NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 39


Program/me: Tribute to Karl Gerstner

Pegah Ahmadi

Do designers need to know how to program? “Our society expects that everyone should learn to write, even though very few become professional writers. Similarly, I think that everyone should learn how to program, even though very few will become professional programmers.” based on Mitchel Resnick’s belief everyone—including designers—need to know how to program. If Karl Gerstner was with us today he would also agree that designers need to know how to program. However, program(me) has a different yet similar meaning in his vocabulary.

January 1, 2017 marks Karl Gerstner’s passing at the age of 86. He was one of the most important innovators in typography, commercial art and corporate design for centuries to come. Gerstner was a painter, a theorist, a graphic designer, and a significant Swiss upholder of typography. Nobody has matched Gerstner’s resourcefulness as a typographer nor his courage as an advertising designer, and as a theorist he was for decades the most coherent writer on graphics. Born in Basel in 1930, Gerstner did a foundation year at Allgemeine Gewerbschule in Basel, under Emil Ruder. He was then apprenticed to the studio of the advertising designer Fritz Bühler. There his supervisor was Max Schmid, who went on to head design at the pharmaceutical giant, Geigy, where the new Swiss graphic design developed as a house style.

In its prime time, Basel-based company Geigy (now part of Novartis, one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical multinational) was not just at the forefront of drugs research – it was also one of the leading proponents of the International Typographic Style, Switzerland’s influential post-war graphic design movement. In the 1960s, the unbiased corporate culture of the pharmaceutical company in Basel combined product and company advertising in an exemplary way. The resulting works reveal a modernist formal style without being tied to a specific, conventional look. There was room in it for visual symbolism as well as the acquisition of nonrepresentational art, with which some of the graphic designers involved were connected. In the 1960s, the pharmaceutical company had over 150 employees working solely on the firm’s advertising campaigns, packaging and exhibition stands. Its large design team, which included modernist pioneers such as Karl Gerstner and Herbert Leupin, worked in collaboration with Armin Hofmann’s renowned Allgemeine Gewerbeschule school. In 1958 Geigy Celebrated its 200th anniversary in two companion books: one on the company’s history, the other, Geigy heute (Geigy today). They were designed by Gerstner and edited by the firm advertising director Markus Kutter. Geigy heute not only exemplified the new Swiss book design، It also set new standards for information design in the statistical charts, ingenious diagrams of management structures and departmental organization. The square format book used all the techniques of information design that have become standard practice – charts, annotated photographs, diagrams (organigrams, Gerstner calls them). He set the type (all Akzidenz) in unjustified columns, the method he introduced at Geigy in 1954.

In 1959, he part­nered with Markus Kut­ter, a writer and edi­tor, to form the agency Gerstner+Kutter which then became GGK in 1962 With the addition of a new partner, Paul Gredinger, an architect whose chief interest was in electronic music. GGK became inter­na­tion­ally suc­cess­ful as a design agency. The work of this ‘two-man creative team’ in the early 1960s is far from the stiff ‘Swiss’ stereotype. As GGK grew to become a large advertising agency, Gerstner’s dreams of making a multi-disciplinary practice in the spirit of the Bauhaus faded. In 1968, to manage the huge Ford account in Germany, GGK moved to a new main office in Düsseldorf. The firm flourished, but by the beginning of the 1970s Gerstner withdrew into ‘semi retirement’. 

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. 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. This is echoed in Gerstner + Kutter’s principles brochure which speaks of the necessary connection between word and illustration in design pieces. 

While Gerstner inherited the Modernist European tradition, he also grasped the conceptual ideas of the American New Advertising, where the message is inseparable from the form. He identified the concept of Integral Typography in his most influential book, Programme Entwerfen. Designing Programmes, published in 1963 – containing four essays, in which he explains the basic principles of his design method. Instead of setting out step-by-step formulas, the book provides a universal system for developing individual solutions, anticipating technological developments at the very beginning of the computer age. In reference to computers, a programme is defined as “a sequence of instructions that a computer can interpret and execute”. While computers were in their infancy in Gerstner’s time, his approach to programmes is very similar to that of computers. In his theories, a programme is a systematic approach to solving a problem which comes from an understanding of a problem. What is interesting about Gerstner’s concepts of programmes is how they were conceived well before the impact of computers was truly felt by humanity. The ideas that Gerstner had laid out in Designing Programmes are almost more relevant to design in the computer age than they were when he wrote them. The connotations of program(me)s in regard to creativity and the links between generative programs and aesthetics have been debated in the past. More recently, the idea of programmes in design are commonplace as designers are more involved in the web and digital mediums. Understanding and utilizing this approach has become deeply connected to design process. With the necessity to learn languages like html or systems like css (cascading style sheets), the designer becomes more comfortable within structure and Gerstner’s concepts start to make sense and apropos to the design process.

Beyond the implications of computers and technology, 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. 

There are two aspects of design process which are central to Gerstner’s theories. First is creativity. Gerstner’s evangelism for introducing programmes into design process is not to limit creativity, but to ensure creative energy is efficiently allocated to the stages where it most benefits answering the design problem. Instead of energy expended during the preliminary stages, clever use of programmes and frameworks can allow the designer to operate systematically and quickly. Once the seed of an idea or solution has presented itself through a systematic approach, creativity can take over to improve and refine the idea. “To describe the problem is part of the solution. This implies: not to make creative decisions as prompted by feeling but by intellectual criteria. The more exact and complete these criteria are, the more creative the work becomes. The creative process is to be reduced to an act of selection. Designing means: to pick out determining elements and combine them.” as Gerstner pointed out.

The second fundamental aspect of Gerstner’s theories is the importance defining and understanding of the design problem. Gerstner saw describing the problem as intrinsic to arriving at a solution and he saw a problem as never having a single solution: “Instead of solutions for problems, programmes for solutions — the subtitle can also be understood in these terms: for no problem (so to speak) is there an absolute solution. Reason: the possibilities cannot be delimited absolutely. There is always a group of solutions, one of which is the best under certain conditions.”

Gerstner’s contribution to graphic design may be this holistic pursuit of understanding a design problem within a context to find its solution. Although his approach may seem very rigid and mechanical to some, we should remember that each designer interprets the same problem differently and creates a different set of solutions proving there is never a singular answer to any problem.

Gerstner, K. (1968). Designing programmes; four essays and an introduction. with an introd. by Paul Gredinger. english version by D. Q. Stephenson (New enl ed.). Teufen AR, Switzerland: A. Niggli.
Hollis, R. (2002). The designer as programmer: Review of 5x10 years of graphic design. Retrieved April 13, 2010, from
Hollis, R. (2006). Swiss graphic design : The origins and growth of an international style, 1920–1965. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Kulba, B. (2017). Celebrating Karl Gerstner
The Free Dictionary. (2010). Programme — definition. Retrieved april 13, 2010, from

Pegah Ahmadi

is an Iranian multidisciplinary designer based in Chicago. She not only has explored the boundaries of various disciplines in design but also that of several countries. Shortly after she started her professional life as a furniture designer in 2005 she began teaching design foundation at university of applied science and technology in Tehran. In 2011 she taught a poster workshop in Baskent university in Turkey where she had a chance to explore cultural differences and similarities in design. Currently Pegah works in Morningstar Inc. headquarter designing print an digital publications. Pegah has received her second master degree in graphic design from Basel school of design in Switzerland and her first master degree in industrial design from university of Art in Iran.

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