Het boek van PTT

Out of all of the books available at the Special Collections library, the book Het boek van PTT stood out to me the most. Designed by Piet Zwart and released in 1938, its yellowed front cover with an intriguing graphic design (a mix of crude illustration with photography and minimalist color) caught my attention immediately. The drawing of two characters, looking like two paper dolls were whimsical and fun, and the images of the telephone and envelope mixed with the title (typed in a language I didn’t understand) just made me more and more curious. I couldn’t make a connection between them at first, but I did wonder why the author chose to juxtapose the photography with the drawings. There is a striking difference between them, but the drawings hold their own on the page – which wasn’t too busy to me. In fact, despite there not being much on this cover, it felt very balanced.

Page showcasing the book mascots “The Post” and “J. Self”

About 10 by 7 inches in size, paperback and light to the touch, I had to be careful as the pages felt delicate to the touch. It felt very used to me, the discoloration on a few of the pages betraying the age of the book – the binding was still holding up, however. The first page I saw included an image of the two characters drawn on the front, only this time, it was a photograph of them. They were small paper dolls (I was right!) set in a casual pose, greeting me with big smiles and stark colors. Seeing them rendered this way really helped bring them to life for me, and it only got better from there. The following pages included images of the characters in different poses, which was fun to see – but they took a backseat to the vibrant graphic design that commanded my attention. Striking illustrations mixed with photography of people, letters, telephones, hands, envelopes, packages – there was even a clown and an orange. Color is used rather effectively – sparingly on certain pages and images, and much more eye-catching and distinct in others. The primary hues used are red, yellow and blue, and highlight or accent the visuals beautifully. It’s just enough to make the drawings and photography pop without being too overwhelming – while it is typically more color than what we see on the cover of the book, it is still not too much. The images were also detailed and fanciful, making use of photo collaging techniques and overlapping. They were memorable and easy to digest, especially helping to get the point of certain pages across to me, as the whole book was written in Dutch. That is another reason for their effectivity – I didn’t need to know Dutch to figure out this book is about a mailing system. Type was also used effectively, as paragraphs were spaced well and the font was easy to read. Certain words were in bold, which is useful in demonstrating important ideas. There were a few pages where the text seemed too wordy and too closely packed together to view as enjoyably as other pages, but these were few and far between. Even then, there were sentences of a different lettering and spacing that would help break up the condensed material.

Using desaturated photography, illustration and primary colors

I was eager to research more about this book that intrigued me so. Het boek van PTT, which translates to “The Book of PTT,” is indeed about the Dutch postal service. Assisted in the design by Dick Elffers, it includes elements of a lot of things that Piet Zwart would come to be known for: a mix between two and three-dimensional images, photographs with high contrast, “overprinted with colored inks and cropped into geometric shapes” (1). These practices were reminiscent of the methods of the Bauhaus School in Dessau and reflected his versatility as an artist. But part of the book’s charm is its audience: Piet Zwart created it to teach schoolchildren how to use the Dutch postal service. He created the two paper doll characters as a kind of mascot for the book, naming them “The Post” and “J. Self.” These characters helped teach children in an exciting and memorable way, as well as the “collages, drawings and various types of fonts in different sizes and thicknesses” (1). Zwart was devoted to bringing the booklet and his other ideas to life, in fact being known for his drive and high standards in his work (to the point that “some would question his character”). Part of that work included the redevelopment of art education, his progressive ideas and explicit requests for so ending up getting him fired from the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts in 1933.

The innovative incorporation of photographic images to balance illustrations and text are part of why this Het boek van PTT is so important, as these practices were becoming more popularized in the late 1920s. Zwart began his life as a designer trained as an architect in Amsterdam, working with Jan Wils, a member of the avant-garde De Stijl art movement. While he began utilizing the abstract, linear, and geometric qualities of De Stijl design, he would eventually reject De Stijl principles in his work, namely “the emphasis on symmetry, the use of strict horizontals and verticals, and the stern dogmatism” (2).

Strong use of primary color, thickened type and recurrence of “The Post” and “J. Self”

Zwart was a pioneer in graphic design and liked to experiment, wanting to accentuate words and add visual interest to them, which is reflected in the type of Het boek van PTT. This experimentation first became apparent when he was asked to design stationery for Wils’ office, and continued later on in his career. While he did less and less architecture work as time went on, he still included architectural methods and organization in his work. He referred to himself as a “typotekt,” a marriage between typographer and architect. He wanted to “build pages with type” and use strong diagonals, primary colors, scaling, asymmetry, alliteration and repetition to achieve functional and indelible design (2). Perhaps his most memorable work, he experimented the most with phototypography in the NKF catalogue, which was eighty pages long and included close-up photos of electric cables to create a “balance between photographs, text, and white space on the page” (3). He would make hundreds of designs for advertisements in the 1920s and 1930s before becoming an interior, industrial, and furniture designer after 1933.

Because of Zwart’s innovation with type and photography, his identity as a typotekt was cemented when in 2000, he was awarded the title of “Designer of the Century” by the Association of Dutch Designers (1). He has influenced an entire generation of graphic designers by showing the importance of balance and structured experimentation. Het boek van PTT reflects this amazingly, showcasing his creativity. For that, it deserves to be collected.



  • http://www.iconofgraphics.com/piet-zwart/
  • https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/people/18044821/bio
  • https://www.widewalls.ch/artist/piet-zwart/