Modernist Typography

Modernist typography emerged in Russia, the Netherlands and Germany in the 1920’s as part of broader art, architecture and design movements like Constructivism and Suprematism in Russia, Bauhaus in Germany  and de Stijl in Netherlands. In 1950s designers in Switzerland developed a distinctive Swiss Style. During World War II many modernist designers fled to Britain and America to escape persecution in Europe. In the US it was further developed as part of corporate culture.

Modernist typography emerged out of a desire to represent ‘objective’ information without the influence of associated meaning or expression. It is defined by reductionist purity as a visually compelling strategy of conveying messages through geometric- and colour-based hierarchies. It emphasizes cleanliness, readability and objectivity. Modernist typography —clarity, objectivity, region-less glyphs, and symbols are essential to communication between international partners.Advocates focus on detail, precision, craft skill, systems of education and approach, technical training, high standards of print and the innovative application of lettering. The theory revolves around critically approaching the development of a system specific to the design problem presented.

The strong modernist focus on order and clarity is drawn from early pioneers of the movement believing that design is a “socially useful and important activity… the designers define their roles not as artists but as objective conduits for spreading important information between components of society.” However as it became an established part of corporate culture and advertising this original social and political purpose diminished.

 Swiss Style

Helvetica video

Key characteristics are:

  • asymmetric layouts
  • use of a layout grid: each design begins with a mathematical grid, because a grid is the “most legible and harmonious means for structuring information.”
  • sans-serif typefaces like Akzidenz Grotesk and Helvetica were seen as more objective and believed to “[express] the spirit of a more progressive age”
  •  flush left, ragged right text.
  • preference for photography in place of illustrations or drawings as a means of presenting more ‘objective’ information.
  •  typography as a primary design element in addition to its use in text.

1896 the Akzidenz Grotesk Typeface was released by H. Berthold AG type foundry as an attempt to capture an objective style and clearly convey messages in a universally straightforward manner.

19th Century graphic design based on grids and 1908 modification of foundational course at the School of Design in 1908.

Ernst Keller ‘form follows content’: Keller began developing a graphic design and typography course at the Zurich School of the Applied Arts (Kunstgewerbeschule). He did not teach a specific style to his students, rather he taught a philosophy of style that dictated “the solution to the design problem should emerge from its content.” Keller’s work uses simple geometric forms, vibrant colors and evocative imagery to further elucidate the meaning behind each design.

Other early pioneers include Théo Ballmer and Max Bill.

1950s  distillation of International Typographic Style

sans-serif font families such as Univers.

Helvetica (originally named Neue Haas Grotesk) developed by Max Miedinger and collaborator Edouard Hoffman. Helvetica was to create a pure typeface that could be applied to longer texts and that was highly readable.

New Graphic Design magazine 1959.  The format of the journal represented many of the important elements of the style—visually demonstrating the content—and was published internationally, thus spreading the movement beyond Switzerland’s borders. One of the editors, Josef Müller-Brockmann, “sought an absolute and universal form of graphic expression through objective and impersonal presentation, communicating to the audience without the interference of the designer’s subjective feelings or propagandist techniques of persuasion.” Many of Müller-Brockmann’s feature large photographs as objective symbols meant to convey his ideas in particularly clear and powerful ways.

One of the first American designers to integrate Swiss design with his own was Rudolph de Harak. The influence of International Typographic Style on deHarak’s own works can be seen in his many book jacket designs for McGraw-Hill publishers in the 1960s. Each jacket shows the book title and author, often aligned with a grid—flush left, ragged-right. One striking image covers most of the jacket, elucidating the theme of the particular book. International Typographic Style was embraced by corporations and institutions in America from the 1960s on, for almost two decades. One institution particularly devoted to the style was MIT.

Constructivism and Suprematism

Art/architectural philosophies that emerged out of Russia in 1920s. Constructivism develops by assorted mechanical objects that are combined into abstract mobile structural forms. Hallmarks of the movement include geometric reduction, photo-montage and simplified palettes. Suprematism focused on the simplification and purity of geometric forms to speak to values of spirituality.

In typography a key proponent was El Lissitsky.

De Stijl

A dutch artistic movement that saw prominence in the period between 1917-1930. Referred to as neoplasticism, this artistic strategy sought to reflect a new Utopian ideal of spiritual harmony and order. It was a form of pure abstraction through reduction to the essentials of form and colour, employing vertical and horizontal layouts using only black and white and primary colors. Proponents of this movement included painters like Piet Mondrian, Vilmes Huszar and Bart van der Hoff as well as architects like Gerrit Rietveld, Robert van’t Hoff and J.J.P. OUP.


A German based movement that emphasized purity of geometry, absence of ornamentation and the motto ‘form follows function’. This was a school of thought that combined craftsmaking with the fine arts and was founded by Walter Gropius. The goal was to work towards the essence of the form follows function relationship to facilitate a style that could be applied to all design problems; the International Style.

Radical Modernism

Dan Friedman

James Goggin

Modernist Typefaces

Aim was to create strong graphics that challenge commercialism, greed and cheapness. Advocates strict, structured grid system with emphasis on negative space and use of clean sans-serif type.  Typical typefaces:

  • Franklin Gothic
  • Monotype Grotesque
  • Futura
  • Univers
  • Helvetica Neue.



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