Karl Gerstner

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.

Karl Gerstner



Karl Gerstner


 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.

Karl Gerstner


 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.

Karl Gerstner

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.

Karl Gerstner

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”.

Karl Gerstner



Karl Gerstner

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.



Spirit of Colors: The Art of Karl Gerstner by Karl Gerstner

Spirit of Colors: The Art of Karl Gerstner by Karl Gerstner//ir-na.amazon-adsystem.com/e/ir?t=historygraphi-20&l=am2&o=1&a=0262070847

"I cannot see why sensation should be less precise than thought. The scientist designs conceptual models, the artist perceptual models."
Karl Gerstner

Color is Gerstner's essential medium. In this book, he presents the pure sensation of color with great precision. He explores color physically, sumptuously, yet with cool, formal clarity in the book's seventy color plates. He also pursues the subject of color historically and psychologically in a series of essays, citing examples from Aristotle to Andreas Speiser, from Goethe to Max Lüscher; theories and speculations about the character and employment of color and form. His notes and observations are often couched in a poetic, aphoristic manner:

in general, then, color is a means
of exercising a direct influence on the soul.
The color is the piano key.
The eye is the hammer.
The soul is the piano key with all its strings."

if one says 'red'
and 50 persons are listening to him,
they will be imagining 50 reds.
And no doubt:
all these reds will be very different."

"Goethe worked in his green room.
In the blue one he welcomed guests he didn't like.
So that they would leave soon."

The essays include: The Spirit of Color: The Farbenlehre of Goethe; Conception—Perception: Fifteen Aspects to a Sentence of Max Bill; The Precision of Sensation; and Is Constructive Art at an End? Or its beginning? The illustrations include the "Color Sounds," the "Color Forms," and the "Color Lines."

2018 History Graphic Design

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