If you’re a designer in the 21st century, chances are you’ve studied the International Typographic Style (more commonly known as ‘Swiss Style’). Let’s take a moment to honor some of modern design’s most influential principles, typefaces and artists who started this central-European trend.
Cleanliness. Readability. Objectivity.
Just a few key words that describe the driving force behind Swiss Style. The 19th century marked the separation of design from fine art, and with it, the birth of grid-based design.
Band posters designed by Mike Joyce and inspired by Swiss Style
P.B. Meggs’ History of Graphic Design explains that International Typographic Design begins with a mathematical grid. These grids are considered to be the “most legible and harmonious means for structuring information.” Using a grid for design makes creating a hierarchy for the content much easier—think web design. Why are so many websites broken into grids? Grids are flexible, consistent and easy to follow. They are clear-cut and work well with ratios (Rule of Thirds, Golden Ratio, etc.). In addition to the grid, Swiss Style usually involves an asymmetrical layout, sans serif typefaces and the favoring of photography over illustrations.
The movement’s innovators combined elements of other artistic trends to create the beauty and simplicity of the Swiss Style that we know today. Elements from Bauhaus, De Stijl and The New Typography are sprinkled throughout the works of Ersnt Keller, Max Bill, Josef-Müller Brakmann and Armin Hofmann—i.e., the pioneers of Swiss Style.
Appreciating Swiss Style means appreciating the typefaces that started it all. Those grid systems wouldn’t be anything without the classic sans serif typeface that so seamlessly folds into Swiss Style. Those who taught Swiss Style argued that design should focus on the content and not decorative extras. By stripping away the embellishments, Swiss Style eliminates distractions for the viewer and allows the information-heavy design to be read and studied rather than merely seen and admired. Because of this, the typefaces chosen to represent Swiss Style are those that really hone in one the movement’s key principles:
Probably the most influential typeface for this movement, Akzidenz-Grotesk was released by the Berthold Type Foundry in 1896 and was arguably the first of its kind. It soon became one of the most widely used typefaces and was even sold in the U.S. under the names “Standard” or “Basic Commercial.” If that doesn’t shout “FIRST!” I don’t know what does.
Adrian Frutiger, one of the most influential typeface designers of the 20th century, created Univers in 1954. Pulling elements from Akzidenz-Grotesk, Frutiger created one of the first typefaces that formed a font family, allowing documents to use one typeface (instead of several) in various sizes and weights, creating a beautifully simple uniform via text alone. Originally released by Danberry & Peignot in 1957, the family passed through the hands of the Haas Type Foundry before being purchased in 2007 (along with all of Linotype) by Monotype.
When Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann created Helvetica in 1957, did they know their work would result in what is arguably the most ubiquitous sans serif typeface in the world? Probably not. Did they think, for just a moment, their typeface would inspire a film? Again, probably not. But here we are, nearly 60 years later, with an 88% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and Simon Garfield regarding Helvetica as “ubiquitous because it fulfills so many demands for modern type.”
They may not have designed the wonderfully inexpensive, build-it-from-the-box furniture so many college students live with and love, but they definitely had some influence. Obviously, IKEA started in Switzerland, so it’s no surprise Swiss Style made it into their branding. But what about the hundreds (thousands?) of other businesses, theaters, schools, artists, etc. that use Swiss Style every day? Who came up with it anyway?
Enter Ernst Keller, lovingly known as the “father of Swiss design.” The year is 1918 and Keller just received a teaching position at the Kunstgewerbeschule (literally translated “arts and crafts school”) in Switzerland. 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. Little did Keller know, some of his students would become the forefront runners in the creation of the International Typographic Style movement. Shall we call them the sons of Swiss Style?
Works by Ernst Keller/Images from MoMa
Armin Hofmann, along with Emil Ruder, founded the Schule für Gestaltung (School of Design) in 1947. Hofmann began teaching and was often regarded as unorthodox in his ways. Much of his work focused on elements of graphic form while remaining simple and objective. His compositions, having been influenced by Ernst Keller’s teachings, often made use of typography over illustration. Hofmann’s curriculum has been somewhat adapted, yet is still taught today at the School of Design in Basel, Switzerland.
Works by Armin Hofmann/Images from MoMa
Josef Müller-Brockmann, another student of Keller’s, heavily focused his work around the grid system and Akzidenz-Grotesk typeface. After taking over Keller’s teaching position at the Kunstgewerbeschule and later opening his own design firm, Müller-Brockmann helped spread the Swiss aesthetic far beyond the borders of Europe by establishing the Neue Grafik (New Graphic Design) journal—a trilingual magazine he co-edited with Franco Vivarelli, Hans Neuberg and Richard Paul Lohse.
Works by Josef Müller-Brockmann/Images from Design History
About 125 miles northeast of Hofmann and Ruder’s School of Design, Max Bill and Otl Aicher opened their own school in Ulm, Germany. Bill, who is known not only for his work as a designer, but also for his theoretical writings and connection to the Modern Movement, is often thought of as the most “decisive influence on Swiss graphic design.” His school in Ulm included courses in semiotics, or the study of signs and symbols. These teachings fell into step with the objectivity and readability of the International Typographic Style, which aims to create content that is easily recognized and understood by anyone who views it.
Works by Max Bill/Images from MoMA
Grids, sans serifs, and photos—oh my! Swiss Style has made its way around the world and continues to inspire artists and designers every day. Don’t believe me just yet? Just ask Cyrus Highsmith who tried to spend a day without Helvetica in New York City, only to realize that it was nearly impossible. The use of Helvetica might not define International Typographic Style, but its everywhere presence is a constant reminder of the impact those radical Swiss have in our everyday lives. Danke schön for making our lives a little more organized, guys.
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