Jonas Deuter + Karl Gerstner

Picture: Sebastian Schramm

I had the pleasure to interview Jonas Deuter and gain insights about Karl Gerstner I was not aware of before. Jonas was a doctoral student at the University of Art and Design Offenbach, writing about the design principles of Karl Gerstner. He is a scholar of the German Academic Scholarship Foundation. Jonas graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts Leipzig with a semester abroad at KASK School of Arts Gent, Belgium. He currently works as a junior curator at Museum Angewandte Kunst in Frankfurt and freelance graphic designer.

Jonas, first of all, congratulations on your fantastic dissertation about Karl Gerstner. It contains many details I was not aware of. I can’t wait to reveal some of them in this interview. 

Let us start with Gerstner’s precursors. Who (and what) influenced Gerstner to change his creative process towards a more systemic approach?

Thank you very much, Martin! I am very happy to hear that. I see your exploration of “Flexible Visual Systems” as one translation of Gerstner’s thoughts into contemporary graphic design, so I’m really looking forward to this conversation.

When it comes to Gerstner’s influences, I would highlight three aspects: First, the early influence of his teachers Armin Hofmann, Emil Ruder, and also Max Schmid. At this early stage, it’s more about Gerstner developing a visual language, not so much the methodology. Gerstner started his career at the Geigy Atelier in 1949 where Schmid brought him in. He only stayed there for a few years, but Geigy was certainly a decisive environment for his understanding of Corporate Design. The designers at Geigy worked autonomously, but due to their similar education, something close to a Corporate Design emerged. Then, one thesis of my research is that the striving for systematization corresponded to a zeitgeist. The idea was in the wind, so to speak. Cybernetics is one keyword, of course. Systematization took place outside graphic design in more or less all disciplines of fine arts and applied arts, but also in other fields of economics. Then, that would be my third aspect, there is a moment when things flow into each other. Namely, when Karl Gerstner founded an agency with his text colleague Markus Kutter in 1959 and Paul Gredinger joined shortly afterwards. Gredinger visited lectures of Fritz Zwicky at the ETH Zurich and thus came into contact with the method of morphology. Gredinger himself was an architect who also produced “serial music” for some time in the Cologne Studio for Electronic Music, with people like Karlheinz Stockhausen. In his bustle, Gredinger has been involved with systematic or at least new approaches in various disciplines. I can only imagine, but the encounter with Gredinger and his way of thinking must have triggered a lot in Gerstner.

Ad series for Geigy, ca. 1949–1952. The handwriting of his teacher Armin Hofmann is remarkable in Gerstner’s early work. Picture: Schweizerische Nationalbibliothek (NB) Bern, Archiv Karl Gerstner / Karl Gerstner Estate

Would you say that Gerstner’s contribution was applying a systematic approach to corporate design and teaching it through his books?

Systematized design processes can be found in graphic design well before Gerstner. In type design, for example, with the Romain du Roi. The grid can be seen as a tool to systematize design processes as well. Nevertheless, I would see Gerstner among the pioneers when it comes to transferring systematic design methods to graphic design. One reason is his adaptation to Corporate Designs, where Gerstner didn’t just want to organize his designs formally or keep the process efficient, but to expand the design to include variability, in other words: explore the relationship between variety and recognizability. That’s why I consider Gerstners Corporate Designs of the 1950s to be the most outstanding works in his oeuvre, both for their visual quality and for their intellectual derivation. But I stumble upon the word “teaching” here. Perhaps I am doing Gerstner wrong, but I suspect that he intended his publications to represent his way of thinking and working in order to give himself and his agency a specific profile. I don’t mean that in a negative way, Gerstner is certainly convinced of his proposed approach.

Examples of Gerstner’s work for the record shop “Boîte à musique” from 1957 (facsimile of the illustrations from “Designing Programmes”). The black frame is distinctive and variably adapts to the formats.

Interesting! I haven’t thought about the Gerstners’ motivations to publish books. I definitely see his wish to teach, because the books are filled with useful references, which enables the reader to find more sources about the subject, but you are right, he does not mention any of his contemporary colleagues/competitors. It makes him look like the only one “programming design”. The books can be seen as a strategic marketing tool to position himself and his agency. Where else do you see differences between Gerstner’s publications and Gerstner’s work?

You are right, in “Designing Programmes”, Gerstner is focussing on his own graphic works. But when you look at “Die neue Graphik / the new graphic art”, published with Markus Kutter in 1959, Gerstner and Kutter present works of colleagues as well. “The new graphic art” is their approach to depict a history of graphic design. It ends with an outlook into “the future” with works by various designers from the Geigy Atelier as well as works of Otl Aicher, Carlo Vivarelli and others. Since Gerstner and Kutter see variability as the future of graphic design, they end with Gerstners “Boîte à musique”. A history of graphic design ending with an own work as “the future” – what a bold move, isn’t it? I think it is important to point out that Gerstner continually writes about a historical development in which he himself participates – and can thus inscribe himself in history.

But to go into detail about the differences: In most of the works I have analyzed by Gerstner, at some point his presentation differs from the conclusion I came to. Mostly, he optimized the conceptual derivation. That’s not really something uncommon, you surely know this from your own design practice: You randomly find a good solution and try to support the design argumentatively afterwards. But Gerstner’s descriptions suggest the strict path from conception to solution. I wouldn’t say it hurts the work itself, but you surely have to look at it or evaluate it from a different perspective. I would like to illustrate this with a very prominent example: In “Designing Programmes” Gerstner presents the morphological method to design word marks. Gerstners morphology is simple: you split the task into its single choices or subtasks – like typeface, spacing, coloring, hue, etc. – and define possible solutions for each subtask. For the choice of typeface, for example, serif, sans-serif, black letter, a combination, and so on. This will give you a matrix of all possible partial solutions. These solutions can then be combined with each other. The thesis is: setting up the matrix is an analytical activity, choosing the best combination is a curatorial one. You don’t have to design anymore, morphology does the work. Plus: the solutions are more creative because some combinations lie outside our thoughts. The problem is mathematics and I’m not very good at that either. But if I calculate correctly, Gerstner’s example contains about 150 million possible solutions. So the morphology becomes a paradox: the more detailed the analysis, the bigger the creative potential – but at the same time the usability decreases, because the solutions simply cannot be evaluated any more. In his text, Gerstner even admits that he did not find his examples with the help of morphology, but that all of them could theoretically have been found with it – which is almost tautological.

In “Designing Programmes”, Gerstner demonstrates the morphological matrix for the design of a typogram. His design for “Intermöbel” can be described with the values marked in grey, but the feature “d43 something replaced” is decisive. Gerstner leaves open whether the typogram really came into creation with the help of morphology. Picture: “Designing Programmes” (Facsimile)

Apart from the morphological box, mentioned in “Designing Programs” and “Compendium for Literates”, Gerstner seems to have had a very flexible approach to designing systematically, rather than a fixed methodology. Do you know if they had a standard process at his agency?

“Designing Programmes” is interesting because Gerstner demonstrates an overview of systematized or structured ways of solving problems, in graphic design and beyond. The approach is flexible, just as you say. So I would say the focus is on the mindset – designing more economically and with a constant creative level via design methods or so-called programs – than highlighting one specific approach. In Fine Arts, Gerstner holds it similarly. On some occasions, he refers to works of different artists, which developed over randomization or other playful processes. But your question of a standard process or procedure is a very central one. Because I am convinced that there is no “Gerstner Method”.

In the early 1960s, Gerstner created a variable logo for the Stuttgart furniture manufacturer Christian Holzäpfel. Picture: Annual report Gerstner + Kutter, 1960 (Facsimile)

As someone just knowing Gerstner through his books, your answer surprises me. How did you find out Gerstner did not apply his approach in his agency and why do you think he did not?

I have searched through quite a lot of Gerstner’s texts for references to methodologies. He repeatedly refers to Morphology, a method that is defined very concretely. But I suspect that design methods like Morphology were hardly used in the agency. For the early work, I would question that at least. After Gerstner left GGK in the early 1970s it didn’t matter at all, as I was told by Michael Schirner, the later creative director of GGK in Düsseldorf.

Besides Morphology, I recognized repeating patterns, however, his descriptions remain very vague. Although Gerstner is known to be very precise in his choice of words, he even lacks clearly defined terms with which he describes his design process. For my thesis, I have therefore picked out two terms I found in his texts, distinguished them more sharply from one another, and defined them as terms of analysis: “structure”, as a passive logic of order, and “programme”, as a kind of instruction for action within this structure. Only with the help of these terms of analysis, I was able to grasp Gerstner’s works. That’s why I am pretty sure he has never defined some kind of standard process. And as I mentioned before, in my research I try to work out that many of Gerstners design processes must have taken place in a different way than he portrays them – namely, in a much more disorganized way.

Thank you so much for this interview, Jonas! One last question: I am sure our readers want to read more about your findings. When and where will your thesis be published and are there going to be English translations?

I wish I could tell you. It might take a few months, I’m afraid. There is still quite a lot of work to do before the work is published. But I’m sure it’s to my advantage that I’m rather impatient myself. For the time being, the work is only written in German. I would be happy if someone were interested in publishing my work in English as well. I’ll be happy to let you know as soon as things happen. Until then, thank you for the interview, Martin, it was fun!

What a cliff hanger! I will make sure to update this interview and add links of future publications. 🙂 Thank you!


Jonas mentioned a couple of people and concepts I recommend further studying. I compiled them here, so it is easier for you to look them up.

Armin Hofmann published this fantastic book in 1965 about graphic systems, called “Graphic Design Manual, Principles and Practise”, which has influenced my understanding of how to build systems.

Armin Hofmann (HonRDI) (29 June 1920 – 18 December 2020) was a Swiss graphic designer. He began his career in 1947 as a teacher at the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule Basel School of Art and Crafts at the age of twenty-six. Hofmann followed Emil Ruder as head of the graphic design department at the Schule für Gestaltung Basel (Basel School of Design) and was instrumental in developing the graphic design style known as the Swiss Style. His teaching methods were unorthodox and broad based, setting new standards that became widely known in design education institutions throughout the world. His independent insights as an educator, married with his rich and innovative powers of visual expression, created a body of work enormously varied – books, exhibitions, stage sets, logotypes, symbols, typography, posters, sign systems, and environmental graphics. His work is recognized for its reliance on the fundamental elements of graphic form – point, line, and shape – while subtly conveying simplicity, complexity, representation, and abstraction. Originating in Russia, Germany and The Netherlands in the 1920s, stimulated by the artistic avant-garde and alongside the International Style in architecture. He is well known for his posters, which emphasized economical use of colour and fonts, in reaction to what Hofmann regarded as the “trivialization of colour.” His posters have been widely exhibited as works of art in major galleries, such as the New York Museum of Modern Art. He was also an influential educator, retiring in 1987. In 1965 he wrote the Graphic Design Manual, a popular textbook in the field. Hofmann died in December 2020 at the age of 100 in Lucerne, where he lived with his wife Dorothea Hofmann-Schmid. Source

You can see more images of the book here:

Make sure you read as well the article Steven Heller wrote about Armin Hofman on the occasion of his 100s birthday:

The design studio of J. R. Geigy AG was the launching pad for one of the great periods of Swiss graphic design, in the 1950s and 1960s. The open-minded corporate culture of the chemical company in Basel combined product and company advertising in an exemplary way. The resulting works reveal a modernist formal idiom without being indebted to a specific, formulaic look. There was room in it for visual symbolism as well as the acquisition of nonrepresentational art, with which some of the graphic designers involved were connected. Under the leadership of Max Schmid for many years, the studio employed Roland Aeschlimann, Karl Gerstner, Jörg Hamburger, Steff Geissbühler, Andreas His, Toshihiro Katayama, and Nelly Rudin, among others. Freelance designers such as Michael Engelmann, Gottfried Honegger, Armin Hofmann, Herbert Leupin, Warja Lavater, Numa Rick, and Niklaus Stoecklin were also used. In the 1960s, the Basel office, most especially George Giusti and Fred Troller, was involved in developing the studios of the subsidiaries in the United States and the United Kingdom, placing more emphasis on advertising. This is the first comprehensive presentation of Geigy design, an important Swiss contribution to the international history of design, in all its determination and independence. Source

More works of Max Schmid can be found at the Museum of Design Zurich, Archive of the Zurich University of the Arts:

“Typography” from 1967 is the book by Emil Ruder that compiles the various systematic approaches to typography at that time. Looking at it now, it gained my renewed interest, comparing it with contemporary kinetic Typography.

Emil Ruder (20 March 1914 – 13 March 1970) was a Swiss typographer and graphic designer, who with Armin Hofmann joined the faculty of the Schule für Gestaltung Basel (Basel School of Design). He is distinguishable in the field of typography for developing a holistic approach to designing and teaching that consisted of philosophy, theory and a systematic practical methodology. He expressed lofty aspirations for graphic design, writing that part of its function was to promote ‘the good and the beautiful in word and image and to open the way to the arts’ (TM, November 1952 Issue)  He was one of the major contributors to Swiss Style design. He taught that typography’s purpose was to communicate ideas through writing, as well as placing a heavy importance on Sans-serif typefaces. No other designer since Jan Tschichold was as committed as Ruder to the discipline of letterpress typography or wrote about it with such conviction. Source

“The Human Use Of Human Beings” is the book Norbert Wiener, the father of Cybernetics, published after “Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine.” It became relevant again in the rise of Artificial Intelligence. You can download it here for free:

Cybernetics is a wide-ranging field concerned with circular causal processes such as feedback. Norbert Wiener named the field after an example of circular causal feedback—that of steering a ship where the helmsman adjusts their steering in response to the effect it is observed as having, enabling a steady course to be maintained amongst disturbances such as cross-winds or the tide. Cybernetics is concerned with circular causal processes however they are embodied, including in ecological, technological, biological, cognitive and social systems and also in the context of practical activities such as designing, learning, managing, etc. Its transdisciplinary character has meant that cybernetics intersects with a number of other fields, leading to it having both wide influence and diverse interpretations. Source

Read more about Zwicky and the Morphological Box in the course: Systematic Creativity: Lesson The Morphological Box by Fritz Zwicky

Markus Kutter, son of the pastor Hermann Kutter (1893-1980) and a grandson of the theologian Hermann Kutter as well as a great-grandson of Wilhelm Rudolf Kutter, attended the Humanist Gymnasium in Basel and subsequently studied in Basel, Paris, Geneva and Rome. He received his doctorate in 1954 with a dissertation on the Italian religious refugee Celio Secondo Curione. Kutter joined the Basel chemical company Geigy in 1953 as an editor, where he built up and headed an information department until 1958. In 1959, together with Karl Gerstner, he founded the advertising agency Gerstner + Kutter, and in 1962, additionally with Paul Gredinger († 2013), GGK (Gerstner, Gredinger & Kutter), which caused a sensation beyond Switzerland with some of its advertising campaigns. He remained with GGK, which had been internationally successful since the mid-1960s, until 1975, when he sold his shares to Gredinger. He then worked as a management consultant, and at the end of the 1970s he was briefly designated director of the national horticultural exhibition Grün 80. He was involved in the media of local radio, videotext and picture discs; in 1983 he founded Alphaville AG, Agentur für Publizität, based in Basel. Markus Kutter-Franz-Herzberg (1925-2005) Historian, advertiser, publicist, politician. Kutter married Irène Marcellina Preiswerk in 1973 and Gisela Franz-Herzberg in 1982. Hermann Kutter-Scheller (1893-1980) pastor. Gerold Kutter-Bircher (1931-1963) Grave, Hörnli cemetery. Kutter was a respected Basel and also Swiss publicist who contributed to newspapers and repeatedly presented his professional and life experiences as a man of letters and non-fiction. In 1955, together with Max Frisch and Lucius Burckhardt, Kutter published the well-known book achtung: die Schweiz. In this work, it was suggested that the national exhibition Expo64 be dispensed with and that a model city be built instead, but this was not implemented. A focus of his later journalism was also Basel and Swiss history, especially the period from Helvetica to the founding of the Swiss federal state. In this context, he founded the Peter Ochs Society in 1989. Kutter also wrote the screenplay for the feature film Der Tod zu Basel (directed by Urs Odermatt) and the text for an unperformed festival play about Peter Ochs. Kutter represented the Liberal Democratic Party in the Basel-Stadt Grand Council, the cantonal parliament, from 1992 to 1997. In 2002, he was elected to the Constitutional Council, which submitted the new cantonal constitution to a popular vote in the fall of 2005. Kutter also ran a popular initiative for the accession of the Canton of Basel-Stadt to the Canton of Basel-Landschaft in order to abolish the separation of the cantons that took place in 1833. Markus Kutter married Irène Marcellina Preiswerk in 1973. After his divorce, he married Gisela Franz-Herzberg in 1982. Kutter found his final resting place at the Hörnli cemetery. Source

Paul Gredinger (27 July 1927 – 6 October 2013) was a Swiss architect. Gredinger was one of the leading figures in the German advertising scene. He also worked between 1953 and 1957 together with Karlheinz Stockhausen and Herbert Eimert at the Studio for Electronic Music. He also practised Cubism painting. At the end of the 1950s he met the advertisers Karl Gerstner and Markus Kutter [de] and became their partner in 1962. From then on the agency traded as Gerstner, Gredinger, Kutter, or GGK. After Gerstner and Kutter retired in 1975, Gredinger took over their shares and expanded the agency into a European network with up to 20 branches. In the 1970s and 1980s, Gredinger’s company was regarded as a first address for top creative professionals. Gredinger himself was the protagonist of one of the first colour ad campaigns I drink Jägermeister because… by Jägermeister. Gredinger supported his artist friends such as Dieter Roth, André Thomkins and Donald Judd. In 1990 he sold his shares to the Swiss Trimedia. Gredinger was elected honorary member for Germany by the Art Directors Club of New York in 1992. Gredinger died in Thalwil at the age of 86. Source