Crisp blocks. Minimalist geometry. Flow of pure information. Cleanliness. Readability. Objectivity. Most people who know about it are probably familiar with Helvetica, the typeface populating logos and subways. And yet, that’s just the beginning.
The first International Typographic style: the 1920s
Despite what its name might lead you to believe, Swiss Style did not originate nor bloom in Switzerland; its inception can be traced back to the 1920s, when a small group of Swiss designers, having been met with criticism and resistance in their homeland over their propositions, scattered across Europe, until their ideas took root in Russia, the Netherlands, and Germany. Their formation was just as international: De Stijl, Russian Constructivism and Suprematism, even Arts and Crafts and Jugendstijl were a part of its pedigree.
Radical and progressive, the Style emerged in the wake of Modernism, the highly influential design and architecture philosophy focused on simplicity, functionality, and modern technology as its core tenets; it didn’t take long for the motto “form follows function”, first pioneered by the Bauhaus School, to become just as emblematic for the Style as well.
Before further diving into its history and developments, it is important to understand the ethos that shaped the – as it was known by that time – International Typographic Style: design was seen as needing to be as invisible as possibile. A designer needed to suppress all traces of subjectivity in their final product, stripping it bare of any added meanings or interpretations, as to let the content itself to “speak” directly, not unlike how Modernist Buildings saw their mechanical and technological prowess exhalted as the soul of the project.
Image source: http://sarajacobsendesign.no/Swiss.html
The solution to the design problem should emerge from its content.Ernst Keller
These were the words used by Ernst Keller when lecturing his students at the Kunstgewerbeschule Zürich, where he became a professor in graphic design and typography in 1918. This approach to design was a reaction to contemporary, aesthetic-focused design that dictated beauty to exist for the sake of itself.
Keller answered with a style comprising of simple shapes, vibrant colors, and meaningful imagery; sans serif typeface was integrated as a fundamental design element, photography was favored over illustrations, and the use of mathematical grids became a fundamental tool in graphic design projects.
Grids were considered the most legible, flexible mean of structuring and ordering information, allowing for the creation of modular, hierarchically structured and consistent output.
Keller wasen’t the only pioneer in the genre: Max Bill and Otl Aicher, having opened their own design school in Ulm, became among the most decisive influences on Swiss graphic design, in no small part thanks to their courses on semiotics, signs and symbols, emphasizing objectivity and readability, therefore reaching for the same ease of understanding and recognition that the International Typographic Style was striving for.
Image source: https://www.moma.org/artists/559
Becoming the Swiss Style: the 1950s
However, despite the movement’s strong affinity with contemporary design trends and currents, it wouldn’t be until a few decades later that its influence would start strongly resonate with its contemporaries, and still maintain a strong presence in design’s zeitgeist to this day.
At the heart of this rebirth there were two Swiss designers, Josef Müller-Brockmann and Armin Hofmann, both students under Keller’s wing before World War II, and each leading a prestigious art school; respectively, the Kungstewerbeschule in Zurich, and the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule, in Basel.
It’s during these years that the movement gained immense traction, in no small part thanks to its renewed focus on typography and designing fonts: the first, the Univers family of sans serifs, came in 1954. Using the 1896 Akzidenz-Grotesk font as its basis, Univers became the first family type font – that is, a single font with multiple declinations – that thus allowed documents and other written forms to use a single typeface, in various sizes and weights, instead of several, enabling an elegant uniformity that soon proved to be revolutionary.
Typography developed during this period followed a strict set of rules: rigorously sans-serif, high standard of printing, clear and refined lettering, and above all, the capacity to adapt itself to any context or situation: its expressiveness needed to be unobtrusive, more of an instrument than a recognizable product. Once more, asymmetric layouts with text aligned flush-left, ragged-righ, sans serif typefaces and, most importantly, the deployment of a mathematically determined grid to determine the placement of design elements, were at the heart of this approach.
The movement began to coalesce after the publication of “New Graphic Design”, a periodical bringing together many influential figures of the International Typographic Style, beginning in 1959. Most notably, its publication was international, therefore spreading its ideas outside of Switzerland’s borders. Photography and asymmetry became hallmarks of the genre, and a powerful imagery often associated with the style.
We seek an absolute and universal form of graphic expression through objective and impersonal presentation, communicating to the audience without the interference of the designer’s subjective feelings or propagandist techniques of persuasion.Müller-Brockmann, editor and key figure
This worldwide relationship only strenghtened after WWII, thanks to the clarity, objectivity, lack of specific, nation-exclusive symbols that its design presented, allowing it to resonate with and grow in a number of environment, all the way to America. This can be seen in designer Rudolph de Harak, whose book jacket designs displayed a striking, thematic image coupled with asymmetric, grid aligned – flush left, ragged right – titles, or in official documents of public and private institutions, such as MIT, who began adopting these principles from the 1960s onwards.
An ever-presence: Helvetica
It was in 1957, that these principles came to an head: Max Miedinger, together with Edouard Hoffman, decided to design a pure typeface, that could maximize applicability and readability: the typeface Neue Haas Grotesk, better known today as Helvetica – its very name, referencing the Latin name for what would become Switzerland.
Image source: wnyc.org
Hitting the market in 1960, Helvetica quickly spread, thanks to its simplicity, rigor, and applicability in a wide range of contexts, not to mention the movement’s influence reaching even overseas. Today, Helvetica can be seen almost everywhere, having been adopted as the most popular font for signage and public manifestos. Web pages, logos, posters; Helvetica has become a unique presence in our daily lives, so habitual that it blends into the background, its style reaching beyond national borders, its legacy a milestone in typography and graphic design, and a testament to the Swiss Style.
The Swiss legacy, today
What made the Swiss Style so impactful, that its teachings are still relevant to today’s design environment?
Swiss Style, its fonts, and its tools are still abundant in web design, logo design, and typography. One of its greatest contributions is the introduction of the grid as a tool: a grid system acts as framework to help designer convey information in a meaningful, organized structure, with the Swiss Style first developing and adopting a more rigid and coherent layout, organized like tabular data, helping create equal spacing, and constructing a hierarchy within a page, enlarging or shrinking over a set measure to enstablish relevance; these principles still form the basis for the creation of posters, books and book covers, advertising, and signage; its “less is more” approach, clear-cut figures, strong colour schemes, contrasts, and bold typographic choices, has kept it relevant for its ability to speak directly to clients and viewers.
Image source: www.pinterest.it
The protagonists of Swiss Style
Spanning decades, the Swiss style saw many illustrious names among its protagonists; some of them are:
The very first, and pheraps, in many ways, the father of Swiss design. From his role at the School of Applied Arts, in Zurich, he instructed many of the guiding lights of the next generation – the sons of his style, in a way. His teachings mark the beginning of the grid systems for which Swiss Style is known, and his belief that design should adapt to content placed focus on the importance of typefaces, not to mention the influence of his preference for striking graphics, irregular layouts and sans serif fonts, all key elements within the movement.
Müller-Brockmann, one of Keller’s pupils, was a pioneer for Swiss Design in the 1950s, credited with developing the famed grid system, and highly praised for his posters, combining text, photographs, and simple graphics to great effect. In his own words,
In my designs for posters, advertisements, brochures and exhibitions, subjectivity is suppressed in favour of a geometric grid that determines the arrangement of the type and images. The grid is an organisational system that makes it easier to read the message…the grid is an organisational system that enables you to achieve an orderly result at a minimum cost. The task is solved more easily, faster and better.Josef Müller-Brockmann
Founder, together with Emil Ruder, of the Schule für Gestaltung, Hoffman distinguished himself for his unorthodox, peculiar teachings; his approach was distinctive, often playing with heavy contrasts and weighted typography. After getting a teaching position at Yale in the 50s, he was instrumental in bringing the Swiss Style over to the USA.
The pioneer of font design, his work on Univers started the trend (still considered the norm today) of font families, multiple variations over a single typeface, allowing for versatility but continuity and style as well. His work paved the way for many typographic works to come, first among them the Helvetica.