Designers are always dipping into the the past, looking for tried and tested forms to combine with cutting-edge techniques. In the past few years, creatives have plundered street art and fanzines to create a messed-up aesthetic. They’ve also been revisiting the early 1990s, pitting the grunge look against rave colours and motifs.

Currently, though, a new wave of designers, illustrators and artists are harking back to an earlier age, drawing on the sleek, geometric designs and patterns of the 1950s Swiss School of design and the other classic forms it spawned. This contrasts starkly with the detailed ‘dirty’ aesthetic we’ve all got used to – though from the designers’ point of view it’s more about playing with classic design principles than pure pastiche.

Rather than replicating classic designs, artists have used them as stepping-off point – from using ultra-modern, ultra-clean printing techniques to mixing the look with more recent design styles – as seen in Middle Boop’s work on our cover.

International Year of Astronomy 2009 poster by Simon Page.

Others take classic designs and ‘age’ them with grungy textures for a contrast of clean and dirty. But all draw heavily on the design rules and theories originally laid down by the Swiss school.

The Swiss school dates from the mid-20th century, when a clique of Swiss designers set a standard for graphics that is still influential today.

Inspired by designers Max Huber, Max Bill, Josef Müller-Brockmann and their peers, the Swiss school revolutionised graphic design with its emphasis on organisation and clarity, and its use of grids, white space and sans-serif fonts such as Akzidenz Grotesk.

Many non-Swiss designers are linked to the Swiss School due to a shared outlook, influences and the simple fact of working in the same era, such as German typographer Jan Tschichold and US designer Paul Rand. What they shared was a love of functionality, utility and clarity.


Recyclage De Luxe posters designed by Cristiana Courceiro.

You could say that we’ve never really abandoned the concepts these pioneers championed – creatives continue to borrow from their work or follow their theories. However, at the moment their clean, common-sense approach is enjoying renewed prominence. For some creatives, the Swiss school’s theories are simply how they work, a key part of their design philosophy.

“It may have its origins in Europe and Swiss design, but I like to call it common sense and clarity, really,” sums up Ian Chilvers, principal of London studio Atelier Works.

by Andy Glimore.

Like the Bauhaus before it, the Swiss International Style was influenced by the machine age – a time of mass mechanical reproduction. While its designers used methods such as phototypesetting, contemporary designers are firmly in the grip of the computer. Digital design makes creating work cheap and easy – but it also runs the danger of enabling design that looks exactly that: cheap and easy.

The maturing digital sector, once so quick to disregard the lessons of previous generations of designers, is now more receptive to old teachers. There’s still demand for effects-heavy design, but more clients want clean, easy-to-navigate work, rather than flashy, effects-driven solutions that can be slow to load and confusing to use. Also, where once there was a split between print and web, newer media – and applications such as mobile phone apps – as well as the public’s heightened appreciation of usability and user experience – have all helped this push toward clarity.

But beyond that, there’s fashion: it’s cyclical. There are times when the freshest treatment of something is to pare it down to its bare essence – especially if this contrasts with a current trend.

A retake on the Inner Space movie poster
by Brandon Schaefer.

“I have a book of the old Penguin [book] covers,” says designer Brandon Schaefer. “I was flipping through them. The fact that they’re able to take an idea and distil it down to simple imagery, I thought that was pretty cool.”

This led directly to his self-commissioned experiments designing Blu-ray DVD covers, including such titles as Robin Hood and Jaws, as well as a series of posters including one for The Dark Knight.

“If you try to distil things down to a concrete idea that you can communicate to other people, you’re on a pretty good footing,” he continues. “So I thought this would be a nice exercise.

I thought wouldn’t it be neat if you took those [7-inch] record sleeves and did something like that for Blu-rays, making them aged a bit to add flavour.”

Leading designer Rian Hughes’ work for Marvel Comics’ Iron Man franchise is based on a similar principle.