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“By itself, typography is as boring as hell,”
stated Wolfgang Weingart, the man who
stood Swiss typographic design on its head.
“What makes it exciting is how you interpret
it.” The tenets of Swiss design, later the
International Typographic Style, emerged
from the traditions of the Bauhaus, the New
Typography of the 1920s and 1930s, and de
Stijl. Sans-serif typography and objective
photography—photographs that do not
seduce or make exaggerated claims—were
positioned on an underlying mathematical
grid of verticals and horizontals in a
harmonic relationship derived from objective
and functional
Switzerland’s neutrality in World
War II provided a sanctuary for pioneering
designers Max Bill and Theo Balmer to
continue their explorations begun at the
Bauhaus. A booming postwar economy heightened industry’s demand
for publicity and the rationalist design ethic prospered, spreading to
Germany, Basel, and Zurich, and eventually to the design community at
large. Emil Ruder and Armin Hofmann began teaching at the Allegemeine
Gewerbeschule (Basel School of Design) the same year, 1947, establishing
their own version of typographic principles based on a correct balance
between form and function, the sanctity of readability, and the belief in an
absolute and universal graphic expression.
After a three-year apprenticeship as a hand typesetter with a small
printer in Stuttgart, Wolfgang Weingart met Armin Hofmann by chance in
1963 when he inquired about his and Ruder’s classes at the School of
Design in Basel. Although he studied briefly with both teachers a year later,
Weingart considers himself an educational orphan, a failed student of
Ruder’s and underexposed to the teachings of Hofmann, who left for India
shortly after Weingart arrived. “I had a special understanding with Ruder
and he let me use the workshops whenever I wanted,” Weingart said in an
In this pristine academic environment, the perpetually restless
Weingart began to question: Why does type need to be flush left and
ragged right? Why do paragraphs need to be indented? He didn’t want to
reject all that came before, just expand it. In 1968 the Advanced Course for
Graphic Design was started, and Weingart was offered a position on the
typography faculty. His contributions to graphic design’s lexicon are
considerable: wide letterspacing, layering of photographic and typographic
imagery, solid bands and blocks of reversed type, grids implied then
violated, underlining, unconventional mixing of type sizes and weights,
diagonal type, and using geometric shapes and typographic units as
illustrative devices—all elements that would later be adopted as
contemporary mannerisms. Is Weingart pleased? Hardly. He would
condemn this list as “design cream” that has been skimmed off and used as
disembodied fragments by designers who don’t think for themselves. “I
never intended to create a ‘style,’” Weingart said. He did intend to discover
a new visual attitude and method of experimentation based on a solid