running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes

Gerstner's IBM Original

Sunday, 16 January 2011

I am currently reading Karl Gerstner's classic book 'Designing Programmes', ostensibly a series of essays which explain the Swiss designer's ideas, including 'Integral Typography' and 'Morphological Design'. Central to both ideas is that a systematic 'program' of design choices can be made for any given brief, which will result in the best possible solution for that particular problem.

This book was published back in the mid 1960's, during the heyday of the International Style, but the version I have, amended in 2007, includes a new chapter in which Gerstner examines his 20-year labour-of-love typeface, the IBM Original, which was eventually released as KG vera in the late 1980's.

As early as 1965, Gerstner had written 'Doubtless sans serif is not the end of the development, but rather an intermediate station, like every previous form'. So the new typeface saw Gerstner attempt to provide a solution using his design progam theory to create a typeface that 'went beyond sans serif'.

Remaining true to the Swiss tradition, Gerstner also wanted to retain a level of functionality that served the flow of reading.

The essay features some fascinating insights into the fundamental problems and issues relating to typography. For example, Gerstner's initial sketches (which tally remarkably with the finished work) were an attempt to solve the problem of what to do with the space after the lowercase 'r'. You can clearly see how the roudned end has been modified in an attempt to soften the gap into the next letter.

With elegant and lucid prose, Gerstner explains how many of the technical issues rarely trouble modern designers, because they have computers to help them.

Also included is an excellent canon of the set proportions for the typeface. This is basically a set of instructions for the progressive sizings and proportions of the typeface, and in essence is an extension of the grid system.

In the vertical axis, the typeface uses fifteen equally-sized units. The x-height requires eight of these units, the ascender uses four, and the descender requires three.

In the horizontal scale, the stroke increases at each point size by a geometric progression of 1:1.25, resulting in a tremendous consistency.

Gerstner Typeface

We also get a detailed comparison of IBM original with Univers, Futura and even Arial. A must-read for anyone interested in grids, typography and the design process - and that's just one essay - there are four others of equal merit and originality across all design areas including architecture,typography, music and colour.

Karl Gerstner - Designing Programmes
Gerstner's Die Neue Grafik