Russian constructivism helped revolutionize graphic design's beginning in the late 1910’s. By the 20’s and 30’s, its adherents in Central Europe began to spread awareness of the style across the continent. These artists formed what is called New Typography, a style of graphic design that broke typography free from their grid-like order on the page and sought independence through its clean, streamlined look. One of the pioneers of the style, El Lissitzky, was a Russian constructivist who emphasized the power of clean typefaces and asymmetrical compositions. As more designers caught on to what Lissitzky and his fellows were doing, the style began to take shape.
But, it was Jan Tschichold who helped place the movement on firmer ground. He took from both the constructivists and the Bauhaus to create a set of rules for new designers to follow, publishing Die Neue Typographie in 1928. This book solidified the style in easy-to-follow guidelines and became a fundamental design bible for decades after.
Key Features of New Typography
New Typography focuses on Asymmetry, angular type, white space and sans-serif typefaces. By breaking type out of symmetrical blocks of text, New Typography found ways to make dynamic designs using words alone, while photographs and other design features could be added to emphasize or improve a look.
This asymmetry often produced strong angles, creating a sense of depth or simply adding drama. The eye-catching angles are one of the clearest examples of the style’s break from schools of thought that came before. In a counter-intuitive move, New Typography also found great use of white space to increase the force of their designs. One might imagine that more content, not less, would produce a greater effect. By leaving plenty of white space, these designs make the elements on the page look important, calling attention to the most essential information.
A matter of dogma in New Typography are sans serif typefaces. These clean letters, free from the feet and rounded terminals of serif typefaces, are easy to read and modern. And because these sans-serif typefaces were relatively rare at the time, they helped the style appear like design from the future. The sophisticated look to New Typography not only arises from these features adding together but also the mastery demonstrated by the style’s biggest names, such as Max Bayer, Kurt Schwitters, and Piet Zwart all helped show the world what could be accomplished using these simple techniques.
New Typography codified a new set of design principles that could be applied in many situations. The movement’s approach formed a bridge between designers in the early Soviet Union to the world abroad, bringing with it radical new ideas that could be translated into practice. Many of the ways New Typography clarified ideas from constructivism led to the Swiss style. The angular compositions, clean typefaces, and asymmetry became important points among mid-century Swiss designers and their admirers worldwide.
New Typography is probably best remembered not for what it invented but what it helped popularize and spread. But as they learned from constructivism and the Bauhaus, they created their own synthesis, one that informed some of the most important designs of the 20th century.