Swiss (International) Style Of Design: The Guiding Principles That Influence Flat Design

The last few weeks I’ve been looking at the industry shift to a flatter design aesthetic. First was a look at skeuomorphism and the reasons it exists before falling out of favor. Next was flat design starting with how it’s done wrong followed up with thoughts about why it’s creating a new foundation for design on the web.

A few times throughout this series I mentioned that flat design takes much of its influence from Swiss or the International Style of Design and I thought it would make sense to take a quick look at Swiss design and the principles that guide it.

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Josef Müller-Brockmann: Concert Poster for the Zurich Town Hall (1951)

The Origins of Swiss Design

Swiss Design got its start in post World War II Switzerland, though historians prefer the name International Style of Design. It was hardly limited to Switzerland and even found some of it’s greatest success in the development of logos and visual branding for U.S. corporations.

The Swiss/International Style of Design emerged from earlier design styles like De Stijl, Constructivism, Bauhaus, and The New Typography, though without the political and historical contexts of those movements. In some respects it can also be seen as a reaction to Nazi Germany which suppressed geometric abstraction, something which features prominently in Swiss designs.

The Swiss style wasn’t limited to graphic design. Architects such as Le Corbusier and Phillip Johnson are among those considered part of the International Design movement and the style spread to the more general world of art.

Designers in the International Style saw design as part of industrial production. They sought simplicity and believed aesthetic beauty arose out of the purpose of the thing being designed. Aesthetic beauty wasn’t itself the purpose. In other words they believed form follows function.

They saw designers as communicators, not artists, and believed that design should be grounded in rational universal principles discovered through a scientific approach. Their ideal of design was to achieve clarity and order and they saw no room for eccentricity or personal expression. They also saw design as something socially worthwhile and a serious profession to pursue. Their attitude toward design was to make it socially useful, universal, and scientific.

Perhaps the most well known of the Swiss Designers was Josef Müller-Brockmann who was a designer, teacher, and writer. He was also founder and co-editor of “Neue Grafik” which probably goes a long way toward why he’s most well known. Brockmann sought an absolute and universal language of graphic expression through objective presentation.

Müller-Brockmann is one or the more well known names, but he’s hardly the only one. You can read more about a few of the influential designers of the Swiss Style on the other side of the links below.

The primary influential works of Swiss Designers were typically posters, which were seen at the time as the most effective means of communication.

Critics of the movement considered the style cold and impersonal and thought the focus on objective principles led to formulaic solutions that generally looked the same. Advocates suggested the pure legibility of the style led to a timeless perfection of form that delivered an understated message without the exaggerated claims typical of advertising.

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Josef Müller-Brockmann: Poster for a Theater Production (1960)

Principles of Swiss Design

Communication through objective simplicity was a guiding principle of Swiss Design. The goal was clarity, order, and a universally understood visual language. Swiss designs were clean and free from ornamentation. They attempted to remove all that was unnecessary and emphasize only the necessary. It’s a style of design that favors minimalism.

The International style sought an extreme abstraction based on simple geometric shapes. A bit of irony is that the shapes could at times become so abstract as to lose meaning and ultimately be little more than ornamental.

The goal for visual order and organization naturally calls for a heavy use of typographic grids, which offer a systemized way to present a clear message. Another reason why Josef Müller-Brockmann is front and center when talking about Swiss design is his work with grids.

The type preference of Swiss style was sans-serif, flush left with a ragged right edge. The most preferred typeface was Akzidenz Grotesk which they saw as functional without being stylized as well as carrying no political baggage. As you might be aware Akzidenz Grotesk served as a model for Neue Haas Grotesk, later renamed Helvetica.

Swiss designers varied the size of type to generate a greater visual impact and also to hint at the hierarchy of information. They used a scale of size in their type to control flow through their design and create rhythm within it.

Layouts tended to be asymmetrically organized on a mathematically constructed grid. The asymmetry gives greater emphasis to whitespace as does the general minimal aesthetic. Swiss designers were after an asymmetrical balance between the positive and negative elements in a design.

While asymmetrically organized, the underlying grid would help create a visual unity throughout. Unity was also maintained through a heavy use of repetition in color and shapes and further emphasized through transformation of the shapes.

Even though the emphasis was on abstract geometric shapes, photography played a large role in Swiss designs. Objective photography was seen as an excellent way to communicate.

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Josef Müller-Brockmann: Poster for the Auto Club in Switzerland (1955)

Swiss Design and the Trend Toward Flat Design

Reading the above it should be easy to see the influence on the current design trends. The removal of ornamentation and a return to fundamental design principles is a guiding force behind the move from skeuomorphism to flat design.

As I’ve said a number of times these last few posts, I wish some could get past the literal interpretation of flat design. Swiss design wasn’t entirely flat. The poster above clearly shows perspective. Depth is a fundamental principle of design. It’s ornamentation that was removed, not depth, though often removing the former leads to the latter being used in less obvious and realistic ways.

It’s also interesting to note that Swiss design was sometimes criticized as being formulaic and boring given the same things are also said about designs today that remove ornamentation to focus on working out issues with responsiveness, layout, and performance.

Examples and Resources

I’ve presented a few examples of the work of Josef Müller-Brockmann in this post as well as an image from Neue Grafik, the magazine he founded (below). If you go to your favorite image search engine and type swiss or international style of design it’s easy to find more examples, including recent work in the Swiss style.

Below are some additional sites and pages with examples and information about Swiss or International Style. After seeing a few images it should be relatively easy to get a feel for the style if your unfamiliar with it.

You might also want to head back to an image search engine and type flat design to note the similarities between the two. They clearly aren’t the exact same style, but it’s easy to see how flat design is influenced by Swiss design.

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An issue of Neue Grafik, published by Josef Müller-Brockmann

Summary

As something of a recap let me pull out some of the words I’ve used throughout this post to describe the principles behind the International Style of Design.

  • simplicity, minimalism
  • order, clarity, grids
  • geometric, abstraction
  • typography, legibility
  • rational, objective
  • universal, unity

Much of what we consider the fundamental principles of design arose from Swiss design and the movements that influenced it. While aesthetic styles have certainly come and gone, the guiding principles of Swiss design have never left us and have served as the foundation for graphic design ever since.

Next week I want to continue with a look toward the future. As I mentioned last week, flat design is a new foundation, but what are we going to add on top of the foundation? I want to think about how the web differs from print and what those differences suggest for what we’ll build on the new foundation of flat design.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

12 comments

  1. Hi there

    I am a regular reader of this blog and enjoy reading the content.

    However I noticed the other day your categories list on the blog index page disappear for smaller screens. I would love to know your reasoning behind this. Do you feel mobile users would not like to search via categories? I am going through this dilemma on my website hence the question.

    (Posted on here as you do not seem to have a contact form or direct email)

    Thanks

    Adam

    • Good question Adam. I hope I can remember why I made the decision.

      I think it came down to the way I designed the site. The menus on the left generally drop down below the content when the site shows as a single column. I’m not crazy about that solution, but it is what it is.

      With the categories it just seemed like too many links below the content. At the time I also didn’t have as much mobile traffic as I do now. I was thinking mobile visitors were more likely to read a post and be done. The specific category and tag for each post are still present and the entire archives are still accessible.

      One other consideration at the time is I wasn’t as familiar with some of the responsive navigation patterns that existed. While I had built some responsive sites by the time I got to this one, I was actually designing this one first and simply wasn’t as skilled working responsively.

      Next time around I probably would include the categories on smaller devices. The reason they aren’t here now is less that I didn’t think anyone might want them and more I didn’t have a good solution for including them. Not really the best reason, but that was my reasoning.

      By the way there’s a contact page though it’s buried a little in the About section on the site. Something else I’ll likely do differently with the next design.

  2. Thank you for this. “formulaic and boring” — That summarizes flat design fairly well. I catch myself needing to scroll up to look at the logo on “flat design” pages as it become difficult to remember one page from the next. That said some “flat design” is done quite well and becomes part of the brand.

    • It does summarize some flat design, doesn’t it? Like you, I do think there are some flat designs done well. There have been for years though. They just weren’t being called flat.

      Interesting point about not remembering the brand. I hadn’t really thought about that, but now that you mention it, it’s seems obvious. They do tend to look a lot alike at times and it can be difficult to tell one from the next.

    • Interesting. This morning I found myself annoyed by the huge amount of complexity and clutter in — wait for it — the standard Save dialog box in Windows 7. I think I’ve been getting used to the cleaner, only-what-you-need-when-you-need-it UI in Office 2013 and on Windows Phone. First, I was surprised at my annoyance, because I’ve been using Save dialog boxes since 1995. Second, I found myself wondering what Save dialog boxes might be like in Windows 8.1. And third, I thought “maybe there’s something to this flat design (when it’s done right).”

      • Funny. I hear you about complexity and clutter. Sometimes we don’t realize it’s there until we come across something without it.

        While I do think a lot of flat design gets formulaic and simply strips away all depth, I do think done well it’s a good thing. It generally takes us back to fundamental principles of design, which I think were being ignored all too often.

  3. Great article! First time visitor to your blog.
    The current trend towards flat design is a step in the right direction for digital in my opinion.
    Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks Nick. I agree. I’m not crazy about flat design for the sake of being flat and removing all depth cues, but I agree it’s a step in the right direction. I think it puts the emphasis back on design fundamentals.

  4. I’ve always been a fan of minimalist design but never realized that that the swiss were masters at it. Extremely inspiring and educational article thanks Steven.

    • Glad you enjoyed the post caleb. The Swiss were definitely practitioners of minimalism. Have you ever read about the history of design? I can’t say I’ve read a lot, but it’s certainly interesting to see how design progressed and where different ideas came from.

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