designers books

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Compendium for Literates :
A System of Writing by / Karl Gerstner, 1974

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COMPENDIUM FOR LITERATES: A SYSTEM OF WRITING
Karl Gerstner
Cambridge: The MIT Press
1974

First English-language edition.
Square quarto.
Black cloth stamped in white.
Printed dust jacket.
180 pp. Japanese-folded pages.

6 x 6 hardcover book that is 1-inch thick, with 180 Japanese-folded pages in which Gerstner exhaustivly illustrates the ways in which words can be presented on a page.
English translation by Dennis Q. Stephenson from the 1972 German edition titled “Kompendium for Alphabeten: Systematik der Schrift.”

This square little book, mostly black-and-white, bound at the top, contains a lifetime of wisdom about the use of letterforms and key issues like spacing, kerning, screens, script forms, arranging words on a page — just about everything that affects the most important issue of all: legibility.

Contents in five chapters

  • Language and Writing
  • Craft
  • Picture
  • Function
  • Expression
  • Bibliography

From the Publisher: “Karl Gerstner is one of Switzerland’s — and therefore the world’s — best and best-known graphic and typographic designers. His high ambition in this book, first published in German in 1972, is to provide a complete and systematic taxonomy of writing, a programmed investigation into the underlying structure of script and type; Gerstner writes that his book is meant to “encompass the aspects and possibilities of the alphabet in their totality.”

It is this systematic and programmatic approach that sets the book apart. Most studies of typography and its larger graphic setting and context are concerned with the history of the development of writing and printing, or are collections of typographic models or typical examples, or are textbooks on layout and design. This one is organized into five sections that take up, in turn, Script and Speech — the relation between writing and language, different alphabets, reading directions (the eye follows directions and moves in a direction), style; Manual Graphics or craft — materials, tools, methods, procedures, reproductive techniques; Images — letter pictures, word pictures, sentence pictures, handwriting, size, proportion, type weight, form, harmony, texture, brightness, color; Function — as effected through dimensioning, spacing, grouping, layout, integration; and Expression — as achieved through coordination, articulation, emphasis, diversion, and the spirit of play.

As a physical object, the book is more than a passive repository of examples of typographic display. It makes a dynamic and integrated typographic statement of its own and as a whole as it progresses and develops in accordance with its internal program. The book is nearly square and opens vertically rather than horizontally. Type is printed on only one side of the sheets, which are folded back on themselves along the outer edge to form double leaves, so that there is no distracting show-through “noise.” There are words printed in blind embossing and stencil cutouts. And color is used with an elegant restraint, appearing only at the book’s mid-section climax — its very sparseness amid the prevailing sharp black and white contributes a luxurious effect.

The great Swiss typographer Karl Gerstner¹s “writing system” remains a classic for designers more than 30 years after its publication. Author of The Designer as Programmer, Gerstner was hugely influential; “nobody matched [his] originality as a typographer nor his daring as an advertising designer, and as a theorist he was for decades the most coherent writer on graphics.”

Appearances can be deceptive, especially where books about graphic design are concerned. The reader¹s perceptions can often be informed by surface and object before substance and content. Karl Gerstner¹s conservatively and minimally designed Compendium For Literates is one such beguiling volume. It is an understated publication, undersize and square. At 6 x 6 inches, 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 book¹s 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 facade 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. [Michael Worthington]

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