Jan Conradi
Willi Kunz, Typography:
Formation + Transformation

Too many design volumes on bookstore shelves seem superficial and formulaic. However the formula must work: simply gather short snippets of quotes from currently hot professionals, combine the writing with colorful images, then bind it all under a title promising quick and easy answers to various design shortcomings. These books offer plenty to look at (or mimic) and a few gems of wit or wisdom to ponder. But then what?

Then reach for a reference that provides depth, substance and timelessness. A volume where the author’s vision and passion come together in a way that is moving, or perhaps I should say: transforming. Willi Kunz has once again written just such a book and anyone serious about typography should have Typography: Formation + Transformation as a reference. It is an inspiration both for beginning students of typography and for experienced designers who may need a reminder of what fascinated them about typographic communication in the first place.

Kunz writes much as he designs, with a refreshingly spare and focused approach. He is not afraid to use language that might challenge some readers, but he is just as likely to bluntly announce that a thoughtless approach to typographic space is “sloppy”. Kunz illustrates his ideas exclusively with his own work rather than showing work from a variety of designers. Some might say this is limiting but couldn’t one also argue, as he does, that it is inspirational? Seeing how one designer solves problems aids understanding for putting principles into practice. Kunz believes creating a body of work in a long-term relationship with a client allows visual communication to evolve and mature. He also believes setting high standards is the best route to intelligent design and professional satisfaction.

By dividing content into three sections, Kunz deconstructs typography as a mixture of art and science. The introduction acts as a manifesto of his believe in elemental design truths. It references his previous book, Typography: Macro- and Microaesthetics, reminding readers to think on both levels. While acknowledging stylistic variations as a reality in typographic design, Kunz is not drawn into arguments of style. He focuses instead upon key issues of clarity and effective communication.

The first section discusses fundamentals, but not by repeating ubiquitous classifications and lists of letterform vocabulary. The focus is upon the poetry of typographic form at the most basic level. Kunz encourages readers to consider possibilities inherent in structural forms of letters, words, and text. He raises questions but doesn’t always provide answers. He expects his readers to make connections and discover possibilities that resonate, sometimes with just a single example as a guidepost.

Where is formation? Where transformation? Kunz encourages us to distill typography to its essence then to build, shift, and layer, forming abstract symbols that transform into logical communication. Exercises on the creative potential embedded in form and counterform would be eye opening to a novice. How might a letterform logically evolve into a symbol or logo? Kunz shows how logical steps transform a Bodoni “a” into a symbol alluding to a sunlit pathway. Examples of posters, publications and experimental studies help clarify ideas for transforming space, proportion and composition. Final designs are often accompanied by superimposed structural diagrams to aid our understanding. Kunz wants readers to analyze design, to find patterns and connections. He wants us to become better, more thoughtful designers.

What is the importance of rhythm? For Kunz it is a critical component of design. The whole book stands as a testimony to this, showing how rhythm animates space and consequently engages the reader. Kunz chooses to indicate paragraphs through an extended line rather than using more traditional indentation or added line spacing. The result is a livelier text block, but part of the reason this form is effective relates to his writing. It is crisp and incisive, distilling each thought into a streamlined but energized expression. Form and content merge into a cohesive whole.

In the concluding section Kunz illuminates his design process through applying topology: a concept of diagrammatic representation commonly used in mapping. He references maps to explain topology from a typographic standpoint saying “the diagram helps the designer to move between working with abstract relationships and working with the concrete details of the design.” Topology adds a layer of analytical possibility beyond the structural organization of a grid. The concept is valuable and is well illustrated with a series of posters by the author, but it is one thing to interpret his work and quite another for designers to integrate this method into their own working process. Readers expecting instant answers will likely find this concept frustrating. Readers content with superficial solutions won’t get this far in the book.

It is impossible to discuss Typography: Formation + Transformation without mentioning its relationship with Kunz’ first book. The two interweave and at times overlap. Content from each elaborates upon the other. In fact a discussion with the author pointed out the intentional nature of this relationship, as he believed there were points the first book hadn’t fully addressed. It is possible in the future they could be merged into one? Perhaps, but for now there are two.

Kunz says “High standards derive from a selective process that eliminates the superfluous and ordinary, leaving the essential and extraordinary.” Readers benefit from the author’s and the publisher’s insistence on quality. Not only is the structure of the pages crafted with eloquence, but tactile details of paper, covers, and binding rise to the same high standard. Kunz tells us a good designer shows respect for both the text and the reader. A good designer, like Willi Kunz, also shows enthusiasm and respect for design.