Great Graphic Design Ch.2

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This article is continued from Chapter 1: 1920s-1940s. This second chapter picks up in the 1950s in a post-war period, certainly in Europe, when there was a sense of idealism among designers that design was part of that need to rebuild, to reconstruct, to make things more open, make them run more smoothly, be more democratic. Then into the 60s, when brighter colors had become more fashionable, when Pop art had a decisive influence on design, restrained functionalism gave way to experimentation and bold design, fueled by popular culture, a consumer boom, and the increasing spending power of the youth.

Chapter 2: 1950s1970s

1955 The Man with the Golden Arm poster

One of the most renowned graphic designers of the 20th century, Saul Bass liked to design not just the film poster but a whole visual identity for a film—marketing material, the cover for the original soundtrack recording, and even the title sequence. Among his best known designs is the poster artwork for Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm, a movie with a main image that breaks from the tradition that would have featured a photograph of Frank Sinatra’s face, and instead focuses on the jagged silhouette of an arm to symbolize the character’s battle with heroin addiction.

The Man with the Golden Arm poster, 1955 | Saul Bass


This dramatic image, which is positioned slightly off-center, stands out against the informal lettering of the title and credits, the broad blocks of color and the stark white background (appearing to clutch at empty space in a gesture of despair), and slices through the film’s title in a graphic gesture of violence. The portraits of the movie’s stars were added later at the insistence of the film studio.

Saul Bass worked directly with master calligrapher Maury Nemoy to create distinctive lettering. The characters are regular in height, thickness, and position, creating an unsettling effect. The broad areas of color are like torn strips of paper that extend across the poster with uneven edges and set at slightly odd angles—another means by which Bass adds to the sense that nothing is quite as it should be.

Preminger was so impressed with the image that he asked Bass, who was interested in animation, to integrate the arm into the movie’s opening title sequence. Both the titles and poster combine great graphic sophistication, with a disturbing quality that reflects the film’s disquieting subject matter.


1955 Beethoven poster

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 manner.—Joseph Müller-Brockmann

As with most practitioners of the Swiss graphic style, Joseph Müller-Brockmann was influenced by the ideas of several different design and art movements, namely Constructivism and the Bauhaus (and De Stijl, Suprematism). His work was described as an adaptation of concrete art; created by principles of colors, space, light and movement—the most genuine means of composition, and absent any allusions to phenomena of nature and their abstraction. His geometric style, which drew on the language of Constructivism, was demonstrated in Musica Viva, a series of concert posters for the Zurich Tonhalle in 1951, and incorporated mathematical methods of spatial organization into graphic work to create a visual correlative to the structural harmonies of the music.

Music Viva posters, 1951 | Joseph Müller-Brockmann


Likewise, Müller-Brockmann’s 1955 poster, Beethoven, was offered as an expression of Beethoven’s music through a series of concentric curves, and impressed with its the novelty, elegance and the simplicity of design.

Beethoven poster, 1955 | Joseph Müller-Brockmann

In my designs for posters, advertisements, brochures and exhibitions, subjectivity is suppressed in favour of a geometric grid that determines the arrangement of the type and images. The grid is an organisational system that makes it easier to read the message […] The grid is an organisational system that enables you to achieve an orderly result at a minimum cost. The task is solved more easily, faster and better. It brings the arbitrary organisation of text into a logical system in keeping with the conflict. It can demonstrate uniformity that reaches beyond national boundaries, a boon to advertising from which IBM, for instance, has profited. Objective-rational design means legible design, objective information that is communicated without superlatives or emotional subjectivity.—Joseph Müller-Brockmann

However, Muller-Brockmann was not the first designer to use girds, nor was Wim Crouwel; two-column grids and even baseline grids can be found in old manuscripts that date back to Greece, where it permeated more than graphic design: interior and exterior design of Greek architecture. Grids give stucture to positive and negative space, and allow a place for rest: a silence.

I’m always interested in clarity. It should be clear, it should be readable, it should be straight-forward. So […] for my designs, […] I invented a grid and within the gird I played my game, but always along the lines of the grid so that there is certain order in it. For me it’s a tool for creating order, and creating order is typography.—Wim Crouwel

1957 Helvetica typeface

Typefaces have an inherent emotion; they give words a certain coloring. Helvetica emerged in the 1950s, in a post-war period where there was a sense of social responsibility among designers and the early experiments of the high-modernist period started to be broken down, rationalized, codified. The emergence of the international typographic style, or Swiss style, coincided with the need for rational typefaces that may be applied to contemporary information such as sign systems or corporate identity, and present those visual expressions of the modern world to the public in an intelligible, legible way.

Lufthansa, 1969 | Olt Aicher

The use of sans serif typefaces such as Helvetica in bold arrangements and asymmetrical layouts based on carefully planned grids became widely associated with Swiss designers in the 1950s. This graphic style endured long after the end of the decade, partly because it was widely used in the corporate identities of international companies. On of the most influential was the corporate identity for Lufthansa, in Helvetica, designed by Otl Aicher in 1969. Another was that of American Airlines, designed by Massimo Vignelli at Unimark International in 1968, with the novelty at the time of the one word AmericanAirlines, half red, half blue, just separated by color:

What could be more American than red and blue? This one is perfect. It’s the only airline in the last forty years that has not changed their identity; all the airlines comes and go and they change it. How are they going to improve it? They’ve got the best already: AmericanAirliens in Helvetica. […] When Helvetica came about, we were already for it; it just had all the right connotation that we were looking for, for anything that had to spell out loud and clear, ‘Modern.’—Massimo Vignelli

American Airlines, 1968 | Unimark

The corporate identity in fact lasted fourty-five years, until 2013, when it was redesigned in favor of a standalone logo and monocromatic wordmark typed in Frutiger.

Helvetica was a real step from the 19th century typeface. It was a little more machined; it was doing away with the manual details in it, and we were impressed by that because it was more neutral, and neutral was a word that we loved, you know: it should be neutral; it shouldn’t have a meaning in itself. The meaning is in the content of the text and not in the typeface, and that’s why we loved Helvetica very much.—Wim Crouwel

Helvetica, which is now everywhere—on street-signs, packaging and computer screens, was a product of the Modern movement in the 1950s, when early sans serif typefaces, then generally known as grotesques, were popular with many printers and graphic designers for the elegant simplicity and clarity of the letterforms. Eduard Hoffmann, president of the Swiss Haas Type foundry, wanted lettering that could compete with the popular typeface of the time, Akzidenz-Grotesk, and commissioned Max Miedinger to design a new typeface. The result was unassuming but distinctive; the x-height was generous, the strokes terminated either horizontally or vertically, and the typeface was set with very close spacing between the letters. This made it dense and created a strong impact, but the large x-height kept the letters legible.

Helvetica, 1957 | Max Miedinger

The bowl of the lowercase ‘a’ curves upward where it joins the upright stem, creating a teardrop-shaped white space inside the letter. The tail of the ‘a’ also has a slight upward curve. These features, and the slight variations in the width of the stokes, give the letter a distinctive character.

The horizontal bar of the capital G extends further to the left than it does in many fonts. It is similar in length to the downward pointing stroke or spur, and the resulting right angle gives the letter a strong geometric character.


The leg of the upper-case R curves where it joins the bowl, while maintaining a uniform stroke width from top to bottom. The leg also has a tiny curve at the base. These features contrast with the same letter in Akzidenz-Grotesk, which has an R with a straight, diagonal leg.

The tail of the t curves through 90 degrees and terminates vertically. There is a slight, subtle tapering of the stroke so that the tail does not dominate the letter. The tail is kept short so that the letter has a narrow overall width. complexion. The dot at the base of the exclamation point is a perfect square and matches the square full point and square dots on Helvetica’s j and i.

New York Subway signs, 1966 | Massimo Vignelli

When you talk about the design of the Haas Neue Grotesk, or Helvetica, what it’s all about is the interrelationship of the negative shape, the figure-ground relationship, the shapes between characters and within characters, with the black if you like, with the inked surface, and the Swiss pay more attention to the background, so that the counters and the space between characters just hold the letters. I mean, you can’t imagine anything moving: it is so firm, it’s not a letter that’s bent to shape, it’s a letter that lives in a powerful matrix of surrounding space.—Mike Parker, Director of Typographic Development Mergenthaler Linotype USA, 1961-1981

Miedinger and Hoffman called the typeface Neue Haas Grotesk, but when it was a success with the printers and designers, then licensed to the Linotype company, producers of widely used typesetting machinery, this version of the typeface was given a new name: Helvetica—a variant on Helvetia, an allegory of Switzerland, which indicated its origin and linked it with the modern or “Swiss” style. Helvetica soon became the name for all the versions of the font family that is now become part of daily life.

Erik Spiekerman shared an alternate perspective on Helvetica and the whole Swiss ideology as it applies to typography, he said, “the guy who designed it tried to make all the letters look the same,” then exclaimed, “Hello!? That’s called an army, that’s not people, because people having the same fucking helmet on doesn’t further individuals. And the aim with type design is always to make it individual enough so that it’s interesting but, of course, ninety-five percent of any alphabet has to look like the other alphabet otherwise you wouldn’t be able to read it.”

A real typeface needs rhythm, needs contrast, it comes from handwriting, and that’s why I can read your handwriting, you can read mine, and I’m sure our handwriting is miles away from Helvetica or anything that would be considered legible but you can read it because there’s a rhythm to it, there’s a contrast to it. Helvetica hasn’t got any of that. […] Actually, Helvetica was a good type for the time, but now it’s become one of those defaults, partly because of the proliferation of the computer, which is now twenty years, it was the default on the Apple Macintosh and then became default on Windows, which copied everything that Apple did, as you know, interface and everything else, and then did the clone version, Arial, which is worst than Helvetica but fills the same purpose. Now, […] it is ubiquitous; it’s the default; it’s air, you know, it’s just there. There’s no choice: you have to breath so, you have to use Helvetica.—Erik Spiekerman

1967 Dylan’s Greatest Hits poster

Milton Glaser had to be on this list, and I was not about heart New York for several paragraphs. Admittedly, the I heart NY logo is a multifaceted encapsulation of human communication, language and the abstraction thereof, and the graphic ensemble certainly merits a few sentences. Glaser also co-founded New York Magazine more than a decade earlier, which he left in 1977, but also in New York in that same year, he designed the symbol pro bono for the empire state development corporation—the agency that handles tourism for the state of New York. It was part of a campaign to inspire a sense of civic pride in a time and place commemorated by an entire genre of movies dedicated to making it look like one of the most dangerous places to live.

The state of the State of New York needed a new look, and it kind of got one: I Love NY; the logo was an overwhelming success. It still is—Glaser doesn’t really get it, and he’s really done with it, though he offers that the success of I Love NY has less to do with what it represents than what it is. Perhaps it persists because of its layers of language, with a letter, a symbol, and an acryonym, as Glaser said: “When you give somebody the opportunity to figure out a puzzle […] it persists in the brain; that’s the way things remain memorable. […] That issue of being able to understand what you’re looking at has always been such throughout my work.”

I Love NY, 1977 | Milton Glaser

It has more to do with the peculiarity of brain function than it does any kind of logic, it has something to do with the rigidity of that letter-form and the attempt at the grid to contain the erotic nature of the heart, there’s something that creates an act of closure in peoples mind when they see it, that they want repeated, that doesn’t bore them, […] maybe it’s a profound mystery, why people are willing to look at certain things over and over and over. […] Well, maybe beyond the “I Love New York”, and the phrase, and the meaning to city, there is simply the mystery of form: why does a certain curve, and a certain color, and a certain contrast hold our attention and why do certain other forms bore us, I don’t know, it’s a profound mystery. I think the most wonderful thing about all of this stuff, all of graphics, and all of language and all of color, is that you never get to the reason.—Milton Glaser, 99PI e.87

But before all that, before the I heart NY movement, before the New York Magazine, an iconic poster captured the psychadelic dazzle of the flower-power era. The graphic design equivalent of a golden ticket may still be found in record stores in 1967 editions of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits—a Milton Glaser-designed first edition poster, copies of which were included in slipcovers when the album was released. Though it was Dylan’s last album for Columbia, he had nothing to do with it, and he had already broken contract and tended to hate everything in it, the album would become one of the most widely circulated of all time; six million or more posters were distributed—Bob Dylan, depicted with kaleidescope hair, will probably remain his most iconic representation.

Dylan, 1967 | Milton Glaser

Its style is often associated with rock posters produced in San Francisco at the same time, this poster is arguably also an iconic representation of post-modernist design, which followed the grid-driven Swiss movement of which Helvetica was the completed thought or representation. Glaser had studied in Italy in the early 1950s, and is a formalist with a broad awareness of art movements. The Dylan piece is directly derivative from the self-portrait by Marcel Duchamp, as Glaser was inspired by the energy and power it had from a simple black silhouette created out of cut paper. Then, thinking that it was too austere and too easily understood, and also being interested in Islamic painting, he connected the unrelated influence the colors and decorative shapes of Dylan’s curly mane. The unnatural contrast of vivid colors with the dark silhouetted profile of Bob Dylan reflects Glaser’s response to the Modernist “Less is more” dictum: “Just enough is more.”

Self-portrait, Marcel Duchamp

Photo, Bob Dylan


For the lettering, Glaser had created a typeface, one that he would use more extensively on a poster for a Mahalia Jackson concert at Lincoln Center. The typeface was Babyteeth, it was on his desk at the time, and he figured, if he had to include the single word, ‘Dylan’, he’d set it in Babyteeth, “largely because there wasn’t anything that looked quite like that around,” Glaser wanted the word itself to look peculiar.

Babyteeth typeface by Milton Glaser


I saw this strange sign and was intrigued by the sort of innocence of the ‘E’ and the fact that if you knew anything about typography you would never do a thing like that, the funny little staircase. […] It’s how readable it was even though it deviated from our understanding of what an ‘E’ is supposed to be. I’m always interested in the nature of perception and how much you understand from limited information. […] I’m interested not so much in its peculiarity but in its recognition.—Milton Glaser

Milton Glaser is very much a superstar of the design business; yes, Milton designed the Dylan poster and the I Love New York icon; yes, his work has meaningfully inspired generations of designers, and lifted this age we all inhabit, allowing us all to walk on higher ground. What is so unique and precious is that he has achieved his greatness honestly and authentically, without gimmicks, without hype, without artifice, his work has a purity and an elegance that is timeless and profound.

1972 Munich Olympic Games pictograms

Graphic designers often face the challenge of presenting information pictorially, for example, in an international context, where there can be no reliance on words. One of the most successful examples of systems of visual communication was the series of symbols produced by German designer Otl Aicher for the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.

In design, man becomes what he is. Animals have language and perception as well, but they do not design.—Olt Aicher

Aicher had already evolved a rigorous graphic style using simple geometric forms with clear sans serif type. He had been influenced by the work of the Austrian sociologist Otto Neurath, who developed the isotype system of symbols to convey information visually, without using text; some 4,000 simple, clear symbols were created to display all kinds of information, and were particularly suitable for representing statistics—displaying more or fewer pictograms.

Isotype | Otto Neurath

For the Munich symbols, Aicher worked out a series of stylized figures on a grid that allowed only verticals, horizontals and diagonals. The figures, in white against a plain background, had circles for heads, lines with curved ends for limbs, and, where necessary, sports equipment depicted in finer line. Each figure was set in a square with a thin, white border. The soccer symbol is a good example of the use of diagonals to imply movement and pace. A simple circular outline the same size as the player’s head is enough to portray the ball, and the truncated, angled leg suggests a kick. The canoe symbol is good alternative example, as Aicher realized it would be simpler to depict the paddle in outline; a horizontal line suggests the side of the boat and the bottom of the frame represents the water. Aicher’s pictograms have become object lessons for designers of signs, charts, diagrams, and any other visual material where text is at a minimum and immediate understanding is essential.

Munich Olympic Games pictograms, 1972 | Olt Aicher

Pictograms were first used at the London Olympic Games of 1948 to help spectators and participants find venues and events, for publicity material, and to create a visual identity. The London pictograms were shield-shaped frames in a more traditional style. Symbols were next used in Tokyo in 1964, and similar stylized pictograms have been used at all the Olympics since. Among the most successful were those for Mexico City games, which featured graphic representations of equipment against colored backgrounds.

Tokyo Olympic Games pictograms, 1964

Mexico City Olympic Games pictograms, 1968


Continue to Chapter 3: 1970s-1990s

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