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Design for understanding? Watch the Swiss.

Posted by Chad O'Connor  June 4, 2013 11:00 AM

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Revolutions in computing and communications have produced a relentless flood of information about our world and ourselves—right down to our DNA. Today, Boston’s research and technology sectors generate, process and interpret huge amounts of data across industries, from global business to personal genomics.

This information gives us fresh insight and new answers, but presents its own critical questions. Namely, how do we each understand it?

Boston’s universities, including Northeastern, and information design firms, such as Fathom, Visual I/O and Small Design are leading the response to this new challenge. Through experimental, theoretical, and developmental work in the design and visualization of information, designers are mapping a brave new landscape of visible language that helps us imagine and invent our futures, guide our personal and collective decisions, and navigate our daily lives.

It is no small task.

The complexities presented by enormous amounts of information—or “big data”—exacerbate issues of interpretation, point of view, and comprehension. Rendering large amounts of complex information to be useful and meaningful requires an extremely sophisticated level of design. To present information as clearly as possible to people with different perceptions, cultures and languages, we often employ visual methods.

Today, the most effective visual tools and methods are being invented and employed by design specialists trained across many disciplines and practices to work with exploding sources of data and dynamic visualizations. But underlying principles of graphic design developed and refined by the Swiss over decades of careful practice remain effective.

Swiss style
Twentieth-century Swiss design relies on the core design principles of clarity, precision, and rigor. Characterized by minimalist, geometric, and symbolic form, logically laid out on a grid system, Swiss graphic design teaches us three key lessons for interpreting big data:

1. Less is more
The key to translating data lies in the clarity of the end product. In the 1950’s and 60’s Swiss designers developed a visual language for their works that stemmed from the modernist teaching of the Bauhaus. Combining sans serif typefaces, photography, and strong, contrasting colors, designers like Max Bill and Karl Gerstner gave birth to a minimalist style that relied on removing the unnecessary and emphasizing the essential.

Today, this aspect of Swiss style remains a critical component of successful infographics which convey a concise message.

2. Snap to grid
In 1961, Josef Müller-Brockmann brought a grid system to the forefront of Swiss graphic design—completely changing the strategy behind content organization. According to Müller-Brockmann, a designer should turn to a grid system for:

Systematization for a clear message
Concentration to focus on essential ideas
Objectivity (not subjectivity)
Proper integration of color, form, and material
A balance between surface and space

When properly executed, this grid system guides designers to produce well-structured, balanced works where relationships of elements are carefully composed.

In the age of exponential connectivity, super computing, and the escalating sources of big data, organization of information is crucial to understanding. Without a structural format for compiling and presenting information, the value in our data is quickly lost. Following Müller-Brockmann’s lead, the most effective current designs utilize some form of the grid system for structuring relationships, hierarchy and category to offer the reader a logical confidence with which to grasp complex ideas in the blink of the eye.

3. Geometry rules
A quick Google image search for “Swiss Graphic Design” immediately shows the prevalence of consistent design elements and primitive symbolic shapes. A synthesis of native Swiss minimalism, regular grid systems, and elemental geometry has carried Swiss design from its historical roots and midcentury birth into modern graphic design practices. The continued use of abstract geometric patterns, precise color placement, and font size contrasts is done intentionally with a specific structure and balance in mind.

Built on the primary elements of design (color, shape, and line), the geometric concepts embodied by Swiss design give us a rational structure upon which to present insightful, yet clear, visual information.

“Swiss Style Reboot”
Data design and visualization that is informed by these principles becomes easier to interpret, more meaningful, and more useful in our daily lives. To further explore this idea, Northeastern University’s College of Arts, Media and Design and swissnex Boston have opened “Swiss Style Reboot,” an exciting exhibition curated by Geneva-based SwissInfographics. It presents information graphics by pioneers of Swiss design demonstrating the lasting impact and value of these core design principles of clarity, precision and rigor.

On June 20, 2013, Northeastern’s Department of Art + Design, swissnex and SwissInfographics will convene a symposium of many of the major theorists, researchers, and practitioners working in these areas, from Geneva to Boston. We invite Boston’s data and design communities to join us on June 20 for this conversation on our future work together in this emergent, creative, and vital field of study and practice.


“Swiss Style Reboot” opens tonight in Gallery 360 at Northeastern University, with a reception from 6 – 9 PM. “Information Design and Data Visualization Boston 2013,” takes place on June 20. Both events are free and open to the public.

Visit northeastern.edu/camd/swissstyle for more information and links to register.

Professor Nathan Felde is Chair of the Art + Design Department in the College of Arts, Media and Design at Northeastern University, which will launch a new Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Information Design and Visualization in the Fall of 2013 to prepare designers for this work at an advanced level.

Andreas Rufer is Deputy Consul and Project Leader for Arts, Culture and Society at swissnex Boston, the Consulate of Switzerland, and has spearheaded the coordination of this exhibit.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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