Horst Deppe: typographer, teacher, friend

It is with great sadness that I learned today of the passing of one of my most treasured mentors, Horst Deppe.

In the winter of 1992, I was about to start my fourth semester at NSCAD, then the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. My third semester had been hard-fought. I had begun to study design after a year of foundation, photography and art history and I was ready to enter my chosen field of study, or so I thought.

I have very little in the way of hand skills when it comes to design. I can’t draw very well, and I’m messy as hell with plaka, ruling pens and rubber cement. So, after a semester of trying to draw perfect 10cm grids with a 0.3mm Rapidograph pen, I was just about ready to give up on the profession I had chosen when I was 16. 

So it was not without trepidation that I entered Horst Deppe’s 10 credit Typography course that cold, wet January. I was no longer sure that I was really cut out for graphic design. Horst, who always looked older than his years to me, welcomed us to his class and set out the agenda for the semester. We started looking at the history of letterforms, and I think one of our first projects was to take a PMT (photo mechanical transfer) of some word (I don’t remember what word it was, but I bet it had some AY and To combos in it) in 48pt Univers, cut out the letters and typeset them perfectly using hot wax and a piece of Bainbridge. You wouldn’t believe the tracing paper I went through trying to set that word properly. In the end though, I’m pretty sure I nailed it.

And that semester was the semester that I realized that I was cut out to be a designer. That I understood the craft.

Horst was, without a doubt, the best teacher I have ever had in my life. He imbued in me an appreciation for typography and attention to detail that persists to this day. He had a love of design that I don’t think I will ever top.

But there was more than that to Horst. He had a twinkle in his eye like I’ve never known before or since. He always, and I mean always, had a kind word and some encouragement to share with even the most beleaguered design student. He confirmed to me that I could do this, and that it was indeed my destiny.

I regularly use a couple of Horst stories with my clients and students:

When my clients try to fill every ounce of space in a layout, I simply tell them that because white space uses no ink that it’s cheaper to print. They usually look at me funny and then laugh when I explain where that story came from. This works less well with the web, obviously. Horst also smartly pointed out that if there was a typo that it would be in the biggest text on the page, and he was invariably right. That one has saved me at least twice in my career from a couple of very expensive reprints!

The last time I saw Horst was likely at the old Halifax farmer’s market, and I hate that it was at least a year ago. We regularly ran into he and his wife Renate at the market and he always remembered me and asked how my career was going, and showed a ton of interest in my kids.

I always felt like he and I really got each other. I’m very much going to miss him.

I’m attempting to organize a little get together for those who knew him to raise a pint in his memory. It’s the least we can do. Drop me a line if you want to be involved. 

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