Ladislav Sutnar, Web Design before the Internet

Essays by Steven Heller
1 267 words7 min read

Ladislav Sutnar designed one of the most common, yet revolutionary, graphic devices—the parentheses around American telephone area code numbers. When first introduced in the early 1960s these three additional numerals foretold how technological progress would ultimately fill society with uninvited, unwanted, and sometimes unnecessary, add-ons. Sutnar, however, understood practical function and, more important, the need to control and organise the plethora of information that was fast bombarding contemporary life. For the next few decades, until the swell of even more city, state, and country codes, these simple diacritical marks enabled millions of American phone users to navigate the arithmetical deluge.

This historical footnote is indicative of Sutnar’s life as pioneer of functional design. While designers in Europe developed universal sign-symbol languages to make ideas more accessible, or created complex systems that clarified data hierarchies of vast multinationals, Sutnar designed better ways to organise quotidian business – something a lesser designer would have found too mundane. At the height of his powers as an exponent of Czech Modernism and after having designed graphics, products, and exhibitions he came to the United States launched a career as pioneer of what is know called information design, inadvertently becoming the progenitor of information architecture. Today Sutnar’s work serves as a paradigm for the architecture and design of the web.

Systems that he developed to make cluttered industrial catalogues more useable can and, possibly will, have an impact on today’s web design. And even if it does not, Sutnar’s work should be known by today’s interactive designers because his whole career was built upon the interaction between graphic devices and clear information.

‘The lack of discipline in our present day urban industrial environment has produced a visual condition, characterised by clutter, confusion and chaos,’ wrote Allon Schoener, the curator of the Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action exhibition that originated at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1961. ‘As a result the average man of today must struggle to accomplish such basic objectives as being able to read signs, to identify products, to digest advertisements, or to locate information in newspapers, books and catalogues… There is an urgent need for communication based upon precision and clarity. This is the area in which Ladislav Sutnar excels.’


While this may seem like a critique of current design trends, in 1961 it was a testament to progressivism. In the 1940s when Sutnar introduced the theoretical constructs that defined ‘what is good design?’ this question was rarely asked of American commercial art. Design was one third artistic instinct and two-thirds market convention. Sutnar was stern about matters of order and logic, and fervently sought to alter visual standards by introducing both American businessmen and commercial artists to ‘the sound basis for modern graphic design and typography,’ which he asserts in his book Visual Design in Action (Hasting House, 1961) is, ’...a direct heritage of the avant-garde pioneering of the twenties and thirties in Europe. It represents a basic change that is revolutionary.’

Sutnar wrote important manuals of form manipulation including Catalog Design (1944) and Catalog Design Progress (1950) that were guidebooks intended to clear away the chaos of printed material. The former introduced a variety of radical systematic departures in catalogue design, the latter fine-tuned those models to show how complex information could be organised and, most importantly, retrieved. Over forty years after its publication, Catalog Design Progress remains the archetype for functional design. It further is a textbook for how information in the digital environment could be organised and prioritised.

Sutnar was one of the first designers to design double spreads rather than single pages. A casual perusal of Sutnar’s designs for everything from catalogues to brochures from 1941 on, with the logical exception of covers, reveals a preponderance of dynamic spreads on which his signature navigational devices force the users to go from one level of information to the next. Through these spreads Sutnar harnessed certain avant garde design principles and injected visual dynamism into even the most routine content without impinging accessibility. The basic structure was rational, while the juxtapositions, scale, and colour were curiously abstract.

Looking at Sutnar’s work in the context of the Internet it appears he was ahead of his time. Although he mostly designed for print (and the occasional house or office interior), his concept of logical navigation aids prefigures similar applications in the design of web pages. Of course, it is foolish to say, had he lived to experience the digital age that he would be in the forefront of design, because he would have been much too old. Nonetheless, he created paradigms for online navigation and website organisation that in skeletal form could be applied today. Peter Girardi, the founder of the multi-media firm, Funny Garbage, and teacher of conceptual web design at the School of Visual Arts MFA/Design program introduces students to Sutnar before any contemporary web designer. He explains that the hierarchical principles developed through type weights, bars, rules and other graphical symbols used throughout Sutnar’s catalogues, books, and typography is a prime example of Modernism in the service of understanding. And while admittedly many websites are designed for visceral effect, information sites could benefit mightily from Sutnar’s approaches.


In 1950, almost thirty years prior to the first designed Internet page, Sutnar had set standards for what he referred to as a ‘New design synthesis’ in talk before the Type Directors Club of New York discussing What is new in American Typography? ’...[D]esign is evaluated as a process culminating in an entity which intensifies comprehension,’ he wrote. And clients benefited from his unswerving commitment to this idea. He had developed quintessential Modern systems for a variety of businesses. The most noteworthy include advertising and identity campaigns for Vera scarves (which despite the mass market appeal of the product, were masterpieces of constructivist sophistication); Graphic and environmental systems for Carr’s shopping plaza in New Jersey (for whom he developed a lexicon of icons, pictographs, and glyphs which were the quintessential application of rapid identifiers and symbols); and identity, advertisements, and exhibitions for addo-x, a Swedish business machine company that was competing with Olivetti in the United States. The addo-x identity was predicated on Sutnar’s belief in the dynamism of geometric form and is rooted in stark graphics that are beguilingly simple and unmistakably unique (a bold sans serif, iconographic X exhibited power that could be likened to the cross and swastika).

Each one of these programs could easily have been transferred to the web, and not simply as non-interactive jpegs or tiffs. In fact, looking at Vera, Carrs, and addo-x one can see the kinetic potential of the symbols and icons that Sutnar. While static, they approximated animation in the dynamic arrangements and compositions that yielded a distinct identity.

For print or web, Sutnar’s work has resonance today. His notions about navigation, like geometry itself, will never go out of style or become unfunctional. Indeed many design students today knowingly or not have borrowed and applied his signature graphics to both functional practice and post-Modern style. Sutnar would enjoy the idea that his work had relevance but loathe seeing it as a nostalgic conceit. ‘There is just one lesson from the past that should be learned for the benefit of the present,’ he wrote in 1959 as if pre-empting this kind of epitaph. ‘It is that of the painstaking, refined craftsmanship which appears to be dying out.’