Swiss International Style


During the 1950s a design movement emerged from Switzerland and Germany called the Swiss design or; more appropriately, the International Typographic Style. It was base d on the revolutionary principle of the 1920s, such as those devise d by De Still, Bauhaus and Jan Tschichold’s The New Typography. The neutrality of Switzerland enabled Swiss graphic designers to continue their work during the war.


The visual characteristics of this style include a unity of design achieved by asymmetrical organization of the design elements on a mathematically constructed grid; objective photography and copy that present visual and verbal information in a clear and factual manner, free from the exaggerated claims of propaganda and commercial advertising; minimal decoration and the use of sans-serif typography set in a flush-left and ragged- right margin configuration became the norm as typography developed to represent universal usefulness more than personal expression. The initiators of this movement believed sans-serif typography expressed the spirit of a more progressive age and that mathematical grids are the most legible and harmonious means for structuring information. Personal expression and eccentric solutions were rejected, while a more universal and scientific approach to design problem solving was embraced. Designers define their roles not as artists but as objective channels for spreading important information in the society. Achieving clarity and order is the ideal. The Swiss style also advocated the use of white space as it provides breathing space to the various design elements.

The Swiss style replaced the reductive flatness of the typical German image with a boldly rendered lithographic design. Its design philosophy runs through two major schools, one in Zurich, the other in Basel.

The quality and discipline found in the Swiss design movement can be traced to Ernst Keller who taught at The Zurich School of Applied Art, he stated that “the solution to a design problem should emerge from its content”

The roots of the International Typographic Style are to a large extent found in the curriculum advanced at the School of Design in Basel.

The International School of Basel uses a simple hierarchy and rounded sans serif font and warm colours that visually reinforce the subject matter. Distinct backgrounds may highlight the text and guide the reader to key information. to structure the text information, these underpinning blocks of colour act as visual ‘pointers’ through a clean and restrained design.

Armin Hofmann later stated that “abstract structure is the vehicle for communication. It relies on an analysis that rigorously questions and accounts for all parts of a message. The act of searching for an appropriate structure forces the designer to make the most basic inquiry about a message, to isolate its primary essence from considerations of surface style.” I.E., Basel’s primary goal is “communication, not seduction”.

Asymmetrical layouts can be traced back to the 1920s and 1930s, in particular to the German school, the Bauhaus. They experimented with layouts based on an off-centred axis, creating tension and dynamism. In this style, type is primarily ragged left; ragged-right setting is kept to a few lines. The modernist movement also rejected ornament, and sans-serif typefaces, with their clean lines and modernity, were the popular faces of the school. The work of the Bauhaus and their stylistic descendants, such as the Swiss typographers of the 1950s and 1960s, favours sans-serif faces and often completely lowercase headlines. Rules, in a number of weights, are used as distinctive features in colour and in black and white, adding dynamic movement to the compositions.

“It is possible to develop an art largely on the basis of mathematical thinking” MAX BILL from the Ulm Institute – Germany. He formulated a manifesto of art concret, calling for a universal art of absolute clarity based on controlled arithmetical construction. Art concret paintings were totally constructed from pure, mathematically exact visual elements-planes and colours. Because these elements have no external meanings, the results are purely abstract.

However Josef Muller- Brockmann, a Swiss designer from the Zurich School said that the “grid system is an aid, not a guarantee. It permits a number of possible uses and each designer can look for a solution appropriate to his personal style. But one must learn how to use the grid; it is an art that requires practice.”

The Ulm Institute of Design evolved using scientific and methodological approaches to design problem solving. They included a study of semiotics, the philosophical theory of signs and symbols, in its curriculum. Semiotics has three branches: semantics; the study of the meaning of signs and symbols, syntactics; the study of how signs and symbols are connected and ordered into a structural whole, and pragmatics; the study of the relation of signs and symbols to their users. Also, principles of Greek rhetoric were re-examined for application to visual communications. In counterpoint to Bill’s evolution toward a purist approach to graphic design from the 1930s to the 1950s, there was also a strong tendency toward complexity in this period. Bright, pure hues were combined with photographs in intense, complex visual organizations. Transparency of printing inks by layering shapes, typography, and images to create a complex web of graphic information

“Copy and a picture are arranged and related in accordance with objective and functional criteria. The areas are sensitively organized with an assured touch in mathematical proportions, and due attention is paid to the rules of typography.” JOSEF MULLER BROCKMANN