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03 September, 2014

Karl Gerstner - Designing Programmes

How would you react if I handed you a blank canvas and said “make a beautiful drawing”? What if I instead said “make a beautiful pattern using only straight lines”? The more experienced I get, the more I realize that constraints are a central part of any design process, and Karl Gerstner’s Designing Programmes is one of the central books about this subject.

The book was released in 1964, but describes the kind of algorithmic design process that is most relevant to designers from the computer generation.

It (the 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)

Gerstner’s idea of a design program is a rule set or system defined by the designer that can help shape all aesthetic decisions for a particular design product. An example would be the following picture, where the logo for Holzäpfel functions as both a grid system, a font, and a symbol for the company. The design program is the basic geometry of the logo, which dynamically changes to fit different design products.

Designing Programmes describes many applications for this design approach: rule-based color selection, architecture as a program, and generative literature (only to name a few). It’s especially interesting to me how he describes a programmatic approach to typefaces almost 15 years before Donald Knuth started development of Metafont. If you’re interested in this, I encourage you to read through my lecture on the subject.

I personally believe that Gerstner describes a design process that contemporary designers barely are starting to understand, and only a handful of design agencies have actually implemented (Sagmeister & Walsh would be one). I think there’s a world of interesting ideas to explore if you apply Gerstner’s ideas towards designing in software, and I’ve personally started to poke at it with my Printing Code class.

01 September, 2014

Karl Gerstner - The Forms of Color

In my lectures and talks, I often speak about the Swiss Style, a term used to describe a new approach to graphic design that came from Switzerland in the 1960’s. One of the leading figures in this movement was Karl Gerstner, who’s book The Forms of Color (1986) I recently bought.

Gerstner is an exciting author for anyone interested in algorithmic design systems. Even though most of his work was done before the computer age, his work concentrates on describing an almost algorithmic approach to design, inspired by the teachings of the Bauhaus (Le Corbusier, Kandinsky, Albers, Itten, etc).

As shown in the picture below, Gerstner believes that color and color perception should be learned by applying basic geometry to the color wheel. A very basic example would be to overlay a triangle on the color wheel, creating a triadic color scheme. By changing the angles of the triangle, you’ll generate different triadic color schemes based on the same formula.

This is how I introduce the concept of color manipulation to my students, as it’s an approachable way of thinking about color in code. I often think of Gerstner’s goal as creating a vocabulary for design that breaks the idea of the designer as an artist. The central idea of this is his Design Programme, which I’ll talk about in my next post.

31 August, 2014

Paul Rand - From Lascaux to Brooklyn

From Lascaux to Brooklyn was published in 1996, the year Paul Rand passed away. Here’s a short snippet from the jacket description:

In this lively and visually arresting book, Rand awakens readers to the lessons of the cave paintings of Lascaux – that art is an intuitive, autonomous, and timeless activity – and he shows how this is conveyed in works of art […] all of which are aestheticially pleasing no matter what their era, place, purpose, style or genre.

The format of the book is like most of his other books: Short texts with lots of examples of his own work.

I enjoy Rand’s work because it balances a very freehand and artistic process with a more systematic and functional design approach. He found freedom within his own constraints in a way that very few designers has managed to do, and even though his own work has a very specific style, this book – with its thoughts on design principles as a foundation for all art forms – can be an inspiration to anyone looking to apply a system to their own artistic process.

28 August, 2014

Paul Rand - Design, Form, and Chaos

Design, Form, and Chaos was one of Paul Rand’s later books, published three years before his death in 1996. The book focuses on seven of his most famous logo designs (NeXT, IBM, IDEO, etc), and is especially interesting because the original design portfolios – the pamphlets delivered to the clients – are printed unedited along with the logo examples.

The IBM logo presentation shows the logo before and after Rand’s redesign, as he explains how the stripes were inspired by the horizontal lines sometimes printed on legal documents to discourage counterfeiting.

I especially enjoy the presentation about the NeXT logo, where Rand presents the precursors to the final logo, and explain why they didn’t fulfill the design goal. Seeing the logo come to life through a number of design steps is a nice peek behind the curtain of his own design process, as well as a great reference to any junior designer.

The story about the design of the NeXT logo is well-known, but it’s a good one: Steve Jobs apparently asked Rand to “come up with a few options” for a logo, whereafter Rand replied:

No. I will solve your problem for you. And you will pay me. And you don’t have to use the solution. If you want options, go talk to other people. But I’ll solve your problem for you the best way I know how. And you use it or not. That’s up to you. You’re the client. But you pay me.”

Rand later said that Jobs’ first words after seeing the NeXT logo were “can I hug you?. I own the first edition hardcover from 1993.

27 August, 2014

Paul Rand - Thoughts on Design

Continuing down the path of documenting my design book collection, this next book is a special one for me. I spent about 5 years looking for a decent version of it, and ended up finding two versions in 2013: The first edition hardcover from 1947 (right), and the paperback reprint from 1970 (left).

Thoughts on Design was written by the 33 year old Paul Rand, as he was establishing his career in the advertising arts. It is almost entirely in black and white, and showcases some of his most famous early works, like the Direction magazine covers and Coronet ads.

Even though the short texts touch mostly on advertising related subjects (The Symbol in Advertising, Reader participation, etc), they hold a great deal of the general design theory that he is known for (and that fills many of his later books).

It’s still mind-boggling to me that this book was written in 1947, at a time where advertising art was dominated by pastel colors and handwritten quotations. I often have to remind myself that one of my favorite works of Paul Rand – the poster to the movie No Way Out (1950), was created just a couple of years after World War 2. There’s obivously a lot more to say about Rand, and I’ll try to get around to it when documenting his later books.