The research project “The Cultural Turn in Swiss Graphic Design from the 1980s to 2020” is funded by the SNSF Swiss National Science Foundation (Div. 1) and led jointly by Prof. Dr Davide Fornari (ECAL/University of Art and Design Lausanne, HES-SO) and Prof. Robert Lzicar (Bern Academy of the Arts HKB).
The present research project investigates the discourse on graphic design in Switzerland in the under-researched period from 1980 to 2020. While the 1950s and 1960s saw graphic design in Switzerland reach international recognition and commercial expansion under the label “Swiss style”, a paradigm shift emerged in the following decades. The attention of many practitioners turned away from design as a pure service for the industrial and service sector and moved towards cultural commissions on a local, national and international level. Instead of aiming for maximum return, they chose their commissions according to whether they promised them creative freedom and whether they contributed to the profiling of their portfolio in alignment with their new definition of the profession as a lifestyle. This project examines the emergence and the development of this phenomenon, which became known as “cultural graphic design”, in professional graphic design in Switzerland.
The project identifies three stages in this cultural turn: the emergence of new values, followed by the development of a discourse on cultural design, and later its institutionalisation in federal policy. Accordingly, it is divided into three case studies bookended with symbolic socio-cultural, political and institutional turning points.
The first case study starts with the 1980 riots, which took place in several Swiss cities. These socio-cultural upheavals were accompanied by an explosive increase in alternative cultural venues and outlets, which provided new working environments and fields of activity for visual designers. This case study focuses on the emergence of new professional values, summarised as “cultural graphic design”, and ends with the institutionalisation of alternative cultural centres at the end of the decade. The second case study explores the articulation and mediation of the discourse surrounding this practice. From the 1990s, designers created objects, organised exhibitions, wrote books and published articles promoting and negotiating their new position. This output contributed to the establishment of a discourse on “cultural graphic design” in Switzerland. The case study begins in 1993 with the publication of a polemic article that criticised the state of commercial Swiss graphic design while praising the arrival of a new generation of designer-authors active in culture.
It ends in 2000 with the publication of two books that not only cemented the phenomenon of “cultural graphic design” in Switzerland but also made it known beyond its borders by promoting these new practices. Finally, the third case study analyses how “cultural design” transitioned from vanguard to mainstream. This period saw the canonisation of “cultural design”, which was adopted by an increasing number of graphic designers. It also witnessed a political institutionalisation, as evidenced in the reforms of federal design prizes such as the Most Beautiful Swiss Books in 1997 and the Swiss Design Awards in 2002. The case study ends with the period covered by the Kulturbotschaft 2016–2020, which defined the federal strategy for cultural policy and, for the first time, inscribed the support of design within the remit of action of the State.
Drawing on recent findings, this project traces the development of design in Switzerland with a focus on transregional relations. The case studies share a common methodology of triangulating network analysis, oral history and the discourse analysis of visual and textual material to create comparative readings of the last decades’ developments in design and stimulate a discourse on its current status. As a whole, it sheds light on under-researched areas of design history while replacing them within the wider socio-cultural context.
This international research exchange day examined the paradigm shift in graphic design, specifically the emergence of “cultural graphic design,” which has redefined the profession as a lifestyle and expanded its scope beyond pure service for the industrial sector.
Chiara Barbieri is a design historian and lecturer. She holds a PhD in History of Design from the Royal College of Art (London) with a thesis on the professionalisation of graphic design in Italy from the interwar period to the mid-1960s. Her research interests include visual and material culture in fascist Italy, national design discourses, transnational networks of design exchange and everyday design practice. She works as a researcher in design history at ECAL/University of Art and Design Lausanne (HES-SO) and coordinates the research project “Open Science for Arts, Design and Music” (2022-2024) at SUPSI. She contributed to a number of research projects at ECAL and Bern Academy of the Arts HKB, such as “Swiss Graphic Design and Typography Revisited” (2016–2020), “Xanti Schawinsky: A Swiss Bauhäusler in Italy (1933–1936)” (2018–2022), and “The Sources of Jan Tschichold’s The New Typography” (2019–2021).
Jonas Berthod is a researcher and lecturer at ECAL/University of Art and Design Lausanne (HES-SO). He teaches at Kingston School of Art, Kingston University, London. He earned a PhD in Art History from the University of Bern with a thesis on the impact of cultural promotion on the field of Swiss graphic design. He previously worked as a graphic designer in London and Switzerland, as a lecturer at various institutions in Switzerland and in the United Kingdom, and as an associate researcher on the project “Swiss Graphic Design and Typography Revisited” (2016–2020). He co-organises and co-curates the Weltformat Symposium in Lucerne and the exhibition Behind the Books in London.
Davide Fornari is a professor at ECAL/University of Art and Design Lausanne (HES-SO), where he has led the Research and Development sector since 2016. He teaches at SUPSI in Mendrisio and at Design Academy Eindhoven. He is a member of the Federal design commission of the Swiss Federal office of Culture (2018–2025). Among his publications: Mapping Graphic Design History in Switzerland (Triest verlag, Zurich 2016), Carlo Scarpa. Casa Zentner a Zurigo: una villa italiana in Svizzera (Electa, Milan 2020), Swiss Graphic Design Histories (Scheidegger & Spiess, Zurich 2021), Olivetti Identities. Spaces and Languages 1933–1983 (Triest verlag, Zurich 2022).
Miriam Koban is a design researcher and lecturer at the Bern University of the Arts. She teaches in the field of design history and scientific writing, serves as a mentor for final theses and on examination boards. Miriam earned a BA in Visual Communication at the Zurich University of the Arts and a BA in Art History and Contemporary History at the University of Fribourg. She was a junior assistant in the Department of Architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich as well as at the Chair of Contemporary Art History at the University of Fribourg and a senior assistant in the Master Design at the Bern University of the Arts. In her master's thesis, Miriam dealt with transcultural collaboration processes and hybrid aesthetics in editorial design. In parallel, she co-coordinated the HKB preparatory project “Alternative Media Design” at the Institute for Design Research. She is currently working on her PhD thesis as part of the SNSF project “The Cultural Turn in Swiss Graphic Design from the 1980s to 2020”.
Robert Lzicar is a designer and professor. At the Bern Academy of the Arts HKB, he teaches design history, directs the Master of Arts in Design, and coordinates the research field “Design History” at the Institute of Design Research. Robert researches on cultural and creative industries, design-led innovation, and historical issues and historiography in the fields of graphic design and visual culture. He organized the symposia “It Wasn’t Written” (with Julia Meer, MoMA, New York, 2018), “Mapping Graphic Design History in Switzerland” (HKB, 2014) and is co-editor of the publication of the same name (Triest Verlag, 2016). He was co-coordinator of the SNSF Sinergia research project “Swiss Graphic Design and Typography Revisited” (2016–2020) and is co-editor of the resulting publication “Swiss Graphic Design Histories” (Scheidegger & Spiess, 2021).
Design & concept: Frederik Mahler-Andersen & Clio Hadjigeorgiou
Typeface: Nicolas Bernklau & Unica 77