Design Manual for the Swiss Federal Railways

Read Time: 12 minutes

Published in 1992 and reprinted in 2019 by Lars Müller Publishers, Josef Müller-Brockmann’s “Passenger Information System: Design Manual for the Swiss Federal Railways” stands as an important contribution in the world of multilingual visual identity guides for transportation wayfinding and signage systems.

In 1980, Josef Müller-Brockmann laid the cornerstone for a uniform visual identity for the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) with his legendary “Visual Information System at Train Stations and Stops.” In view of Switzerland’s multilingualism, the manual proposed a signage system that largely did without language; with his functional typography, the pioneer of Swiss graphics conceived an intuitively comprehensible signage system for use throughout the country to also guide passengers unfamiliar with the terrain to their destination by way of pictograms. The visual concept was developed in dialogue with the SBB and still dominates the railways visual identity even today.

Müller-Brockmann’s manual, greatly expanded in 1992 and given the title “Passenger Information System,” is a prime example of a complex design project that succeeds through extreme rationality and consistency. Serving as a compass for designers worldwide in their daily work, this reprint replete with English translations makes the manual accessible for the first time to a broader public. The included essay by Andres Janser additionally examines the project in the context of Müller-Brockmann’s conceptual work and the systematic international design, toward which railways everywhere were striving during the period.

Josef Müller-Brockmann (1914–1996) was a leading figure in Swiss graphic design from the 1950s on, helping to pioneer the Swiss Style that would shape graphic design worldwide for decades. After an early career doing illustrations, he made a radical about-face in 1950, henceforth developing an uncompromisingly rational and formal visual language. His posters remain the stuff of legend, and the magazine he founded, “New Graphic Design,” spread far and wide the gospel of sober design based on constructive principles. Large corporations and public institutions were soon adopting this objective approach as a model for design concepts that still remain valid today. As a teacher in Japan and at the design schools in Zurich and Ulm, as well as a lecturer and consultant, Müller-Brockmann was a distinctive voice in the design world. 

The following images and essay by Jansen are selections from the Design Manual.


Design Manual for the Swiss Federal Railways


“Aha, SBB”


by Andres Jansen


In the 1970s, the Schweizerische Bundesbahnen (SBB, Swiss Federal Railways) were on an expansion course, under considerable pressure to compete with the growing popularity of the automobile. The need was thus felt to lend SBB’s visual identity greater impact. Internationally, the Swiss railways were late to the game here, but their standards were all the more demanding. SBB’s chief architect, Uli Huber, initiated and supervised numerous steps towards implementing a comprehensive corporate design, collaborating from 1981 on, with the new SBB advertising director, Markus Seger. The information system designed by Josef Müller-Brockmann, the pioneer of the Swiss International Style, would soon come to be regarded as an international milestone. (1)(Fig. 1)

Forging Ahead Out of the Crisis

When Uli Huber took up his post at SBB in 1973, the railways accounted for a mere 15 percent of national passenger traffic. An economic recession, triggered among other things by the oil crisis, caused traffic to decline and even the normally profitable freight transport to suffer from decreasing revenues, so that operating deficits spiraled and Switzerland’s railways found themselves in a major crisis. 

The government was at the same time pushing for the comprehensive coordination of all areas of traffic policy among one another and with spatial planning and economic and energy policy. This “Overall Transport Strategy” would ultimately be rejected in a referendum, but various ideas included in this strategy were nonetheless implemented. Crucial for SBB as the largest state-owned transport company was a new political offensive in which the governments no longer spoke of operating deficits but of “public services that do not cover their own costs,” which would henceforth be financed through multiyear service contracts. (2)

SBB itself had not remained idle during these crisis years: it put the Heitersburg Line between the Limmat Valley and Lenzburg into operation—the first major new line to be built in decades—and also the late modernist Bern main station. Starting in 1980, the east-west transverse line from St. Gallen to Geneva carried passengers via the new underground railway station at Zurich-Kloten Airport, which thus became one of the first airports in the world to be directly connected to an intercity line. (3)

But the most significant innovation of all in Switzerland’s public transport system at the time was immaterial in nature: from the summer of 1982, SBB trains ran according to an integrated nationwide timetable, which was also the basis for the schedules followed by the other railways and the Postautos (post buses). This concept, which had proven its worth in the Netherlands, had been tested since the 1960s on individual routes operated by various Swiss railways—including SBB—and was later worked out in detail and finally enforced, against some resistance. The integrated timetable now simplified travel considerably. (Fig. 2)

The driving force behind the reform was an informal group of SBB engineers who, under the self-deprecating name “Spinnerclub” (Spinner means “crank” in German), had been working on other potential improvements since 1971. The members of the Spinnerclub also devoted themselves to drafting an internal image report on the topics of “Transport Policy Behavior,” “Service Image,” “SBB’s Reputation as an Employer,” “Relations with the Mass Media,” and “Visual Image.” Uli Huber co-authored the last section and published it in 1976 in edited form in the journal Werk/Œuvre. Under the heading “The Visual Image of SBB,” he did not report on what had already been achieved but instead summarized the objectives pursued in the overall program. State-run enterprises, “in contrast to purely profit-oriented companies,” required “a reserved visual profile,” (4) he wrote, and this should be carried through to all design areas, from railway station architecture and engineering structures to rolling stock, uniforms, and printed matter. The design of this consistent visual identity should transcend fads, because “modern does not mean trendy.” He proposed that the “SBB ‘packaging’ should appear everywhere” in order to guarantee recognition and a positive response from the public: “Aha, SBB!” (5)

The central component of the envisaged visual identity was a modern information system. Its prehistory dates back to the postwar period and extends far beyond the country’s borders. 


“Railway Style”

In 1953, for the first time since the advent of the automobile, the railways handled less than half of all passenger traffic in Switzerland. The road had now taken command and was not about to relinquish it. This fundamental change in travel habits affected all European railway companies. The Paris-based Union International des Chemins de fer (UIC) reacted by simplifying its systems, including abolishing third-class seats, and by introducing quality upgrades such as the Trans Europ Express (TEE) first-class only train.

Confidence still ran high at the individual railway companies, as evidenced by an increasing awareness of the importance of design—in keeping with the general surge of international interest in the potential of corporate design. While the TEE trains that took to the tracks in 1957 sported a uniform design throughout Europe, the Richtlinien für die Anschriften in Bahnhöfen und Stationen (Guidelines for Signage at Train Stations and Stops) with which SBB sought to improve its visual identity that same year, consisted only of a thin leaflet.

The decision by British Rail to develop a comprehensive Corporate Identity Manual was, by contrast, groundbreaking.The company commissioned the Design Research Unit studio, and the finished manual was launched in 1965 with an exhibition at the Design Centre in London, attracting international attention. (6) The Nederlandse Spoorwegen and its design coordinator, Siep Wijsenbeek, called their similarly far-reaching manual, conceived by Tel Design and put into effect in 1968, simply Spoorstijl (Railway Style). The Deutsche Bundesbahn, in turn, established the in-house Design Center around 1970, which developed a house style for all design aspects relevant for travelers. The Danske Statsbaner also had an in-house studio, which issued its own Design Manual in 1974, while a similar commission from the Europe-wide night-train company Trans Euro Night (TEN) went to Roger Tallon and his studio Design Programmes (1974).

These efforts had various goals in common. They aimed to facilitate rail travel through visual communication while also achieving an advertising effect through the memorability and uniformity of their visual appearance. This would serve to anchor the railway companies more strongly in the consciousness of the people who were, after all, the owners of the state-run enterprises in all the countries in question. “Swiss Railways for the Swiss People!” had already been the slogan for a referendum as early as 1898 with which the vast majority of Switzerland’s private railways were nationalized and merged in 1902 under the name SBB. 

With similarly broad objectives in mind, the UIC repeatedly launched specific measures for cross-border rail traffic, including a program of standardized pictograms in 1963. (7) That same year saw the publication of the Richtlinien und Normen (Guidleines and Standards) of the German Lufthansa, developed by a team at the Ulm School of Design. (8) And in fact, the design initiatives undertaken by the state railway companies during this period can be explained not only by competitive pressure from the road but increasingly also by pressure from the air. 


New Graphic Design on the Railway

When Josef Müller-Brockmann was enlisted to develop the Visuelles Informationssystem (Visual Informationa System), he already had a great deal of railway experience under his belt. He had been teaching at the Kunstgewerbeschule Zürich (today Zurich University of the Arts) since 1957 and the following year launched the journal Neue Grafik / New Graphic Design / Graphisme Actuel with Richard P. Lohse, Hans Neuburg, and Carlo Vivarelli. During a period when he was also working on the sensational Turmac advertising campaign for Zurich main station, he now for the first time displayed an interest in a design field that was primarily geared for internal use and yet was eminently visible and graphically incisive: the anonymous world of railway signage. (Fig. 3) Müller-Brockmann had his studio employees gather an extensive collection of photographs, for example of switch signals, inscriptions on freight cars, route boards on platforms, and tickets. This resulted in the 1961 photo essay “Graphic Design on the Railway” in New Graphic Design, which, in a collaborative fashion typical for the journal, combined the images with captions by Richard P. Lohse and an introductory text by Hans Neuburg: “In the sphere of railway design conciseness must be combined with the most forceful visual impact. These demands were instinctively satisfied by the style chosen for lettering and the form of signals.” (9) (Figs. 4-9)

Müller-Brockmann was invited by Will Burtin to attend “Vision 65,” the ambitious World Congress on New Challenges to Human Communications organized by the International Center for the Typographic Arts, where he spoke on “International Signs (or Symbols),” The following year, as a jury member for the Icograda competition, he talked about “The Creation of an International Language of Symbols for Graphic Design and Technology in Visual Communications.” His extensive compendium of all these efforts, with the working title International Communication Signs, would, however never go beyond the project phase. (10)

It was not so much his earlier work for international companies such as Rosenthal, Weishaupt, and IBM, but rather his current local contract with Zurich-Kloten Airport that brought Müller-Brockmann to SBB’s attention. The Atelier Müller-Brockmann + Co. had been commissioned with developing a special signage system for the airport’s new Terminal B, which opened in 1975. Shortly thereafter, the four partners in the studio quarreled and went their separate ways, so that Uli Huber was then faced with the quandary of whether to give the SBB contract to Max Baltis and Ruedi Rüegg—the studio partners in charge of the airport project—or to Josef Müller-Brockmann. The opinion of Heiny Widmer, head curator at the Kunsthaus Aarau, tipped the scales, (11) so that Müller-Brockmann and his studo chief Peter Spalinger were awarded the contract for SBB’s Visual Information System in the spring of 1978. (12)

Müller-Brockmann was able to rely here not only on his expertise regarding the “purely informative, practically plain style” of anonymous railway graphics (13) but also on previous achievements in systematic European railway design.Zurich’s Kunstgewerbemuseum (today the Museum für Gestaltung Zürich) had featured the Dutch Spoorstijl in 1974 in the touring exhibition Dutch Design for the Public Sector, initiated by Gert Dumbar, a partner in Tel Design. (14) And in Ui Huber, Müller-Brockmann had a congenial counterpart who, as a member of the UIC design committee, had recognized the outstanding quality of the efforts of British Rail, Nederlandse Spoorwegen, and Danske Statsbaner, and had procured all the corresponding manuals.(15) (Figs.10-22)

The Visual Information System was put into effect in the summer of 1980 and covered the subjects of trademark, pictograms, type, colors, building signage, and departure display boards.




  1. Wolfgang Schmittel, “The New Visual Information System for Railway Stations and Stops of the Swiss Federal Railways,” in Corporate Design International: Definition and Benefit of a Consistent Corporate Appearance, ed. Wolfgang Schmittel, Zurich, 1984, pp. 120-29.
  2.  Work on the overall traffic concept began iin 1972, the final report was issued in 1977, and the first service contracts were awarded in 1982 and 1987. See Gisela Hürlimann, Die Eisenbahn der Zukunft – Automatisierung, Schnellverkehr und Modernisierung bei den SBB  1955 bis 2005, Zurich, 2007.
  3. The shell of the the station itself was completed in 1975, but the access routes could not be put into operation until 1980. In the meantime, the new Amsterdam Schipol underground station opened in 1978. 
  4. Uli Huber, “Das Visuelle Image der SBB—Architektur für ein Grossunternehmen,” Werk/Œuvre, no. 3 (1976),  p.159.
  5. Ibid., p. 166.
  6. Michelle Cotton, Design Research Unit 1942-72, London, 2010, pp.62-77.
  7. Karl Radlbeck, “Resiseninformationen in den Bahnhöfen der Deutschen Bundesbahn,” Eisenbahntechnische Rundschau, nos. 7-8 (1978), p.472.
  8. Lufthansa, Richtlinien und Normen, 1963. Reprinted in Manuals 1-Design and identity Guidelines, ed. Tony Brook, Adrian Shaughnessy, and Sarah Schrauwen, London, 2014, pp. 48-61.
  9. Atelier Müller-Brockmann (photos), Hans Neuburg (text), and Richard P. Lohse (captions), “Graphic Design on the Railway,” Neue Grafik / New Graphic Design / Graphisme Actuel, no.10 (1961), pp. 20-36.
  10. Kerry William Purcell, Josef Müller-Brockmann, London, 2006, p.227.
  11. Uli Huber, in conversation with the author, December 5, 2018.
  12. The contract was awarded on March 30, 1978. Josef Müller-Brockmann, Mein Leben—Spielerischer Ernst und ernsthaftes Spiel, Baden, 1994, p.86.
  13. Atelier Müller-Brockmann et al. 1961, p.32.
  14. Three years later, the exhibition 75 Years of SBB—SBB Posters, the Company’s Calling Card was held at the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Zurich. 
  15. Huber 1976, p.162. The manuals are now preserved by SBB Historic.



Find Design Manual for the Swiss Federal Railways at Lars Müller Publishers