The International Typographic Style: A Brief History

Need a refresher on important movements in art and design? Tony Seddon’s book Twentieth Century Design offers a decade by decade look at important art movements, artists and designers, and cultural movements that shaped graphic style throughout history. In the excerpt below Seddon discusses one of the most impactful design styles in the history of graphic design: The International Typographic Style.

This excerpt is just a snapshot of the fantastic exploration of graphic design history and influences that you’ll find in Seddon’s book. Learn more about Twentieth Century Design.

The Swiss Style

The 1950s saw the full emergence of a design movement that is arguably the most important graphic design style of the twentieth century in terms of its far-reaching impact, its longevity, and its range of practical applications. The style began in Switzerland and Germany and is sometimes referred to as Swiss Style, but it is formally known as the International Typographic Style. Its dominance in many areas of graphic design covers a twenty-year period from the early 1950s to the late 1960s, but it remains an important influence to this day. There are a range of specific visual hallmarks that characterize the style. These include the use of asymmetrical layouts built around a mathematically constructed grid; a clear and unadorned approach to the presentation of content; the use of sans-serif type, generally set flush-left and ragged-right; and a preference for photography over illustration.

It is useful to place the development of the style in historical context as its early influences stretch back over several decades. In 1918, Ernst Keller—considered by many as the forerunner of the International Typographic Style—began to teach design and typography at the School of Applied Arts in Zurich. He never encouraged students to adopt a specific style, but he did argue that a design solution should always be respectful of content. This can be seen as an early version of the Modernist principle of form following function.

Over the following three decades, a number of important Swiss designers would contribute to the development of the style. Theo Ballmer studied at the Dessau Bauhaus in the late 1920s under Walter Gropius and applied De Stijl principles to much of his graphic design work which utilized grids of horizontally and vertically aligned elements. Max Bill—another student at the Dessau Bauhaus from 1927 to 1929 where he was taught by Gropius, László Moholy-Nagy, and Wassily Kandinsky— developed a concept he called art concret which involved the creation of a universal style based on mathematical principles. His graphic design work featured layouts where elements were precisely distributed and spaced; he favored sans-serif typefaces such as Akzidenz Grotesk, and set text flush-left and ragged-right. On a more flamboyant note the designer Max Huber added a generous dash of energetic verve to the mix. Huber studied at the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts where he experimented extensively with photomontage techniques and in the late 1940s began to create some of the most exuberant posters seen at that time. He was the master of the layered composition, making use of overprinted shapes and dynamically positioned typography and photomontage to create work which includes his noted pieces promoting races at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza (National Racetrack of Monza.)


Huber’s graphic poster for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, created in 1950.

Josef Müller-Brockmann

The style’s total dominance throughout the 1950s is largely represented by the work of one central figure, Josef Müller-Brockmann, whose body of work is synonymous with the period. Müller-Brockmann studied under Ernst Keller in Zurich between 1932 and 1934 before opening his own studio in 1936. He was something of a convert to the International Typographic Style as his influences variously included Constructivism, De Stijl, Suprematism, and the teachings of the Bauhaus, but Müller-Brockmann managed to filter elements of all of these into his very particular and highly representative version of the style. Some of his best-known work was commissioned by Zurich Town Hall from 1952 onward; he was asked to design a series of concert posters and came up with a visual method to represent the music using mathematically harmonious compositions. The motifs employed were highly abstract but somehow managed to evoke the works to be performed. It is interesting to compare these posters to some of the jazz album covers emerging from the music scene in America around this time, which demonstrate how influential Müller-Brockmann’s work had become. Another significant series of poster commissions came from the Swiss Automobile Club who, as an organization, had become concerned about the large increase in the number of vehicles on Swiss roads and the issues that arose from that. His 1952 poster promoting child safety stands out as one of his best pieces.


One of a series of road safety posters designed in 1953 by Josef Muller-Brockmann for the Swiss Automobile Club. The posters were produced in both French and German to accommodate the different languages spoken throughout Switzerland.

Univers and Helvetica

No account of the International Typographic Style is complete without mentioning the two most famous typefaces to be designed during the 1950s. In 1954 Adrian Frutiger, a Swiss typeface designer based in Paris, completed design work on a new sans-serif named Univers that was arguably the world’s first megafamily typeface as it comprised twenty-one individual weights. Frutiger expanded on the standard regular/italic/bold range to create a set of fonts each identified by a number—the family included expanded and condensed weights too. It took three years to produce all the weights as a commercially available typeface and it was released by the French foundry Deberny & Peignot in 1957, becoming enormously popular among Swiss-style typographers. In the mid-1950s, Eduard Hoffmann, the director of the HAAS Type Foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland, decided that the ubiquitous Akzidenz Grotesk typeface was due an upgrade. In 1957 he worked with typeface designer Max Miedinger to create a new sans-serif typeface and named it Neue Haas Grotesk. A few years later, in 1960, the face was released by German foundry D. Stempel AG and was renamed Helvetica as a reference to the Latin name for Switzerland (Confoederatio Helvetica). The typeface went on to become the most popular sans-serif in the world and even got to star in its own self-titled movie by independent film maker Gary Hustwitt in 2007, celebrating the typeface’s fiftieth birthday.

20th Century DesignExcerpted from Twentieth Century Design: A Decade-by-Decade Exploration of Graphic Style by Tony Seddon. Visit for more info.