“Even though I’m probably one of the last relics of Swiss typographers, I actually think nowadays it’s a dead donkey and we should stop flogging that horse,” claims Bruno Maag, smiling. Having spent as much time living in the UK as he did growing up in Switzerland, Maag is as funny as he is meticulous—equally at home discussing Irving Hoffman as he is mixing his equine metaphors, and he’s not afraid to speak his mind.
He established his London studio, DaltonMaag, in 1996, went on to win multiple awards, and was recently voted onto the board of D&AD. Despite his outspoken opinions, his charm clearly wins him more friends than enemies. Maag is most vocal when talking about the Swiss style he learned during his education in Basel. When asked about the influence of the mid-century Swiss greats he is keen to clarify the terminology.
“Swiss typography is not only about the grid. It’s about simplicity, about clarity of information, and structure helping the consumer understand what’s going on. It’s not an art form, it’s discipline, it’s product design.”
This distinction is key to Maag’s way of thinking. The designer, he argues, is only there to communicate. “You don’t design for yourself. You design so that someone can sell a product better, or so that instructions are simpler to understand. You have a purpose.”
This brings us onto his favorite topic: Helvetica. Or rather, his “utter dislike and distaste for Helvetica.” Maag feels the font is chronically overused, picked up by lazy designers who assume that it’s pure or infallible.
“Designers use Helvetica because it’s the lazy choice. And second it’s also the safe choice. It creates a homogeneity about all the brand and identity work you see. There’s nothing exciting about it.”
What’s more, Maag maintains, Helvetica comes laden with problems resulting from its origins. “Helvetica was a hot metal typeface and they digitized it using hot metal spacing, the essence is that you get a hot metal typeface in digital with all the problems that come with that.”
His strong feelings on this matter inspired him to create his own interpretation of Helvetica’s original inspiration, Akzidenz Grotesque. “Aktiv is really a reaction to that idiotic and slavish thinking that Helvetica is the best typeface.” Designed for digital use, Aktiv has been tweaked to make sure spacing and character relationships eliminate fussy kerning. “We do want Aktiv Grotesque to replace Helvetica,” continues Maag. “That’s purely commercial, I want the cash.” He’s joking, but the fact remains it has been remarkably successful. The full Aktiv suite is now used by sports brand Under Armour and airline Cathay Pacific.
Clearly an ambitious studio, DaltonMaag has worked on a number of other high profile projects. It collaborated with cycling brand Rapha to develop a typeface for British cycle supremo Bradley Wiggins’ label. But the scale of this was nothing compared to its work for Nokia. This epic project saw them create a staggering 19 script systems, taking the brand’s Finnish heritage global.
So how does this titan of type feel about his competitors? For some Maag has only praise, for others, contempt. On Lineto’s Circular he is unequivocal, “What an atrocity of a font. Don’t get me wrong, it works well in a display titling environment, but everybody’s using it now and it just looks atrocious.”
On a more positive note he is a big admirer of François Rappo, creator of elegant typefaces for the Optimo foundry, including a beautiful, historically sympathetic version of Didot Elder. And his Swiss contemporaries, Grilli Type? “They follow a commercial trend, and good on them.”
So what is the future for Swiss designers and the typefaces that have been their bread and butter for nearly 100 years? “A lot of designers are purist followers of Swiss typography,” says Maag. “They produce really good work, but it becomes a bit samey-samey. You start thinking ‘are they taking the piss a bit here?’”
His inspirations now lie further afield, and he cites Brazil and India as the places to watch for new typography. As for the future of Helvetica? “I think it’s time for the Swiss style of typography to bow out and take a quiet exit.” Concludes the world’s least Swiss, Swiss typographer.