Take a look at many pieces of corporate communication design and you’ll find something that, on the surface at least, looks formulaic, boring and virtually the same regardless of the organisation it’s supposed to be representing. And yet some designers look at a sprinkling of these pieces like a dog salivating over a juicy bone, making obscure reference to the beauty of something called ‘Swiss Design’. They gesticulate about such things as ‘the asymmetrical positioning of type headlines balancing the columns of body copy’ and the ‘white space allowing the copy to breathe’ which, to the lay person, can all appear as ‘just text dropped onto a half-empty page’.
So what’s the deal here? Do these designers know something about these apparently dull designs that other people don’t? Or are they making something out of nothing, purely in a bid to justify their own existence in the corporate world when really, anyone could create this work?
The reality is that it’s not that straightforward, and possibly both sides of the debate are right. But we’ll come to that in a moment.
First, and briefly, because this isn’t a history lesson in design movements… what is this Swiss Design style and how did it originate? Well, in the 1950s a movement developed in Switzerland and Germany known as the International Typographic Style. This style used mathematically-created grid systems, with strict ideas around the use of typography and geometric shapes, to create deceptively-simple communications where objective clarity of message was the single-most important element of the piece, free of the designer’s subjective or subconscious ideals. It gained an enormous following throughout the world, with corporations in particular taking to it like ducks to a pond. And because its title was rather long-winded, it became commonly known as Swiss Design. And it’s a style that, even now, seems to hold sway over the design industry, particularly in the aforementioned corporate world.
“Typography has one plain duty before it and that is to convey information in writing. No argument or consideration can absolve typography from this duty. A printed work which cannot be read becomes a product without purpose.”
– Emil Ruder, Typographie: A Manual for Design
Advocates of the style will tell you its ability to present information in a clear, legible and factual manner free of the designer’s personal opinions gives a unified, organised approach to the design and a scientific perfection of form as a result. Critics on the other hand will say it’s based on formula, without any creative thinking, and the end result is unoriginal… surely the antithesis of what a designer is.
So, the question we should ask is ‘does what we see in the corporate design world now really stand up as intelligent, evocative design or is it a cheesy pastiche of the original style just delivering bland, purposeless layouts?
There are certainly examples of graphic design out there which are exactly what the critics describe: unoriginal and confused grid layouts; pages crammed full of copy with no space for the reader to take a ‘visual breath’ (yup we’re talking about that ‘white space’ thing); no regard for hierarchy of information so readers don’t know where to look first; and unfortunately, because these pieces of work are often in a two/three/four-column pseudo-grid, with various ill-considered (sub)heading styles, and using Helvetica or other san serif derivative as a typeface, they’re mistakenly thought of as Swiss style.
Where designers who work in this manner, or readers who view it this way, often go wrong is in their understanding of what is an apparently simple design method to work with and just how powerful it can be when in the right creative’s hands. As distinguished designer Ernst Keller said in 1918, “the solution to the design problem should emerge from its content.” Yes, the designer is removing their personal opinions from the piece they’re creating but that doesn’t mean they should just create something using pre-defined and unrelated grids and typefaces. Those foundations (grid and typeface) should still reflect the content (trust us when we tell you there’s a whole lot more than 2/3/4-column grids and Helvetica!). In fact they should amplify and expound the message – starting with a respectful understanding of those foundations, but then knowing when and how to bend, twist and sometimes just plain break those grids – to give the viewer a more captivating read and greater understanding of the content its visualising.
So when you see a designer drooling over a seemingly innocuous piece of design they’ve created, rather than tiptoeing away from them as if they’re an extra from a Walking Dead episode, ask them what it is that they’re getting so excited about. If they tell you about the headline that’s broken the grid in a manner that accentuates its meaning, or a line length that’s purposefully short to jolt the reader’s attention to its importance, you may have found a designer who actually knows what they’re talking about. One who can elevate your comms above the corporate cheese, into a clear, intelligent and evocative piece of design that your viewers will actually want to read.
By Chris Chatfield