Celebrating Karl Gerstner


July 2nd was Swiss designer Karl Gerstner’s 80th birthday. While Josef Müller-Brockman may enjoy status as the most well-known Swiss graphic designer, Gerstner’s impact in design and advertising places him as a pioneer in the field. His work in the 1960’s for companies like Geigy or Citroën established many of the conventions and approaches designers still use today. As a result, Gerstner’s work still looks as contemporary today as it did 50 years ago. Above his ability to output great design, Gerstner developed his own design theories based on the programmatic and systematic approach solving design problems. Whether graphic designers know it or not, Gerstner’s theories are foundational to how they approach design problems.

This birthday milestone should be marked to pay Karl Gerstner respect and gratuity for his trailblazing in design.

Karl Gerstner and Design Programmes

Karl Gerstner was born in Basel, Switzerland in 1930. His life was divided between being a painter and a graphic designer in which he saw success in both pursuits. Gerstner studied design at Allgemeine Gewerbschule in Basel under Emil Ruder. In 1959, he partnered with Markus Kutter, a writer and editor, to form the agency Gerstner+Kutter which then became GGK with the addition of architect Paul Gredinger. GGK became internationally successful as a design agency.

Gerstner’s influence on typography is significant to the history and theories of graphic design. He popularized the use of unjustified ragged-right text in typography. He also proposed what he called Integral Typography which extended Max Bill’s ideas on typography. A message in the form of text can convey a meaning or some information, however, when typography is used in an informed manner, Gerstner felt that it could greatly contribute to the connection between the words and the actual meaning (Left- Advertisement for Endress + Hauser, a company which sold measuring equipment. (Mid-1960s)). Gerstner saw typography as a way to express a whole greater than the sum of the words and the meanings. For example, the large headline of one of his Citroën advertisement stated “Don’t buy this car” which was followed with “if you don’t expect something out of the ordinary in a car” in smaller type. While this may seem commonplace or trite today, Gerstner + Kutter trailblazed the clever use of type to make a point. In other words, Gerstner knew that the aesthetics of typography can aid the communication of ideas and information and that was the foundation of Integral Typography. Gerstner extended this idea beyond typography to the point where it was more important to consider the whole of the organization/company/project instead of the individual design elements or pieces. This is echoed in Gerstner + Kutter’s principles brochure which speaks of the necessary connection between word and illustration in design pieces. His contribution to graphic design may be this holistic pursuit of understanding a design problem within a context to find its solution.

Gerstner defines design as picking out determining elements and combining them. Much of his design theory hinges on the designer’s ability to make informed choices based on understanding of the problem and the combinations of elements. To come to a problem’s solution, the designer must be able to describe and understand the problem. By then developing a set of intellectual criteria, the designer is able to make ‘creative decisions’ which are based on a systematic approach instead of instinct.

The set of “intellectual criteria” that Gerstner speaks about can also be seen as a set of consciously derived parameters which directly address the problem the designer has identified. For Gerstner, these criteria took the form of?a systematic set of rules or parameters which he referred to as a programme. In 1964, Gerstner wrote Designing Programmes which outlined his theories. A programme is a systematic approach to solving a problem which comes from an understanding of a problem. It is important to note that the approach is responsive and often unique to the specific problem. With Gerstner’s pursuits as a graphic designer and a painter, we can see his programmatic approach manifest itself in two different, but equally systematic ways.

Gerstner’s Morphological Typogram System

The development of logos or wordmarks is a common task for the graphic designer. Invariably, it involves experimentation and generation of many variations to find the best solution for the logo. Gerstner’s (1968) morphological typogram programme was intended as a way for designers to systematically produce a number of variations of a wordmark. It lists a number of parameters of type on the left column and then each one is broken into how that particular parameter can be modified or treated. For example, typeface is broken down into san-serif, roman, german, some other or a combination of typefaces.

By generating variations with this programme, the designer does not have to rely on randomly creating variations, but can systematically create variations. From these, the designer can quickly determine a good approach to the wordmark and then develop a solution.

With Gerstner’s the Intermöbel wordmark, his final solution was derived from the combination: a-11, 21, 33; b-14, 22; c-12, 22, 33, 41; d-11, 22, 31, 43.

The strength of this programme is that it allows the designer to develop a number of wordmarks through the systematic combinations of a list of defined parameters. This keeps the designer from having to randomly think of type variations for developing iterations of a wordmark. The programme is not a replacement for creativity, however. Once designer generates a version that has something interesting about it or addresses the design problem, they can then focus on refining that idea. The programme allows the designer to expend their creative energy on the refinement of a good idea instead of a large number of ideas which may not address the problem.

Grid for the Capital

The use of grids was popularized and refined by Swiss designers like Josef Müller-Brockmann and is one of the signature characteristics of Swiss style of graphic design. Grids are a programme that sets a number of parameters through columns, gutters and margins which allow designers to generate creative layouts quickly but also maintains a consistency in between elements on a page or between pages of a document. Karl Gerstner was the first to truly exploit grids and create them with unmatched complexity which yielded incredible flexibility.

In 1962, Gerstner was commissioned to design a quarterly magazine called Capital. It was a magazine intended to put the ideas of economics into a human perspective and so it needed to be clear, aesthetically pleasing, and engaging. He considered grids to be a “…reliable regulating tool for layout, tables, pictures, etc., a formal program, a priori, for a give quantity of unknown content”. The grid provides a set of guidelines to consistently lay out unpredictable content.

Grids can turn design into a simple act of placement of elements into a series of column. While this can provide the consistency, grids can be a trap for designers; creating uninspired, homogenous layouts. This is especially the case with simple grids. For Capital, Gerstner developed an complex grid which was flexible and allowed rapid, creative and consistent layouts. As a grid grows in complexity, it provides “a maximum number of constants with the greatest?possible variability”.

The grid looks incredibly complex at first, but upon examination, shows itself as a number of grids overlaid upon each other. While each grid overlay was often used separate, they were designed so if columns were mixed together, they would still maintain a harmony between each other. This way the magazine’s layout is consistent from page to page and between the different grid versions, separate or combined.

Why are Gerstner’s concepts of programmes important to designers? Programmes are a way to introduce economy into a design process. Gerstner asserted that programmes are a means of developing a structure to be creative in. While a structure can be seen as limiting, it can also be seen as establishing the parameters of a design problem which can keep a designer focused. By integrating a systematic approach to ideation, iteration or composition, a designer can reduce the time spent on randomly arriving at solutions. This time saved in the early stages can then be used later on to refine and improve concepts. For example, Gerstner’s typogram programme allows for rapid and systematic generation of a number of possibilities for a wordmark. The programme itself, does not offer the answer or anything new, but it clears the designer’s mind of needing to conceive iterations so they can focus on the design problem and its needs.

Programmes allow designers to keep from starting from scratch every time. A grid provides the designer with something that they can use from layout to layout for a magazine or document as a starting point. The success in any programme relies on its adequacy and robustness in addressing the design problem. As a grid is developed, it is important that its design is informed by the design problem it is addressing. The grid allows the designer to rapidly lay out pages in an informed manner. In the case of Capital magazine, the grid was also complex enough that it was flexible and provided ample opportunity for the designer to be creative in their explorations laying out the pages. This complexity liberates the designer from the constraints of the simple grid by offering incredible possibilities and variations for layouts while maintaining consistency between elements, pages and issues. The creativity that the Capital grid affords is proof in itself that rules can provide a framework to solving a design problem without determining the final result. The grid is never the answer to the design problem, it is just provides informed guidelines to arrive at the answer.

Bryan Kulba is a designer in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He is currently working on his Bachelor of Design degree at the University of Alberta and operates Kobot Industries, a web development company.        

13 thoughts on “Celebrating Karl Gerstner

  1. One of the bests. His book, “Programme entwerfen” is probably one of the best books about design. All kind of design.

  2. The man is a genius. His design work was groundbreaking and his artworks show the same methodical thinking and implementation of programmes. Happy belated birthday Mr Gerstner.

  3. Also it is interesting that many of the great Swiss designers from the same era were also heavily involved in creating concrete art. Gerstner, Lohse, Vivarelli, Rudin, Bill, Honegger. They all felt the need to express their modernist ideas in the form of art as well as through the paid design work they did.

  4. Thanks for the info. I found a copy of Designing Programmes and its good for the time. However I would not consider it one of the best books on design. Gerstner does have a number of illuminating points and interesting examples.

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