January 28th, 2010

A Brief History of Emil Ruder

By Shane Bzdok

To know where we’re going, we’ve got to understand where we’ve been. Lucky for you and me, we find ourselves in the midst of a historical design revival. Both students and veteran creatives alike appear to be making concerted efforts to blow the dust off our collective roots and discover how our craft came to be. Look around and you’ll notice an explosion of historically influenced design, typography and illustration. My own infatuation is with the International Typographic Style that emerged from Switzerland in the 1950’s.

Past examples of structured grid design and typography by Swiss masters such as Josef Müller-Brockmann continue to influence both print and interactive design to this day. However, after realizing there is no shortage of Müller-Brockmann fan clubs, I wanted to explore some of the other, maybe lesser-known founders of the International Typographic Style. My search led me to a typographer and designer by the name of Emil Ruder (1914-1970), who played a key part in the development and dissemination of the Swiss Style.

Born in Zurich, Ruder began his design education at the early age of fifteen when he took a compositor’s apprenticeship. By his late twenties Ruder began attending the Zurich School of Arts and Crafts where the principles of Bauhaus and Tschichold’s New Typography were taught, leaving an indelible impression on Ruder.

Academia would continue to play a major role in Ruder’s life, though it would naturally evolve into the form of teacher rather than student. In 1947 he took a position as the typography instructor at the Schule für Gestaltung, Basel (Basel School of Design). Ruder, along with the great Armin Hofmann, developed a program structured on principles of objectivity in design. He broke away from the subjective, style-driven typography of the past and encouraged his students to be more concerned with precision, proportions and above all, the role of legibility and communication with type.

“Typography has one plain duty before
it and that is to convey information
in writing.”

-Emil Ruder

Poster by Emil Ruder. Die gute Form translates to, "Good Form."

Poster by Emil Ruder. Die gute Form translates to, “Good Form.”

Ruder was also fond of asymmetry, a concept he found in Japanese texts on Zen philosophy and tea drinking. He arranged his layouts and typography with careful attention to counter, shape and white space. His projects “developed sensitivity to negative or unprinted spaces, including the spaces between and inside letterforms” (Meggs 325).

To achieve the harmony and balance Ruder desired, he instructed his students on the use of mathematical grid structures and the selection of style-neutral, sans-serif typefaces developed in the early 50’s. For Ruder, the most notable of these typefaces were the twenty-one fonts named Univers created by his friend, Adrian Frutiger in 1954. Ruder and his students engaged in endless typographic and layout explorations with the vast array of weights in the Univers family.

“Emil Ruder saw my first specimens of Univers and was so delighted with them that he designed and published many works with this type in association with his Basle students.”

-Adrian Frutiger

Hans Arp, Emil Ruder and Armin Hofmann at the Basel School of Design in 1961. Photo: Marguerite Arp-Hagenbach

Hans Arp, Emil Ruder and Armin Hofmann at the Basel School of Design in 1961. Photo: Marguerite Arp-Hagenbach

By the mid 1960’s the school, and Ruder, were in high demand. Some determined would-be students waited up to three years to get in based on the very low acceptance rates. Ruder was known to only take on two or three students per year.

After more than 20 years of teaching, he compiled his concepts, experiments and philosophies into a book titled, “Typographie.” Originally published in 1967, this masterpiece is considered by many to be the quintessential textbook on typography. You can see some great examples of spreads (along with a ton of other fantastic specimens) on insect54’s amazing Flickr photostream.

Ruder was also writer and editor for a popular trade publication of the time called, “Typografische Monatsblätter” (Typographic Monthly) published by the Printing and Paper Union of Switzerland. Printed in German, French and English, this journal, which covered topics such as printing techniques, illustration, typefaces and layout, helped to spread the principles of Swiss design on a global level. Once again, look to insect54’s collection of covers and spreads. I’d love to get my hands on copies of these.

A page from Typographie. The phrase, “nach Mass” translates to, “made to measure” Photo: insect54

A page from Typographie. The phrase, “nach Mass” translates to, “made to measure” Photo: insect54

In 1962, Ruder and typographer Aaron Burns (one of the three founders of ITC) founded the International Center for the Typographic Arts (ICTA) in New York. Unfortunately, there is little information available on the ICTA which has been listed as inactive since 1970.

It was Isaac Newton who wrote, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” I believe that long after he is gone, Emil Ruder continues to provide inspiration and guidance to a whole new generation of creatives who will ultimately design the future of communication.

This article is from the Thinking for a Living Archive and is being republished here in its entirety. It was originally published on September 2, 2008.


  1. Meggs, Philip. A History of Graphic Design. 3rd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998.
  2. Thomson, Ellen Mazur. The Origins of Graphic Design in America, 1870-1920. Yale University Press, 1997.
  3. Devroye, Luc. ‘Type design in Switzerland.’ School of Computer Science, McGill University. 1 September 2008.
  4. Linotype. ‘Linotype Font Feature – Adrian Frutiger Traces.’ 14 April 2008.
  5. Desain Grafis Indonesia. ‘International Typographic Style.’
  6. Wikipedia. Emil Ruder, Armin Hofmann and Adrian Frutiger