March 20, 2023

The History of the Swiss Design Style

Black and white plus sign on a red background

You’ve probably seen the influence of Swiss Style, whether you’ve realized it or not. From art to architecture, the Swiss Style permeates almost every aspect of contemporary design. It’s on posters, street signs, our favorite apps and websites, and even some of the buildings we live and work in. If you’re in New York, all you have to do is take the subway. The Metropolitan Transit Authority uses a Helvetica typeface and the Swiss Style grid system on all of its signage.

Swiss Style is a favorite here at Big Human, and its versatility makes it a style we turn to time and time again. We talked about it in our Guide to Graphic Design Styles, but we wanted to give Swiss Style its own moment to shine with a deeper dive into its history and relevance. 

Here’s how Swiss Design Style (also known as International Typographic Style) got its start.

What is Swiss Design?

International Typographic Style is a minimalist design style that emphasizes simplicity, objectivity, and readability. Designs are set asymmetrically within a grid to present content in a formalized way. The “typographic” descriptor reflects the style’s use of left-aligned sans-serif typefaces that were typically paired with photographic images, abstract graphics, and modest but bold color palettes.

The origins of Swiss Design

Swiss Style emerged in Switzerland in the 1950s, but its origins can be found in the modernist art movements of the 1910s and 1920s: Bauhaus in Germany, Constructivism in Russia, and De Stijl in the Netherlands. Known for their practical, uncomplicated designs, these movements were all a reaction to the ornate, aesthetic eras before them (think: Art Nouveau and Art Deco).

The Swiss Design movement can be traced back to two major art schools in Switzerland: Allgemeine Gewerbeschule in Basel and Kunstgewerbeschule in Zurich, led by Armin Hoffman and Josef Müller-Brockmann respectively. Both Hoffman and Müller-Brockmann were taught by Ernst Keller in Zurich before World War II; Keller is often referred to as the Father of Swiss Style. As one of the first people to use the grid system Swiss Style is now known for, Keller believed content should inform design, using simple shapes and minimal color palettes to express the subject’s importance.

This philosophy follows the Bauhaus motto of “form follows function.” International Typographic Style pioneers saw themselves as communicators, using design as a means for information rather than an avenue for their own personal expression. They preferred to present information in an approachable way, so the content could speak for itself. This helped Swiss Style’s popularity soar after World War II since it was mostly used on posters and other signage. As international trade increased, Swiss Style’s focus on legibility and usefulness helped ease communication between countries.

Swiss Design Principles

There’s a structure for everything, even art and design. Design principles are guidelines and considerations that inform and instruct a designer’s work. Swiss design is steered by its end goal: clarity in a universally identifiable visual language.

Grid systems

Swiss style is where art and math meet. The Swiss Style grid systems set a visual hierarchy that helps structure information, images, and text and strategically uses white space. Grid systems often influence the web designs we see today. 

Sans-serif typefaces

It’s difficult to talk about Swiss Style without talking about Swiss Style typefaces. In the spirit of eliminating unnecessary fluff, the typefaces that emerged during the Swiss Style era removed all serif appliques. One of the most influential and recognizable sans-serif typefaces is Helvetica (the Latin word for Swiss), a neutral design lauded for its versatility.

Asymmetrical layouts

Since Swiss Style uses left-aligned, ragged-right typefaces, designs are rarely set in the center. This also accounts for the direction in which most languages read and process information: left-to-right.

Clean, consistent spacing

Clean lines and consistent spacing are byproducts of the structured grid systems, tying in the theme of uniformity the Swiss Style is known for.

Swiss Design Examples

The influence of Swiss Design Style can be found right on the Big Human website and the products we’ve incubated in-house (it really is our favorite). We also see it in advertisements, like this 1960s Volkswagen campaign; famous albums, like Joni Mitchell’s “Blue”; and some of our favorite books, like “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley.

Interested in exploring other design styles? Start with the Big Human Guide to Graphic Design Styles.

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