The Sources of Jan Tschichold’s The New Typography

The Sources of Jan Tschichold’s The New Typography

Jan Tschichold’s essay Die neue Typographie (The New Typography, 1928) is a game-changing book, acclaimed as the curtain raiser of modern graphic design. While it takes the form of a critical essay and an operative manual, its sources have been understudied because of their difficult identification. This project aims to reconstruct the body of sources that Tschichold drew on to understand the broader cultural context of the book, through an international conference on its impact and a travelling exhibition.

Research project (2021) with Davide Fornari, Matthieu Cortat, Jonas Berthod, Chiara Barbieri

The year 2018 marked the 90th anniversary of the publication of Jan Tschichold’s Die neue Typographie (The New Typography). After almost a century, Tschichold’s game-changing book, together with the typographic movement that stemmed from it, still attracts the interest and curiosity of graphic design historians and practitioners. The book has entered the historiographical canon and its appeal has not faded. Yet, The New Typography is a victim of its own success: it enjoys the benefits of canonisation, while suffering some side effects. Having reached an almost mythical status, The New Typography is often taken for granted and rarely questioned or closely scrutinised. This paradox is the starting point of the present research project.

Jan Tschichold (Leipzig 1902 – Locarno 1974) was a German-born, Swiss-naturalised typographer, type and book designer, teacher, typography theorist and critic. In the 1920s he became one of the leaders of the New Typography movement. His conversion to the Modernist cause was mediated by the Bauhaus lesson. This was learnt first through a visit to the Bauhaus exhibition in Weimar in the summer of 1923, and encouraged in the following years through acquaintance and friendship with key exponents of the Modernist movement such as László Moholy-Nagy and El Lissitzky. With the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933, Tschichold escaped Germany and took refuge in Switzerland, where he spent the rest of his life with the exception of two stays in England, in 1937 and between 1947 and 1949.

Published in Berlin in 1928, Tschichold’s The New Typography is a manifesto. It follows an earlier statement published in October 1925 in a special issue of the trade magazine Typographische Mitteilungen, entitled “Elementare Typographie.” It was intended as a textbook for graphic designers, printers, typesetters and typographers. The term “New Typography” was first used by László Moholy-Nagy in the Bauhaus exhibition catalogue of 1923. The New Typography, also known as “elementary” or “functional” typography, is the manifestation of Modernism in graphic design and printed communication. Its rules included the privilege for sans-serif typefaces, non-centred page layouts, photography and photomontage, standardised paper sizes, and the active use of white space. After the war, Tschichold gradually distanced himself from the New Typography. He condemned the rigidity of the movement from both a political-moral and a strictly typo- graphical perspective.

The research project relies on the hypothesis that, despite being broadly considered a pivotal and game-changing book that paved the way to modern graphic design, The New Typography deserves further and closer scrutiny. Building on the hypothesis that bibliographic sources are among the so-far overlooked and neglected aspects of The New Typography which are waiting to be identified, discussed and contextualised, the research project employs them as a means to open the black box in which Tschichold’s book has been kept until now. Once the bibliographical references (books, magazines, grey literature) have been identified, the project investigates what they can tell us about the lineage in which The New Typography was rooted and the kind of discourses and networks it stemmed from. The focus on the sources aims to provide a more complex alternative to the worn-out rhetoric of the “pioneers” of graphic design.

Main applicant

ECAL/University of Art and Design Lausanne
Matthieu Cortat
Davide Fornari

Research team

Chiara Barbieri
Martin Søberg


May 2019 – June 2021

Supported by

ECAL/University of Art and Design Lausanne
HES–SO, Fonds stratégique RCDAV



Jan Tschichold’s The New Typography: Its Roots and Impact on National Scenes, 26 April 2023, ECAL/École cantonale d’art de Lausanne

Exposition à ISIA Urbino (IT) – 16-20 octobre 2023 – Image Chiara Rebolino & Lorenzo Urgesi
Exposition à ISIA Urbino (IT) – 16-20 octobre 2023 – Image Chiara Rebolino & Lorenzo Urgesi


Exposition à ISIA Urbino (IT) – 16-20 octobre 2023 – Image Chiara Rebolino & Lorenzo Urgesi
Exposition à ISIA Urbino (IT) – 16-20 octobre 2023 – Image Chiara Rebolino & Lorenzo Urgesi
Exposition à ISIA Urbino (IT) – 16-20 octobre 2023 – Image Chiara Rebolino & Lorenzo Urgesi