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 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.