the Swiss style — also known as International Typographic Style or International Style...
Is great graphic design
If I asked you to close your eyes and imagine a sophisticated poster design — say for an upcoming film festival or symposium — you will almost certainly envision something in the Swiss style. Highly legible sans-serif fonts. Striking composition. A mixture of clean photographic images and copy. The use of angles to draw in the eye. These are the hallmarks of tasteful graphic design, and they are the signature features of the Swiss style. In many ways, the Swiss style — also known as International Typographic Style or, simply, International Style — is great graphic design as we know it.
It is from this legacy that we draw many of our expectations for fine design principles, and it has informed our gut-level understanding of when a design has “it” and when it doesn’t. When we dive into the history, traits and development of the International Typographic Style, we find a rich history of discovery and development, of new ideas and commitment to craft. Since it’s rise in the middle of the 20th century, this style has become a defining visual language that works around the world. That means that the better we understand Swiss style, the better we understand design as a whole.
While typically called Swiss design, the roots of this style range across Europe. Constructivist and modernist designers from countries like the Netherlands, Germany and Russia developed clean, typographically bold designs beginning in the 1920’s. This philosophy took place in architecture at the same time, pushing for harmony between function and form, as well as emphasizing rational layouts and clean lines. These designers were working in reaction to the prevailing trends of the 19th century. And it made its impact felt as those old ideas were swept away in favor of the striking, simple new designs.
One of the most influential of these early influences is the Bauhaus. In 1919, William Gropius founded the school in Weimar, Germany. It sought to create the ultimate interdisciplinary experience — bringing together all the arts into a single conversation. “Form follows function,” was their guiding principle. And with the collaboration of architects, painters and every other imaginable discipline in the fine and applied arts, they made revolutionary leaps into the aesthetics of the new century. The staff included such luminaries as Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, and it generated a style that can still be felt today.
The school closed in 1933 under pressure from the Nazi government who believed that it harbored communist tendencies. Many members of the Bauhaus fled across Europe, bringing their aesthetic ideals with them. As those ideas spread, they found new voices in two schools in Switzerland.
The Switzerland Connection
With such cosmopolitan roots, why is it called the Swiss style? In the 1950’s, the ideas that began with those modernist designers in the 1920’s crystallized around two leaders who worked in Switzerland — Josef Müller-Brockmann (Zurich School of Arts and Krafts) and Armin Hofmann (Basel School of Design).
Out of these two schools came a legion of young Swiss designers with new ideas about communicating through image and copy. They rigorously followed the principles they were taught and pushed the field into ever bolder territory. They also kept returning to certain techniques, like the grid and the mixture of photographs with typography. Let’s examine all of these features below to get a better sense of what the Swiss style really is.
The Principles of Swiss Design
The principles of Swiss design can be summarized as readability, objectivity and cleanliness. Above all, Swiss design focuses on readability. Everything is in service to the message. That makes sense, given that graphic design is essentially art that is meant to get someone to do something.
is built into every decision. That is why more than any other trait, Swiss design is notable for its use of sans-serif typefaces. These are letters without the curls and adornments on the edges, called serifs (a word that likely comes from the Dutch schreef meaning line or pen stroke). Readability is also applied in design. Type must be legible and direct without leaving room for interpretation.
For Swiss designers, this meant design that used typography and photography to communicate facts. To further objectivity, these designers used simple and sober outlines and a lack of illustration. This principle of austerity drove the use of grids to format text in columns, typically left aligned with a ragged right edge.It was in direct opposition to the overly illustrated and messy graphic design that prevailed in earlier decades.
Cleanliness guides designers in avoiding clutter or overly garish colors; to make things clear. Cleanliness also helps create readability and has the reserved, sober quality needed for objectivity. These three principles combined to create a style that projected rationality and sophistication. In many ways, it was aspirational. As Europe rebuilt itself after World War II, it needed a visual landscape that expressed the hopes of peacetime. The principles of Swiss style did so in style.
One cannot describe the Swiss style without mentioning the grid. By aligning text to a grid pattern, the Swiss style emphasizes hierarchy, order and readability. Ordering text according to a grid creates a page-like presentation that allows the reader to easily navigate its content. It eliminates any time the eye must spend searching for pertinent information. In addition, the grid presents an elegance and aesthetic charm that looks “smart” — perhaps because strict adherence to a grid ends up making a poster look like an attractive page.
The preference for photography over illustration is a very important feature of Swiss style, though it should be noted there are plenty of examples that buck this trend. However, photography served the principles of the style, and their availability greatly increased through the middle of the 20th century. This greater availability and the rise of easier reproduction methods helped make photography a frequent feature of the Swiss style, and the very nature of photography lent itself to the objectivity that the designers were looking for.
With the copy frequently caught in grids and the general design left unadorned, the Swiss style had few tools to catch attention. Despite this, their achievements are still captivating. How did they do this? With striking, asymmetrical designs. This tactic is simple, but highly effective. It creates drama and intrigue for the eye without undermining the foundational principles of the movement.
The Typefaces that Drove the Movement
Because the Swiss style was so driven by its topography, the typefaces these designers used became the fingerprint of their work. The style made such an enormous impact on the visual culture of the 20th century that its favorite typefaces became the most visible and well known of the era as well. Looking through the most common of these gives us a greater appreciation for both the Swiss style and the typographic universe we find ourselves in today.
The Berthold Type Foundry of Berlin first released Akzidenz Grotesk in 1898. As Akzidenz implies, it was meant for general commercial use. And at the time, grotesque referred to any sans-serif font. Swiss designers fell in love with it for its clean and handsome appearance, giving them the exact effect they were looking for. It was highly legible at many sizes and still looked great at several weights. What made this particularly important for the Swiss style was that it already existed for decades beforehand. While other fonts emerged to take its place, Akzidenz Grotesk is the common ancestor. Without it, there wouldn’t be the tremendous sans-serif typefaces that we have today.
Helvetica stands as one of the most beloved and well known typefaces in the world. After all, how many typefaces have a documentary made about them? Max Miedinger, along with some help from Eduard Hoffmann, designed the typeface and released it in 1957 as Neue Haas Grotesk. By then, the Swiss style was in full swing, and designers were hungry for something with the appeal of Akzidenz Grotesk but with a bit of a modern update. Helvetica gave them all this and more by adhering well to a grid and maintaining that little spark of humanism without compromising its cleanliness and legibility. The Swiss love affair with Helvetica made it an international symbol of progress in the West. It went on to live in hundreds of famous logos and even as the official typeface of the New York Subway System.
Like Helvitica, Univers was released in 1957 — a great year for typography, it turns out. Designed by Adrian Frutiger and released by Deberny & Peignot, the typeface strove above all to have a consistent look. Many sans-serif fonts up to that point were still all over the place, with little coherence from letter to letter. Univers solved that, taking an extremely consistent approach to the proportion and shape of every letter. It also launched in a vast number of weights and styles, making it highly versatile. In its design philosophy, it probably most closely fits the legacy of Swiss style. Though it never reached the heights of Helvetica, it still appears in countless designs.
The Impact of Swiss Design
The International Typographic Style reached its height in the 50’s and 60’s, becoming the lingua franca of designers and driving the collective expectations of graphic design for generations. Of course, all trends pass. And by the end of the 60’s, new tastes were emerging that soon took their place at the heights of design. In particular, a desire for a more natural, softer look began to dominate in the 70’s. And Europe, growing secure in its postwar equilibrium, began to pursue a plurality of styles. But while this style diminished in popularity, it never disappeared. In fact, it became a permanent fixture in graphic design.
The principles of readability, cleanliness, and objectivity still inform designers to this day. Visual motifs discovered by the movement are still employed frequently. Large governmental agencies and international organizations often turn to Swiss design to communicate transparency, fairness and rationality. And new groups looking to establish themselves as competent upstarts turn to it for its refinement and sense of educated experience. So while this important school of design is no longer the undisputed leader of the field, it has become an indelible feature of the landscape — a landscape all the better looking for the influence of this style.