swiss contemporary graphic design
Zürich, fall 2000

reduce to the max
proportional deconstructions

in contemporary swiss graphic design

For about three quarters of a century now, the phrase 'Neue Schweizer Grafik' ('New Swiss Graphic Design') has been more than a denotative combination of words - it has become a brand name. The non-German speaking rest of the world knows the same brand mainly as 'Swiss Typography', since a certain kind of typographic rigidity and sophistication is recognisable in the majority of graphic work that emanated from Switzerland between the 1920s and 1980s, from the 'elementare typografie' of such design pioneers as Jan Tschichold, Max Bill and Theo Ballmer, via the 'Neue Grafik' of Richard Paul Lohse and Joseph Müller-Brockmann to the teachings of Armin Hofmann's, Emil Ruder's and Wolfgang Weingart's Basle School.

To use the same term for a selection of Swiss work from the 1990s and 2000s seems to be either an oxymoron (it can't be that new, more than forty years after the Neue Grafik was proclaimed by Lohse and Müller-Brockmann), or a provocation. It probably is a bit of both, and neither. On the one hand, one is tempted to look for both continuation of and rebellion against the archfathers of Swiss design, a tension that is maybe best formulated by one of the most influential young designers' collectives in Switzerland, 'Büro Destruct'. The name contrasts the 'Büro', "as a place of orderly and careful behaviour, so typical of the Swiss", with the word 'Destruct, "as the epitome of destruction and change." And yes, one finds destructive strategies, employed to destabilise the once rigid and sacrosanct hierarchies of type, image and the grid, in quite a few pieces published here. Still, readability and structural clarity, so worshipped by the elders, are among the other characteristics shared by many of the younger Swiss designers.

Büro Destruct 
On the other hand it is fairly obvious that the new 'Neue Grafik' has to deal with rather different conditions and contexts than the 'old'. For one thing, the world has become bigger, more open and more complex, and younger generations of Swiss are reconsidering their countrymen's congenital reflexes of neutrality in this context. In the summer of 1999, I invited the Basle based studio of Müller + Hess to contribute a visual essay to Eye magazine, expressing their view on this topic of how neutral any country (or design) can be in a world in which globalisation is the paramount force, both economically and culturally. Müller + Hess answered with an unequivocal statement: "the impossibility of neutrality." The Letraset-like picture alphabet they compiled for this occasion, and from which the German version of the statement was set, comprised a wild mix of samples, contrasting cliché icons of Swiss Alps and meticulously maintained lawns and chalets with such global imagery as portraits of pope, president and tycoon, and clippings from the earth-spanning networks of the news, sports, commerce, violence, and pornography. 

Müller + Hess 
Even for those who didn't take the trouble of decoding the picture script it was a deadpan statement about the chaotic and uncontrollable stream of visual consciousness that engulfs the world. Ain't no mountain high enough to stop that avalanche. Of course, it was at the same time a rather neatly typographed piece and, most of all, one that used typographic means to convey an essentially pictorial message. 

Müller & Hess 
Here, I think, we are at the root of what could still be discerned as 'Swiss' within the global culture of design: a sense for structural order that one could call typographic, not primarily because it deals with type, but because it is deeply concerned with balance and proportion. These two central terms from the old typographer's handbook, however, are often interpreted radically different in our time. Balance now more often than not is concerned with the balance between the image- and text-aspects of both letterforms and imagery; proportion is seen more as a conceptual guideline than as a principle of composition. A good example of both is the 'Ikea' font by Mathias Schweitzer. It is of course a pictorial alphabet, which like so many others since the invention of type plays on the fact that we can see letterforms in the most incongruous objects. At the same time, one is tempted to note, the choice for modular furniture - albeit from Sweden - can hardly be a coincidence in a country in which modular typography was all but invented. The actual letterforms of 'Ikea' both exaggerate and undermine this modularity. Still, the design achieves a careful balance in the readability of the individual letterforms, without loosing the reference, which results in a rather ragged font that looks decidedly anti-modular, while at the same time being remarkably consistent - and proportionate - in terms of its overall formal language. 

Another aspect of proportionality is that between forms and the technological or cultural contexts for which they are made, and here also we often see a combination of formal rigidity and conceptual irony, especially in type designs for electronic media and youth culture. Of course, Cornel Windlin is one of the pioneers in this area, with his dot-matrix type faces, and his seminal 1991 'moonbase alpha' font, in his own words "a reinterpretation of a bitmapped printout of a 6 pt sample of akzidenz grotesk." The choice of typeface is as historically provocative here as the modular furniture in Schweitzer's 'Ikea' font. Similarly, in such apparently rational and functional fonts as Elektrosmog's 'Storno' and Norm's 'Normetica' there are small details that almost programmatically undermine the normative character of the sets. 'Storno's' dots are ridiculously out of proportion, while 'Normetica' is at second sight a rather weird hybrid of a monospaced machine typeface and the kind of ultra hip font that is based on the rigid implementation of a very limited range of formal gadgets. Try and set the word 'gyro' in this font and you'll notice the incongruities. 

In these and other examples, proportionality is obviously not to be found primarily in the consistency of the design in old-school typographical terms, but it lies elsewhere, in what I'd call 'proportional contextuality'. Short of converging on formal references to the highly topical cultures of youth and music in which they operate, these designs still retain a deep rooted commitment to old-fashioned criteria of readability, structural clarity and technological appropriateness. In quite a few designs, even for the most playful of occasions, a predilection for ordered subject matter is still recognisable, a love for schedules, tables and boxes. At the same time the order is often disturbed, sometimes quite vehemently, or ridiculed. It may be as Alex Sonderegger says, who's designs display a keen fascination for systematic typography and tabelaric matter. He quotes the Japanese poet Basho, who wrote:  "I do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old. I seek the things they sought."

As an observer from outside the country, this strikes me as being the core of the 'Swissness' of contemporary Swiss design. At the same time, it is clear from the examples collected in this book that the profession's younger protagonists operate in a multi-cultural and international context. As in most Western countries, the formal innovations of visual languages are closely linked to youth culture, techno- and dance music, DJ- and VJ-ing and the convergence, within these fields of expression, of media and subject matter. As hard as it is to explain exactly why, it is clear to any observer anywhere in the world of contemporary graphics that 'Normetica' is a very contemporary font. Very late-1990s. Something to do with the kind of curves, the irreverent references to design icons of old, the topical inconsistencies… It is the kind of visual language that, even if you miss the exact references, is bound to be experienced as both referential and cool, the kind of visual language that is geared towards a visually literate audience. The 'proportionality' that in my view characterises the Swiss version of this global aesthetics has to do with subtlety. 

You may miss the reference to Max Bill and his scene in The Sparkplug's 'fazeaction' poster, or to the Neue Grafik in Grafiksalon's 'substrat' flyers - and if you do, you'll be missing a point -, but you won't miss the coolness of the designs, if you're part of the targeted audience. And even if you're not, you'll be able to read the information on these announcements. On the whole, the young Swiss are quite a lot tidier than their American or English or even Dutch counterparts. 

This is of course a biased view, in part based on cliché ideas of Swiss national character (I must admit that I am heavily influenced here by "Asterix among the Swiss"), but on the other hand one can't overlook the obvious effects of the deeply craft-oriented and intensely practical fundaments of Swiss design education - there is hardly any designer in this book who's not well trained, or chooses to hide their craft skills. At the same time, the new design from Switzerland reminds us of another Swiss tradition, which may not be so familiar to observers outside the design discourse in the country of consensus. There has always been, in Switzerland, a strong inclination, even amongst the founders of the most rigid of design systems, to test the conceptual and technological boundaries of their rationales to their full practical limits. If Switzerland is the home of 'elementary typography', one has to take into account that 'elementary', from the beginning, also meant a research into what is redundant in type, and to what extent letterforms can be distorted before becoming unreadable. Max Bill's typographical experiments testify to that, and so do Armin Hofmann's experiments with such entropic strategies in the 1950s, for instance in a poster that may justly be seen as a programmatic statement, considering its title: "die gute form" (the right form). And of course decomposing type has become a trademark of sorts for Wolfgang Weingart.

But it's not just about type; one may detect a related 'entropic strategy' in for instance Nicholas Bourtin's recent research into how much information is redundant in pixelated photos. His dramatic reduction of halftones in small pictures results not only in a reduction of byte size, but most of all in an aesthetically quite interesting enhancement of low-res representations on the screen. Again, one sees a tendency to reduce the image to its most abstract core before becoming unrecognisable. The Swiss excel at this 'reducing to the max', in many different styles and approaches, which all share a predilection for elementary forms. Maybe that is why vector graphics are such a big thing in Swiss graphic design. The clear, articulate line is another recurring element, even if used for such highly idiosyncratic computer based drawings as those of for instance François Chalet or Yves Netzhammer. 

Maybe these kinds of drawings represent the nexus of international visual culture and Swiss typographic sophistication. Manga meets Max Bill - asymmetrically, of course. Chalet's vignettes are a striking combination of clarity of content and a certain decorative extra that stylistically links them to Japanese Manga comics, so popular amongst ravers of all nations. This kind of reference to iconographies outside of the monumental confines of the Swiss Alps is a relatively new aspect of the Confederation's design culture, steeped as it is in typography. Imagery has long been rather neglected - type, colour, line and plane were enough to make a good composition, so why use pictures, if not for strictly illustrative purposes, or as rasterised backgrounds - the modernist version of a mono-colour plane? The use of imagery for conveying meaning on a 'meta' level, parallel to that of the obvious message of a design, is a less well developed aspect of the Swiss design tradition. Hans Rudolf Lutz's covers for Typografische Monatsblätter in the 1970s, for instance, are an exception. They represented something completely different from mainstream 'neutral' design at the time: a rather outspoken point of view. His pastiches of yellow press, comic books and Playboy transpose the craft of designing for a context to the context of design, a self-referential aspect that testifies to a keen awareness of the codes by which visual meaning is constructed and communicated. Lutz may have been one of the first Swiss designers to address this contextuality of design's visual languages and he certainly has been of great influence, both as a designer and as teacher, on younger generations of designers who now take this contextuality, and the ensuing presupposition of a visually literate audience, for granted. 

Electronic Curry 
The craft of balancing form, function and content, deeply rooted as it is in Swiss design, reaches another level when it conjoins with the international taste for vernacular imagery from the 1950s, 60s and early 70s so prevalent in contemporary techno- and dance cultures. This "retrofuturisme", as Electronic Curry aptly term it, takes the 'worst' of vernacular illustration from those periods and transforms it into iconic imagery that spells 'hip' all over flyers and posters for parties and concerts. Outline graphics from 1960s advertisements for stereo equipment and cars, drop-shadow type, hand cut lettering and the kind of standardised set drawings that adorned pictorial stock collections as compiled by Letraset and Mecanorma in the 1970s for architects and designers too lazy to draw themselves, are employed in ways that blur the boundaries between image and type - the popularity of dingbat fonts with both typedesigners and audiences is a case in point. 

Images have become icons that can be used in the same way that type is used: to symbolise content rather than to depict or illustrate it. The post-modern aspect of this is that today it is not so easy to define what that content is: a well formulated message, with date, time and venue, or a much more abstract one, geared to the more or less subliminal recognition of lifestyle codes and shared references? This, again, is of course an international tendency, but maybe the young Swiss design generation is particularly well equipped for this culture in which words and images constantly trade places - the orderliness and typographic proficiency that come with the national culture and its design education are a good background for controlling the dynamics of a seemingly chaotic barrage of imagery and codes that rages through all media.

Müller + Hess

max bruinsma