Autumn 2003

Theory in practice [EXTRACT]

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 . . .

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