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.

2017 History of Graphic Design

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