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Sutnar Written by Steven Heller, Eye Magazine, 1994

Ladislav Sutnar was a pioneer of information design.


Ladislav Sutnar’s contributions to information architecture are milestones, not only in graphic design history, but in the development of design for the public good. The graphic systems he created for a range of American businesses clarified and made accessible vast amounts of complex, usually ponderous, information and transformed routine business data into digestible units. Before most designers—including the Swiss rationalists—had focused on the need for information organisation, Sutnar was in the forefront, driven by the quintessential Modern belief that good design applied to quotidian products has a beneficial, even curative, effect on society. Sutnar emigrated from Czechoslovakia to the United States in 1939. In the late 1950s and 1960s he developed a variety of sophisticated design programmes for America’s telecommunications monopoly, the Bell System. The parentheses he designed to demarcate American area code numbers when these were introduced in the early 1960s made the lives of millions of phone users easier, while his distinctive use of functional typography and stark iconography made public access to both emergency and regular services considerably simpler and provided Bell with a distinctive identity. But in the history of graphic design Saul Bass has received more attention for his 1968 redesign of the Bell System logo, which made little impression on the public, than Sutnar did for creating user-friendly telephone directory—an innovation that ‘information-architect’ Richard Saul Wurman had drawn on in recent years in developing the California Bell Smart Page directories.



Sutnar is not acknowledged as the designer of the area code parentheses in part because they were so integral to the layout of the new calling system that they were instantly adopted into the language to become part of the vernacular. Moreover, he was never credited by the Bell System because it was felt that graphic designers, like their own functional graphics, should be transparent to the public eye–seen but not heard of. As impersonal as Sutnar’s solution for indicating area code numbers might seem, the parentheses were in fact among the many signature devices he used to distinguish and highlight various types of information. As the art director from 1941 to 1960 of F. W. Dodge’s Sweet’s Catalog Service, America’s leading producer and distributor of trade and manufacturing catalogues, Sutnar developed an array of typographic and iconographic navigational tools that allowed users to traverse seas of data efficiently. His icons are analogous to the friendly computer symbols in use today, and were probably inspired by the iconographic tabs employed by El Lissitzky in Mayakovsky’s 1923 book For the Voice.

In addition to various grid and tab systems, Sutnar made common punctuation, such as commas, colons and exclamation points, into linguistic traffic signs by enlarging and repeating them in a manner similar to that of 1920s Constructivist typography. These were adopted as key components of Sutnar’s distinctive American style—for although he professed universality, he nevertheless possessed, and coveted, a graphic personality that was so distinct from other practising the International Style that his work did not require a credit line, though he almost always took one. His personality was based not on self-indulgent styles, however, but on function (readability, visual interest and flow). It never obscured or overpowered his clients’ messages, but rather drew attention to them—which is more than can be said for much of the undisciplined commercial art of the period.


Like Jan Tschichold, Sutnar synthesised European avant-gardisms–which he said ‘provided the base for further extension of new design vocabulary and new design means’–into a functional commercial lexicon that eschewed ‘formalistic rules or art for art’s sake.’ While he modified aspects of the New Typography, he did not compromise its integrity in the way that elements of Swiss Neue Grafik became mediocre through mindless usage overtime. ‘He made Constructivism playful and used geometry to create the dynamics of organisation,’ says Noel Martin, who as a young designer in the 1950s was a member of Sutnar’s small circle of friends and acolytes. Despite a strict belief in absolute rightness of geometric form, Sutnar allowed variety within his strictures so as to avoid standardising his clients’ different messages. Consistency reigned in terms of an established framework of type and colour choices and layout preferences, but within these parameters, a variety of options existed for different kinds of projects–including catalogues, books, magazines and exhibitions.


1 Addo-x Flyers, c. 1958–1959, 160 x 90 mm

1 Adlyer Typewriter Flyers, c. 1958–1959, 160 x 90 mm

2 Folding flyer for Vera, 1958–1959

2 Double-page spread from Symbol, 1937


Sutnar’s experience of the difficulties of English as a second language acts as a metaphor for why his design is so straightforward.


Indeed, information of the kind presented in the Sweet’s catalogue—which included everything from plumbing supplies to hydroelectric generators—was the equivalent of a second or even third language for many of its readers. So if verbal or written language could not efficiently mediate information in the age of mass production, Sutnar reasoned that visual language needed to be more direct to compensate. One of his favourite comments was: ‘the jet plane pilot cannot read his instrumental panel fast enough to survive without efficient typography. [So] new means had to come to meet the quickening tempo of industry. Graphic design was forced to develop higher standards of performance to speed up the transmission of information. [And] the watchword of today is ‘faster, faster’; produce faster, distribute faster, communicate faster.’

Although Sutnar’s English was fettered by a heavy accent and grammatical deficiencies, he was a prolific writer who articulated his professional standards in many essays and books that were both philosophical and hands-on. Visual Design in Action, which furnishes examples from his own work, argues for ‘future advances in graphic design’ and defines design in relation to a variety of dynamic methodologies. It is arguably the most intellectually stimulating Modern design book since Tschichold’s Neue Typographie.


3 Scovill Tubes, 1943, 11 x 8.5�

3 Harco Steel Construction Co., 1944


Sutnar’s fundamentalist thesis that ‘Good visual design is serious in purpose. Its aim is not to attain popular success by going back to the nostalgia of the past, or by sinking to the infantile level of a mythical public taste. It aspires to uplift the public to an expert design level. To inspire improvement and progress demands that the designer perform to the fullest limits of his ability. The designer must think first, work later.’ This final sentence exemplifies Sutnar’s approach to graphic design practice, and specifically to information design, which he describes as a ‘resolution of the polarities of function versus form, utility versus beauty, and rational versus irrational.’ For Sutnar, the practice of information design, a subset of graphic design, ‘should be understood as the integration of meaning [content] and visualisation [format] into an entity that produces a desired action.’ Conveying information was the designer’s most crucial responsibility.

Sutnar’s writing, devoid of verbiage and mannerisms, is as resolutely economical as his design. His published texts (and even some of his personal letters) are organised into idea segments or bites, at the beginning of which is often a subtitle, framed by parentheses or brackets, that signals to readers the subject or idea to follow. In the absence of a subhead, a simple icon such as an arrow or square indicates the start of a new thought. A letter or number shows where the idea belongs in the hierarchy of the argument. Italics are common, not just for occasional emphasis, but are used instead of Roman to convey the intensity of certain ideas. While these devices were created to encourage reading, they also allow for efficient skimming.


Designed by Kathleen Huang


A short biography of information designer, Ladislav Sutnar.

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