Week 27 – Design History and Styles

1. Research on the Swiss International Style

I would define the Swiss International Style as following.

It originated from Switzerland in the 1940’s and was the base of the development in Graphic Design during the mid 20th century. The style is many times referred as Typographic Style or the International Style. 

Some of Swiss Style characteristic features are cleanliness, readability and objectivity. The principle behind the style was to separation of the design from fine art. It didn’t mean that the designer had to be unknown but just clearly express the idea whether it belonged to the creator or not.

Grid system and asymmetry
It can be seen that after the World War II order was reflecting to the styles. In Swiss Style the strict mathematical grid system can be seen. Using a grid system it creates a hierarchy for the content much easier. For example the web-design relays to grid system. The grids are flexible, consistent, easy to follow and works with ratios – as rule of thirds, golden ratio etc. Swiss Style usually uses asymmetry layout. 

Sans Serif typefaces and photography

Swiss Style uses Sans Serif typefaces. The classic Sans Serif typefaces is the thing that makes the grid system work and it makes the Swiss Style. It focuses to the information and eliminates all the distraction for the viewer. The designs has been done to be studied, rather than admired. All the ornaments and decorations were gone.

The designs also reflected real happenings with a photography and typeface. The most seen products were posters which were seen to be the most effective ways of communication. The photographs are from objects, the purpose is not to create feelings or emotions but to communicate facts. 

Probably the most influenced typefaces in the Swiss Style was Akzidenz-Grotesk, designed by the Berthold Type Foundry in 1896. It became quickly the most used typeface and was sold to U.S. under the name”Standard” or Basic Commercial”. The other typeface that was used a lot was Univers. It was designed (1954) by Adrian Frutiger, one of the most influenced typeface designers of the 20th century. It was a first typeface that had a hole font family with various sizes and weights. The third to be mentioned is Helvetica, designed by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann 1957. It has been said that it’s “ubiquitous because it fullfills so many demands for modern type.” 

From the 1960s to the 1970s, the “Swiss style” began to lose its influence. The political climate had changed, the war in Vietnam had gone through it, the Swiss aesthetic is considered cold and authoritarian. It was time for “flower-power”. Until Swiss style returned again in the 2000s.


2. Influences on Swiss International Style

Some earlier styles that have influenced the Swiss International Style are constructivism, DeStijl, Suprematism and Bauhaus. Constructivism had elements of simplicity and legibility. De Stijl had the usage of strong colors and contrast. 
Suprematism had geometrical shapes, colors and asymmetrical layouts. Bauhaus had sans-serif typefaces. 

After World War II international trade began to increase relations between countries and grew steadily stronger. Typography and design were in crucial situation to help these relationships progress—clarity, objectivity, region-less glyphs, and symbols are essential to communication between international partners. International Typographic Style found its place in this communicative climate and expanded further beyond Switzerland, to America. 

The biggest influences Swiss International Style has left are simplicity and efficiency. The style evolved as a modernist graphic movement that sought to convey messages clearly and in a universally straightforward manner.

One of the most influenced designers in Swiss International Style is Josef Müller-Brockmann. He has explained, in the Meggs’ History of Graphic Design (p.364), the idea behind the Swiss Style as following “sought 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.” 

Brockmann was strongly influenced also by Jan Tshichold’s manifesto to The New Typography and the supremacy of bar typefaces (called grotesk in German). Brockmann kept these same rules of order — use of very strict composition grids, objective photographs to avoid emotions, the importance of rhythm, harmony, mathematical and geometric compositions — throughout his career.

“The grid is an organizational system that makes the message easier to read, this allows you to get an effective result at a minimum cost. With an arbitrary organization, the problem is solved more easily, faster and better.”

Order means knowledge of the rules that govern legibility. Brockmann also states that the designers have to be responsible for their society and stopped working for the companies that he saw doing harm to the society – like tobacco companies.

Armin Hofmann, the other Swiss Style designer, has also said that the goal of communication was always above all else. Practice of new techniques of photo-typesetting, photo-montage and experimental composition and heavily favored sans-serif typography are the things that influenced her.


3. Analysis of the Swiss International Style

There was two major Swiss design schools that influenced the early years of Swiss Style — Basel School of Design and Zurich School of Arts and Crafts.

Zurich School of Arts and Crafts

In 1918 Ernst Keller started as a professor in Kunsgewerbeschule Zürich and started to develop a graphic design and typography course for the school. The Zürich school focused more on the typographic style. They also changed the idea behind designing, earlier the design process focused on “beauty for the sake of beauty”, the idea now was to be more “effektiv”, that the solution should emerge from it´s content.

While Keller’s work has a different flavor than what would come later, his preferences for striking graphics, irregular layouts and sans serif typefaces were all clearly influential.


Also Josef Müller-Brockmann was a student and teacher in Kunsgewerbeschule Zürich. He used text, photography and simple graphics in his posters to create tricking and rhythmic compositions. 


Basel School of Design

Basel School of Design based their graphic design techniques and foundation to the grid system, that emerged in the 19th century. The school was led by Armin Hofmann.

Armin Hofmann’s independent insights as an educator, he had a rich and innovative skills of visual expression, created designs for different purposes – books, exhibitions, stage sets, logotypes, symbols, typography, posters, sign systems, and environmental graphics. His work is recognized for its reliance on the fundamental elements of graphic form – point, line, and shape – while subtly conveying simplicity, complexity, representation, and abstraction.

Hofmann felt that one of the best and most efficient forms of communication was the poster. The economical use of font and color are seen in Hofmann’s posters. He used a lot shapes, points and lines as seen in these posters but also the repetition and abstraction. 





Meggs, P. B., Purvis, A. W., & Meggs, P. B.. Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2006, p. 364.
Steven, Heller & Seymour Chwast. Graphic Style. From Victorian to The New Century. 2011. 


Armin Hofmann


Armin Hofmann


Swiss Style: The Principles, the Typefaces & the Designers


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