Helvetica is one of the single most ubiquitous typefaces in the world of modern design. It’s clear, clean and highly adaptable. It’s possibly the single most iconic typeface around and yet it still manages to look good when used right. How did Helvetica become so prominent though? What’s the background here?
In the early to mid-1900s in Europe (largely Switzerland), a particular style of design emerged that emphasized cleanliness, readability, and objectivity. This style became known as Swiss Design or the International Typographic Style. Helvetica was actually designed to embody the principles of this movement — Helvetica does mean Swiss in Latin after all.
Today I want to talk a bit about the elements of Swiss Design and how those elements have impacted the world of design as a whole.
One of the most important things that Swiss Design brought to the table was its use of grids to structure content in a layout. The idea behind this approach was to help designers take a consistent and organized approach to page layout. Of course, this fits into the Swiss Design ideology of emphasizing orderliness and readability above all else.
The grid became a mainstay in the world of design throughout the 20th century and became the standard for corporate design. While strict adherence to this concept has since declined, its impact is still definitely felt.
Nowadays, the grid is still taught in many design schools as an important tool for many projects. It also seems like you can’t frequent any online design community without someone mentioning that some work would be better with a grid.
Additionally, this concept has even translated well into the world of digital design (although the emphasis on responsive design has certainly made this a bit more difficult). Many websites use grids to keep their information organized and easy to digest.
Sans Serif Typefaces
One of the largest shifts in the design world that Swiss Design brought about is its heavy use of sans serif typefaces. This is something that’s still incredibly relevant today. Look around and you’ll inevitably see a sans serif within less than 10 feet of you. This isn’t to say that Swiss Design is the sole reason sans serifs are used today, but it definitely played a major role in popularizing its use and defining it as the standard for readability and cleanliness.
Popular typefaces in the Swiss style are (neo) grotesque sans serifs like Akzidenz Grotesk, Helvetica and Univers. The reason behind this is that these typefaces almost come off as entirely neutral. This objectivity, of course, was a central tenant of the style.
Like I mentioned, sans serifs are still relevant in the world of design today. Just look at a majority of company rebrands and you’ll see that a large majority of them are changing their primary typefaces to something clean, geometric and… you guessed it, sans-serif.
Another big thing that Swiss Design brought to the table was its asymmetrical organization of content. Symmetry in art and design often leads to very aesthetically pleasing work at best, and a little “safe” or routine work at worst. Asymmetry on the other hand, usually makes things look active and dynamic.
While Swiss Design certainly focuses on asymmetry, it doesn’t mean that it’s inherently chaotic. Remember, the use of a grid was almost mandatory. This allowed for a greater sense of unity and gave more emphasis to the whitespace in the design. This of course, made things appear more clean and almost minimal in aesthetics.
Nowadays we still focus heavily on the use of whitespace when designing things. Furthermore, I’ve seen many more experienced designers posit that center aligning text is less than desirable.
Furthermore, if you go on Dribbble or Behance and look at many posts there, you’ll notice that a large number of designs there embrace asymmetry. It’s something that has definitely stuck around in the design world since Swiss Design popularized it.
Finally, many works of Swiss Design prominently featured photography. While this isn’t 100% the case, as many designs at that time utilized abstract geometry instead, photography was still a large part of the movement itself.
As photography became more accessible, it’s easy to see why photos, being an objective and incredibly clear way to communicate an image, were ideal for a movement that focused on objectivity and clarity.
In modern design, photography is definitely a standard. Think of stock photography, the use of photos in layouts, even the use of photography on the web. It’s something most people think of when they think of design. While I certainly wouldn’t assert that photography in design started with Swiss Design, it’s safe to say that illustrations and drawings were much more common beforehand.
Swiss Design is a seminal movement in the world of graphic design. It’s incredibly easy for designers nowadays to think of the things they do and the practices they follow as just being “the way things are,” but I’d argue that it’s important to see where these norms come from.
I also think that being able to identify certain styles of design is important for understanding the places designers and their work come from today. Furthermore, being able to identify styles like this, as well as other design movements, then assessing their similarities and differences can help you get an idea of what works and what doesn’t in your own work.
As always, I hope this post was informative!
Until next time!
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