The Swiss Grid System — and the Dutch Total Grid (Josef Müller Brockmann)



After the second world war the Swiss Grid Style, also known as the International Typographic Style was developed by Swiss designers, such as Armin Hofmann, Josef Müller Brockmann, Max Bill, Richard P Lohse, Hans Neuberg, and Carlo Vivarelli who began to experiment with typography and photo-montage. Characterized by a cold, emotionally sterile grid style; they used structured layout, and unjustified type, that became very influential in the mid twentieth century and influenced a vast audience. These pioneering graphic artists saw design as part of industrial production and searched for anonymous, objective visual communication. They chose photographic images rather than illustration, and typefaces that were industrial-looking rather than those designed for books.

In short, the visual characteristics of the International Typographic Style include:

  • Asymmetrically organizing the design elements on a mathematically-constructed grid to create Visual unity in a composition.
  • Presenting visual and textual information in a clear and factual manner, using objective photography and illustration, and ensuring that it filters any propaganda and the exaggerated claims of commercial advertising
  • Using sans-serif typography set flush left, ragged right — The movement believed sans-serif typography expressed the spirit of a progressive age and that mathematical grids were the most legible and harmonious means for structuring information.

The initiators of the Swiss Grid Style were of the belief that the visual appearance of the work is not as important as the integrity of its philosophical tenets whereby;

    • Design is a socially worthwhile and serious vocation.
    • In design there is no room for eccentricity and/or idiosyncrasy. Design should be grounded on universal artistic principles, and using a scientific approach should provide a well-defined solution to a problem.
    • The designer is a visual communicator and not an artist. The designer acts as an objective and reliable transmitter of important information between members of society.
    • The ideal of design is to achieve clarity and order.


A leading pioneer of the Swiss Style, Josef Müller Brockmann , was the founder and editor of the Zurich published journal Neue Grafik, who introduced the Swiss Style into America. He was concerned with functional and objective design that by restricting design elements in the confine of typographic grid, would shift the focus of image on the core message displayed by a clean and sharp geometrical aesthetic. The grid was used to define the constant dimensions of the design space and elements were inserted precisely into it so that all parts of a page would be integrated coherently according to the aesthetic order. According to Müller Brockmann

I have always aspired to a distinct arrangement of typographic and pictorial elements, the clear identification of priorities. The formal organisation of the surface by means of the grid, a knowledge of the rules that govern legibility (lines length, word and letter spacing and so on) and the meaningful use of colour are among the tools a designer must master in order to complete his or her task in a rational and economic matter.The greatest works of art impress through their balance, their harmony, their proportions, all of which can be measured. That is one of the reasons why paintings, sculptures and buildings that are thousands of years old – by the Egyptians, Chinese, Assyrians and so on – are still fascinating to us today.

The objective was an effective and efficient visual communication: information presented this way was assumed not only read more quickly and easily, but is also more easily understood and retained in memory.

Josef Müller Brockmann


Josef Müller Brockmann was born in Rapperswil, Switzerland in 1914 and studied architecture, design and history of art at the University of Zurich and at the city’s Kunstgewerbeschule. He began his career as an apprentice to the designer and advertising consultant Walter Diggelman before, in 1936, establishing his own Zurich studio specialising in graphics, exhibition design and photography. According to his own account;

” I became a graphic designer by accident”. At school I was loth to write much for compositions so I put in illustrations instead. My teacher enjoyed them and thought I had talent. He suggested that I should pursue an artistic career: gravure etching or retouching, for instance. So I was apprenticed as a retoucher in a printing works. I lasted one day because I said that this wasn’t artistic work. After that I was apprenticed to two elderly architects. With them I lasted four weeks. Then I went to see all the graphic designers I found listed in the telephone directory because I wanted to find out what they did. Afterwards I enrolled to study graphic design at the Zurich Gewerbeschule.”

As a graphic designer, Müller Brockmann’s skills included letterpress, silkscreen, and lithography. His geometric style was demonstrated in “Musica viva”, a series of concert posters for the Zurich Tonhalle in 1951. It is arguably claimed that his work was an adaptation of concrete art; which had been described by Theo van Doesburg around 1930, as works of art that are created by means of art’s most genuine means of composition and principles, entirely doing without allusions to phenomenon of nature and their abstraction. New realities were supposed to be created by forming colors, space, light and movement.

The style had to incorporate mathematical methods of spatial organization into graphic work, which drew on the language of Constructivism to create a visual correlative to the structural harmonies of the music. Müller Brockmann’s 1955 poster, Beethoven, was supposed to portray Beethoven’s music through a series of concentric curves, and has been offered as an example such an adaptation, and this assertion had been accepted at its face value by many pundits, who were impressed by the novelty, elegance and the simplicity of design. As Müller Brockmann has stated:

In my designs for posters, advertisements, brochures and exhibitions, subjectivity is suppressed in favour of a geometric grid that determines the arrangement of the type and images. The grid is an organisational system that makes it easier to read the message…The grid is an organisational system that enables you to achieve an orderly result at a minimum cost. The task is solved more easily, faster and better. It brings the arbitrary organisation of text into a logical system in keeping with the conflict. It can demonstrate uniformity that reaches beyond national boundaries, a boon to advertising from which IBM, for instance, has profited. Objective-rational design means legible design, objective information that is communicated without superlatives or emotional subjectivity.

From 1967 he was European design consultant for IBM. He is the author of The Graphic Artist and his Design Problems (1961), History of Visual Communication (1971), History of the Poster (with Shizuko Muller-Yoshikawa, 1971). Nevertheless, Müller Brockmann’s work was rigid and soulless, suffering from certain self-imposed restrictions of the Swiss style, and dogmas such as the rejection of symmetry since fascists had liked it! He has said:

symmetry and the central axis are what characterise fascist architecture. Modernism and democracy reject the axis… I have taken my love of order to the point of manifest boredom, producing design solutions which are valid but deadly boring. Thanks to the passage of time, I am now just about able to examine my posters for the Zurich Tonhalle to discover why some are better than others. I am amazed how many are bad. The Beethoven poster is good, also the “Musica Viva” poster of 1970 with the green lettering on a blue background and the two Tonhalle posters of 1969 and 1972 with the rhythmic type.

Looking at this juncture at these posters, when digital software packages can do any of them in just few minutes and with few of clinks, it is easy to dismiss the whole exercise as boring and insignificant. Of course, the world would have become a boring place should all posters have adopted the Swiss grid style. However, we have to remind ourselves that when these posters appeared on the scene their geometrical aesthetics were quite novel and rare. Perhaps ironically, Müller Brockmann has stated that he did not like experiments such as that of Neville Brody’s typefaces that have the potential to rescue the grid style.


Typefaces designed for Neville Brody. By the early 1990s Neville Brody was able, with a straight face, to recommend abandoning typography’s requirement of legibility — gloating as a chill shot down the spines of his type-pro audiences…

Müller Brockmann was totally dismissive of Brody’s powerful artistic impact. The fact that not all viewers are of commercial types, and not everybody is concerned with profit maximizing attitudes that just require to get the information in an efficient and cost effective manner; the fact that there are also viewers that are interested in looking at a poster’s typeface from an artistic view point and reflect on them, which in the process may also convey the message of an advertisement appears to have been totally alien to him. He has said;

Some set themselves the task of making typography so unreadable that it is almost like a picture puzzle. The illegibility is then sold as an artistic project. I wouldn’t read something like that unless I had to. The same rational criterion applies to wobbly forms and blurred contours: can I read this faster? Text is communication of content, a fact reflected in classical typefaces and legible typography… (typefaces designed for Neville Brody) are not suitable for advertisements and posters. They are exceptions to the rule and individual cases are not a basis for teaching graphic design. These alphabets are confused, aesthetically lacking and bad. Playing around is always an excuse for too little understanding, which makes people fall on imagination and speak of artistic freedom, inspiration and good ideas. Such typefaces are interesting as studies in legibility. But I don’t see any sense in them. They are a personal attempt to deal with a problem and I find them not only bad but senseless because they lack an area of application.

In an interview with Eye Magazine for their Winter 1995 issue, just one year prior to his passing, he was asked what order meant to him:

Order was always wishful thinking for me. For 60 years I have produced disorder in files, correspondence and books. In my work, however, I have always aspired to a distinct arrangement of typographic and pictorial elements, the clear identification of priorities. The formal organisation of the surface by means of the grid, a knowledge of the rules that govern legibility (line length, word and letter spacing and so on) and the meaningful use of colour are among the tools a designer must master in order to complete his or her task in a rational and economic manner.


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