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Josef Müller-Brockmann: A Swiss Graphic Designer, Author & Educator

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Josef Müller-Brockmann (1914–1996)

Celebrated designer and teacher Josef Müller-Brockmann is a pioneer of the Swiss International Style who sought a universal graphic expression through grid-based design. 

“Order was always wishful thinking for me. For 60 years I have produced disorder in files, correspondence and books. In my work, however, I have always aspired to a distinct arrangement of typographic and pictorial elements, the clear identification of priorities. The formal organisation of the surface by means of the grid, a knowledge of the rules that govern legibility (line length, word and letter spacing and so on) and the meaningful use of colour are among the tools a designer must master in order to complete his or her task in a rational and economic matter.”

Born in Switzerland, Müller-Brockmann attended the prestigious Kunstgewerbeschule—the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts and the University of Zurich where he studied design, architecture and art history. He started his design career as an apprentice to Walter Diggelman, an award winning Swiss designer and advertising consultant famous for his art deco style sports advertisements.

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As with most graphic designers classified as part of the Swiss International Style, he was largely influenced by predominant 1920s art and design movements like ConstructivismSuprematismDe Stiijl and Bauhaus. These movements favoured simplicity, legibility and objectivity and shaped his design aesthetic from his early years onwards. 

In 1936 Müller-Brockmann opened his own studio in Zurich specialising in graphics, exhibition design and photography. During this time he designed posters advertising for local businesses and concerts with a stylistic and illustrative approach—something he continually strived to simplify in favour of a more ‘universal’ style.

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His work often utilized the combination of typography and photography as a means of visual communication. His PSA poster “schutzt das Kind!”, for the Automotive Club of Switzerland, is intended to inform citizens to be alert of the dangers of vehicles on the road. Müller-Brockmann used a photograph of a motorcycle shot from a low angle and given a blurred effect to indicate speed. His use of scale, movement and energy in his imagery is why his posters were considered a successful example of photography in design.

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We start to see Josef Müller-Brockmann’s most iconic and prolific work in the years following World War II. In all of his posters during this time, you can clearly trace the geometric shapes to key focal points on the page, all aligning with a solid, universal grid system. In an interview regarding his choice of color and form, he stated that absolutely everything should have a distinct purpose on the page—anything that doesn’t clearly indicate the message you are trying to convey is useless. Even color was used very sparingly in Müller-Brockmann’s work as seen in the poster Der Film, 1960.

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As his own style continued to gain fame, it opened the door into teaching. Perhaps one of Josef Müller-Brockmann’s greatest accomplishments was as a mentor, working as a Professor of Graphic Design at Kunstgewerbeschule and touring globally as a lecturer.

“I would advise young people to look at everything they encounter in a critical light. Then I would urge them at all times to be self-critical.”

Ray Eames and Milton Glaser are just a few of the many famous designers of the twentieth century that felt influenced by his pioneering ideas. While there are some objections to the rigidity of his movement and his style has wandered in and out of popularity throughout the years, there’s no denying Josef Müller-Brockmann set the standard for neutral, functional and objective design.

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Throughout his long standing career he managed to established himself as the country’s leading practitioner and theorist of the Swiss International Style. Of his many contributions to the style was his use of sans-serif typography, grids and asymmetrical layouts.

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“Such a system of arrangement compels the designer to be honest in his use of design resources. It requires him to come to terms with the problem in hand and to analyse it. It fosters analytical thinking and gives the solution of the problem a logical and material basis.”

Müller-Brockmann wrote several prolific design books during his time—most notably Grid Systems in Graphic Design, known as the definitive word on using grid systems in graphic design. His books provide an in-depth analysis of his work practices, philosophies and provide an excellent foundation for young graphic designers wishing to learn more about the profession. 

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“The grid system is an aid, not a guarantee. It permits a number of possible uses and each designer can look for a solution appropriate to his personal style. But one must learn how to use the grid; it is an art that requires practice.”

Josef Müller-Brockmann can be described in many words but it is his legacy that makes him one of the most prolific designers of the twentieth century.

“’Principled’ is the word which I believe best describes my friend J. Muller-Brockmann. Simplicity is his guide in type or talk. His is the patience of Job as teacher, taskmaster, collector, or inquirer. He is as much at home with Varese as he is with Verrocchio, with tennis as with touring. He is ‘a man of quality’. He has not succumbed to the fads of art, nor the pressures of the marketplace. Neither Art Nouveau nor advertising jargon is in his lexicon. His ideas, like his ideals, are universal- timeless. In his field he has few peers. My thoughts concerning M.B. may perhaps best be summed up by this geometric analogy: So the circle is perfect, so is his integrity. As the square is simple, so is his work. As the triangle is strong, so are his beliefs.”—Paul Rand

Discover more about Josef Müller-Brockmann in one of his last interviews—his Q&A with Eye Magazine published before his death. 

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