The Influential Work of Erik Nitsche: Part 1

Dynamic America by General Dynamics, Design by Erik Nitsche

Dynamic America by General Dynamics, Design by Erik Nitsche

Erik Nitsche is one of the world’s great 20th century modern graphic designers. Yet despite Nitsche’s considerable contributions to the field of graphic design, the volume and influence of his output is unfortunately too often overlooked. Luckily, this has not prevented the elegant simplicity of his page composition, clean type presentation, and distinct use of color to permeate the work of later generations of designers in America, such as Walter Bernard, well-known for designing and art directing many of the country’s best-known magazines and newspapers, who was kind enough to share with us his first encounter with Nitsche’s work.

While studying design as a young man, Bernard frequently saw the work of prominent graphic designers of the time, such as Henry Wolf and Milton Glaser. But it was not until Bernard saw General Dynamics’s 1958 publication Dynamic America that he was introduced to Nitsche’s pioneering Modern style. The strong visual impact of Dynamic America is best described by Steven Heller in his article Erik Nitsche: The Reluctant Modernist , excerpted here:

Making use of tip-ins and foldouts (a precursor to today’s interactive media), Dynamic America’s remarkable pictorial narrative told a story of the nation’s military and industrial development seen through the lens of General Dynamics as it traced itself back to when it began in 1880 as Electro Dynamic. The book took almost four years until it was completed. Nitsche originally designed each spread in miniature at a 35mm size in order to approximate the movement of film itself. The book is, therefore, akin to a storyboard. In fact, the story told by the first color proofs without any text, which Nitsche has saved in pristine condition, are just as readable as if they had a verbal narrative. The pictures are laid out in such a way as to be the equivalent of complete sentences, phrases, and paragraphs.

Dynamic America by General Dynamics, Design by Erik Nitsche

Bernard was so taken with Nitsche’s design that he immediately set out to obtain a copy of Dynamic America for himself only to discover that it was not available for sale to the public. Undaunted, Bernard looked up the nearest location of the General Dynamics offices, walked right in and bought the book then and there. From that point forward, Nitsche’s design played a deeply influential role in Bernard’s work. For instance, the layout and design of History of World War I, one of the first books Bernard did for American Heritage in 1962, was prominently inspired by Nitsche’s use of layout, white space and color. Over the years, Bernard has been responsible for numerous redesigns of several major newspaper and magazine clients. For all of these, Nitsche’s work has remained extremely influential for him.

Images of General Dynamic’s Dynamic America courtesy of Robin Benson


July 18, 2011