Autumn 2003

Theory in practice

Gerstner’s curious compendium is a dense brick of knowledge

Appearances can be deceptive, especially where books about graphic design are concerned. The reader’s perceptions can often be informed by surface and object before substance and content. Karl Gerstner’s conservatively and minimally designed Compendium For Literates is one such beguiling volume. It is an understated publication, undersize and square. At 15 x 15 cm, the book seems too small to be a compendium of anything, but this unassuming, immaculately crafted black, white and grey gem is indeed a dense little brick of knowledge – a treasure-chest for contemporary designers.

The design of the book is essentially traditional Swiss Modernism. Immaculately typeset and laid out on a consistent grid, a single type family (Univers) is used with a minimum of scale and weight changes. The book is bound backwards so that the pages are looped (the pages are turned bottom to top, rather than right to left), allowing the chapter markers to leave a visual index on the outer edge of the book’s folded pages. To the casual viewer, the formulaic pages of the systematic design might provoke a confusing mixture of excited nostalgia and apathy. However, upon reading, this unadorned graphic façade yields a text that is rich, informative and an essential starting point for aspiring literati to understand the complex relationship and exchanges between writing and typography.

Originally published in German by Arthur Niggli in 1972 (and now in its third edition), the English edition was published by MIT Press in 1974, and has not been reissued since. The book began as Gerstner’s contribution to the series ‘experimenta typographica’ by Hein Stünke, where Gerstner intended to produce designs which were illustrations of different kinds of writing. In other words, he wished to bond the content and the form inseparably by making the typography ‘do’ that which it ‘said’. Due to his obsessive and completist nature, Gerstner felt compelled to log all the possibilities and organise them systematically into a structured set of parameters.

The danger of Gerstner’s experiment is that in cataloguing and exhausting these possibilities he might ultimately control them and hold static the evolving practice of typography. Gerstner understood this danger. Despite his reductivist formal beliefs, he did not set out to produce a ‘how to’ book for Modernists, and refers to his book not as a set of rules, but rather ‘an ordered inventory of the sum total of its [writing’s] possibilities’. Obversely, logging all the possibilities also challenged designers to create something new, something that had not already been catalogued: in many ways Gerstner’s text begged to be surpassed.

It is organised into five sections, each dealing with a different aspect of the way writing works: ‘Writing and language’; ‘Craft’; ‘Picture’; ‘Function’ and ‘Expression’. Each contains typographic examples that illustrate points in the text, logging possible layout choices such as changes in direction, or colour, and different production techniques such as punching-out or embossing, as well as conceptual strategies implemented through various wordplay devices.

Culture travels in circles, and past ideologies – stylistic and critical – eventually come back into vogue. In many ways the content of Compendium For Literates seems more relevant now than ever, when design bookshelves are awash with a deluge of non-critical, self-promoting picture books. Compendium For Literates has much to ‘tell’ as well as ‘show’ in regard to the nature of literate design, and by doing so it prevents itself from being merely an anachronistic artefact.

The book is well researched, with historical references from the obscure to the universally known. There are quotes from McLuhan, Lévi-Strauss and Saussure, and references to Shaw, Wittgenstein, Chaucer, Cocteau and Mallarmé: sources that highlight the breadth of Gerstner’s research and help maintain the longevity of the theoretical text. The text is not a historical overview; instead he uses subjective research to create a point of view, to tell a story. Even when the example is obvious or mundane, Gerstner finds interesting, often obscure, historical references and anecdotes, or makes parallels.

The narrative is written in small blocks of digestible text, soundbites connected into a network. Gerstner understood that this tidy list is the structure of text that many designers would most likely pay attention to. He also understood his audience’s desire to have their imaginations fed, the ideas expressed in the text have a single purpose-made illustration, leaving them open enough to beg the reader to imagine other examples. That’s the key to why this book is so inspiring. Despite its grey appearance, it presents a number of paths to a number of undisclosed graphic locations.

One of the most poignant sections in the book parallels the voice and spoken word to the written word and typography. ‘Timbre is equivalent to matching type to the material’, ‘melody corresponds to the articulation of the letterforms’, ‘stress corresponds to displaying passages of text’ ‘rhythm corresponds to the spatial arrangement of the text’, ‘gesture corresponds to emphasising what is written.’

From writing (not speech), Gerstner develops further parallels: derive (‘to derive expression from the chance forms of the letters irrespective of the material’), visualise (‘to represent the content by its letter picture’), and play (‘using writing as material for fun’). Although Gerstner’s own typographic voice keeps these variables at the lowest and most consistent levels, his commentary is a blueprint for a range of different stylistic outcomes.

Compendium For Literates is a model book, a perfect combination of concept, critical writing, research and form, delivered in a seductive format targeted precisely at its intended audience. Its longevity is a testament to the enduring value of a broad text that touches upon fundamental issues. These elemental concerns of typographic communication manifest themselves in theories that are played out visually while deliberately avoiding the specifics of technology and even of typography itself.

By dealing with the knowledge that surrounds typography, Gerstner managed to create a compendium that remains as relevant for literates today as it was in 1974.

Compendium for Literates. A System of Writing by Karl Gerstner.
Translated by Dennis Q. Stephenson. Printed by R. Weber AG., Heiden. English translation 1974 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Originally published in German under the title Kompendium für Alphabeten: Systematik der Schrift, Arthur Niggli, Teufen.

Michael Worthington, designer, teacher, Los Angeles


First published in Eye no. 49 vol. 13 2003

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.


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