Since 1995, in a former hosiery factory in the unassuming Swiss suburb Renens, the revered École cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL) has been steadily turning out some of the world’s finest young graphic designers—what other art school school can boast a globally renowned student poster show? Aside from a progressive ethos, one that’s recently sought collaborations with the likes of Mirko Borsche, Veronica Ditting, and M/M (Paris), we wanted to know more about what sets the school apart from other leading design universities. In his current book, ECAL’s director Alexis Georgacopoulos describes the school’s driving focus as “offering its students solutions to contemporary issues, while remaining forward-looking. What skills will they need for their professional future? How can we give them a competitive edge? What projects, innovations, and collaborations are likely to boost their career?”

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Installation view, Photo: Philippe Fragnière

Having only graduated from ECAL in 1999 himself, Georgacopoulos led the industrial design department from 2000—then aged only 24—and was appointed director in 2011. Born in Athens, he was the youngest university department head in Switzerland, and quickly became known both for his ability to establish working relationships with key fairs, galleries, and brands, in addition to his innovative approach to design.

This professionally avant-garde practice, characteristic of ECAL’s alumni, is currently on display at Basel’s Vitra Design Museum, in ECAL Graphic Design: Type, Print, Digital, Stories, a show curated by design department head Angelo Benedetto. The exhibition was designed by Adrien Rovero, an industrial design graduate from ECAL, and is concerned with revealing the details of our new “optical landscape,” one that merges the static and dynamic, and marks a “renewed interest in the sensory dimensions of the visual experience,” says ECAL professor François Rappo.

Speaking about the show’s curation, Janna Lipsky of the Vitra Design Museum says, “It was an interesting idea from Angelo. He had been considering organizing the exhibition according to typography or chronology, but the work is all so different—some are final projects, some are exercises or tests—so he arranged the works by color. In a way it collapses the hierarchy between the development and final work, and allows the viewer to appreciate the content or the visual impact within the gradient.”

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Installation view, Photo: Philippe Fragnière

As well as showing at Vitra Design Museum, the exhibition is currently touring China, following a stint in Paris and at the school in Renens. And then there’s the book, ECAL Graphic Design. “Angelo had been the head of the graphic design department for five years and he wanted to collect the best projects from the period,” says Lipsky. Since his appointment, ECAL has developed an increasingly international pool, and the exhibition—and its locations—reflects that.

Conceived as an ongoing project, Benedetto and exhibition designer Rovero experimented by showing graphic design work in an installation that can be adapted to display new work each year. Work is hung on perforated aluminum panels that can be adjusted depending on the size and shape. Each year the installations were photographed and compiled in a book, while the aluminum panels continue to make their rounds in galleries around the world.

To sit alongside the graphic installation, Lipsky commissioned an animated interview with lecturers from ECAL, as a way to give further context to the school and its work within the heritage of Swiss style. “One question I asked was about tradition, and most of them answered ‘I try not to be traditional, but I probably am.’ But the lecturers fuse tradition with the present context, which encourages work grounded in both craft and technology.”

Lipsky cites a brief from a paper manufacturer to advertise a new collection as being indicative of the ECAL ethos. “What is strong throughout the exhibition is the principle of having a cogent idea, which can have a serious research background or it can be funny. In this instance, the student focussed on the potential depictions of skin tones that would be printed on the new paper collection, and they communicated their idea by having photographs of people on each poster that had slices of different types and shades of meat across their faces.”

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Installation view, Photo: Philippe Fragnière

The balance of a humorous and innovative practice with cerebral, traditional work and processes is a hallmark of the school, and the exhibition celebrates students who “take on the broad spectrum of graphic design, ranging from precision and depth to grand visual gestures.” Tutorials at ECAL mirror the curatorial approach to the exhibition, with an “emphasis on high production values” according to Jonas Berthod, who graduated with a Bachelor’s in graphic design in 2012.

“In the exams work would always be judged as if it had been produced professionally, from micro and macro typography, to printing and binding methods. The high benchmark made everyone work extra hard.”

“Once you’ve been set a brief there are one-to-one tutorials every week, which I think is a key reason ECAL students do so well. After the first two sessions where you might discuss an overarching concept, you have to show printed drafts of what you’re working on—abstract thoughts aren’t as welcome as concrete developments, teaching is visual and you learn by doing.

“The briefs by the graphic design program varied from the applied to the conceptual, but were always defined by an output of graphic design objects; books, posters, typefaces, identities, or videos, for example. Projects that would be hard to define within a specific category—like those you might see in an art school in the UK—were a rarity. So in that sense ECAL is very much an heir of the Swiss style.”

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Installation view, Photo: Philippe Fragnière

“Studying at ECAL opened my mind and offered me new perspectives,” says Maxime Woeffray, who graduated in 2014. “It developed my awareness of the Swiss and international design scene, thanks to the tutors and guest lecturers, and the more concept-driven projects taught me a lot about how the design direction should follow and support your concept. Tutors would question your ideas, help you to develop and achieve your best work. Studying at ECAL motivated and fed the need for me to push myself and work outside my comfort zone.”

Graphic design graduate Daniel Baer now co-runs a studio with fellow graduate Daniel Pianetti. “Prior to studying at ECAL I had done a design apprenticeship that had been more focussed on art working and production than developing a personal creative approach,” he says. “ECAL gave me room to experiment and time to develop my interests. But the expectations and time pressures were real—your tutors were effectively your clients and they’d push you to keep working until they felt you had found something new and forward-thinking.”

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Installation view, Photo: Philippe Fragnière

“I didn’t really know what to expect from art school, but I had a great time at ECAL”, says Berthod. “We were pushed really hard but also supported and encouraged to get better, and in an environment with incredible facilities. It’s not a school for the lazy or faint-hearted, but it definitely brings out the best in its students.”

Upon graduating, Berthod felt confident that he was “ready to undertake design projects that were both conceptually and graphically sound, and in that sense, completely employable.” He continues, “I think that’s something a lot of studios recognize when hiring ECAL graduates: that they know how to make stuff happen. You graduate with applicable skills and a portfolio, confident that you can tackle complex design projects, and that’s brilliant. For me it was an excellent place to do a BA.”

Similarly, Baer found that he aspired to go to ECAL because their approach—“highly typographic, sharp, always surprising”—was what he liked and wanted to do. “There were occasions when tutors might be definitive about how the work should be, but I was happy with that. Friends with more ‘open spirits’ had some discomfort with the system, but have since flourished, and we all share the same enthusiasm and drive in our professional lives.”

For Woeffray, the pressure was a positive influence. “I never felt limited. We were very free in terms of the direction our work could take. I learnt how to push my own boundaries and make the most of the experience. Sometimes it could be tough, but with some distance you realize it was then that you’d learnt the most.”