26 Nov A Graphic History: Image and Type, All A Swiss Designer Needs10 min read
Here we go again, deep in the recesses of important design. This adventure has been curated by the Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design, a resource I’m eternally grateful to (here’s a link to this series’ intro blog if you’re so inclined). In just 3 cards, I’ve discovered so much about graphic design art history, in such a real and resonate way.
I’ve started with a work of art, then I’ve learned a wee bit about it from the information on the card, then I’ve run off to the world wide web to get details on the movements and circumstances that inspired them. I’ve picked the Phaidon cards at random.
For the sake of this fun experiment
To show the art gods my complete trust in their direction of my graphic design tutelage (you don’t question the gods, they don’t like that–See Zeus)
The other truly exciting side of this journey is the different ways in which each of these works are encountered in daily life, to the everyday person. You don’t have to go out of your way to find them. They could be in a magazine, stapled to a flagpole or on the side of your washing machine. The average Joe can meet the revolutionary, without even really trying. One can choose to look for them, and dive deeper, as you and I are right now. Or not. The art still speaks. It still moves. It still has an effect, whether you realize it or not. I find nothing so important as this: in this consumer-driven, data-saturated world we live in, art infiltrates every corner of it.
Now you may be saying that design is just a function of marketing. It’s just trying to sell me something. There’s no authenticity to it. But good design doesn’t explicitly try to sell. That’s not the point, but the natural byproduct of a story well-told and well-placed. Good design in business simply is the truth of a thing. The people behind it, the reason for its existence, the audience it’s for and the thing that makes it special, all wrapped up into a little flying crane.
I get excited to think of all these little presents that await me around every corner. From the brilliant habitat design of a child’s animal education app to the shape of a box for light bulbs, are lives are made easier, more thoughtful and just plain lovely.
Habitats via Behance by Anais Maxin
Bulbs via Creative Bloq with art direction by Angelina Pischikova and illustrations by Anna Orlovskaya
Ok. Clearly I like what I do, sorry about that. I blacked out. Let’s dive into this week’s design that elicited such philosophical musings. Our spotlight lands on a piece called “Wasser” (“water” in Dutch) that comes to us from Zurich. It is an insurance ad for Neuenburger Versicherungen (a so very unpronounceable name for our lazy American tongues) created by the famous Siegfried Odermatt. These works are simple, direct ads, with interesting cropping and a clear focus on only type and image that “animate[s] the meaning of a word.” (Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design).
“Wasser” ad for Neuenburger Insurance
Odermatt was known as one of the developers of Swiss Design with this type of aesthetic.
Swiss design was born out of response to the artisanal Arts and Crafts movement. Characterized by extreme detail and heavy imprint of the artist, the Arts and Crafts were busy and personal. Swiss design believed that the elements of the piece should dictate design and be anything but personal, much like Constructivism (coincidentally featured in my last blog piece on a Russian propaganda poster). They also pulled from the De Stijl (think The White Stripes) movement in the Netherlands, Suprematism in Russia and the Bauhaus school in Germany. These leaned heavy into sans-serif typography, simple yet bold geometric shapes and grids as compositional foundations.
Arts & Crafts via My Modern Met – – De Stijl via Galerie – – Suprematism via Art Might
Swiss Design itself was founded on cleanliness and legibility. They believed work should be almost devoid of the artist. Photographs were favored over design. Excessive elements only distracted from the central message of any given piece. For this reason, the grid and typeface are the main building blocks of the movement. One of the head honchos of Swiss design, Josef Muller-Brockmann explained the importance of the grid:
“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 information itself drove the composition of the work, not the other way around. Artists of the Swiss Design could only do what the message allowed.
Examples of Swiss Design–Posters by Ernst Keller via MOMA
Text for the Times
The importance of the text can be seen in the movement’s more recognizable name, the International Typographic Style. Fonts such as Akzidenz-Grotesk, Univers and the ubiquitous Helvetica sprang from the great minds of Swiss design. Akzidenz-Grotesk led the pack and was known as “Standard” when it came to the US. Univers was the first to add weights to the same type family. One didn’t have to pair fonts with Univers, they could use any of the 21 subsets in combination for a piece’s display and body. Helvetica became the standard for modern type, showing up everywhere from the cover of Brave New World to the signage of the NY subway system.
Cover via AbeBooks.com Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
The use of grids and these frill-free sans serifs is back in a big way in today’s logo trends. Both are considered timeless trends, that get reimagined and dusted off every decade or so to be used in new and unexpected ways.
Helvetica via Christian Ubeda Grid system via A Friend of Mine
Siegfried Odermatt started out as a photographer and worked for a few advertising agencies. He soon got bored with this and moved over to graphic design. Completely inexperienced, he opened his first studio at age 24 (ballsy).
Soon after, he made the advertisement campaign we’re looking at today.
Translated flush left: “accident,” top left: “fire,” top right: “liability,” bottom left: “car,” bottom right: “glass.” Via Phaidon Archive of Design
“Odermatt believed that through careful consideration of concept, space, form and tone, a one-colour typographic solution could be as effective as a multi-colour one. His work also tended towards the playful and uninhibited.”
(Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design)
I agree in Odermatt’s assessment. The one color for each type of incident Neuenburger Insurance covers is both impactful and identifiable. The layout of the type mirrors and is constrained by its object/action. The addition of the tightly cropped photos drives it home. Each element is simple and close in perspective.
The type, invariably, sans serif.
The colors, primary.
The pictures, a single object that succinctly identifies the problem.
The grid influence is evident in the alignment of each work. It pushes your eyes directly to the message. Tons of white space leading to the message at the bottom of the ad works to Odermatt’s advantage. It reminds me in each of these situations, one most likely feels they’ve hit rock bottom. Nothing feels worse than a robbery or car crash. You can’t help but think, “man, I’ve got to get my shit together.” Then you’re reminded you’re insured with Neuenburger. Whew, at least there’s that.
You don’t even need to see the whole photo to understand. It’s like the rest of your world is hidden and the focus comes barreling in to this incident. Everything else fades away when tragedy strikes. If this has happened to you, odds are you have an image of it burned into your memory. Something like a broken glass window you found when you came home from work and your place had been ransacked.
The tagline of Neuenburger reads ‘Between you and adversity, put Neuenburger Insurance’. I think that’s where the playful nature comes in. Yeah, it sucks right now, but Neuenberger will make it better. There’s a buffer between you and the full scope of the pain.
Odermatt’s advertisement a brilliant appraisal of a difficult challenge. No one likes or wants to shop for insurance. We often don’t even think of these things until it’s too late. Odermatt pulls you in with the ad, softens the blow of the inevitable (cause this world will shit on you), and gives you options.
Let’s take a look at how competitors in the same age and field we’re doing the thing.
Ew. I look at those and think, ew. No offense. But in comparison to the sleek and sexy Wasser ad? No long body of text. No busy scenes full of competing images. Color! Odermatt does so much more with so much less. The ghost ad has less in the photo, but it requires explanation. Travelers does a nice job with the red umbrella. It conveys the protection the young man feels, but I have to really look at the picture. See that mom and dad are sitting with the insurance guy to get what’s going on, how Travelers is doing a damn thing in this boy’s life. Any artist knows the simpler, the better. Mark Twain writes, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Oh Marky-Mark. You’re so wise.
The fact that Wasser was out there in the same period as these ads, shows how ahead of the times Odermatt and the Swiss Design aesthetic were. It is important to note that Odermatt actually led Swiss Design away from the rigid rules it’s original proponents lived and died by. A particularly un-Swiss move was judging your work by your own standards. He didn’t leave himself in the art, but worked from his own ideals. His soul is in his work, and it does have a feel that’s all Odermatt.
Louder the More you Look
Great work can be found everywhere you turn. The Swiss Design studio changed the scene and ushered in the modern, type-heavy style we see everywhere today. In taking it back to the basics, they heralded us into the future. Odermatt pioneered this style in simple work that speaks louder the more you look at it. He made insurance sexy in the day of black-and-white-picket-fence advertising. We at Anderson Creative recently had the pleasure of bringing the identity of Martin Insurance up-to-date (see portfolio here), so we relate to Siegfried’s challenge. Hopefully ours can even stand in the same room as ‘Wasser.’ Check it out and tell us how we fared. I think ol’ Siegy would be proud.
Well that’s it for Phaidon’s: A Graphic History blog series. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride. Remember, this journey is open to you 3-6-5 in the Anderson Creative office. Come enjoy some coffee, take a ride on our scooter cooler and spend the afternoon perusing the Phaidon cards full of digital masterpieces. Not a shabby Tuesday if I do say so myself.