typography history

The International Style: Integral to the history of typography

A major force in the history of Typography is arguably The International Style, also known as the Swiss Style. This is the style that is most firmly planted in my mind as being a 20th century methodology that has shaped modern typography. Though decades have passed since this style rose in popularity, it is still a methodology of sorts that is still used today.

The International Style came about in 1950’s Switzerland where the hallmarks of modern style began. It is characterized by the use of flush left sans-serif fonts and the use of a grid to create clean, readable and objective design concepts. International Style relies on strong and vibrant color, geometrical forms and effective photographic images as elements. Layouts are based on a mathematical grid and elements are planned out in accordance to this structure. The grid system and strong typographical statements gives the Swiss/International style that certain look and feel. From the 1550’s to 1960’s this style dominated the commercial design scene.

ITS had its origins in the 1920s and 1930s when designers were developing new ideas to coincide with industrialization and technological advances. Printing technology was advancing and growing and a clean readable font was required. The sans-serif font of the Swiss style was an answer for that. Jan Tschicholds 1928 book Die Neue Typographie was a major influence of Swiss style designers as well. This style was not only a response to new technologies but also also an outlook by designers who saw there work as useful and as elements of social change.

The Swiss style is still important today, especially in the arena of corporate design. The focus on legibility and cleanliness are still important facets of logo design, government and corporate. The simple and flat designs of the time period which sought to remove excessive ornamentation was criticized as being cold and formulaic, but Swiss Design has an important place in the 20th century and today. The idea that designers are not only artists but should also be aware of there social responsibility, and also problem solvers trying to fix problems associated with technology, accessibility and readability, are just as relevant today.

The International Style was an important style in terms of its place in typographical design history and its influence today. The method in which designers such as Joseph Muller-Brockmann and Max Bill chose to tackle design problems is the basis for modern Graphic Design theory. The Swiss Style was created in an era of scientific advances, social strife and war. Today is an era of scientific advances, social strife and war. The lessons learned from ITS are no less relevant in the world of mobile devices, web accessibility and marketing.

Modernism

The beginning of the twentieth century coincided with the advent and growth of  the Modern Art Aesthetic. Listed below are some of the major movements of the time period (1900’s to 1930’s) that had a major impact on the direction of design, and still influence design today.

Cubism

Cubism was one of the first influences of modernism. This was an experimental art movement that looks at layout and space in new and innovative ways. Think Geometric Abstraction. Pablo Picasso was a major artist of this style as well as Fernand Leger. His work influenced new letterform compositions. Cubism was about questioning the status-quo and encouraging new ways of looking at space.

Futurism

Like Cubism, futurism was a new direction away from old thinking on aesthetics. It was not only an artistic movement,, it was also a social movement as well. Futurism sought to embrace a new and fantastic future.  Futurism was about speed and mechanization, it embraced technology and high minded ideals. It influenced architecture, literature, film, and design as well as introducing creative type as typography took on new creative forms. An example of this new typography work can be seen in the work of Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

 

Dadaism

Dadaism was a strong social stance. It was an avant-garde anti-war movement that was against the exploitation of the wage-earning class and even rejected forms of art. The work of this style challenged politics and was considered controversial for its social and political stances.

Dada pushed boundaries and was highly experimental. It was a heady influence on graphic design. The idea of photo manipulation was not necessarily new, but the Dadaists would push it in new, exciting directions such as John Heartfield’s work “Hitler Swallows gold and spouts junk”. Manipulating photos was not a new method by the time Dadaism came around but it did prove the power of photography and montages.

 

Surrealism

Surrealism came about at the beginning of the century and was inspired by Dada. It questioned the very nature of space and time. Some noteworthy contributors including Salvador Dali and René Magritte. Surrealist works dealt with the human psyche, dreams and human nature, often combining visual elements in unnatural ways. Frida Kahlo has often been called surrealist, in the way she combined the realistic with an otherworldly element. Surrealism as an art form is alive and well in todays art world.

 

Plakatstil

Plakatstil (German, “Poster Style”), was almost the antithesis to Surrealism. It embraced flat colors, minimalistic qualities and focused on layout and typography. with emphasis on the relationship between pictorial and typographic elements.  A great example of this style is Lucian Bernhards “Poster for Priester Matches”. Note the flat, solid colors, contrast, and use of negative space. Compare this to the complex and colorful Art Nouveau which preceded Plakatstil and you get a sense of the giant shift that took place in terms of art and design and the minimalism that began to dominate.