Swiss Typography

Swiss Typography

Publication Design

A publication featuring an essay I wrote on the New Wave Typography. This was the outcome of research done on Wolfgang Weingart’s manifesto, ‘My way to typography’.

I compare the notions of Wolfgang one of his iconic students Dan Friedman, who contextualised the typography, art, design with the society. In my interference, I concluded that design education plays an important role in shaping the society.

Publication Design

Swiss Typography, also described as International Style has been an inspiration for many design developments and movements. Emerged in the 1940s and 50s, Swiss typography was predominantly characterised by simplicity, legibility and objectivity. It featured the functionality of design, with the use of grids to convey the information efficiently.
Towards the 60ʼs many typographers began expanding but working within the realms of Swiss Typography. Meanwhile, the aftermath of Vietnam war and grim post war life in Europe, caused young designers to redefine the ideals of their society and rethink the role of design. These postmodernist thoughts paved way for a revolt, as practitioners and teachers sought to reinvent typographic design. (Meggs 2005)

Wolfgang Weingart was a german typographer who greatly influenced the swiss typography with his experimentation propagating the ʻnew waveʼ. Weingart's work is a benchmark in design and typography. His work breaks out of the rigidity of prevailing conceptions of swiss typography while giving us a fresh look to the endless possibilities it holds. He saw design as a continual process of experimentation, iteration, testing, and refinement. From the spring of 1968, when he joined Basel as an educator he continued to emphasize on education as a process of learning and the same time inspiring students to conduct experiments of their own and find the joy of discovering something new.

In the early 1970s, classical Swiss typography was conventionally practiced by established designers. Swiss typography had played an important role on the international landscape up until the late sixties but had reached a point of saturation. It had become more of a style due to the repetition and predictability of the designs that were all flushed at right angles. (fig. 1) Moreover the social unrest at the time made this strict typography seem irrelevant and inconsistent with the postmodernist ideas.

fig 1: TM Magazine cover designs based on classical swiss typography by Basel professor Emil Ruder in 1961 & 1964.

This inspired Weingart to modernise the notion of Swiss typography transforming it into spontaneous, authentic and inspiring. He achieved that by moving away from the formal aesthetic. (Weingart 2000, p. 101) Weingart was determined to reexamine the potential and change the rules of the existing typographic practice. He achieved this with the help of an educational program that stretched the limits of the typeshop. This was seen as an open challenge to the deeply respected and established notions of Swiss typography and was strongly opposed by many old school typographers and publishers at the time. They believed, such typography was not readable and clients would be vested in nonfunctional design. ( Paradis 2001; Weingart 2000, p. 112)

Weingart's teaching methods were radical and largely emerged from his own practice. (fig 2) These methods were strongly grounded and persuaded students to move from objectivity to subjectivity, keeping in mind the understanding of semantic, syntactic and pragmatic functions in typography. (Tam 2003; Weingart 1972) In his glorious years teaching at Basel, Weingart influ- enced a generation of designers like Dan Friedman, who later produced extraordinary work and became one of the greatest designers of his time. Shaped by Weingart's vision, many of his students became lecturers taking his philosophy all over the world. Weingart's own perspective of life and do-it-yourself design approach pushed his students to experiment and think beyond the judgemental right and wrong educational model. (Weingart 1985) His passion for design as an educator drove him to embark on an international tour visiting design institutes for a lecture series that shared the new face of Swiss typography he had discovered along with his students. This not only encouraged more students to be liberal in their design but also created a dialogue between these institutes making them evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching methods.

fig 2: Weingartʼs explorations.

In the curriculum Weingart designed at Basle, were a series of experiments that pushed readabil ity and the graphic qualities of typography while retaining its function. Illustrated by using intuitive typographical layouts, free letterspacing, diagonal placements and graphical characteristics these exercises allowed the students and Weingart himself, to create a dramatic impact on the viewers.  His belief that typography was an art, inspired him to pave the way for astounding design that blurred the lines between typography, art and graphic design. (Helfand 1999; Tam 2003) Prior to experimentation, his students underwent exercises that were strongly grounded by analytical understanding of fundamental design principles. This knowledge of design process would be essential when addressing a critical design problem. (Heller 2005; Schwemer-Scheb- bin 1991)

Weingartʼs curriculum not only projected his notion of a design school, but eventually turned Basle into a place that encouraged every student to search for individual values and develop their own typographic style. His emphasis on quality education, institutional structure and teaching methods is what trained students to become extraordinary designers. Weingartʼs dedication as an educator motivated him to persuade other schools in becoming more open, socially conscious and experimental in nature. He trained students towards finding typographic solutions that had individuality and a personal thought process. (Weingart 1972) He continued to inspire his students by getting them involved in his personal experiments and freelance projects.

fig 3: left - 1973 issue designed by Weingart; right -1978 issue of TM magazine cover featuring the work of Gregory Vines, a student of weingart.

Along with presenting his ideas, Weingart gave the students an exposure by publishing their work in Typografische Monatsblat- ter (TM), a leading design magazine. (fig 3) Allowing his students to use the medium and tools of their preference, he kept himself and his students up to date with the technology of the time. He believed the knowledge of technological innovation gives a wider periphery for experimentation and it was the responsibility of the schools and educators to provide this insight of all the with the new technology. (Weingart 2000 p.112) The essence of Weingartʼs achievement as a teacher and as a designer lies in his genuine pleasure of discovering new possibilities and helping his students discover their own potential. (Kelly 2015)

Some of Weingartʼs students returned to America and stirred up the design community with their avant-garde design style. This new style corresponded with the postmodern changes in the society, opening up peopleʼs minds to new ideas. Among these students was Dan Friedman.

Dan Friedman

Dan was a radical thinker, sculptor, artist, designer and alongside these an educator. He was an influential contributor of the New Wave typography in the United States. Discontent with the education he had received in America, Dan travelled to Europe, to gain deeper insights in design with a strong resolution to eventually return as a teacher. (Rea 1994) He brought the experimental and contextual nature of education he received in Europe to the universities in America. He also published teaching methods and guidelines for the design program in the State University of New York. Dan applied Weingartʼs instruction and sound knowledge of fundamental principles and expanded his experiments to diverse mediums and materials. His work widely ranged from typography and graphic design to furniture and environmental design. Dan was one of the first in America to introduce his students to perceptual theory and the semiotic relationship in design. (Heller 1995) His approach to design and emphasis on experimentation was a result of his learnings at Basle under Wolfgang Weingart. He believed art and design affected all aspects of life and his work often expressed design theories and cultural issues.

Danʼs practice was significant at the time, not only did he continue to produce exceptional multi dimensional work but also continued to teach and pass on his expansive view of modernist design thinking. (Pullman 2015) With the changing social scenario and modernist design being adopted by corporates as a style, Dan felt the need to write about designers dedicating themselves to the private sector, and create a dialogue to stress on how designers must use design to integrate the diversity in the society for public good. He tried to constantly question his views towards values and ethics and persuaded his students and contemporary designers to do so. Amidst vast technological advancements and diminishing morality of designers, the society experienced a dilemma within the sensory experience and human perception. Dan along with this friend Jeffrey Deitch initiated a dialogue that highlighted this artificial context of our natural environments, in their book ʻArtificial Natureʼ in 1990. (Deitch 1995 ; Friedman 1994) The simplicity and strength of this book and the next one that followed vested in its compelling design. This influential connect in Danʼs design was a result of the diverse experiments he conducted with his students. (Rea 1994) Each of them were coherent in their thought process and were informed by one another. Although Danʼs experiments began with typography and design, as the complexity in social and cultural issues around him grew, he began to venture into different mediums to express his ideas and keep the conversation of modernist philosophy going.

With the same elemental principles Dan changed his approach overtime and seamlessly moved from graphic design to art, sculpture, furniture design and environmental design. He utilised every medium that seemed competent with the message he was trying to convey. He found func- tional objects could be practical at the same time layered with meaning, aligning with this modernist ideas. With his experiments, Dan demonstrated how typography could be translated to 2D and 3D visual culture. (fig 4)
Not only did he create a culture and dialogue of moral ethics, but by integrating his practice with this experiences, he presented the interdependency of visual art and the society. (Farris 2015)

fig 4: Left : Danʼs explorations and cover design a for TM magazine; Right : the Corona chair for Neotu (1991) and Friedman collage for the Cultural Geometry show at Deitch Projects in 1988

Fundamental Principles

While studying in Europe, Dan received two very different approaches to design, one that looked at graphic design as a logical and philosophical discourse and another, that presented it as a visual experiment. Both of these perceived art and design as a process of social engagement. It was under Hoffman and Weingart that he learned to consider every design activity in a broader, social and cultural context. Dan build his ideas and practices on the knowledge he gained under Weingart. Weingartʼs methodical and experimental approach in design education created a backbone for Danʼs vision for design education in America. He strived to provide his students with sound education and a comprehensive outlook to design. Weingart believed the only way to create radical and progressive work was by understanding the basic design principles. (Heller 2005; Kelly 2015; Schwemer-Schebbin 1991) Dan too, laid utmost importance on basic design and believed that it was a deeper study that enabled students to think cohesively in the different art practices. (Friedman 1995) (fig 5)

fig 5: The exercises Dan and his students underwent.


Weingart and Friedman influenced one another and believed design education was a constant process of learning and experimentation. (eds Paradis, Fruh, Rappo) Weingartʼs manifesto pushed the limits of readability, bring the graphic qualities of letterforms forward ultimately bridging the gap between typography, art and graphic design. (Tam 2003) Leading from this mindset Dan worked with all forms of art and design unifying them with a modernist philosophy that integrated art and everyday life. (Friedman 1994; Heller 1995; Pullman 2015) While continuing his personal practice and experimentation, Dan never lost his focus as an educator. He sensed the confusion that new students faced, due to over specialisation, increasing divergence in art and design and diminishing cultural context to design. This was another reason for Danʼs emphasis on holistic and ethical design education. Weingartʼs dedication to teaching not only inspired Dan to continue guiding his students, but also reassured his faith in the value of sound education. Assembling all his philosophies and practices, Dan wrote a manifesto principally for students. He wanted to pass on the critical think- ing he had attained, along with conscious thinking of ethics and values, guiding students to becoming good designers.

Designers not only have the capability to stir a conversation but the issues our society deals with but also have the potential to make change happen. In order for designers to be active influencers in the world it is of utmost importance that they are nurtured in a way that makes them active and informed citizens. This responsibility largely exists at the hands of the educators in design schools today. Schools today are torn in between making students industry competent, giving them technical skills and focus- sing on design history and fundamental principles. McCoy (1993, p. 92) states that, ʻ designers today emerge as charming mannequins and voiceless mouth pieces for the messages of ventriloquist clients..ʼ It is upon educators to train students to clarify personal values and mindful designers to assist fresh graduates to participate and contribute wholly in the world.

Reference List
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