The design shouldn’t uselessly babble and scream until it’s foaming at the mouth.

It should speak clearly and be easily understood. It should have a charming level of clarity and character as all parts are given a reason for taking up space.

It has to be quickly and easily understood, as elements accent the message and design, never drowning them.

This is where the soul of the early 20th century modernist lives.

Fifty years before the Swiss movement really got some bounce, The New Typography got the ball rolling.

It started as the 20th century was moving into its early years, with the Bauhaus and the Futurist art movements fueling the fire.

Before the design was clean, it was messy. Before it was quiet, it was loud. Very loud. To the modernist, this wasn’t appropriate. It wasn’t easy to digest information and too much intervention upon the message was being done by the designer.

Let’s have a look at where it all began for the modernists — with The New Typography.

Snuffing the Beauty of the Message

It could be said that all design is beautiful. All design has a meaning to it—something it is trying to say or do.

The role of the designer is to nurture this beauty. To let its natural form come from an unobstructed function. In other words, the easier it is for a strong message to speak clearly, the more beautiful it will be. A butterfly held too tightly and all those clichés.

But at the end of the 19th century this wasn’t the case.

“The beauty was imposed and pushed upon the message,
rather than found within it”

It would appear that the designers of this time weren’t so confident in the messages their pages spoke.

In an effort to gain attention and add beauty, ornaments of flourishes, illustrations, borders and images were added in abundance as the beauty was imposed and pushed upon the message, rather than found within it.

White space was filled as it wasn’t seen as a design element. It was a quietness in the message, and the message can’t be quiet! It won’t be seen! It must scream and yell and steal attention.

Featured in The New Typography, Tschichold proclaims with a tone of absurdity:
“… not an invitation to a garden party but a funeral!”

And, oh, how the typography suffered! So many faces stacked high on each other, at random sizes and weights, balanced on a central axis and often crammed into whatever space was available. An element on the left must be weighed and mirrored on the right!

Rather than try to carve the statue of the message out of the stone, a lot of the designers were trying to make the stone.

All of this gave way to loud messages. They were becoming harder to hear as their designs began to scream louder and louder in an effort to gain the audience they demanded from all the other screaming messages.

Designer, Audience — Meet Clarity

Clarity is what was needed, and the Bauhaus and Futurist movements gave some designers a new idea of how it should be achieved.

These designers (Jan Tschichold was particularly the driving force behind such thought and literally wrote the book on The New Typography) didn’t just want a new way of expressing the message. They wanted to change culture and the way messages were perceived.

A brochure announcing The New Typography, strongly representing many of the principles Tschichold writes about. Note the strong contrasts, the hierarchy in font sizes and use of an asymmetric layout. (1928)

Spread from NKF cableworks catalogue designed by Piet Zwart.
The imagery and text dance with one another, rather than one simply pointing to the other. (1928)

“If the message could be understood easily,
it wouldn’t have to be spoken loudly”

What we might now see as ideas and thoughts on how to design a page, at the time the modernists saw strict rules that must be adhered to. The hope being to help man love his culturally different brother by tearing down walls of design and expression that divided.

If the message could be understood easily, it wouldn’t have to be spoken loudly. With so much striving to be seen, an empty page which merely stated “here I am, here is my message” would have been a visual haven.

Cover of Elementare Typographie, a 24-page document designed and written by Jan Tschichold to explain his ideals relating to typography and design. (1925)

It was seen as necessary to push dramatic changes and not gentle suggestions. It was no small change they wished to see, so an overzealous mentality was essential.

Such strong feelings were generally seen as extreme many years later, even by those who screamed the loudest for them, but it makes it all the more interesting to look at things from their point of view for this introduction.

Why, It’s Design, Naturally!

A natural way to communicate was sought after. An organic design for the page, a natural form from the function, in which every element on the page was deliberate in its size and position. Every piece of text danced with the next, every image and line and shape worked in harmony to do one thing: communicate the message clearly.

“Each word must give way to the next.
Each block of text must guide the eye to the following”

Everything on the page is there to support the message and show its innate character. The way in which these elements are laid out are very important. Each word must give way to the next. Each block of text must guide the eye to the following.

An invite to a lecture being held by Tschichold. “The lecture will be accompanied by over a hundred, mostly full-color slides; a discussion will not take place” reads the last sentence — clearly carrying an armful of conviction. Text swings so well from the red rule at the top that the eye is guided to the grounded box in the corner.

Another Tschichold example; showing how the image is wrapped
by the path of white space that’s set out for the eye to run.

Contrasts & Simplicity

This is best done through strong contrasts.

Contrasts in the size of type, in the weights and colour of it. The shapes it made and, especially, the white space it is guarded by. The very black to the very white.

A favorite of the modernist designer was combining black with red and the white of a page. If the heading is going to be bigger than the body, it must be far bigger because it is much more important — it draws us in. The colour shouldn’t be slightly different, but dramatically, so it can creates an intoxicating tension so we can’t help but nod to our voyeuristic lusts for the extreme.

Firing contrast on all cylinders (colour, type, size, shape).
The conversation on the right is calmed by the circle on the left. The shape of this one is a roller-coaster that pulls the eyes at a scream. “For the Voice” by El Lissitzky (1923).

Contrast in type sizes strongly establish hierarchy as the orange
works as a highlight which sings a siren song for the viewer’s vision. Herbert Bayer (1926).

A great way to achieve a beautiful contrast is by fully considering the white space of a page. The background can be brought to the front so that a block of text is asymmetrically balanced by the white space to its side. This was one of the biggest ideas that was played with and a major aspect of the early modernist’s doctrine.

Rather than fill the white space, it can be left empty so that what mattered would be seen and you wouldn’t be distracted by things around it—this empty space can guide the eye.

But above all, the strong contrast of font sizes, of colour and asymmetry of a page must have a reason that ties it to the message, how it’s being told and given its place with purpose. White space can’t be left empty for no reason, font sizes and margins and alignment can’t be defined without legitimacy.

Sometimes the message is just the message. It might not have an inner meaning that can be brought forward (think of a letterhead for a metal-works business or an advert for an accountant — often dry, huh?).

But this doesn’t mean that order can’t be given and brought forward. Sizes of type should be deliberate so that it is clear what is important and what’s to be read first, then second, third and so on. Whatever is on the page should be deliberately and thoughtfully put in its place.

This P-Block was designed by Piet Zwart as his personal logo, and when in use on this letterhead helps demonstrate the power contrast and balance a simple shape can bring to the page.

The eye is so strongly guided along the top, then swings around the circle but is caught by the small line of text which pulls you from the edge and sends you towards the names. Lovely! Such character and animation from a one colour cover! Hannes Meyer (1928).

Another fine example of contrast in font sizes to help establish hierarchy. The circle that hugs VORTAG is as strong as anything on the page, but with the space and reading direction around it, one can’t help but be drawn straight to it. Herbert Bayer (1926).

But contrast alone isn’t enough — simplicity is the key. The design should be simple so the contrast has a strong role on the stage, not just serve as the supporting act.

There should be fewer images so the ones shown draw attention, the colour palette should be deliberately limited, so what’s there has more power. Even the fonts should be simple.

Jan Tschichold, would later flip-flop and call bodies set in a sans as ‘genuine torture on the eyes.’ Serifs? Why would one use serif faces? They have these little kicks on them that are left from the time of chisels and crude materials. They are extra ornament and do nothing but clutter the page! Sans serifs are what needed, even for long bodies of text. Or so the thought went.

Give Me One Reason To Stay Here

It is said that Josef Muller-Brockmann engineered his pages rather than crafted them. Everything must be rationalised. Nothing can be done by eye as the page should be engineered and each element must find its place among the next. The size, leading, colour and length of every piece of text must be considered. Images have to speak with the text in a conversation fitted within the page.

“Type shouldn’t be bigger because you want it bigger,
but … because it deserves attention”

A rule and a circle and a square shouldn’t be added because something should be added, they should naturally find their places in an effort to bring balance and tracks for the eye to run along — they must belong so the message is strengthened. Type shouldn’t be bigger because you want it bigger, but because it needs to be bigger, because it deserves the attention.

To Seek Beauty in Form Itself

Remember what Paul Rand said — “Don’t try to be original; just try to be good.” It is the message above all else that matters. Never the whims of the designer who throws their selfish desires onto the page, snuffing the message and hoping desperately to make it look cool and awesome and clever.

This is what modernist design was all about three to four decades into the 20th century. Uncompromising—almost harsh—ways of communicating effectively.

This revolution of thought moved forward and would eventually be used wisely, and with less strict rules, as the Swiss (or the less romantic International Typographic Style) movement.

How could it not? Both were primarily concerned with clarity. But the difference is that while the early modernists would say “This is the only way to communicate” the Swiss inspired designers would say “This is one way to communicate, this is a starting point, let’s discover others.”

This early stage of modernism is fascinating to anyone who takes design seriously.

It can teach us so much about why people started to work this way. Why clean is better than messy — what pushed the mind-set of designers from one to the other. This is why I call this article an introduction — because there is a lot to look at, much more than mere thick rules, sans-serif faces and minimalism. There are ideas to be discussed.

It’s as important today to justify ones design decisions as it was in the 20s and 30s. It’s what makes our profession professional, it’s what makes the communication we speak easier to hear and it doesn’t let anything get between the message and the audience. It is what good design is all about — communication. It is this elegant simplicity which we mustn’t forget, as it’s what makes the work of the early modernists so beautiful.


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Grain Edit
Grain Edit is one of those few graphic design blogs that does what it does perfectly. A constant source of inspiration and beautiful work of modernist graphic design and illustration.

Swiss Graphic Design: The Origins and Growth of an International Style, 1920-1965 at
A good look at the International Style that gave modernism in graphic design a marvelous upbringing