Neutrality and Swiss modern types

The modernist push for universal letters that characterized German type design after World War I had a reprise in Swiss type design after World War II. Switzerland became a center for cutting-edge graphic design in the '50s, and by the end of the decade two new sans-serif types had become associated with that milieu: Helvetica, designed by Max Miedinger (1910-80), and Univers, by Adrian Frutiger (b. 1928).

These represented the latest attempt to make letters with no sense of place — indeed, that anonymity helps to account for their remarkably widespread use — and yet they were seen paradoxically as distinctly Swiss; indeed, the "neutrality" of these types seemed to belong to Switzerland with its traditions of political neutrality.

The very names of the most successful of the Swiss sans-serifs demonstrate this paradox: "Univers" emphasizes the design's universality (and hence internationality), while Helvetica plays off the Latin name for Switzerland, "Confoederatio Helvetica."

The stories of both Helvetica and Univers begin in Switzerland after World War II, where designers were creating new styles that would ultimately impact the field of graphic design worldwide. The Swiss graphic design movement of the '50s and '60s, also called Swiss typography or the International Style, centered on the "thesis that communication is improved by reducing the elements of the communication to a necessary minimum."1 Graphic designers turned to sans-serif types due to their simplified forms, which seemed easier to read and more effective than seriffed typefaces. Many designers, however, found the early 20th century geometric sans-serifs, such as Paul Renner's Futura from 1927, too harsh or limiting, and instead began to revive 19th century types known as "grotesques," such as Akzidenz Grotesk produced by the Berthold type foundry in Berlin in 1898. Edouard Hoffmann, director of the Haas type foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland, noticed this trend and recognized a need for a contemporary and well-designed grotesque. In 1956, Hoffman turned to Miedinger to update Akzidenz Grotesk to meet the needs of a modern and international audience, which resulted in the release of Neue Haas Grotesk the following year — the typeface that would soon be renamed Helvetica.

While Helvetica's design reached back to revive an existing design, with Univers Adrian Frutiger instead created "a sans serif far removed from traditional examples, in terms of both style and aesthetic innovation."2 Frutiger, born in Switzerland, completed his education in Zurich, where he began to develop ideas for a new sans-serif not based on an existing design. In 1952, Charles Peignot convinced Frutiger to come to Paris to work for the Deberny et Peignot foundry. He was assigned the task of improving the selection of types, which would appeal to both a French and international audience. Aware of the limitations of existing sans-serif types, Frutiger persuaded Peignot to allow him to develop a new design that would respond to the more universal needs of graphic designers.

Frutiger's insight was correct, for Univers quickly became a popular typeface with graphic designers, especially as promoted by Swiss designers in their cutting-edge work. The appeal of Univers lay in Frutiger's carefully detailed letterform design, which "eliminated virtually everything but the essential forms of the letters, and was carefully and sweetly drawn. It was the most rational and basic of the post-war sans serifs."3 Greatly concerned with legibility and the underlying shapes of letterforms, Frutiger carefully considered and finely crafted a complete family of typefaces for Univers, and devised a unique system organizing them by weight and proportion. This variety of weights and sizes was revolutionary at a time when foundries generally introduced a typeface in only limited sizes and then prepared additional ones according to the success of the first designs. Frutiger's family for Univers instead provided a unified and comprehensive system that was more versatile and functional for typographers immediately after its release in 1957.

In their different ways, Helvetica and Univers both responded to the call for new, universal, and international sans-serif types in the mid twentieth century. Yet despite their international success, the prevalent use of these types in the influential Swiss graphic design movement inextricably linked them with Switzerland. In this way, the two types simultaneously express a graphic meaning of internationalism and universality while at the same time being intimately connected to the history of Swiss design.

— Laura Thayer

1Robin Kinross, “Emil Ruder’s Typography and ‘Swiss Typography,’” Information Design Journal 4 (1984): 150.
2Cees W. de Jong, Sans Serif: The Ultimate Sourcebook of Classic and Contemporary Sans Serif Typography (London: Thames and Hudson, 2006), 23.
3Sebastian Carter, Twentieth Century Type Designers (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995), 165.

Suggestions for further reading:

Hollis, Richard. Swiss Graphic Design: The Origins and Growth of an International Style 1920-1965. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

Kinross, Robin. "Swiss Typography." In Modern Typography: An Essay in Critical History, 146-57. 2d ed. London: Hyphen Press, 2004.

Müller, Lars. Helvetica: Homage to a Typeface. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2002.

Ruder, Emil. "Univers: A New Sans-serif Type by Adrian Frutiger." New Graphic Design 2 (1959): 56-57.