Josef Müller-Brockmann

‘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.’ – Josef in an interview with Yvonne Schwemer-Scheddin for Eye Magazine, 1995.

Josef is one of, if not the, most famous name in 20th century graphic design. Ironically, he became a graphic designer by accident. Growing up in pre-war Switzerland he focused on his talents and studied art, design and architect at the University of Zürich. At school he had a tendency to not write notes but instead he would create little illustrations. His teacher took a liking to this and encouraged him to pursue an artistic career. He took his teachers advice and found an apprenticeship a retoucher at a printing works but he only lasted one day as he said it wasn’t art, he then found another apprenticeship where he lasted a month and that was with two architects. Overall, he wasn’t happy. He finally found something that interested him; graphic design. So he took to the telephone directory because he wanted to see what they did and wanted to know if this was something he would see himself doing in six months time. Afterward he enrolled to study graphic design at the Zurich Gewerbeschule.

Josef is mostly recognised for his grid technique. One would assume he learnt this technique from architect; working in a systematic order which he then developed into his graphic style and this idea is still used today. In his 1981 book, Grid Systems in Graphic Design, he wrote that the grid system creates a ‘sense of compact planning, intelligibility and clarity, and suggests orderliness of design’. This idea was important to Josef as he most frequently used a clean design and just looking at his work  you can tell he has used a grid system because his designs, also sometimes complex, they look simplistic and your eyes can easily flow. This influenced designers on a global scale and we are still learning about it today. He loved teaching young designers the basics of graphic design and seeing how they would take that and make it their own, adapt and use their own style. So much so that at the age of 43 he became a teacher at Zurich School of Arts and Crafts.

His influences fluctuated from art movements to psychiatrists to handwriting. His big influences were art movements by the likes of Constructivism, De Stijl, and Suprematism. Interestingly, the Bauhaus was also one of his influences. Whether it was the art process they taught, the young individuals and their artistic outcomes or the building itself, I’m not sure why this particular place influenced Josef but I can understand why (I will write a separate blog post on this matter and link it here). He would judge a person and their characteristics on their handwriting, this really interested Josef and he claimed that he wasn’t often wrong on his judgement. However, this wasn’t the case with Carl Jung, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist. In an interview with Yvonne Schwemer-Scheddin for Eye Magazine he said the following regarding Carl Jung; ‘As a young man I was intrigued not only by psychology but also by graphology. When I met people who interested me I would read their handwriting and was rarely wrong in my judgements. But this gift began to disturb me, especially in my dealings with clients, where it would unnecessarily prejudice discussion. So I abandoned it overnight. Later I paid the price for giving up these analyses when I took on partners and employees whose handwriting would have given me an early warning of trouble ahead.’

Josef Muller-Brockmann is somewhat of a graphic design pro. He had the ability to make text and image flow simultaneously. You knew what you were getting when you hired Josef for a design job; professionalism, expertise and an innovative design. No matter wat he was designing, he would always make something new, and that is what I admire about him. Each design is different but it still has his corporate identity. Starting with the grid layout and developing on from there, he was a genius of the 20th century. What you have to remember about Josef is that he lived through two wars and when everything around you is crumbling, the last thing most individuals would be is inspired. But that is something Josef never lost.

Unfortunately Josef passed in 1996, but his legacies haven’t.


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