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  • Writer's pictureJon Stevens

Swiss Style, an introduction to its origins and visual style

Updated: Apr 17

Category: Graphic design

Post Contributor: Jon Stevens, Olivier Blanc


Introduction

The Swiss Style does not simply designate a graphic design style made in Switzerland. It originated from highly talented Swiss graphic designers who drew inspiration from different but complementary artistic and design movements from various countries.

Swiss Style is a design movement that originated in Swiss art schools in the 1950s. It was led by Josef Müller-Brockmann and Armin Hofmann, who both studied under the renowned Ernst Keller in Zurich.

Forged by the belief that design should be as invisible as it possibly can, the content of the work existed by suppressing all traces of the designer's subjectivity. This was very similar to the principle of architectural modernism that form should follow function. Swiss Style is considered to be the basis of modern graphic design.

The Swiss Style movement was renowned for its application of asymmetrical layouts, incorporating sans-serif typefaces and strategically placed negative space. Rather than illustrations, the Swiss Style favoured photographs. Its most noteworthy attribute was the implementation of a modular grid, which determined the positioning of design elements (and which today still continues to be a prevalent technique in modern web design).

The Swiss Style could be defined as an aesthetic movement that emerged from modernist and constructivist ideals, characterised by a pursuit of simplicity, clarity and visual efficiency.


Grid Systems

Cover design for book called Grid Systems by Josef Müller-Brockmann, orange background with white lines as a grid

In Swiss Design, the grid system is essential in providing structure and visual organisation to a layout. By creating segments in the design area into several columns and rows, the grid system aids designers in executing a consistent visual hierarchy and well-balanced compositions. The designed content will appear logical. Additionally, the organisation of the information in the layout will be visually pleasing.

This systematic approach led by the grid technique ensures consistency in spacing, alignment, and proportion throughout the design. A precise and minimalist aesthetic is very characteristic of Swiss Design.

The grid allows for flexibility and efficiency in the placement of visual elements, making it more straightforward for designers to experiment with different layouts and compositions while maintaining visual consistency. The grid system was revealed as a vital option for designers who wanted meticulousness and coherence in their professional work.

 

The core of this methodology was initially introduced in the book Grid Systems by Josef Müller-Brockmann (figure above). That publication raised awareness about grids within the bounds of the world of graphic design. Josef Müller-Brockmann claimed that the grid system as a formula with many potential applications allows designers to find a solution that suits their visual style and aesthetic. Mastering the grid requires practice while emphasising the designer's ingenuity and creativity in effectively using it.



TM Typographische Monatsblätter (1961)

Black and white cover with the use creative typography, mix of negative and positive space






Typographische Monatsblätter (1953)

Minimalist white and red cover for Typographische Monatsblätter

Alte und neue Formen in Japan

Gewerbemuseum Basel (1959)

Swiss Style design poster from 1959 with black geometric shapes on yellow background





Beethoven poster

by Josef Müller-Brockmann (1955)

Black and white design composition for Beethoven music, circular shapes are creating a dynamic movement


Musica Viva, Concert poster

Josef Müller-Brockmann (1958)

Swiss Style design poster from 1958 composed of different sizes and coloured squares on a blue background


Zurich Tonhalle, Musica Viva. Concert poster (1959)

Swiss Style design poster from, 1959 composed of various sizes and coloured squares






Kunsthalle Basel

Gubler Zurkinden (1959)

Minimalist poster design from 1959 composed of  black typeface on dark blue background


Concert festival poster by

Josef Müller-Brockmann (1957)

Swiss Style design posters composed of yellow rectangles creating positive and negative space over the white background.



"Der Film" poster by

Josef Müller-Brockmann

Black background poster design with the use of grey typeface at the bottom of the composition


Form & Farbe

Gewerbemuseum Winterthur (1951)

Black background poster design with creative typography using grey and tamed yellow colours.





Kunsthalle Basel

Rothko Chillida (1962)

Minimalist composition from 1962 of a red square on a brown background, large size typography is used all over the first half of the composition

Concert poster by

Josef Müller-Brockmann (1951)

Swiss Style design poster from 1951 with abstract geometric shapes in black and light green on a beige background


Where does the Swiss Style come from?

Swiss designers didn't develop the modernist approach to design in a vacuum. The Swiss Style drew influence from combining international art and design movements (emerging in the 1910s), influential figures, and the specific educational institutions in Germany and Switzerland where it originated.


These movements included Suprematism and Constructivism from Russia, De Stijl in the Netherlands, and the Constructivism-inspired work of the Bauhaus, the renowned design school founded by architect Walter Gropius in Germany in 1919. The Bauhaus, established by Walter Gropius, provided diverse arts and crafts educational programs focusing on modernism.


In this distinctly creative environment, artists like LaszloMoholy-Nagy and others developed variations of Constructivism that incorporated elements of Russian Constructivism and De Stijl. Including coloured geometric forms, grid compositions and sans serif typography, these original interpretations and movements' variations visually led to lay the foundations of the Swiss Style.



Abstract composition with coloured rectangles and line segments

Composition by László Moholy-Nagy (1946)

Bauhaus postcard design by László Moholy-Nagy (1923)


Composition for a postcard with a black background and  geometric shapes using red, yellow, blue and white.

Below: composition by  László Moholy-Nagy (1924/26)

Abstract composition with coloured geometric shapes with some giving the feeling of a perspective in space

Below:

From left to right, first row: compositions by Kazimir Malevich,

Second row: compositions by László Moholy-Nagy and Kazimir Malevich


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