Karl Gerstner

Karl Gerstner was born on July 2nd, 1930 in Switzerland. He is world-renown for his innovative work as both a painter and graphic designer. He studied at the Allgemeine Gewerbschule school in Basel, Switzerland, and apprenticed as a typographer under Armin Hoffman, Emil Ruder, Fritz Bühler. All of these designers helped to develop the Swiss style and greatly influenced his personal style. He created his own graphic design studio in 1949. He later partnered with writer Markus Kutter and architect Paul Gredinger to create GGK design, one of the most successful advertising agencies in Europe.

He is well-known for his work for Geigy and popularizing unjustified and “ragged-right” text in typography (Typeroom 1). He built on Max Bill’s typographic ideas about how text should contribute to the connection between words and create real meaning, rather than superficial textual meaning. He saw type as “a way to express a whole greater than the sum of words and meanings” (Typeroom 1). He pioneered a method of typography that is commonplace and may even appear ordinary or worn-out today as a result of its wide impact. Gerstner used type to get the viewer engaged. For example, an advertisement for Cit­roën, the headline read “Don’t buy this car” and in small type said “if you don’t expect something out of the ordinary in a car”. This combination drew the viewer into the work, and really brought meaningful thought and conversation around the product, bridging a gap of meaning, and setting his apart from other advertisements. He titled his use of typography, “Integral Type”.

In typical fashion associated with Swiss design, he was one of the first designers to use gridding to create complex, yet orderly designs and play with systematic symmetry. Gerstner characterizes design as selecting specific components and combining them, based on informed choices and understanding of a problem. He was solution oriented and believed all design hinged on the the understanding of a problem to create criteria. To evaluate the validity of a design you would compare your solution to the criteria defined by the problem. “For Gerstner, these criteria took the form of a systematic set of rules or parameters which he referred to as a programme.” (Kulba 1). His design approach is tailored specifically to the problem at hand. Though computers were not widely used during his lifetime, his approach to his “programmes” or rules was very simpler to the programs of a computer. His work did not only pertain to design but also, literature, music, photography, and architecture. He is influential in many communities, not just graphic design.

His programme could be used in two different ways. The first was a systematic way of creating variations of different words by applying a set of pre-laid out treatments. Examples of treatments would be sans-serif, handwritten, German, roman, drawn etc. In this programme the designer could get many different variations without having to just create them randomly. This allows for the designer to quickly identify the design path that they wish to take and focus in on solutions by identifying the problem. Gerstner’s second programme was a series of complex grids. While grids were first popularized by Josef Müller-Brockmann, Gerstner was the first to create highly complex grids and use them to create more flexible designs. He is renown for his book “Programme Entwerfen” containing four essays that detail his programmes and design methods.

In 1962, he was commissioned to design a quarterly magazine titled Capital, that attempted to make economics accessible to the common man. To appeal to the general public, the design needed to be orderly, clear, and pleasing to the eye, which is where Gerstner’s grids became wildly popular.

He continued to design throughout his entire life, working for companies such as Swissair, Burda and Langenscheidt, and IBM. Through it all, his use of beauty and precision along with his design process made his work powerful and unforgettable. He retired from his company GGK in the 1970s and devoted the rest of his life to painting. Both his designs and paintings relied on abstract shapes with the help of ordered grids, geometric shapes, and bright colors. He also collected art, and spoke out about the high prices of art and elitism in the art community.

Today, most of his work can be found in the Swiss National Library. He has received many awards such as the Grand Prix Design by the Swiss Cultural Office, honored by the Swiss Confederations, was nominated to the Art Director’s Club of New York’s hall of fame, and is featured in the MOMA in New York. His legacy can be seen in almost every design work and taught design process today.



“Eye Magazine.” Eye Magazine | Review | The Designer as Programmer, www.eyemagazine.com/review/article/the-designer-as-programmer.

Kulba, Bryan. “Celebrating Karl Gerstner.” Medium, Medium, 3 Jan. 2017, medium.com/@bryanarchy/celebrating-karl-gerstner-b0ffbcf65c96.

NL, Swiss National Library. “Karl Gerstner Archive.” Schweizerische Nationalbibliothek, 1 Feb. 2021, www.nb.admin.ch/snl/en/home/about-us/pdd/collections/art/gerstner.html.

Swissinfo.ch. “Typographer Karl Gerstner Dies.” SWI , Swissinfo.ch, 3 Jan. 2017, www.swissinfo.ch/eng/ggform.dek-agency_typographer-karl-gerstner-dies/42808072.

TypeRoom. “An Ode to the Pioneer of Typographic Brilliance Karl Gerstner.” TypeRoom, 2 July 2019, www.typeroom.eu/article/memoriam-karl-gerstner-1930-2016.