Visual editing

I’ve been reflecting on the influence designers have had on my writing. The likes of Mike Dempsey, Alan Fletcher, David Stocks and the team at MetaDesign London taught me that writing for design should be shaped for its context – like a plastic art – not simply thought of as type on a flat screen or page. An obvious truth, perhaps, but easily forgotten when one is on deadline and slaving over a hot Mac. Designers often make good editors because they think clearly about context and the act of reading (the good ones do, anyway). Working with great visual editors, I learnt to consider the way words interact with other design elements: images, typography, spatial organisation, colour, material, placement, navigation, and so on. Meaning is built through the relationship between elements, and the writer/editor must be integrated in the design process – must insist on being integrated into the design process – if the words are to have maximum effect.

In turn, I was reminded of a visit the great Swiss designer Josef Müller-Brockmann paid to London back in 1996. Although he was in his eighties, there was great excitement about the event amongst many young graphic designers. Part of his appeal was the extraordinary skill he had as an editor – not of writing so much, but of message, meaning and means. He would interrogate the purpose of a work-in-progress until the essence of its point was liberated from unnecessary detail, then he would work to express the message using only the minimum of creative forms. I have reservations about the rigidity of his method, but I still find his determination to clarify and condense information inspiring when I’m editing and working with designers. So often a piece of writing or a layout isn’t doing what it should because the assembled words and elements are masking rather than highlighting the message or function. Which is pointless, in every sense.

Fifteen years on, I thought it might be interesting to republish a short piece I wrote about Müller-Brockmann’s visit to London, for Graphics International magazine (now Grafik). The version below has been shortened slightly. I returned to some of the themes raised six years later, in a more outspoken article written for Design Week, and I’ve included that piece below too. I’m not sure where the world of graphic design stands today in terms of Swiss Design and modernist minimalism. I think it is probably now seen as a specific visual style – something to pastiche rather than pursue – yet I remain convinced that the intellectual rigour it requires in terms of methodology can be helpful for designers. And design writers. Much of what gets produced lacks clarity, character and a compelling sense of purpose. Perhaps Müller-Brockmann still has something to tell us?

Josef Müller-Brockmann in Graphics International

Graphics International, issue 36, 1996

Many young designers are wandering aimlessly in a confusing middle ground between commerce and creativity. On one side they are under pressure to give the client or creative director what they want, and encouraged to rework bits and pieces from whatever graphic style seems to fit. On the other, they are presented with the unwelcoming face of design intellectualism, where ‘legendary’ names are invoked and discussed but the application of their ideas to the designer’s day-to-day problems can seem far from clear. In fact, many designers who weren’t taught design history at college, and are unfamiliar with the often complex terminology involved, simply avoid it.

These two worlds – one theoretical, the other practical – can appear unconnected. However, there are signs that an increasing number of designers are looking to find answers to their own problems from the experiences of previous generations. This was demonstrated by a recent flurry of activity surrounding the Swiss designer Josef Müller-Brockmann. It started with the publication of the English language version of Swiss publisher and designer Lars Müller’s book Josef Muller-Brockmann – Pioneer of Swiss Graphic Design. It continued with a Society of Typographic Designers’ lecture at RIBA. Although hastily arranged, the lecture generated enormous interest, with more than a hundred tickets sold before it was even announced.

Watch that Child! Perhaps MB’s most famous poster

So what relevance does an eighty-two year old, retired Swiss designer have for the new generation?

It seems that a significant number of designers are confused by the dominant trend in consultancies to embrace a stylistic pick and mix, and, in a broader context, many in the design industry are confused as to what their social and cultural function is. They want a more coherent method they can apply to their work, and a clear idea of the effect their work achieves. One reason why Müller-Brockmann’s philosophy may be striking a chord is that he went through a similar search. Having worked as an llustrator and an exhibition and set designer in the ’30s and ’40s, his war-time experience and his interest in the work of Russian designers and photographers from the ’20s and ’30s led him to what he describes as a more ‘objective’ and ‘informative’ graphic style. He started to use photo-montage, employed a strict grid and – in 1952 – gave up his favourite semi-bold Grotesque typeface in favour of Akzidenz-Grotesk, which became his preferred choice for almost all work. In posters, brochures, magazines and exhibition design he continued to simplify, stripping a piece down to its essential components in search of clear, concise communication. At one stage in the 60’s he renounced any kind of illustrative representation and used only type.

In 1967 Müller-Brockmann set up an ad agency, MB & Co, in Zürich. Imagery found its way back into his work, but only the informational, graphic properties of photography and illustration were employed. As ever, simple communication of the essential message remained paramount. Disagreements with his partners led to the dissolution of MB & Co in 1976, by which time ad agencies based on the US model had come to dominate Europe. Swiss Design, as practised by Müller-Brockmann, was perceived by many to be merely a stylistic approach and not an attitude of mind. For some, it seemed devoid of warmth and fun – too regimented for the more relaxed consumer culture of the 70’s.

However, Müller-Brockmann remained true to his aesthetic principles, and at his recent lecture he continued to outline the basic philosophy of Swiss Design: “Content must always come first… Know about the importance of ideas… Good work keeps it quality.” Asked whether a designer should only use one font, he replied with a smile – “it is a bit narrow-minded,” but he continued to hammer home the message “be objective”.

Müller-Brockmann in Graphics International

Müller-Brockmann’s definition of objective is demonstrated by his work. It’s not surprising that many designers find his evangelism inspiring. In an interview with Müller-Brockmann and Lars Müller, conducted before the lecture, I asked the former whether he was aware of his influence on young British designers. “I think many of these younger designers have been left without ethical aims. I think this is possibly the reason why they want to come to hear me talk today. So many young people are waiting for ideas and substance.”

Lars Müller agrees. “I think this indicates that there is a lack of philosophical basis in the profession. I think my generation [he is 40] learnt a lot from him when he was twenty years younger, because he was still in practice and it was a very strong influence. Now it has become history, but what I tried to do in the book was transform the history into contemporary situations.”

Müller-Brockmann believes this lack of a coherent design philosophy exists in Switzerland today. However: “I think every generation has some people – usually not very many – who are thinking about and testing the rules of typography and graphic design and are getting their orientation by studying the masters from the 1920’s and 1930’s, but this comes in waves.”

Müller-Brockmann believes Swiss Design is both an attitude and a required style, but contemporary designers who have gained inspiration from his ideas will find it more practical to use them as a way to approach design problems, not as a style to be employed for every job. Müller-Brockmann’s most enduring value lies in the logic of his method: content is the key factor and any element that doesn’t enhance the communication of the message should be removed. For many designers this philosophy may seem too limiting – it restricts opportunities to introduce play and spontaneity into work and it certainly doesn’t allow for the deconstructionist games preferred by the likes of David Carson – but others have found it useful as a solid, problem-solving platform from which to develop their own design language.

A contemporary version of Swiss Design doesn’t have to mean clean lines and stark type, just the unremitting application of logic, analysis and clarity to the design process. In fact, even a designer fundamentally opposed to the aesthetics of Swiss Design will still benefit from understanding the way it clarifies and organises the design process. That’s why the words of a retired Swiss octogenarian can fill a hall with young designers.

Design Week, Private View, May 2001

A few years ago the Swiss designer Josef Müller-Brockmann visited London to address the Society of Typographic Designers (STD). In the 1950s he was a central figure in Neue Grafik, a magazine and movement of designers exploring a new and ‘objective’ approach to design. They dismissed free-hand drawing and other forms of personal expression as subjective whimsy, and preferred a tightly organised approach to graphic design founded on grids, an addiction to the Akzidenz-Grotesk typeface, geometric drawing and — later — black and white photography. Only the essential elements were retained in a work of communication. Consistency, structure, compression and clarity informed every piece. To simplify, it was Teutonic graphic minimalism.

Over a long career, Müller-Brockmann’s approach wandered in and out of popularity. He certainly had many admirers in the British design industry. But the large turnout of eager-eared young practitioners at the STD event surprised him. At first it seemed odd that his unfashionably disciplined methods should attract such a crowd, but these designers were living in a world dense with graphic pollution and working in an industry lacking creative direction and inspiring mentors. Pursuing order, space and economy in communications felt like a righteous activity.

But these were postmodern times, and the mainstream of British graphic design had long been spouting its own bastard versions of minimalism. The mission statement of commercial literature and poster design rang out; ‘In a crowded marketplace, space and simplicity help the client’s messages stand out from the competition’. There was none of Müller-Brockmann’s formalist rigour, nor any principles; it was just graphic design’s response to business Darwinism.

Today, far from being a differentiator, pared-down, tastefully spacious, elegant, restrained, refined and quiet graphic design is the dominant aesthetic in many design studios. In thousands of brochures, company reports, magazines and posters, imagery and typography are balanced harmoniously. Sparse, type-only ‘solutions’ are commonplace. Painfully small text is considered chic. White space is (still) considered daring and purist. Black space even more so.

But, unless pushed to an extreme, simplicity is now graphic normality. Where once product designer Dieter Rams’ Modernist Creed was exciting (“To me good design means as little design as possible…”), now “less-is-more” is a predictable mantra, rolled out by complacent designers to inexperienced clients. If you stop and listen you can hear the simpleton’s chorus emanating from design presentations up and down the country.

Mediocre minimalism is contagious in the design community, partly because it creates a safe ground between client and designer (in a complex world, simplicity is always attractive), but also because it encourages the average designers’ powerful urge to contain, order and control rather than open, express and liberate. Simplicity now goes unquestioned as a ‘good’ design value. Sometimes it is, but design values should shift according to context, and more often minimalism is the last refuge of designers who are not talented enough to offer a more personal and expressive response to their client’s needs.

A natural reaction to this is to hope that a wave of dandyish maximalists dance across the industry, sprinkling personality and graphic derring-do where they tread, and inspiring the complacent amongst us to take some risks. In fact, a number of our best designers do this already, it’s just that the mediocre lot are too busy staring at their screens to see.

I am not suggesting that designers should work unbridled from effectiveness (designers are not artists, after all), I am just describing an approach where the client and the design team let imagination, intuition and emotion into what they do. This approach has risks, but the end result is more likely to sing to its audience.

I love looking at Josef Müller-Brockmann’s work. I love some of the great commercial graphic minimalism from the nineties. I think that, in the hands of a really good designer, a minimal approach can still be extraordinarily unsettling, thrilling or enticing. But mediocre minimalism just makes me thirst for something shining with imagination and delight. Intelligent visual editing is essential, but it is only half the job. The other half is certainly more difficult, but then being a good designer is not about taking the easy option.


PS This book by Kerry William Purcell also provides an excellent oveview of Müller-Brockmann’s career and design work.

Stop Noise Pollution! Public service poster by Müller-Brockmann

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