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Karl Gerstner—A precursor of digital graphics?

In a retrospective view of Swiss graphic designer Karl Gerstner, it’s clear that his systematic and programmatic approach is frequently associated with contemporary digital design methods. In 2012, the Federal Office of Culture in Bern, Switzerland (Schweizer Bundesamt für Kultur), awarded Gerstner the Swiss Grand Prix for Design. The agency lauded Gerstner’s ability to seemingly anticipate technological advancements at the dawn of the computer era. Can Gerstner’s work really be interpreted as a predictor of later digital developments?

In 1963, Gerstner published Designing Programmes, a book which presented an overview of methods and patterns of thought in which design solutions are generated with the help of logical sequences and specifications. Among them is the concept for his typeface “Gerstner Programm,” a design expanded into a complete family using photomechanical interpolation.

Gerstner followed developments in computer technology at close range through his work with advertising graphics for his agency client IBM. In 1965, he speculated that “to produce art will mean to program it.” Although Gerstner’s programmatic approach can certainly be related to today’s digital design methods, it seems more reasonable to focus on a prevailing zeitgeist. An argument for this is provided by designing programs themselves.

Gerstner crosses the boundaries of his own disciplines and shows an interdisciplinary, intellectual movement that also takes place beyond technical phenomena. Painting is once again devoted to non-representationalism; in photography, New Objectivity stands out; literature expresses linguistic skepticism; in music, new forms of composing emerge. Systematization itself is, therefore, less a technical approach than an attempt to reorganize the global contexts.

In this lecture, Jonas Deuter presents an alternative narrative, looking at Gerstner’s work from a contemporary perspective of history.


Jonas Deuter

Research, Graphic-Design, Type design Hochschule für Gestaltung Offenbach am Main

Jonas Deuter lives and works in Offenbach am Main. Deuter graduated from the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst Academy of Fine Arts Leipzig in the field of type design in 2018. Since then, Deuter has been a doctoral student at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Offenbach am Main for the design principles of the Swiss artist and graphic designer Karl Gerstner—supervised by Prof. Dr. Klaus Klemp. Deuter is also a scholar at the German Academic Scholarship Foundation.