Even if you’re not a designer or graphic artist, you’re most likely aware of Swiss Design although maybe not by name. You see it in everyday life from movie and musical posters to logos and signage in subway systems, even the one in New York City.
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So what exactly is Swiss Design?
Swiss Design uses a minimalist style featuring a block layout, photographs, and sans serif fonts such as Helvetica, Folio, and Univers. Sans serif letters are simple and have no serifs (extended ending strokes).
The following is a brief history of Swiss Design and a few notable Swiss designers.
History of Swiss Design
Swiss Design originated in Switzerland after World War II. The movement began in the 1950s in two prominent Swiss art schools— the kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich and the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule in Basel. The leaders of these schools, Josef Müller-Brockmann and Armin Hofmann respectively, studied in Zurich under the great Ernst Keller prior to WWII.
Earlier design styles that influenced Swiss Design were styles such as De Stijl, Bauhaus, Constructivism, and The New Typography, but without the historical and political backgrounds of these movements. In a way, the movement was a reaction to Nazi Germany’s suppression of geometric abstraction. It was also a reaction to French Art Nouveau, the German Jugendstil, and the British Arts and Crafts movement.
The quality of craftwork was changed by the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840.) British Arts and Crafts pioneer William Morris sought a return to craftmanship that encouraged heavily illustrated designs, floral motifs, intricate patterns, and the designer’s point of view, all reminiscent of medieval times.
Swiss Design rejected these changes in favor of clarity, simplicity, and a lack of subjectivity from the designer.
The history of the Swiss Design movement was jumpstarted by the creation of Akzidenz Grotesk, a sans-serif typeface family founded in 1896 by the Berthold Type Foundry. The use of grids, asymmetrical layouts, and photography followed and was used in posters as a means of communication.
Today, historians refer to Swiss Design as the International Style of Design because the style isn’t limited to Switzerland. It has found great success all the way to the United States and beyond as logos and visual branding for corporations. The name switch took place during the 1950s as more and more artists began using the approach as a way to communicate by putting function over form.
The Swiss style of design is seen in more than graphics. American architect Philip Johnson and Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier were among those who were a part of the International Design Movement. Rectangular structures, simple exteriors, open interiors, concrete, steel, and windows with large glass panes are used in International Design. Called the “architecture of the machine age,” the style grew popular in the early to mid-20th century.
Famous Swiss Designers
Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, also known as Le Corbusier was a Swiss-French designer, painter, architect, and urban planner. He was a fore-leader in what is now known as modern architecture. He was dedicated to providing better living conditions in crowded cities. Born in Switzerland, he became a French citizen in 1930.
The famous Swiss painter H.R. Giger was a Zurich-based artist known for his futuristic paintings that airbrushed humans and machines intermingled in a “biochemical” relationship. His style was used in several forms of media including record albums, tattoos, and furniture. H.R. Giger worked on the special effects team that won an Academy Award for the movie Alien. His work is on display in Gruyeres at the H.R. Giger Museum.
Max Miedinger and his co-worker Edouard Hoffman designed Neue Haas Grotesk, a sans serif typeface later known as Helvetica in the 1950s. His typeface became an important component of the Swiss Design Movement. Helvetica is the Latin word for “Swiss.” The sans serif typeface has clean lines, and its bold minimalism is popular in the world of design.
Typographer and graphic designer Emil Ruder was a faculty member of the Basel School of Design and was also one of the co-founders. He was a proponent of sans-serif typefaces and believed that the purpose of typography was to communicate ideas. His use of grids in design laid the groundwork for web design on many levels.
Adrian Frutiger was a 20th-century Swiss graphic designer and teacher in Swiss schools. Sculpting was his first interest, but his father and teachers encouraged him to go into print. He kept his sculpting interest alive by designing typefaces that incorporated his sculpture designs. He attended the Kunstgewerbeschule, and at age 16, he worked as an apprentice for the printer Otto Schaerffli. Later, he designed several typefaces including Méridien, Ondine, and Président.
One of Ernst Keller’s students, Josef Müller-Brockmann created designs using a grid system and the Akzidenz-Grotesk typeface. He opened his own design firm called Müller-Brockmann & Co and founded the Neue Grafik (New Graphic Design), a journal printed in three languages which he co-edited with Hans Neuberg, Franco Vivarelli, and Richard Paul Lohse. The magazine helped spread Swiss Design beyond Europe. He is best known for his poster designs using photography and typography.
Armin Hofmann was one of the founders of the Schule für Gestaltung (School of Design) in Basel, Switzerland Switzerland in 1947 where he began teaching art using unconventional methods. Influenced by the teachings of Ernst Keller, he often emphasized typography over illustration. His curriculum has been adapted somewhat, but it is still the basis of what is taught at the School of Design.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Swiss design known for?
Swiss Design is known worldwide as the International Style of graphics. It’s often used in posters and signage.
Who is the father of Swiss design?
Ernst Keller, a teacher at the Kunstgewerbeschule (school of arts and crafts) in Switzerland during the early 20th century is considered the father of Swiss design.
What are the characteristics of a Swiss design style?
The Swiss design style features a minimalist style, a block layout, and sans serif lettering.