Designing Programmes, Digested

a post on Process

10/09/2014 · On a train to London · Swiss designer Karl Gerstner has been an inspiration to me since I was first introduced to his work by my colleague, Mark Boulton, a few years back. I may have learned about him in design school, but to be honest I was too into making stuff look cool for his ideas to take hold.

I was immediately compelled by Gerstner’s ambition to wrangle complex design systems into easily repeatable patterns; outing his design knowledge into grids, typography, or whatever else the solution needed. Design, to him, was not predicated on creative whim, but was found through hard work and strived for consistent success. I dig that.

Gerstner contributed to our modern graphic vernacular in many ways, most notably with his design system for Capital magazine, but his 1964 book, Designing Programmes, gives the most explicit outline of his methodology. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the third and only extant edition, printed by Lars Müller Publishers in 2007, seems to have recently gone out of print.

Fortunately, I happen to have a copy sitting right next to me.

The Book Itself

Designing Programmes cover 2007
Image via Lars Müller Publishers

The original, 1964 edition appears to have been a collection of four essays. In 1967, Gerstner expanded the second edition out to include quite a few more examples, and this appears to be the first time he included what has become one of my favorite design quotes of all time:

“To describe the problem is part of the solution.”

The 2007 edition adds a couple more prefaces, a few more examples, and an enjoyable case study on designing a new typeface for IBM (“A new beginning: the IBM original”). In fact this third edition is set entirely in kg privata, an evolution of the whacky little typeface Gerstner designed for IBM in the early 80s.

Designing Programmes inside detail
Image via Lars Müller Publishers

The words contained within the now scarce pages are largely irrelevant without their accompanying imagery, so I still recommend grabbing a copy of the physical book if you can. But there are some true gems of copy-and-pastable wisdom scattered throughout, and I have spent a bit of time collecting them for you here. Personally, I was amazed by how many of his critiques transcend their times and context, for example: calling out the tendency towards grandiosity that must plague designers of all generations.

So without further preface, I give you Designing Programmes, digested:

“Dear Reader” (Introduction for third edition) — 2006

“[This book] deals with a specific method of approaching creative design, namely, systematically creeping up on a task rather than hoping for inspiration from the higher regions. The key word is programming.”
p. 8

“Programme as Logic” — 1967

“To describe the problem is part of the solution.”
p. 12

“Programme as Grid” — 1967

“Is the grid a programme? …if the grid is considered as a proportional regulator, a system, it is a programme par excellence.”
p. 16

“Integral typography” — 1964

“Style is the adaptation of the forms of function and display to the spirit (and hence to the taste) of the times.”
p. 33

“[Is integral typography] a new label? The typographical aspect of a new ism? No, this is just what is not meant. The times of both, pioneers and isms , are over. After the adventurers of the 1910s and the 20s we are the settlers, the colonizers.”
p. 57

“It is precisely in typography that the difficulty of setting theoretical boundaries is plain. For example discussing [Max] Bill’s functional claim (not quoted here – NF), Jan Tschichold, the editor of ‘Elementary Typography’ said even in 1928: ‘The New Typography is different from the earlier because it is the first to attempt the derivation of the appearance from the function of the text.’ And Moholy Nagy even five years earlier: ‘This first of all: an unambiguous clarity in all typographic works, legibility and communication should never suffer from a previously held aesthetic.’”
p. 57

“In the ’20s for instance it was claimed for the first time that the typographer should proceed from the data of his material, from the basic typographic elements; today it is hardly conceivable that he should not proceed from them.
p. 57

“Such ‘either or’ criteria have served their time and purpose. … ‘There remain only open doors to be unlocked’, as the German saying has it. … Nobody will relieve us of the task of searching for new criteria.”
p. 58

“Typography is not an art in spite of its serving a purpose but for that very reason. The designer’s freedom lies not at the margin of a task but at its very centre. …every solution he finds on this basis will be an integral one, will achieve a unity between language and type, between content and form.”
p. 58

“We are not only threatened by the danger of extravagance and superficiality where the individual creation … becomes lost, but also by the menace that the knowledge and experience of the pioneers … will degenerate into mere formalism, become fashionable.”
p. 74

“Here the designer must intervene, he must in a sense aim at a larger whole; he must not continue to carry out the single task so much as create structures from which single solutions can be derived.”
p. 74

Note: In researching this post, I also found this site, which offers a PDF download of what appears to be an earlier edition of the book. Bad scans and possibly incomplete, but it offers a bit more context nontheless.