Steven Heller | Essays

Wilhelm Deffke: Modern Mark Maker

Hansa und Brandenburgishen

The modern corporate logo was born in Germany shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, the direct descendent of burgher crests, coats of arms, trade and factory marks. In the 1920s members of the Bauhaus and the Ring Neuer Werbegestalter (circle of new advertising designers) were given credit for inventing the reductive trademark, but this modern method actually began well over a decade earlier. Official German government registry books from the early 1900s were full of trademarks, Schutzmarken, by Peter Behrens (the father of corporate design for AEG), Lucian Bernhard, F.H. Ehmcke, Konrad Jochheim, Carl Schulpig and Valetin Zietara. Each created pictograms and graphic trade-characters that prefigured today's international sign symbols. One of the most prolific of these mark makers is barely recognized in design histories today, except for the occasional footnote. His name is Wilhelm F. Deffke, cofounder with Carl Ernst Hinkefuss of Wilhelmwerk in Berlin.

Included among Deffke's prolific output, which began in the early teens, were dozens of the era's most impressive symbols for commerce and government, not the least of which became the most charged logo of the twentieth century, the Hakenkreuz (the hooked cross or swastika) — prior to its adoption by the Nazis.

Swastika (ancient symbol)

When Deffke tackled this ancient sign in the late teens he never intended that it be used as a political symbol, nor one with such evil consequence. "Deffke came across a representation of the ancient Germanic sun-wheel on which he worked to redefine and stylize its shape," wrote his former assistant Mana Tress in a letter to Paul Rand during the 1970s. "Later on, this symbol appeared on a brochure which he had published and [the Nazis] chose it as their symbol but reversed it." Her primary reason for writing this letter was apparently to absolve Deffke* of any responsibility for the creation of the Nazi icon, and furthermore, she implied, the swastika was taken from his self-published sample book Handelsmarken und Fabrikzeichen and never paid for. Deffke was well aware that the mark in rectilinear and curvilinear variations was more or less in the public domain. Many years before the Nazi regime, he simply intended to render a cleaner version of this historical symbol, one that was more geometrically precise than others used in the period.

* Deffke was not an "ideological" Nazi but, in "The Struggle of Signs in the Weimar Republic" (Journal of Design History, Vol. 13 No. 4), Sherwin Simmons cites documents that show in 1933, when the Magdeburg School [where Deffke taught] was threatened with closure, he joined the party and "argued for modern design's link to Nazi policy on account of the party's technological sophistication and opposition to narrow provincialism."

Deutsches Reichswappen
J.A. Henkels

Precision guided Deffke's practice at every turn. In 1909 he worked for the leading design precisionist, Peter Behrens, and watched as he built-up the Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG) brand through the concerted integration of graphics, product design and architecture. Deffke learned that a pure mark void of superfluous ornamentation could communicate directly with the public like few other business tools. After leaving Behrens' employ, Deffke became a design consultant to Otto Elsner Verlag, where he focused on developing the firm's identity.
In 1915, he opened Wilhelmwerk while simultaneously assuming an active role promoting the virtues of design to the public and profession through self-published books and portfolios that evidenced the highest graphic standards.

Deffke prided himself on how reductive he could make symbol while remaining comprehensible — and memorable. He preferred working with primitive and abstract forms because they were malleable, and his knack for manipulating them into forceful marks was acute. Deffke created a large number of marks for the postwar German military, which during the early days the Weimar Republic sought to change its public image from reliance on trappings associated with haughty Junkers to a more modern one, while retaining its authoritarian persona. He was also called upon him to design government propaganda.

Deffke understood that German industry's identity needs prior to World War I demanded a new kind of comprehensible mnemonic symbol. The introduction by 1906 of the proto-Modernist Sachplakat (object poster), created by Lucian Bernhard, which reduced an advertising message down to one memorable object or icon (a response to the rise in urban traffic and limited visibility on the thoroughfares), was critical in moving commercial art away from rococo complexity to unornamented economy. Deffke, who in 1910 taught trademark design at the Reimann School in Berlin, and years later was appointed the director of the Kunstgewerbeschule in Magdeburg, clearly saw over only a few short years the German public becoming accustomed to the witty little icons.

His Schutzmarken, in general, followed a fairly strict stylistic formula: they were stark silhouettes usually with basic geometrical attributes — a round head on rectangular body was common, as were triangles and parallelograms. Visual puns were encouraged.

Altona A.D. Elbe

The modern trademark was promoted to designers and their clients through Das Plakat, the design magazine launched in 1910 as the official journal of the Verein der Plakat Freunde (The Society for Friends of the Poster), and later by Gebrausgraphik, founded in 1923, which became the leading international graphic design and advertising journal. Both periodicals sought to expand the designer's role in business, and Deffke was one of the more outspoken proponents of this early approach to corporate identification. "Trademarks acquire their real worth and significance only through adequate usage," he sermonized in Handelsmarken und Fabrikzeichen (1929). "It is not sufficient to use them once in a while to designate certain products. They must be used systematically and frequently. The trademark will be the most likely to establish an inseparable bond between the user and the manufacturer."

Deffke's essays — sermons to businessmen on the value of branding — sound a lot like today's branding hyperbole. "These trademarks and factory seals deserve our attention as a means of improving the public taste, and because of their extraordinary economic significance," he zealously wrote. "Their value is in the millions and it would be a irreplaceable loss to the national wealth of any country, should they cease to be."

While Deffke was an unapologetic cheerleader for his profession (and his own business interests), he was no less a critic. He once wrote: "Most modern marks are lacking in artistic merit and significance. Their shapes are average and bland, ugly and utilitarian. Their designers misunderstand their purpose, leading to a kind of useless playfulness. This, in turn, harms the reputation of these marks and makes them difficult to use universally. It should be obvious to anyone that creating these marks is best left to professionals with experience, practice and the artistic strength to make them unique."

Deffke's sermonizing was a textbook example of the new art of strategic design: "It is not enough to use trademarks occasionally to identify products," he announced. "The trademark will forge an indestructible link between producer and consumer, which will successfully ward off any unfair competition." Yet aside from having practical advantages, trademarks are of great importance, he noted, for all creative entrepreneurs who "wish to display the fruits of their minds and inventions to the world now and in the future. Trademarks remain forever in our memory and so display some of the characteristics usually associated with great works of art."

Such a zealous logo designer was prone to overstatement: "If a trademark is created by competent hands, it will gain in importance, as it, in conjunction with other advertising means, reappears in ads in newspapers and magazines, business papers and brochures, on factory walls, vans and trucks. As a result, it will impress itself indelibly on people's minds," he admonished. "The greatest marks are created by that talented home of German workmanship, the "Wilhelmwerk," with rare talent and thoroughness." His message was clear: Logos were endemic to industry's success, and make no mistake, his logos were the tools to achieve it.

Hansa und Brandenburgishen

Posted in: Graphic Design, History

Comments [29]

Wow, what a great lesson in branding history!
Able Parris

I first heard of Wilhelm Deffke in Baseline magazine a year and a half ago and fell in love with his work. Simply brilliant. Great to see a bio of him on here. Cheers!
Michael P

Ahhhh ze Germans...

In 1980 I failed to be admitted to die Hochschule der Kunst Berlin in the Fachrichtung Design because I had only 59 American college credit hours and they needed 60. Anyway long story and crooked path of life ensues....

However, they were willing to test me and admit me under special circumstances as a gifted student to see if I had the stuff. I didn't. No need to explain.

The gifted exam was purely visual, in three steps. The final being locked up in a room for a day and solving some visual problem.I didn't get past the first. At least now I have an idea of what they were looking for. Interesting.

Yea, I did fail miserably knowing what I turned in.

Oh well, I had sons to the delight of all those PSA about the deutsche sterben aus in the 80s. though, we settled in America.

that altoona design is spot on excellent.


great stuff.

Once again, this proves my theory, Heller loves Germans... and David Hasselhoff.
felix sockwell

David is just searching like the rest of us who ever lived in the walled city:^)

I headed down the track
my baggage on my back
I left the city far behind
walkin' down the road
with my heavy load
tryin' to find
some peace of mind
father said you'll be sorry, son
if you leave your home this way
and when you realize
the freedom money buys
you'll come running home some day

Refrain: I've been looking for freedom
I've been looking so long
I've been looking for freedom
still the search goes on
I've been looking for freedom
since I left my home town


Fantastic reading! I think the knowledge that he had some unintended influence on the Nazi logo, which still has a deep place in our cultural psyche (even for us young'uns who've never seen it in action) 60 years on, makes what you've written particularly compelling.

It's almost haunting how the other logos you've shown seem to have the same eerie quality we now associate with the swastika.
Bryan Hoyt

The meaning of the swastika has been cross culturised. We all know that.

I look at it and see frisch-fromm-froh-frei flipped upside out.

Also to note the Königsberg ~ Brandenburg flag/ensign in the 1700s. Black and white stripes. Six or seven. Bridge that with a math problem. Now look at the F-F-F-F and you will see an autobahn bridge over that flag. You don't even have to squint with really bad astigmatism like me.

I am sorry to take up this space in so many consecutive posts, but I have to take this in baby steps other wise it is too daunting and if I don't let go it haunts me.

If you want something to haunt you,

I was downtown and rode past Paul Rand's Cummins logo in red flying high in front of the american flag at the headquarters. From the ground the white horse shoe/engine/toilet seat cover/bridge (whatever you see) on the red field covered the field of fifty stars.

Kinda weird deja vu, or do i have the wrong paranormal cryptic phenomena?

Argus - Inspiration for CBS symbol?

Nothing new under the sun designers.

Joseph Coates

Wilhelm F. Deffke, "argued for modern design's link to Nazi policy on account of the party's technological sophistication and opposition to narrow provincialism."

Designers needs to take a stand instead of looking out for their own skin and paychecks.

dear Steven, I do not know if it is from above or below, but from somewhere Paul Rand smiles upon you for digging into one of those "obscure" Germans.
Also: what the heck was "Altona A.D. Elbe"? That is one cute mark, but I'm curious what it was supposed to represent.
lorraine wild

"...Deffke...joined the [Nazi] party...on account of the party's technological sophistication and opposition to narrow provincialism'..."

"...designers misunderstand their purpose..."


masten so scheef
as den Schipper sein Been

maybe it's just a tilted uterus?

the slant

When I was Alvin Lustig's student in 1948 he would often talk about "configurational vitality". I was quite sure that I understood the meaning of the words and thought I knew what he meant when he used the term. It was perhaps 10 years later that I actually viscerally grasped its meaning. Deffke's Hansa und Brandenburgishen mark which begins Steve's article is a perfect example and well worth studying. Actually Peter Behrens, in my opinion, never had any of that in any of his graphic work, Hadank had it in spades.

Lou Danziger

Speaking of "configurational vitality"
I love the poster that Louis Danziger designed for
American Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1966.
Inspiration: AIGA
Carl W. Smith

Designers needs to take a stand instead of looking out for their own skin and paychecks.

Luke, I'm afraid at this point any Aeron chair quarterbacking strikes me as a bit too easy.

Should all those Bauhaus designer that left for North America have "taken a stand" and stayed in Germany? I hope I personally never have to make a decision on that level.

Steve, thanks again for digging up some excellent material. I believe the Henkels mark is pretty much still in use today, yes? Horrible kitchen knives, but glad to see them continue to use a mark that would have been thrown away years ago by most companies.
Derrick Schultz

J.A. Henckels (correct spelling)


Derrick, I've always known them as top end cutlery. But I think they have a lower cost line. The symbol is used on the good stuff. The symbol represents Gemini. The Twins.
Joseph Coates

Steven, you start this post Wilhelm Deffke: Modern Mark Maker with a corporate logo attributed to Hansa und Brandenburgishen.
Is that the logo of the company that designed aircraft?

(Is this the correct spelling?)
Hansa und Brandenburgishen or
Hansa und Brandenburgischen with a "c" ?
Carl W. Smith

Henckel, but maybe you were thinking about enkel, too.

And it is interesting that the two grandsons of the initial family member who registered the company name are both named Johann and only differ by middle name. I think i noted that the younger one was junior, too.

Note today it is more unusual to meet Germans with middle names. I kinda understand this now too.

baby steps. getting there.

In the thirteenth century, the master craftsmen of Solingen in North Rhine Westfalia, famous for their finely honed knives, were obliged to brand all products with distinctive marks that revealed both origin and pedigree. In Deffke's catalog, J.A. Henkels (his spelling) is listed as originating in Solingen. There lies the tradition.

Carl Smith is correct; the spelling for Hansa und Brandenburgischen Flugzeugwerke A.G. is with a "c."

Lorraine, the Altona logo is for a perfume manufacturer.

Steve heller

Joseph, the mark is used on their low-end Target line as well, but I did see theyre I high-end producer as well after my last comment.
Derrick Schultz

Great article! You're missing a "R" in "Ring Neuer Webegestalter", it's We*R*begestalter.

Mr. Danzinger could you please explain the term configurational vitality in a little more detail? I am very intrigued and would love to hear a bit of theory from Alvin Lustig:-)
Henrik Tandberg

"The modern corporate logo was born in Germany shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, the direct descendent of burgher crests, coats of arms, trade and factory marks."

Born? Certainly it's true that then it became vogue, however there are plenty of examples of marks from Japan and China companies that use symbols and animals to enhance their brand dating before Bauhaus walked in the room.
E. Tage Larsen

Anyone have a notion as to where more of his work can be seen?

Ben Pieratt

Do you think this guy would be as famous if the Nazis had picked somebody else's symbol?

Desin Reeder

nice article
(»Gebrausgraphik« should be written »Gebrauchsgraphik«)
Christoph Knoth

Altona logo
Altona a.d. Elbe means Altona an der (i. e. on the) Elbe. Elbe is the river that flows into the North Sea near Hamburg, and Altona is now a borough of Hamburg, then an independent town.

the spelling for Hansa und Brandenburgischen Flugzeugwerke A.G. is with a "c."
And it should be without the n, i. e. Brandenburgische. That is the nominativ; Steve probably has it from a caption which must have read "Zeichen der Hansa und Brandenburgischen Flugzeugwerke A.G.", mark of the ... ... airplane factory. Brandenburgische is an adjective, and unfortunately German adjectives are declined along with the nouns they refer to.

As Mark Twain said, �I'd rather decline two drinks than one German noun�.

For a text of this importance, maybe Steve needs more than the spellchecker in Word. Like: Gebrauchsgraphik instead of Gebrausgraphik.

Frisch Fromm Froh Frei (fresh, pious, cheerful, free)
is the logo of the German gymnasts� federation � Deutscher Turnerbund.
erik spiekermann

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