The “Swiss made” and the challenges of design



People tend to imagine Switzerland as a special country, made of strong contrasts and, perhaps, many clichés. Foreigners tend to imagine the Swiss people living in idillic landscapes such as those described by Johanna Spyri’s Heidi or surrounded by austere and severe banks, with their coffers hiding the most precious treasures of the world.
To describe Switzerland from a designer’s point of view a good way is to abstract it from the stereotypes and put it in its real context.

Switzerland is a small country right in the middle, but outside, of the European Union, surrounded by Germany, France, Italy and Austria.
Believe it or not, Swiss don’t speak Swiss – it doesn’t exist such a language! We have three official languages: German, French and Italian. It’s a federation of states, where each of the 26 Cantons is an autonomous republic with equal forces in the Helvetic parliament. This type of union, over the centuries, has strengthened the concept of unity in diversity, the strong direct democracy and neutrality that the world envies us. The constitution is thus a premise for stability and multilingualism.

Therefore, Swiss residents from their earliest age have to learn 3 languages and 3 different approaches to express themselves and feel integrated in Zurich, Geneva or Lugano. Being at the center of Western Europe, its cultural influences are a mix of Germanic, French and Mediterranean cultures.

To communicate and be creative in Switzerland means embracing and blend harmoniously with three different styles and mentalities, bearing in mind that there is a growing global market, that sees the “Swiss made” label as a symbol of precision and quality.

Original appearance on CreNative.

On the other hand, Switzerland has no raw materials and this, over the centuries, has led people to develop an economy based on research and mechanics. In practice, large Swiss companies operate primarily in the areas of precision engineering (watches and mechanical components) and pharmaceutical. There are not many large facilities (there’s no space) and there is no critical mass (7 million residents) to develop a local and broad B2C entrepreneurship.

Over the last century the Helvetic design has grown mainly around industrial design, strongly influenced by minimalist and functional architecture (small areas, small factories, thus functionality and efficiency as the main keywords).

In addition, the need that any graphic material would be then translated and produced in three languages forcibly limited the length of texts and brought to develop an immediate and essential visual communication, to get all Germans, French and Italians in one shot and thus spare some money.

The presence of numerous financial institutions had also a strong influence on the style: elegant but understated. For many years the creative industry has developed an inconspicuous communication, partly because in some way called to be consistent with the typical Swiss banks’ discretion.

The Swiss style, a design that’s distinguishable for its clean lines and shapes, for its use of white space, for the sans-serif typography (Frutiger and Helvetica sound familiar?) and strong contrasts have clearly taken from, and simultaneously influenced, the Modernist and mainly the Bauhaus movement of the first part of the last century, which by then spread and got called International style. Actually, while the Bauhaus became a strong artistic movement mainly in Germany, the Netherlands and Russia, it did not get much consideration in its originating country (except in rare instances in industrial or urban areas in the German-speaking Switzerland). Despite this, the concept of clean and essential lines and typography “caged” within grids, has become the underlying foundation of design’s best practices.

However Switzerland has not the same assets in every region. Ticino, at its Southern edge and a merely Italian speaking land, has embraced the basics of the Swiss style while merging with the soft-edged and warm lines of the Mediterranean and Baroque style. The influence comes from the short distance (20 miles) from Lombardy and Milan, the leading region for furniture design and fashion in the world.

Challenges for Swiss designers are therefore manifold. First, keep the “Swissness”, a recognized and valuable brand that still stands for quality, precision and on-time delivery. Secondly, being able to still produce an impacting visual communication, since language differences – mainly for its costs – are replaced by English and thus moving toward a more globalized and conformed style, but less original and creative than used to be.

Finally, there’s the need to leave behind decades of austere visual communication strongly influenced by B2B and Banks, opening up to new ideas and styles.

Hopefully designers in Ticino (where I live) have understood and they actually boast a strong foundation and a broader creativity, mainly inspired by the Italian style. Who knows, maybe in a few years the Southern part of Switzerland will become a cluster of the merger of both Swiss and Italian styles and design?