100 years of Swiss graphic design – a celebration

The reputation that Swiss graphic design enjoys internationally is due to qualities including conceptual strengths, precise graphical implementation and formal reduction to the essential. Posters, books and printed materials traditionally reflect care and attention to detail. This may of course lay in the character of the Swiss themselves however excellent training and professional practice have lead to Swiss graphic design becoming one of the country’s leading products. Dominated by grids and rasters it reflects order and organisation, thoughtfulness, formal concentration and focus.

In a nation that speaks four languages, trademarks and logos play a significant role especially in high quality goods. A successful signet/ mark should become a ‘monument’. In the area of signage Swiss graphic design occupies an important position internationally, as the work of Adrian Frutiger (Frutiger, Avenir, Univers, Humanist) and Jean Widmer show.

‘Swiss Style’

The International Typographic Style, also known as the ‘Swiss Style’, is a graphic design style developed in Switzerland in the 1950s that emphasizes cleanliness, readability and objectivity. Posters, advertisements, signage in public places carry that typical style. On entering Zurich Airport the attentive traveller will be guided through the airport by clear signage, designed with much clarity there is no doubt that purpose is as relevant as the joy of designing something ‘nice’. The stark clean lines and simplicity of wayfinding is unique. Travelling on into Zurich posters, shop fronts and signages are clear and concise, designed with craftsmanship, attention to detail and precision. Over the years this has not changed.

The close proximity between commissioned/ commercial art &design and free art & design can be felt here as each advertising poster, each sign seems to become an artwork which revels in its own simplicity. The struggle to come to terms with the conflict between commercial and free art can been witnessed in many graphic designers’ works (eg Otto Baumberger always regarded the ‘work to make meat-ends’ as a stigma).  In the 1960s art moved closer to the public, and today the boundaries between free and commissioned art are somewhat blurred. I observe though clearly that in ‘Swiss style’ the commercial graphic design with the attention to detail, the simple forms, the attention to negative spaces and the convincing use of sans serif fonts etc speak in a manner which conveys the message as a piece of art in itself.

A personal journey

Through my design training in Switzerland I have benefited from focusing on precision and simplicity, and learned about attention to detail. Swiss graphic design training incorporates the teaching of grids (page layout) and raster, spacing between the letters, weights etc for example by designing an alphabet from A-Z. This lends the opportunity to train and test the relationships between letters and to improve your understanding of form and negative spaces. The culture to create a perfect ordered design has laid foundation for my own design journey.


The sans-serif Type face Helvetica developed my Max Miedinger is a unique success story to today. It is a timeless typeface which can be applied to all types of contemporary information such as C.I. and logos as it can convey messages intelligently and democratically. It has a worldwide popularity because of its uniqueness and international legibility achieved through a complex relationship between each letter as well as the attention to detail in form of each letter. Helvetica is just ‘there’, it is air and it is gravity. Clear, straightforward.


The visual presence of ‘Swissair’ can be traced back to two renowned designers; Rudolf Bircher and Karl Gerstner (Founder of GKK –  “I see graphic design as a matter of solving problems; art as a matter of inventing them”). Designed in 1953 this is one of the first good examples of successful  consistent corporate identities.  In 1958’s Graphis 77, a writer describes Swissair’s branding as “one of the best ever conceived for an airline.” It’s no surprise when you consider the multitude of legendary Swiss designers the company worked with. Despite that level of talent it is apparent that egos were set aside to buy into the pragmatic sensibilities of the company’s image — orderly and reliable with flourishes of panache and colour. Clear and straightforward.

A celebration

The recent exhibition ‘100 years of Swiss Graphic Design’ in Zurich (Museum fuer Gestaltung  was a good reflection on the ‘Swiss style’ and Swiss graphic design today. It showed both the diversity of current visual communication as well as the fine lines of tradition that connect works from different epochs. Alongside the poster and smaller items of printed matter, the show also included outstanding examples from advertising and information graphics, typography, signage or book design, design objects that relate to graphic design, as well as selected striking advertising spots, and works for web design. It has also provoked something in me to retrace my steps, and find again my graphic design roots.

Excellent book:  ‘Helvetica forever’. Lars Mueller Publishers.


Adrian Frutiger



Jean Widmer



Otto Baumberger


Max Miedinger


Karl Gerstner


Emil Ruder


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