I’ve been educated in the US, and interned for 3 months in Switzerland. The internship cultivated my design skills and progression just about as much as my time spent setting foundations in school for 4 years. But along with a new level of design sense, time spent in Switzerland brought to light a few key differences between the Swiss view of design and the American sense of the occupation. So often, the Swiss and American views of design and designers seem to be opposed, but can often work beautifully together.
I first realized the big split between how a designer is viewed when I began getting to know my Swiss co-workers. Their exact number varied, but on average, I interned alongside two other design interns from the US, and two design apprentices local to the area. I was fascinated to learn the split between an American ‘intern’ and a Swiss ‘apprentice.’
As an American educated designer, a big part of my education has come in the form of internships. Getting to work alongside professionals for little or no pay has opened my eyes to daily life as a designer. A big emphasis is usually set on creative exploration and out of the box thinking, which often results in imperfect execution. Internships usually last a summer or a three-month period and then the student takes the new knowledge and moves forward.
In Switzerland, and across Europe, the student apprentices at an agency or firm parallel to their four-year education. They work roughly three days a week and focus their education on the technical side of design such as print techniques, exact typography, and brand standards. The idea is more of a tradesman learning under a seasoned professional, much in the same way an electrician would learn from an established craftsman. So the Swiss see the designer more as a technician.
The American intern receives an art degree, where the Swiss apprentice graduates from a technical school.
The educational styles stem into the overall aesthetic feel of work. Americans have a knack for quirky, unique creations, while the Swiss have an appealing, orderly, and perfect style containing a mastery of communication. The logic and order of the Swiss style is countered by the excitement and common disorder of the American body of contemporary work. It really boils down to creativity against precision.
The differences do not end at the overall style of the regions and their view of the designer, but also span the designer’s own view of the designer. The role of a designer is murky as it is (“You’re a designer? Can you fix my router?”). The position exists somewhere between a creative director and computer scientist. In the states, the job usually bends in the direction of creative director, but in Switzerland the opposite is true. The ideal beauty exists in technical perfection, when a simple, minimal, and clear design is sending an unmistakable signal. On the American side, the designer is fighting to be seen as an artist. Creativity is in the spotlight in a Picassoid search for uniqueness and new territory. An American might cringe at being labeled a glorified layout artist, but a Swiss designer would take the compliment in stride and go back to their kerning.
Personally, I think both sides have it right. When I’m at the train station and I see a totally sterile, Swiss style train schedule, I see such beautiful and clear work. Were it heavily styled with a few different fonts on a slant grid, I would cringe. When I see a local concert poster in an American, rad style with every color and lightning bolts, I get excited about it, and would cringe if it were on a basic grid with perfect typography. But creative and wacky work needs to be perfected, and sterile and perfected work needs a creative and sometimes wacky spark to make it memorable. A designer is an artist and a technician, and some days more one than the other, but there is a need for both ends of the spectrum.