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.

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