Paul Shaw
Willi Kunz, Typography:
Macro- and Microaesthetics

Willi Kunz’s Typography: Macro- and Microaesthetics is a vigorous argument for modern typography’s contemporary relevance, albeit in a new guise. As portrayed in Helmut Schmid’s The Road to Basel, the Swiss typography of Ruder was minimalist, relying almost entirely on a single typeface – originally Akzidenz Grotesk (not Helvetica) and later, after 1961, on Univers – and the use of rules. Kunz’s typography is richer, though without sacrificing Ruder’s moral and ascetic components. The big difference between Ruder and Kunz is that the latter has wholeheartedly integrated geometric forms into typography.

Kunz’s interpretation of geometric elements is not confined to the traditional square, circle, and equilateral triangle, but extends to any shape that can be created by “combining, cutting, and distorting” these forms. The addition of these elements – plus their layering – gives Kunz’s typography a postmodern look rather than the modern one of Ruder’s typography, yet both are built upon the same foundation: the activation of space. Kunz uses lines and other geometrical elements for more than strictly functional ends. In his typography they have structural, representational, and semantic meanings that reflect the impact of semiotic theory on design in recent decades. Kunz’s typography
is actually much closer in spirit to that of Wolfgang Weingart, Ruder’s successor at Basel.

The emphasis in Kunz’s book is on typography’s role in design rather than the rudiments of typographic setting. He introduces the basic elements of type – letters, numbers, punctuation, and other marks – as well as the importance of letter-, word-, and linespacing, but only cursorily touches upon the myriad typeface variations that exist today. Instead, Kunz makes an impassioned plea for the use of a single typeface: Univers. In his opinion, Univers is still contemporary, functional, appropriate, versatile, and – with its large programmed family – comprehensive. Although Kunz acknowledges that “the final choice of typeface is a question of personal preference and taste,” he has relied almost exclusively on Univers throughout his career. In his singlemindedness Kunz joins a select, but distinguished, company that includes Victor Hammer, Jack Stauffacher, Wolfgang Tiessen, Gunnar Kaldewey, and Anthony Froshaug as well as Helmut Schmid.

A large part of Typography: Macro- and Microaesthetics is devoted to an analysis of several projects, followed by a portfolio of Kunz’s work. The portfolio is heavily skewed toward his work for the School of Architecture at Columbia University, for whom he has designed a series of outstanding posters to announce events, competitions, and programs. These posters – created over the course of a decade and a half – are a marvelous study of the possibilities inherent in a limited set of design options. For the lecture and exhibition posters Kunz has restricted himself to one size (a double square), one typeface (the Univers family), two colors (black plus another color), and geometric shapes. They are the best advertisement for the effectiveness of his approach to typography. And the section where Kunz analyzes how geometric and typographic elements come together in
several of his posters is the book’s high point.
Typography: Macro- and Microaesthetics makes a distinction between fundamental visual principles – space, structure, sequence, contrast, form and counterform – and traditional technical standards, in arguing for the relevance of the Swiss aesthetic/ethic in today’s computer-dominated typography. Kunz argues that without fundamental principles “typography could no more communicate visually than could language without grammar and vocabulary communicate verbally.” They are a necessary grounding if the more personal, visual criteria that seem to rule contemporary typography are to succeed. This view echoes those of the contributors to The Road to Basel. The computer is nothing more than a tool for production, able to speed up the generation of ideas and aid in the creation of more complex designs.

Kunz’s typography is a direct descendant of the Swiss typography of Ruder in other ways. There is still an emphasis on rationality, communication, and planning, as well as on the moral component of design. Yet there is one area where Kunz breaks with Swiss typography (or at least its popular stereotype): the use of the grid. He is willing to abandon the grid if it is not useful, rather than turn it into a prison. His book contains chapters on designing both with the grid and without it. This flexibility is one of the keys to the success of his architecture posters. The emphasis on rationality runs counter to the intuitive approach to typography championed by David Carson in recent years. Does this mean that the typographic pendulum is beginning to swing back, or merely that Kunz is stuck in the past? We will have to wait and see.

Typography: Macro- and Microaesthetics has been designed by Kunz himself in several sizes and weights of Univers (7.5/11 Univers 55 for text). It is printed on a thick, matte-coated paper in black and – for the examples of Kunz’s work for Columbia University’s School of Architecture – full color.