Driven by a unique ecosystem, Swiss graphic design has influenced the world history of the discipline for more than a century. Its international influence, which reached its peak in the late 1950s, still seems to be alive today thanks to a new generation of talented graphic designers, but also thanks to the dynamism of the institutions advocating “gute design”.
From the tradition of the poster to the birth of a true art
Sixty-five years after its founding† the Helvetica font is still widely used. The reason for such a long service life? Its neutrality… symbolic of the Swiss style. Since the end of the 19thand century, the country gradually established itself as the homeland of graphic design, a discipline that consists of designing and coordinating visual means of communication, both for commercial and cultural purposes: books, exhibition posters, online advertisements or packets of pasta… In reality, there are different professions coexist in this creative field: typographer, web designer, model maker, graphic designer, graphic designer…
In Switzerland, graphic design was born with the poster tradition. At the end of the 19thand century, it is by far the most widespread medium because it originates from the Swiss context: a very active industrial fabric, a tourism sector supported by poster painters such as Emil Cardinaux and a permanent printing sector since the XVIand century, when the country was a haven for publishers in the face of widespread censorship in neighboring regions.
“A pool of artists, sponsors and manufacturers: everything fits together and forms a fertile breeding ground for an explosion of graphic design. It was also at this time that the country developed an open vision of this art, supported by painters, typographers, graphic designers… This only became stronger in the 1930s, with the arrival of Bauhaus professors who went into exile in Switzerland and imported a more modern pedagogy and culture”, explains Emmanuel Bérard, collector and graphic design specialist, author of Wim Crouwel. Typographical architectures.
And to point out another oddity† “Switzerland is also a country where three official languages coexist. Institutions are therefore obliged to visually organize all their communication by juggling this parameter. † After the Second World War, the adventure intensified and in Switzerland the concept of the graphic charter was born. Namely a set of rules that unites all visual communication media of an administration, a project or a company. “Foreign students are starting to flock to Switzerland, as Swiss masters expatriate and export their touch all over the world, such as Peter Knapp, Jean Widmer, creator of the Center Pompidou identity, or Gérard Roger Ifert”, says Emmanuel Bérard.
An international brand
The Swiss style then becomes what is called “the international style”. , which originated at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich, and will feature unique sans serif typography and a defined grid that streamlines the layout. A movement orchestrated by professionals like Josef Müller-Brockmann or Karl Gerstner. “The Swiss have always been very good at conveying their ideas through graphic design, as they published theory and also edited magazines that were exported all over the world, especially to Germany and the United States to establish their vision, states Roland Früh, art historian and professor of graphic design theory at ÉCAL, in Lausanne.
But in the 70s, the Basel School of Design kicks the anthill by developing a plastic, very lyrical freedom and by offering a more passionate design. “American students are going to unite with this freedom, such as April Greiman, who will return to the United States to create the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics identity that permeates all California graphics. It is also in Basel that the first Macintosh computers will be used in Europe, a sign of an open mind and an international outlook. analyzes Emmanuel Bérard.
Helvetica, a font
Twenty years ago, the digital revolution disrupted this discipline, both in Switzerland and everywhere. in the world. “It’s interesting to see what the country is doing with this heritage in light of the current era and its technologies, points out Roland Früh. Switzerland has lost some of its specificity formally, which is why it is much more difficult to describe the Swiss style. What makes its character today is less of a style than the continued vibrancy of the ecosystem. †
First with prestigious awards such as the Swiss Design Awardsor the prize for the most beautiful Swiss books, which is awarded to about twenty winners every year. But also thanks to the work of cultural institutions, many of which call on the creativity of graphic designers. Last year, in Geneva, young Geneva graphic designer Tristan Bartolini, a HEAD student, won the Red Cross’s 2020 Art Humanity Prize, with an alphabet aimed at promoting inclusive writing, a ” proposal, he said, to participate in the current debate”. And he was approached by several French-language media. According to Roland Fruh, “it is easier in Switzerland to fund an artistic catalog than elsewhere, because the cultural institutions are playing the game”. And many of them exhibit this art, such as the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich, which dedicates an entire department to posters (the Poster Collection) or the Mudac, in Lausanne.
In France, this vibrancy is visible in the Swiss Cultural Center † The institution as a whole flies in the colors of graphic design. When the new management team arrived three years ago, they called on Marietta Eugster to redefine the visual identity of the place. She imagined a set of four arrows forming the cross of the Swiss flag in negative and which, once deconstructed, serve as signage to lead to the different spaces of the center.
“Marietta also created the graphic charter and all our posters around a frame that evolves from year to year.But in addition to this work, we regularly publish books by graphic designers. We sometimes offer housing to people who stand in the tradition of the international school or who try to question them like Ann Kern (designer based in Zurich, editor’s note) and we offer conferences with graphic design studios that come to share their practice”, explains Claire Hoffmann, head of programming at the institution for visual arts, design and architecture. Conferences that are then put online on the website of the Swiss Cultural Center. A great way to get acquainted with this fascinating story… which is still being written.