“If I was doing a book cover I might make it look quite comic-y, but if I’m doing a comic cover I’d possibly make it look like a book, just to work against the grain,” he says.

Again, the inspiration was the Penguin book covers and 1950s classical and Blue Note jazz LPs.

The classically new
Retro design is all around us. It’s in the 1950s Stella Artois ad campaign, Recyclage De Luxe, led by Mother and designed by Cristiana Courceiro for brewer InBev. Essentially a marketing campaign based on recycling, it employs a slightly tongue-in-cheek, 1950s look to communicate the enduring quality and stylishness of the product, as well using something from the past (recycled metal) to create something new (cans of beer).

The Cristiana Courceiro-designed Recyclage De Luxe campaign for Stella Artois plays on retro imagery to underline both the eco-friendly characteristics and the quality of the product.

Another recent campaign to use retro to denote glamour was Virgin Holidays’ cheeky ‘We’ve Taken Everything Off We Can’ series of ads, which tapped into another popular retro trend – burlesque – and ran across posters, billboards, TV spots and print ads.

But it is the Swiss school’s principle of simplicity, its insistence on clarity of thought and purpose, that makes it so relevant and useful to contemporary designers – especially for the newest of new media.

Hughes has also recently designed a clock application for the iPhone with developer Craig Llewellyn Williams (who works as Chili X). It displays the time as six digits: two for hours, two for minutes and two for seconds.

In many ways it’s similar to the classic ‘digital’ clocks of the 1950s, which displayed the time as rolodex-style leaved numbers. Despite this – and in keeping with its end use as an app for a high-tech phone – the clock is far more contemporary in look and feel.

It uses the Hughes-designed typeface Strand, for instance. Its seconds change brightness as they near the minute, from bleached out at ‘00’ to very dark at ‘58’.

The right direction
The clarity of thought that Swiss design values so highly is also key to creating wayfinding systems such as infographic map signs.

“The thing about wayfinding,” says Atelier Works’ Ian Chilvers, “is that it requires a very clear mind to analyse an environment.”

He explains that the designer must work out who uses the environment and how they use it – when and why they hesitate, where they go within the space, and what information they will need to help them at each particular point. Where a sign is needed, Atelier Works must figure out what information that sign needs – and what information it doesn’t.

“So clarity and simple design is a prerequisite,” explains Chilvers.

Clear design is pretty complex. It must be a fitting and carefully thought-out response to its particular context, rather than a vapid name-check of particular fonts, patterns or colour palettes. When retro design works, it’s because it’s influenced by Swiss design’s thought processes as well as its motifs.

“Everything that I do that works comes out of a solid appreciation of the content,” says Rian Hughes. “The content will take you places that you wouldn’t have thought to go otherwise. It’s another way to generate ideas. In fact, it’s the best way. The bad way is to think, oh, it’s time for a bit of retro style. It’s popular at the moment, let’s slap a bit of retro typography on something. That’s not design in the proper sense. It’s not conceptually sound.”