Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Swiss Style

The Swiss Style or Swiss Graphic Design was developed in the 1950s in Switzerland. It remained a major design movement for more than 2 decades, and still influences graphic design today.
Also known as the International style or International Typographic Style, it emerged in Russia, Germany and the Netherlands in the 1920s, and was made famous by talented Swiss graphic designers (Smashing Magazine).

The Swiss Style emphasised simplicity, communication and objectivity. Its hallmarks are the mathematical grid, sans serif typefaces arranged in a flush left and ragged right formation (asymmetry), black and white photography, and the elimination of ornament.

The Swiss Style merged elements of The New Typography, Bauhaus and De Stijl. The Swiss Style has its roots in The New Typography, which was developed in the 1920s and 1930s as artists and designers looked to give design a place in the new industrialised era. They discarded symmetry, ornament and drawn illustration for white-space, plain letterforms and photographs. As printing became industrialised a need for plain letterforms for fast efficient printing was necessary. Photography was at the time becoming very popular and more accessible, and designers embraced this.

The Swiss graphic designers were influenced by Jan Tschichold’s 1928 book Die Neue Typographie (The New Typography) which outlined these principles and how typography should be seen as the art of communication. (Hollis, R. p.36) Typography became seen as a primary design element. In his book Tschichold favoured asymmetrical design and he condemned all but sans-serif fonts (called Grotesk in Germany). 

The Akzidenz-Grotesk typeface became the most frequently used  in The New Typography,  and almost the norm in later Swiss graphic design. It was liked for its clarity and precision, and the designers mainly used it in its lowercase form.

Ernst Keller (1891 – 1968) is seen as the father of the Swiss Style. He was a graphic designer, lettering artist and teacher. From 1918 he taught at the Zurich Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Art), where he developed a professional course in design and typography. As a teacher he was the most important single influence on the development of the Swiss style. (Hollis, R.) The economically drawn images and inventive lettering of his posters designed in the 1920s and 30s made an important contribution to Modernism.
This is a poster by Ernst Keller for an exhibition at the Zurich Kunstgewerbemuseum, from 1931. 

Here Keller uses the diagonal to catch the eye and to suggest some dynamic activity, a common device at the time, but Keller’s poster is original in its control of space and the integration of text.
Keller created a design system characterized by a rigid grid format, structured layout and unjustified type.  The core of these ideas were first presented in the book Grid Systems in Graphic Design by his student Josef Muller-Brockmann. 
The Swiss Style has roots in Bauhaus too. Two Swiss designers who studied at the Bauhaus school were Theo Ballmer (1902-65) and Max Bill (1908-94), who linked earlier constructivist graphic design with the new movement that formed after World War 2. Ballmer studied with Klee, Gropius and Meyer in the 1920s. He applied De Stijl principles to graphic design, using an arithmetic grid of horizontal and vertical alignments. (Carlyle. K.
Max Bill was a Swiss architect, artist, painter, typeface designer, industrial designer and graphic designer. He studied in the Bauhaus, then in 1929 moved back to Zurich, where he became a professor at the Zurich School of Design. Bill was the single most decisive influence on Swiss graphic design beginning in the 1950s with his theoretical writing and progressive work. (Hollis, R. )

The style was refined at two design schools in Switzerland, one in Basel led by Armin Hofmann and Emil Ruder, and the other in Zurich under the leadership of Joseph Muller-Brockmann. All had studied with Ernst Keller at the Zurich School of Design before World War 2, where the principles of the Bauhaus and Jan Tschichold's New Typography were taught.

Armin Hofmann was a teacher, graphic designer and writer. He taught that the poster was one of the most efficient forms of communication. He wrote the Graphic Design Manual in 1965 which became very popular. Most of his posters rely on silhouettes and large letters.  

With Ruder he set up the advanced class for graphic design that offered an intensive study of basic design principles and a broad horizon in form-related design processes. (Hollis, R. )  

Emil Ruder was a Swiss graphic designer, typographer, teacher and writer. He broke away from the subjective, style-driven typography of the past and encouraged his students to be more concerned with precision, proportions and above all, the role of legibility and communication with type.

Ruder was also fond of asymmetry, a concept he found in Japanese texts on Zen philosophy and tea drinking. He arranged his layouts and typography with careful attention to counter, shape and white space. His projects “developed sensitivity to negative or unprinted spaces, including the spaces between and inside letterforms” (Meggs, P. )

His favourite of the new sans-serif typefaces were the twenty-one fonts named Univers created by his friend, Adrian Frutiger in 1954. Ruder and his students engaged in endless typographic and layout explorations with the vast array of weights in the Univers family. (Bzdok, S. )

After more than 20 years of teaching, he compiled his concepts, experiments and philosophies into a book titled Typographie published in 1967. It was hugely influential at the time and is still considered one of the most important books on typography.  

Josef Muller-Brockman was born in Rapperswil, Switzerland in 1914 and studied architecture, design and history of art at the University of Zurich and at the city’s Kunstgewerbeschule.  He was a graphic designer, illustrator, stage designer, exhibition designer, teacher and writer. By the 1950s he was established as the leading practitioner and theorist of the Swiss Style.  In 1957 He was appointed graphic design teacher at the Zurich School of Art.  In 1958 He founded the magazine Neue Grafik  (New Graphic Design)  with Richard Paul Lohse, Hans Neuburg and Carlo Vivarelli. He wrote several influential books on graphic design, including the 1961 publications The Graphic Artist and his Design Problems, Grid Systems in Graphic Design where he advocates use of the grid for page structure, and the 1971 publications History of the Poster and A History of Visual Communication.

Joseph Muller-Brockmann’s series of posters for the Zurich concert hall have endured as one of the most distinctive contributions to Swiss Graphic design. In these posters he attempts to find a visual equivalent to music. The series would continue over the next two decades, and Muller-Brockmann would pursue the goal of graphic purity. He replaced drawn illustration with a mathematical grid that echoed the rational structure of modern architecture. He reduced the colour palette to its most elemental - black and white - or at other times to one or two colours, and also replaced traditional typefaces with clean and straightforward sans-serif faces. The result was utterly straightforward and logical. The world had rarely seen posters that were more objective and pure in their approach. (International Poster Gallery. )

It was a style concerned with communication, and one where the designers believed that their design was socially useful. This is demonstrated with Carlo Vivarelli’s poster for help the aged. 

By using a photograph of an elderly lady instead of an illustration it makes it more real and documentary in a way. Seeing a real person helps people sympathise more with the cause. The low shadow dramatises the individual and communicates a sense of simple lighting, like from a candle or open fire, implying she is poor and only has light from a candle and warmth from a small hearth. You can really picture her life and how she survives. 

A principle of the Swiss Style was using different font-sizes, not only to generate visual impact, but also to provide readers with a hint about the hierarchy of the presented data. This is a very efficient way of guiding the reader’s eyes through the page, thus working as an interface to the content.

The Swiss Modernists were also influenced by the constructivist use of geometry. The square and circle in particular were adopted by them. 

An important part of the Swiss Style is its remarkable use of photography, influenced by the modernist ideas in which photography was a much better tool to portray reality than drawings and illustrations. Photomontage became popular in poster design and advertising. Herbert Matter was considered the master of photomontage.

Herbert Matter’s poster ‘all roads lead to Switzerland’. Matter was a painter, photographer, graphic designer and filmmaker. His designs for posters were most often reproduced by photogravure, in not more than 3 colours.

In 1957 Helvetica or Neue Haas Grotesk was designed to replace Akzidenz Grotesk as the Swiss Style typeface. It was designed by Swiss typeface designer Max Miedinger with Eduard Hoffmann. This font was a redesigned version with wider spacing and was made available for machine typesetting. The aim of the new design was to create a neutral typeface that had great clarity, no intrinsic meaning in its form, and could be used on a wide variety of signage. It was initially suggested that the type be called 'Helvetia' which is the original Latin name for Switzerland. This was ignored by Eduard Hoffmann as he decided it wouldn't be appropriate to name a type after a country. He then decided on 'Helvetica' as this meant 'Swiss' as opposed to 'Switzerland'.  It is considered by many to be the Swiss styles greatest legacy, and is among the most widely used sans-serif fonts. (Hollis, R. )

In 2007, director Gary Hustwit released a documentary, Helvetica, to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the typeface. In the film, graphic designer Wim Crouwel said, "Helvetica was a real step from the 19th century typeface... We were impressed by that because it was more neutral, and neutralism was a word that we loved. It should be neutral. It shouldn't have a meaning in itself. The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface."

By the 1970s elements of Swiss style could be seen all over the world, from America to Japan. In a way it has become a tired formalistic cliché which has little life in it without the aesthetic and social convictions of the founding fathers. 
Critics of the Swiss Style complain that it is based on formula and results in a sameness of solution; fans argue that the style's purity of means and legibility of communication enable the designer to achieve a timeless perfection of form, and they point to the inventive range of solutions by leading practitioners as evidence that neither formula nor sameness is intrinsic to the approach, except in the hands of lesser talents. (Carlyle, K.

Hollis, R. (2006) Swiss Graphic Design, 1920-1965. London: Laurence King Publishing. 

Meggs, P. (1998) A History of Graphic Design. 3rd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Bzdok, S. (2010) A Brief History of Emil Ruder [Internet] Available from: [Accessed 11 February 2011]

Carlyle, K. (2004) International Typographic Style [Internet] Available from: [Accessed 20 March 2011]

International Poster Gallery. (2006) Mid Century Modern [Internet] Available from: [Accessed 11 February 2011]

Terror, D. (2009) Lessons from Swiss Style graphic design [Internet] Available from: [Accessed 20 March 2011]


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