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Swiss Design: History, Examples, and Fonts to Inspire Your Work
Marc Schenker September 2, 2021 · 13 min read
The History of Swiss DesignDesign is regarded as a communication medium, first and foremost. Swiss Design intended to showcase information more objectively, liberated from any associated meanings. In this context, this graphic design style is one for the purists.
Early DaysTo discover this movement’s roots, we have to travel all the way back to 1896, when the Berlin-based Berthold Type Foundry came out with its Akzidenz Grotesk Typeface in an effort to—you guessed it—represent an objective design style. This event was the spark that led to the evolution of what would eventually become the Swiss style: a movement interested in communicating its message clearly and in a way that was universally direct. Two main Swiss design schools are directly praiseworthy for their contributions to Swiss’ expansion. First, the Basel Design School, in 1908, took matters into its own hands. It adjusted one of its foundational courses after taking inspiration from a grid work-based graphic-design method that started in the 19th century.
A Philosophy Takes ShapeA decade later in 1918, Kunstgewerbeschule Zürich, Switzerland’s biggest arts university, hired Ernst Keller as a professor. He promptly started development on a typography and graphic design course. Keller was preoccupied with teaching his students an approach to style that emphasized a unique philosophy at the time. He believed that design solutions should come from the design problems themselves. This philosophy is extremely interesting because it represents an intentional rebellion against previous design schools of thought that stressed beauty for no other reason than for beauty itself—which doesn’t always lead to the best and most functional design solutions. This rebellion against style over substance is one that has repeated itself throughout design history, with the most prominent, recent example occurring in web design in our time. When Apple rejected skeuomorphic design (designing user-interface graphics like icons and buttons to resemble their real-life counterparts) in favor of today’s flat and minimalist design, they did so with the implicit message that they were moving away from the excesses of skeuomorph. Skeuomorphism was routinely criticized for being a design style that was more about appearance than function.
Helvetica and Swiss Design’s GrowthLet’s fast-forward to the 1950s. This decade saw more powerful growth for Swiss. It saw the consolidation of Swiss’ unique design elements into sans-serif typefaces such as Univers. Univers’ development was the pivotal touchstone that then gave the world one of the most beloved and widely used typefaces ever: Helvetica. After Univers, a Swiss typeface designer named Max Miedinger and his collaborator, Edouard Hoffman, took inspiration from it and came up with Helvetica, originally known as “Neue Haas Grotesk”. Both Univers and Helvetica were the results of a design movement that sought to capitalize on the resurgence of grotesque font families in the design houses of Europe at the time. This is evident in the original name of Helvetica. The typographers designing Helvetica had the following goals:
- Making it an exceptionally readable font
- Applying it to longer text or copy
- Creating a pure font family
Expansion Beyond Switzerland and Into AmericaThe end of World War II greatly helped in the expansion of Swiss Design beyond Switzerland’s borders. With the resumption of relations between America and Europe, driven in large part by international trade and commerce, design and typography were critical in making these relations grow stronger. Think about it: at its heart, design about messaging and communication. Design that’s characterized by objectivity, clarity, and readability goes a long way toward helping new relations progress further, especially when the participants don’t speak the same language or share the same cultural values. One of the earliest American designers to really understand this truth was Rudolph de Harak. Throughout the 1960s, as a designer of book jackets for McGraw-Hill publications, he incorporated Swiss into his works. His book jackets frequently show a grid alignment that’s flush left and ragged right. From there, an increasing number of companies and entities all over America started to use Swiss in their designs and materials, and the trend continued over the next few decades. One such institution that became a champion for Swiss was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A prominent case study of this can be seen in the design works of the late Jacqueline Casey, who was the director of MIT’s Office of Publications for nearly two decades. She was well-known for using the Swiss style in the many memorable posters created for MIT’s publications and events.
Characteristics of Swiss DesignSwiss is unique and dedicated to specific design principles that have both set it apart from other schools of design and made it instantly recognizable. Check out some of the Swiss style graphics and resources we feature in our marketplace:
The Grid SystemOne of the first things about Swiss that hits you right in the face is the conspicuous use of grids. In the Swiss design philosophy, the grid is regarded as the most legible and harmonious method for organizing information. That’s why the grid is the starting point for every composition. In design, the grid is a framework for how and where content is laid out. This applies to both the web (think of well-organized and clean sites and apps) and print (magazines, newspapers, brochures, etc.). Grids are created by intersecting vertical, horizontal, and sometimes curved or angular lines to guide the designer. These grids are highly useful in empowering designers to lay out the content on any page (web or print) so that it’s legible, readable, and aesthetically pleasing. Content on grids is typically laid out with respect to:
- The entire page
- Other elements on the same page
- Other parts or areas of the same graphical shape or element on the same page
TypefacesTypography is also distinct in this style. Text is typically aligned flush left or ragged right. This is nothing more than a typographer’s fancy way of saying that typefaces arranged in Swiss, compared to other formatting, are:
- Natural to read
- Easier to set
- Need less tweaking to finesse
- More informal
- Not manipulated from the original setting
- Superior in type color and texture
- Bigger fonts are in the headlines and the top of the page-level content (think information architecture on web pages)
- Smaller fonts tend to be found in the body and subsequent subsections of content
ImageryThe sensibilities of this style also govern the use of images. Any photography for Swiss-inspired designs is typically chosen with objectivity in mind. Images should be free of anything that smacks of commercial advertising or propaganda of any sort, again, for purist reasons. This belief of how images should be used comes from the philosophy of the early Swiss pioneers. They believed that design was meant to be for the good of society. Ergo, designs should be objective transmitters of information among various parts of society.
White or Negative SpaceWhite, or negative, space allows all the previously mentioned elements in the Swiss style to “breathe.” White space is an element that lets the viewer’s eyes rest and reiterates focus on the actual design elements within the frame. The actual design elements—images, fonts, etc.—are referred to as the positive space. This technique is very popular in Swiss. Glance at anything that’s been designed with Swiss inspiration —a poster, a brochure, a website or app—and you can’t help but notice the copious amount of white space. Using white space also ties into the overarching and consistent theme of minimalism. Thanks to white space, there are fewer elements in compositions, thereby making the design less “busy.” When a design functions on this “less is more” principle, the viewer is really in for a treat because he gets to appreciate and admire the unique elements of this design style with greater clarity.
Famous Examples of the Swiss StyleThroughout history, there have been noteworthy examples of Swiss Design in print and on the web.
Rudolph de Harak’s McGraw-Hill Book JacketsAs the first American designer to really incorporate Swiss into his own designs in a big way, Rudolph de Harak created some standout book jackets in the 1960s. These designs got to the heart of the Swiss style and demonstrated a solid understanding of the movement. Note the famous Swiss characteristics in his book jackets:
- Fonts of varying heights and sizes
- Copious amounts of white space
- Simplicity and minimalism
Jacqueline Casey’s MIT PostersJacqueline Casey’s tenure as director for MIT’s Office of Publications saw MIT embrace Swiss Design in many of its graphical creations, most prominently in its posters. These posters were created to advertise and announce a variety of events and literature for the school. Casey’s work was put on display in various places across the world. Besides MIT, her designs were exhibited at the London College of Printing and the Chelsea School of Art in London. Her design philosophy was to instantly catch the viewer’s attention with striking imagery — long enough for them to stop, stare, and then finally read the text on the poster that would advertise the event or exhibition at MIT. Note how her posters feature:
- Vivid fonts and colors
- Eye-grabbing imagery
- Typefaces of various sizes
Google Design’s Best of 2017 RetrospectiveSo far, many of the Swiss style examples we’ve been exploring have come from the traditional medium of print. Unsurprisingly, Swiss is also influential on the web, as good design will live anywhere. What better entity than the world’s most powerful Internet company to also get on the Swiss bandwagon? Google Design’s Best of 2017 is a webpage that revisits some of the year’s best design highlights. A subset of Google Design, where the Internet giant’s designers, writers, and developers get together to fête leaders in their field, the page lays out numerous entries by month in a grid system, organizing the content horizontally and vertically by rows and columns. The end result is a very attractive page that provides excellent UX for readers who want to delve into all the exciting design happenings of the year.
Associated Design MovementsThe beauty of Swiss is that it emerged as other design movements were also taking shape. The outcome is that Swiss influenced and was influenced by these other design styles. Here’s a brief rundown of them.
De StijlThis Dutch movement, also known as Neoplasticism, started in 1917. Dutch for “The Style,” this movement was driven by architects and artists. Features of De Stijl included universality and pure abstraction by way of lessening the influences of shape and color. Instead of using a broad spectrum of elements in their designs, De Stijl practitioners only used:
- Horizontal and vertical compositions
- Black and white colors
- Primary colors
BauhausBauhaus Design comes to us from the German art school by the same name that was in operation from 1919 to 1931. The underpinning philosophy of this school, which also birthed the design movement, was to combine all the arts (graphic design, interior design, architecture, art, etc.) into a total work of art. This design system had the following characteristics:
- Pure geometry
- A rejection of ornamentation (read: excess)
- The goal of form following function in design
SuprematismWe travel to Russia for the roots of Suprematism. Founded in 1913 by Russian art theoretician and painter Kazimir Malevich, this school of design focused on elementary geometric shapes such as circles, rectangles, lines and squares, all painted in a conservative range of colors. The philosophy behind this design movement is an abstract form of art where the supremacy of unadulterated artistic feeling reigns supreme, instead of the mere, visual display of objects.
ConstructivismAnother design movement out of Russia that started in 1913, Constructivism was founded by Vladimir Tatlin, an architect and painter. Part of the avant-garde movement in Russia, Tatlin became famous for his designs for Tatlin’s Tower or the Monument to the Third International. This was never built, however. Constructivism was a reaction to something: it was a rejection of the concept of autonomous art. Philosophically, this design school wished to use art as a means to social purposes. In turn, it impacted other design movements in Europe at the time, such as Bauhaus and De Stijl. It’s known for:
- Minimalistic palettes
- Photo montages
- Geometric reduction
When Design Wants to Communicate ClearlyTo many people, Swiss Design looks cool, and rightly so. To its creators and developers, it served more than an aesthetic function. This stripped-down design approach was based on purity, minimalism, and objectivity in design, so as to convey messages with more clarity than ever. In its 100 or so years of existence, this design school has survived World War II and design excesses to become one of the most enduring and visually appealing forms of design in history.
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