing fortitude, to lead a normal life; though some would say that it was an abnormal like – even for a fit man – in terms of work load. He continued to run his own design practice, was deeply involved with numerous national and international design-related professional bodies, and in later years worked on a regular basis as a consultant with Negus & Negus [note 9] for British Airways, Lloyds Bank, the National Exhibition Centre at Birmingham, and the GPO. [note 10]

Ernest Hoch’s tangible legacy as a typographic and graphic designer is difficult to assess. There have been few more self-effacing designers and I doubt whether even a small exhibition of his work could easily be brought together. In any case, that was not what graphic design meant for him. He was always reluctant to talk about his work in personal terms and did next to nothing to record or promote it. He will not go down in history as having designed significant graphic artefacts. Such things were of less interest to him than the process of designing. This was why his life, though seemingly split between the design office, teaching, and committee work, was actually all of a piece. He was one of those rare people with the breath of imagination and experience to see the connections between the three. And this explains what his wife would endearingly refer to as his ‘plottings’. He would never go to a conference without a long lost of things to do, which invariably meant trying to fit various bits of his jigsaw together. His error was to assume that others in our tunnel-visioned world had his ability to see, as he saw, the relationships between things.

Increasingly in the later years he turned to the planning of design, particularly the planning of large-scale design assignments. Consequently his own contributions in this period are invisibly embedded in the work of others. This interest in overall planning accounts for his passionate concern, in the latter part of his life, with questions relating to national and international standards, techniques of multivariate analysis as applied to large-scale assignments, and typographic mensuration (particularly in relation to metrication). In all these areas he was a pioneer. He made progress on some of these fronts, particularly in the field of international standards work, but on others he met resistance to change that his rational and analytical cast of mind found incomprehensible. He was never able to grasp that not everyone was as quick on the uptake and as unfettered by tradition as he was; and he fondly held on to the belief – against all the evidence – that a clear exposition of an argument was the way to change entrenched opinion. On many important issues, therefore, Ernest Hoch was able to do no more than sow a few seeds, It remains to be seen what fruits will, in the long run, be harvested.

It was on the educational front, however, that he left what is probably his most enduring mark. Hundreds of students, both at Reading and other places where he taught for a time, have reason to be thankful to him for helping them through a crisis, or just opening their eyes to things they had only dimly recognized before. Shortly before his death I asked him where it was he developed his teaching method; was it, perhaps, in the two year spell at the Camp University during internment? The response was typical: ‘What method do you mean? I don’t have a method’. That, as those of us who observed him at work over a long period know very well, was not true. His method, if it can be called a method, was to build patiently on what was already there. He would always start with individual’s own interests and relate what needed to be learned to the  past experience and present situation of the person concerned. This required enormous patience, which he applied at great personal cost in terms of time and nervous energy. He made a clear distinction – often lost by those in education – between teaching and learning, and he was severely critical of those who thought that something had been learned simply because it had been taught. Where then did his ideas on teaching come from? They related closely to his attitudes to problem solving in general and were certainly informed by reading, but they may initially have stemmed from his mother, who was, by all reports, a patient and successful teacher of music.

Many of those who knew Ernest Hoch well valued his friendship enormously; he was a kind and considerate companion and would go to enormous lengths to help someone who was in difficulties. In professional circles there were those who found him hard to get on with simply because of his mental energy and the generous assumptions he sometimes made of their intelligence and knowledge. A student once remarked that we needed to publish a departmental glossary of acronyms in order to keep up with him! But he had small talk too, and a marvellous sense of humour, which he directed as much at himself as at anyone else. Indeed, his only references to himself were largely self-mocking. A feature of this lack of self-concern was his forgetfulness about his age. According to Ruth Hoch, his guesses would sometimes be as much as ten years out, and often in the opposite direction to what you would imagine. It is ironic and poignant coincidence – and one that would not have been lost at him – that someone who had struggled to promote the metrication of typographic measurement should have died at the unseemly age of three score years and twelve.

Ernest Hoch made no secret to his friends that he regarded himself as something of a failure. Though he wrote some seminal articles and reports, he never undertook the major piece of research that we all knew he was capable of undertaking. And it is true also that the causes he championed have not yet been won. But there is more than one way of judging success, and in other respects he has left his mark on graphic design in an indelible way. There can be few designers of recent years who have had a more significant influence on graphic design thinking than Ernest Hoch. It is in this important but less tangible sense that he has left his mark.

Michael Twyman, June 1985

1. Society of Industrial Artists and Designers, Society of Typographic Designers, Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators, International Council of Graphic Design Associations, Association Typographique Internationale, British Standards Institution, International Organization for Standardization. [Back to text]

2. The Akademisches Gymnasium. [Back to text]

3. Graphische Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt, now the Hoehere Graphische Bundes- Lehr-und Versuchsanstalt, known locally as the ‘Graphische’. [Back to text]

4. 1938. [Back to text]

5. This was a farm training camp in Alresford for Czech nationals (because Hoch’s last address before England was in Prague). Ruth Hoch observed that ‘he had wanted to do something for the war effort’, but being an ‘alien’ his options were limited. Mass internment of category C enemy aliens – including refugees from the Nazis – began on 25 June 1940, soon after German troops had entered Paris (14 June). Among others interned were Ralph Beyer, André Deutsch, E. H. Gombrich, John Heartfield, Hermann Hecht, F. H. K. Henrion, Kurt Hubschmann, Felix H. Man, Otto Neurath, Marie Reidemeister-Neurath, Eduardo Paolozzi, Nikolaus Pevsner, Hans Schmoller, Harry Seidler, and George Weidenfeld. [Back to text]

6. John Tait & Partners. [Back to text]

7. Then still a foreign national, Hoch (who was naturalized in 1950 or 51) needed a British citizen as a director of his company; Spencer supplied his name for this purpose. [Back to text]

8. Now Coventry University. [Back to text]

9. See Dick Negus’s brief obituary note in Designer, September 1985, re-published in this website. [Back to text]

10. General Post Office. [Back to text]

Photogrpah of Ernest Hoch

Ernest Hoch. Photo: Richard Southall