Home » What Is Swiss Design and Why You Should Know Its History

What Is Swiss Design and Why You Should Know Its History

For some designers, the Swiss Style design is synonymous with Helvetica—which means “Swiss” in its original language. It’s one of the main characteristics of the style, but to really understand Swiss Design, we must look to the precedent of the movement. What is Swiss Style?

In this article, we’ll take a look at how the Swiss Style graphic design developed. What inspired the pioneers to create such methods to design clean posters? How and why did the International Typographic Style decide to put legibility and clarity at the forefront? Additionally, we’ll provide some top-notch examples of Swiss Style graphic design templates from Envato Elements, so you can use them in your next project.

Before the Swiss Style Design

While Swiss Design has evolved to establish many of the methods and rules that are still relevant in design today, its origin goes way back. The International Typographic Style was a reaction to the Arts and Crafts movement in the UK, the German Jugendstil, and the French Art Nouveau. 

The Industrial Revolution had changed the quality of craft work. William Morris, the pioneer of the Arts and Crafts movement that originated in Britain, encouraged the return to craftsmanship. Many examples of these three similar styles included intricate patterns, floral motifs, and heavily illustrated designs. These movements also emphasised the designer’s point of view and personal take on any creation.


Snakeshead printed cotton designed by William Morris, Public Domain.

The style of decoration of the Arts and Crafts Movement was similar to medieval times. The style was influential in many different types of design, like architecture, typography, textile design, and books. 

Swiss Design rejected all of the above by embracing modernity, highlighting clarity, and making the designer an anonymous vessel for communication. The event that jump-started the International Typographic Style history was the creation of Akzidenz Grotesk by Berthold Type Foundry in 1896, with the aim of creating an objective design style.

Back then, sans serifs were referred to as grotesque. The purpose was to design a sans serif type that was stripped down from unnecessary adornments. Its simple and neutral design influenced future Swiss typography in the 1950s, with typefaces like Helvetica, Folio, and Univers. 


“Akzidenz Grotesk type specimen” by Dunwich Type is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The Beginning of the Swiss Style Graphic Design

The high modernist style that started developing in Russia, the Netherlands and Germany in the 1920s was an inspiration for Swiss Design. From around 1914 to 1940, design styles like Suprematism and Constructivism, The Bauhaus school, and De Stijl were prominent all over Europe. Russian Suprematism and Constructivism was inspired by the revolution and the socialist era. De Stijl in the Netherlands used mathematical solutions and grids for composition. The Bauhaus School in Germany went after a variation of Constructivism that also influenced architecture.

The common denominator of these styles is the use of simple geometric shapes and sans serif typography with very unusual placements. Grids became an essential tool for organization.


“Alexander Rodchenko Dobrolyot Poster Soviet USSR CCCP Early Aeronautics & Aviation” by russian_constructivism is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

By World War II, many artists and designers decided to take refuge in Switzerland as it remained neutral in the conflicts of that era. The country became a melting pot of designers from different cultural backgrounds. 

Two main Swiss design schools were big contributors to the International Typographic Style history: the Basel Design School that changed their methods to use grid systems in their design work, and the Kunstgewerbeschule led by Ernst Keller, known as the father of Swiss Design. Many of his students became influential Swiss Style graphic designers. Keller preferred impactful posters, unusual layouts, and sans serif typefaces. He believed that design should adapt to the content and not the other way around.


The New Home by Ernst Keller, 1928 licensed under CC BY 4.0

What Is Swiss Style?

The Swiss Style has also been referred to as the International Typographic Style or the International Style that originated in Switzerland in the 1940s and 1950s. The style favoured cleanliness, legibility, and impartiality through basic graphic design principles. It was also established that design should be as invisible as possible and the designer’s subjectivity should be pushed aside in order to create graphic work that would shine on its own. Swiss Design eventually became the International Typographic Style as it expanded around the world in the 1950s.

Armin Hofmann is one of the main pioneers of the Swiss Style who studied under Ernst Keller. His compositions were simple, to the point, and very graphic. Many of his posters included striking black and white photography with high contrast. He developed a curriculum that is still taught at the School of Design in Basel to this day and was an important designer who brought the Swiss Style to the United States. His body of work is very extensive, including posters, exhibitions, stage design, logos, and sign systems. 


“Gärten Menschen Spiele by Emil Ruder Armin Hofmann” by 80magazine is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Josef Müller-Brockmann also studied under Ernst Keller. His work featured geometric elements, especially in his music posters. This specific series focuses on the feeling of the music, and he used visual graphics to translate music through rhythm, repetition and scale. His compositions very much adhered to the grid to organize elements and to make it easier for the audience to read the message. Müller-Brockmann’s work is dynamic and asymmetrical, even though it’s constructed on a rigid grid.


Poster for Juni-Festwochen Zürich (1957) designed by Josef Müller-Brockmann, Public domain.

Emil Ruder studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Zürich and began teaching alongside Armin Hoffman in the 1950s. In his years as an instructor, he developed a program that encouraged students to focus on legibility, precision, and proportions. Ruder contributed to several articles for the  Typografische Monatsblätter magazine. He also famously published his book Typographie: A Manual for Design where he rounded up his methods and approach to design.


“Typographische Monatsblätter cover by Emil Ruder “ by 80magazine is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Characteristics

Swiss Design was important because designers established principles based on objectivity and clarity. While there are many characteristics of Swiss Design, designers still found a way to make dynamic and exciting posters. In the present day, we see many of the characteristics of Swiss Design still applied. Let’s take a look at some of the elements that made Swiss Design famous:

The Grid System

Everything that defined the International Typographic Style began with a grid. The mathematical grid served as a structural tool. By carefully placing text flushed left, designers could have organized and legible information. The grid also helped distribute content in a meaningful, consistent, and logical way. Groups of text were spread across a grid and later analyzed by the designer. Often, the question was “Where do my eyes go first?” to understand hierarchy. 

Josef Müller-Brockmann helped spread the main ideas of the grid system. After all these decades, grids have prevailed, and it’s a method still used by print and web designers to create organized and balanced design systems. 


Cover of the book “Grid systems – Raster systeme”, by Josef-Müller-Brockmann, published by Niggli in 1981, Public Domain.

Photography

A focus on the use of photography was crucial for Swiss Design. The purpose was to communicate information clearly, without persuading the audience through the same methods as commercial advertising. Furthermore, photography is a medium that portrays reality more accurately than illustration. The style of photography in many of the posters was black and white with high tonal contrast. This helped make the photographs more graphic and impactful. The tonal contrast allowed for text to be placed on top of the photograph to create a sense of depth.


Josef Müller-Brockmann, Auto Club of Switzerland Poster, 1955 via designishistory.com

Swiss Typography

One characteristic of the International Typographic Style that’s hard to miss is the use of Swiss Typography, specially Akzidenz Grotesk, Folio, Helvetica, and Univers. Serif fonts were deemed too expressive, so sans serif fonts were an unobtrusive font that did the most important job—communicate clearly.

The limitation of sans-serif fonts led designers to use big typeface families. Univers was one of these sans serifs that included multiple weights and widths. The use of large type families helped create emphasis, contrast, and hierarchy within a design.


Comparison of distinguishing characters in Akzidenz-Grotesk, Folio, Helvetica, and Univers 55. Licensed under

CC BY-SA 4.0.

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Asymmetry

Swiss designers were big on using the grid as a starting point, but they also challenged themselves to create designs that were balanced yet asymmetrical. Symmetry was seen as safe and routine. Asymmetry made designs dynamic, as you can see in the cover design below. 

White Space

Some may say that the Swiss Style was under-designed, but the reality is that its ideals led many of the design decisions. White space doesn’t actually mean white. It means breathing room around the design elements. To emphasise legibility and impact, the Swiss Style adopted clean and unobstructed backgrounds. For this particular style, white space became another element that could make or break a design.

In the cover design below by Emil Ruder, we can see that the white space is actually the red space. Pushing the black text to the very left over a white background helps balance the opposite empty white space. The cover is already striking in color, but the composition takes it up a notch. The text is hard to miss. 


Cover of Swiss typographic magazine “Typographische Monatsblätter” by Emil Ruder, Public Domain.

Minimal Shapes

Swiss designers chose to repeat simple shapes to create structure and highlight certain design elements. Sometimes, these shapes added a sense of depth or broke the grid structure that made designs dynamic.

Armin Hofmann’s poster below uses a grid system to place the text. Hierarchy is emphasized by using a different text size. The top shapes are slightly skewed to add movement and also to add weight towards the right side of the poster. If the shapes were straight, the balance would favour the left side of the poster because the title of the poster uses a bigger point size.


Poster designed by Armin Hofmann for an exhibition at the Gewerbemuseum Basel (Museum of Arts and Crafts), Public Domain.

The International Typographic Style: History and Importance

The movement laid out a very important foundation for the basics of design and minimalism. The Swiss Style was pervasive—it had a great impact across multiple design disciples, influencing art, architecture, and culture. Above all, the ethos was focused on objectivity and eliminating any sort of style for style’s sake. The Swiss Style embraces clarity, precision, and stripped-down design that doesn’t confuse.

This era prepared a strong foundation for a future generation of designers. Attention to detail, technical training, and the use of grid systems for organization are strong traits that developed during this era. This is what gives the posters of the Swiss Style a timeless look that continues to have a strong impact amongst audiences.

Swiss typography has become one of the most important for minimalism, and even for cities like New York where Helvetica is the official subway system font. Many brands have adopted Swiss typography when they’re looking to convey messages clearly. 


Billboard design by Robert Geisser for event in St. Gallen, 1969. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

5 Top Swiss Style Templates From Envato Elements

Looking for examples or templates of the Swiss Design style? These five Swiss Style design templates are great if you’re in a hurry. You can get sleek, clean, and minimalist design with just a few clicks!

1. Swiss Style Brochure Template (INDD, IDML)


Swiss Style Brochure Template

Create an impact with this striking design. The layouts of this template can be easily mixed to create custom layouts. The minimal design allows for your content to shine, so pair it with a strong sans serif font and you’ll be on trend. Swiss Design never goes out of style.

2. Simple Fashion Magazine (INDD)


Simple Fashion Magazine

This amazing 40-page magazine template is suitable for fashion and brochure projects. The magazine is easy to customize, so you can add your own images and content. This template features a layout that’s based on a grid system so everything is organized and clean.

3. Goubrag Case Study Vol. 2 (INDD, IDML)


Goubrag Case Study Vol.02

Well-designed landscape templates are hard to find. The Goubrag template features pages with multiple columns so you’ll never have two layouts alike—great for organizing all kinds of information. It features 28 pages, and you can add or delete pages as you need. 

4. Art and Exhibit Catalog / Lookbook Template (INDD, IDML)


Art and Exhibition Catalog / Lookbook Template

The Spica lookbook template is a great example of the Swiss Design style. It features a beautiful and attractive yellow color, big type treatment, and organized layouts. The inside pages of the template allow you to show pictures as big as possible, perfect for an art catalog.

5. Brand Manual (INDD, IDML, Affinity Publisher/Designer/Photo)


Brand Manual

Brand manuals were very important in the Swiss Design era. Clean and concise, this template will help you maintain a cohesive brand language across different channels. If you don’t have an Adobe InDesign subscription, this template comes with files that can be edited with the Affinity Suite.

That’s It!

In this article, we showed you what Swiss Style is, the characteristics of the movement, famous designers, and why the International Typographic Style is still relevant to this day.

Clarity, objectivity, and legibility were the three main words that defined the Swiss Design style. To this day, this part of design history is still influential. The use of Helvetica didn’t define the International Typographic Style, but its essence did. To organize information and communicate clearly, without any complications. That’s why the Swiss Style is still relevant today. Do you have a favorite design style/era?

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