In February of 1989, I had the pleasure of meeting Josef Müller-Brockmann. I was a young, wide-eyed student of 21 years studying at Arizona State University. With great fortune, a professor of mine had heard that Müller-Brockmann was going to be in the country and asked him to add a stop in Tempe, Arizona. The program director for the design department at ASU at the time was the famous Rob Roy Kelly, known for putting together successful design programs, many of which became blueprints for other design schools. Because of Müller-Brockmann’s interest in design education, he accepted the invitation.
Prior to JMB’s arrival, I was naive about the significance of his visit. Up to that point, my focus in studying the history of design was restricted to the past generation of typographers and designers. I was foolishly unaware of the relevant living ones. Despite that, once I was in his calm, yet playful, presence, the impact of his stopover became clearly apparent. My class happened to be working on grid systems at the time. As he came around to my desk to view the layout I was working on, his soft-natured brief critique was all I needed to remind me to be persistent in the refinement process. Reduction of content can make all the difference in the outcome of a design.
A student from the back of the room shouted out a wish to see JMB’s business card. As JMB casually pulled the business card out of his coat pocket, there was a frenzy like fish at a pond when the morsels are tossed in. He was taken aback as we scurried around to take a peak at the card revealed; novice typographers eager to see his miniature piece of art. I still remember the card clearly. It was on light gray paper stock printed with a solitary color of cool gray ink. All content was in a singular sans serif face, all lowercase, and no punctuation to speak of other than the umlaut and hyphen in his distinguished name. No commas, no periods, no colons. All the elements on the card were restricted to the purest of necessary elements. In that small space he proved the mastery of minimalism; communication clearly achieved without the use of a period or a common. The execution of an all lowercase solution, which has influenced my own design solutions to this day, and a restrained use of typographic elements was an awe-inspiring lesson, visually delivered. He didn’t need to speak a word.
I was one of many students that he encountered on his visit that week. For me, the chance that he crossed my path as a young designer was most fortuitous. It wasn’t necessarily the specific meeting that was so influential, but it called attention to the path of design integrity that he sent me on.
There is a petite design book on my shelf. So small, that it often hides among the over-sized art books in my collection. It is a perfect square, 21 cm x 21 cm in size, and only a few millimeters thick. But visually, it carries a big punch. It is a catalog of selected posters by Josef Müller-Brockmann from 1948 to 1981.
When we study the work of a master of any art, we tend to only have access to the finished product. What makes this catalog of Müller-Brockmann’s posters such a gem are the production drawings that accompany each poster. These drawings allow us a view into the constructivist reasoning at work.
The late 1940s was when JMB turned toward the constructivist design aesthetic and away from his illustrative and subjective period. Reaching this constructive approach was a gradual process over many years; an examination influenced by teachers, peers, and social surroundings. Through the rejection of the illustrative method “he acquired freedom for the more highly charged organizational forms that were appropriate to the subject.” 
Arrangement Leads to Harmony
This movement of constructive design embraced a defined arrangement of the pictorial and typographic elements. Using the grid as an organizational tool, harmony between image and type was achieved, resulting in a unified composition. In History of the Poster, Müller-Brockmann describes the Constructive Poster being composed of, “…linear and proportional correlations between all parts, each is integrated in the whole, and the result is the optimum arrangement for the task.” 
Figure 1. Zürich Tonhalle Musica Viva Concert Poster, 1958. Linocut + letterpress. 90.5 cm x 128 cm + composition grid
Anonymity Begets Neutrality
Many of Müller-Brockmann’s posters in the ’40s and early ’50s are linocuts, a combination of linocut and letterpress, or the occasional silkscreen. The linocut was an ideal choice to accentuate the constructive form. Not only did linoleum prints enable high contrasts and bold, vivid colors, but it was a fitting choice to allow Müller-Brockmann to “remove the personality of the designer”  and focus on the objective quality of design. The idea of a more anonymous author enabled more effective communication, assigning the subject with its “own set of values and characteristics.” 
A Universal Language
“The belief that graphic design — if it was to inform and enlighten without being manipulative— had to be based on objective criteria,” is what led JMB to his turning point.  With the desire for an objective language, JMB focused his attention on functional typography, geometric motifs, and photography. Using this universal vocabulary allowed for a solution liberated from representing a specific point in time, avoiding what he saw as the downfall in the illustrative method.
The solution was achieved through the use of symbolic language. The handling of the elements involved: type, shape, spatial relations, rhythmic proportions, and color functioned through a systematic employment of the grid. The strict but exemplary employment of elements can been seen in the concert poster for the Tonhalle Gesellschaft Zurich of 1955. (Figure 2)
Figure 2. Zürich Tonhalle Concert Poster, 1955. Lithography. 90.5 cm x 128 cm + composition grid
If we go beyond the finished ink of the poster and look at the compositional drawing, the structural information begins to emerge. The poster is comprised of horizontal and vertical lines set at a 30 degree angle. The carefully chosen angle of the grid, and the position of the elements within the grid create a sense of moving exhalation, all working in conjunction to convey a sense of musical breath. This execution can been seen on many levels: the rhythmic formation of the vertical and horizontal lines against the 30 degree axis, the inward unification of elements through the use of this central axis, the figure-ground relationship of the elements, the use of contrast through varying elements, and the typographical composition to solicit the movement of the reader’s eye.
Beyond the feeling of musical resonance, Müller-Brockmann unifies the text and form explicitly to capture the essence of each composer. “…[E]ach name was allocated a place in the grid of lines that distinguished the expressive nature of the composer’s music: Berg, restrained; Stravinsky, astride modern and classic forms; and Fortner, unbound by formal constraints.” 
An important component of the objective philosophy was functional typographic solutions. Beyond the quest for legibility, JMB believed that type is “employed so that there is a link (between image and text) that compels attention.”  In his opinion, the less elaborate the letterform, the more capacity for function; and that the new typography should be represented with a sans serif typeface. His personal favorite was Berthold’s Akzidenz Grotesk. Even with the newly emergent sans serif faces Univers and Helvetica in the late 1950s (inspired by Akzidenz Grotesk), JMB still preferred Berthold’s design of 1898. “It is more expressive and its formal foundations are more universal. The end of the “e”, for instance is a diagonal which produces right angles. In the case of Helvetica and Univers the endings are straight, producing acute or obtuse angles, subjective angles.” 
JMB’s purely typographic poster solutions can be seen developing in the 1960s. Objectivity had moved one more notch toward pellucid form. At first, these designs were completely unadulterated and this purity was not necessarily well-received by the public. Like all of his work, the posters evolved, and in the late ’60s and early ’70s his wholly typographic poster solutions seemed to be singing to themselves. In his 1994 book Mein Leben: Spielerischer Ernst und ernsthaftes Spiel, JMB reflected, “In purely typographic designs I tried to put the areas into a contrasting tension with areas remaining empty. In its execution I did not rely on my feeling but on measurable proportions. The understanding for typographic values gained from various sources. I was essentially influenced by the typography put in practice at the Bauhaus and by Tschichold.” 
Beyond educating himself on the rules of typography, JMB focused on photography as his pictorial medium, the ultimate choice for objective imagery. With no “Photoshop” enhancement in that era, photography still had the power to bring a sense of clarity and honesty to the message, holding true to the objective intent of purity of information.
In 1953, JMB began sharing a studio with photographer Ernest A. Heiniger and began employing fellow photographer Serge Libiszewski as a design resource.  Libiszewski was part of this new discipline in Germany known as “subjektive fotografie”. Also influenced by the “die neue typographie” philosophy of Jan Tschichold, Müller-Brockmann embraced the use of experimental photography of montage and photograms.  (Figure 3)
Figure 3. Public awareness poster “Protect the child.”, 1953. Offset. 128 x 90.5 cm. + composition grid
Eventually, JMB’s subjective expressive approach to photography changed toward the pragmatic objective. Still holding true to Tschichold’s philosophy of an “emphasis upon the clear and incorruptible characteristic of photography” , but now evolving toward a harmony and balance within the structural compositions. Integration of type, image, and form brought credibility to the image as a whole. (Figure 4)
Figure 4. Public awareness poster “less noise.”, 1960. Offset. 128 x 90.5 cm. + composition grid
One of the most admired of JMB’s posters is the 1960 poster der Film. (Figure 3) Phillip Meggs speaks of it as one of Müller-Brockmann’s “masterpieces.”
“It demonstrates the universal design harmony achieved by mathematical spatial division. The poster is in the three-to-five ratio of the golden mean, considered the most beautifully proportioned rectangle since Greek times. This rectangle is divided into fifteen squares or modules (three across the horizontal dimension and five down the vertical dimension), The top nine modules form a square, the title fills three units, and three are below the title. Film occupies two units, and the secondary typographic information aligns with the front edge of the F in Film. This design organization grew out of functional communication needs. The title projects clearly at great distances against the field of black. The overlapping of Film in front of der is a typographic equivalent to the cinematic techniques of overlapping images and dissolving from one image to another. For all its elemental simplicity, this poster successfully combines effective communication, expression of content, and visual harmony.” 
The der Film poster expresses the fundamentals of constructive design at its best; use of the golden mean, symbolic motifs within a typographic solution, and minimal, strategic use of color. (Figure 5)
Figure 5. Zürich Museum of Arts and Crafts Exhibition Poster, 1960. Offset. 90.5 cm x 128 cm + composition grid
Color, an Understated Role
Color is a key player in elemental hierarchy. In his posters of the early 1960s, JMB pursued purely typographic solutions using color as a vehicle to represent key information to the viewer. The delineation of content was divided by the use of color. This division of content was brilliantly employed in his more structurally complex typographic posters of 1969 and 1970, where color played a staccato effect to punctuate text among the singing display of information.
In The Graphic Artist and his Problems, Müller-Brockmann writes, “The sparing, but methodical and logical use of color has a more telling effect than a combination of many different colors.”  Therefore, not only does color play an organizational role, allowing for the unification of elements, but it can serve a symbolic function. As in the music posters, color is represented, as Müller-Brockmann put it, as “color sound” where it assists in creating a particular atmosphere. Like all the vocabulary used in objective design, color must have an evident intention if it is to fulfill its duty or service.
Müller-Brockmann’s aspiration for pure objective solutions never stood idle; a continuous analysis and refinement in his work is apparent. His ability for detached self-evaluation allowed him to arrive and make new leaps forward with his newly found vocabulary. I am not sure what is more impressive, Josef Müller-Brockmann’s splendid achievements, or his awe-inspiring ability to humbly leave his ego behind on his life-long venture for communication purity.
1. Josef Müller-Brockmann. The Graphic Artist and his Design Problems. Trans. D.Q. Stephensen and Charles Whitehouse. (Sulgen and Zurich: Verlag Arthur Niggli, 2003; first edition 1961), p. 9.
3. Josef Müller-Brockmann. The Graphic Artist and his Design Problems. Trans. D.Q. Stephensen and Charles Whitehouse. (Sulgen and Zurich: Verlag Arthur Niggli, 2003; first edition 1961), p. 9.
5. Josef Müller-Brockmann and Paul Rand. Josef Muller-Brockmann: Pioneer of Swiss Graphic Design. (Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2001), p. 17.
6. Kerry William Purcell. Josef Müller-Brockmann. (London: Phaidon Press, 2006), p. 169.
7. Josef Müller-Brockmann. //The Graphic Artist and his Design Problems//. Trans. D.Q. Stephensen and Charles Whitehouse. (Sulgen and Zurich: Verlag Arthur Niggli, 2003; first edition 1961), p. 7.
8. Yvonne Schwemer-Scheddin. “Josef Müller-Brockmann” in Eye, vol. 5, no. 19 (1995), p. 15.
9. Josef Müller-Brockmann. Mein Leben: Spielerischer Ernst und ernsthaftes Spiel (Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 1994), p. 36.
10. Josef Müller-Brockmann and Paul Rand. Josef Muller-Brockmann: Pioneer of Swiss Graphic Design. (Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2001), p. 31.
11. Kerry William Purcell. Josef Müller-Brockmann. (London: Phaidon Press, 2006), p. 121.
12. Kerry William Purcell. Josef Müller-Brockmann. (London: Phaidon Press, 2006), p. 115.
14. Josef Müller-Brockmann. The Graphic Artist and his Design Problems. Trans. D.Q. Stephensen and Charles Whitehouse. (Sulgen and Zurich: Verlag Arthur Niggli, 2003; first edition 1961), p. 44.
Meggs, Philip. A History of Graphic Design. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983.
Müller-Brockmann, Josef. Mein Leben: Spielerischer Ernst und ernsthaftes Spiel. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 1994.
Müller-Brockmann, Josef. The Graphic Artist and his Design Problems. Trans. D.Q. Stephensen and Charles Whitehouse. 3rd ed. Sulgen and Zurich: Verlag Arthur Niggli, 2003.
Müller-Brockmann, Josef and Shizuko Müller-Yoshikawa. History of the Poster. Trans. M.J. Schärer-Wynne. 2nd ed, London: Phaidon Press, 2004.
Purcell, Kerry. Josef Müller-Brockmann. London: Phaidon Press, 2006.
Rand, Paul and Lars Müller. Josef Muller-Brockmann: Pioneer of Swiss Graphic Design. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2001.
Schwemer-Scheddin, Yvonne. “Josef Müller-Brockmann” in Eye, vol. 5, no. 19 (1995), pp. 10–16.
About the author
Joanne Meister is owner and creative director of designmeister, in Oregon. Her focus is on corporate identity and integrated branding for small business, as well as Fortune 500 and international companies. Influenced by her formal design education from Arizona State University, and studies at Rhode Island School of Design, Joanne has a special passion for both quantitative information design and typography.
Sponsored by H&FJ.