Creator Q&A: Harald Geisler of Typographical Calendar

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When I first saw German designer Harald Geisler’s 2011 Typography Calendar, I was immediately struck by how seemingly simple, yet utterly perplexing the calendar was.  To be honest, it was unlike any calendar I’d ever seen before -– massive, on one sheet of paper and made up solely of computer keys. I examined it thoroughly in a hi-res PDF, scanning each computer key, as if trying to decipher a bit of Cold War code. No luck. Dumbfounded, I had knew there was only one solution -– to reach out to Harald Geisler myself, and get some answers. 

The Typography Calendar, in many ways, forces the user to reconfigure how they visualize time. How did you first come up with the concept?

When I think back to the very beginning, I remember playing with the idea of a person typing (writing)–a person that sits in a random office in front of a computer and writes letters, for example, to customers.  On every letter the person writes the date, a repetitive part of the job. I was imagining that as the person types, the pressed keys would (somehow) sum up or accumulate. Not only would the keys be counted but also they would be collected, ordered and stored. Over days and weeks it would become a mountain of keys.

The two topics that interest me (or show up) in this initial image or daydream are writing and notating. As a calligrapher and typographer of course writing is in the center of my interest. It is like water to swimming: essential. I am interested in writing as an outcome: in letterforms, calligraphy, digital fonts etc. That is the traditional craft of a typographer. But I am also interested in writing as a process. By that I mean the action of moving a tool, like a pen, to communicate, remember, or visualize something to someone or oneself. Although I don’t work deliberately from concepts, my work always seems to be an investigation of the writing process.

As a designer I’m also interested in how notation forms and tools relate to content and use. I wrote my University thesis on this topic. Typical examples of notation forms are music scores, cooking recipes, and electrocardiogram. Language and writing are also examples. Notation is used to maintain information, but by maintaining, the information has to be modified to “fit in” the notation. Imagine how music would change if you used a different notation system. So there is an active relation between content and notation.

Writing stems from handwriting, but today most of my written communication is done with a computer and sent digitally. The keyboard is completely dispatched from handwriting, but it is essential to contemporary communication (think of email, twitter or facebook without a keyboard).

Calendars are notation forms or tools that enable organization of time. Antique calendars were lists—lists of religious events the holy days (or holidays). Contemporary calendars structure graphically and efficient time for different needs.

The image of the Typographic Wall Calendar is more like a list than a contemporary calendar—a linear list of all the days of the year. It is a string of characters, or keys, as if someone laid out the calendar key by key in a printing press. Or perhaps it’s a magical collection of the keys that were used to type the calendar? Somehow the rearrangement of the keyboard always makes people ask questions. Before you know it’s a calendar, you discover an image. Then you discover a code. At the moment when you realize that it’s a calendar—when the shift in notation is realized—it becomes possible to talk about the notation itself.

On first view, the calendar is nearly impossible to read. Can you take us into the technical ways in which the Calendar is designed? How days, weeks, months are laid out? How to look at/read the calendar?

The calendars layout is simple. As described above I imagined a person working in an office typing every day of the year down like a text, every pressed key literally appears on the calendar. The keys are arranged in a grid. You read the composition just like a text: from left to right and top to bottom. The line breaks at the end of the canvas and the code continues on the left side again—like a monospaced typewriter. The entire text of the calendar fits on one big page, 70 x 100cm. Aptly, there are 2011 keys in total!

Weeks and months are not isolated, but I did put in some special tricks to help you find the months. Every month’s name is written out followed by a star (i.e. MARCH*). This is followed by the weekday name (March 2011 starts with TUE) and the number of the day (01). So March would look like MARCH*TUE01WED02THUR03FRI04… THUR31. The month is followed by a larger backspace key that takes up twice the space. These bigger keys are visible from far away and offer an orientation to quickly find the end of the month.

Was there a point in the conceptualization where ‘everything came together’?

Most of my projects derive from many different ideas and interests. During the realization ideas, interests and plans come into vital conflict; until the process is done, everything stays in a moving state. The initial vision of the project makes the outcome predictable, but only to a certain extent. During the process aspects appear on levels that weren’t foreseeable—at least not consciously.

For me conceptualization means putting things into an intellectual context—even defining the singular meaning or interpretation of the work. Conceptualizing generally happens for me at the end of the process when I work to share something about what I have done in writing. What I like particular on the calendar project is that the concept remains open. I can, or the viewer can, reconceptualize the work over and over again.

When I think of the Typographic Wall Calendar I rather refer to the term program than concept. In this case a program means that the execution of work (nor interpretation) is not tied to my person and what I believe it is. If program and concept are compared, the program carries less intention towards the interpretation; it just offers a base to place topics i.e. time, mass production, writing etc. in a “contextual canvas”. I’m using that term in reference to the work of Swiss designer Karl Gerstner. In 2007 I worked with Gerstner to republish “Designing Programmes,” which was written initially in 1963. So to answer your question, in this case everything was together from the beginning—in the form of a program not a concept.

The program of the calendar is simple. It was the procedure of assembling or writing a calendar with keyboard keys. It was a way of working that’s pretty transparent after you decode the calendar. So the viewer gets an almost complete insight into the process of the work. With this, the viewer is as potent as the creator to experience and interpret the work.

In terms of physically creating the project, what obstacles came up during production? Did you ever attempt to lay out the entire year at once? Would you ever consider making a poster literally out of keyboard keys?

I initially wanted to design a calendar to give away to my friends and clients. If I imagine the poster as a version made literally out of keyboard keys, which would be more of a sculpture, I certainly would have problems giving it away. And at the end of the year I would feel sorry that I didn’t.

But I admit that I found that idea luring, so I did a little math. To make a full physical version I would need 350+ keyboards. In the preparation of the keys there is a part where I have to break the plastic connection attached to the backside of the key. This is necessary to position the key on a flat surface. With used keyboards, this operation can be challenging: in most cases the plastic is so old that it just breaks into pieces. After the first 100 keys I also found out that wearing gloves didn’t protect me from getting blisters. Probably after a little time I would be able to process about 20 keys per hour. This would mean three minutes to get a key out of keyboard, break out the plastic and position it correctly while at the same time organizing the left over keyboards and tracking the remaining keys. Given that it would take 105 hours to compose the whole lay out. Maybe there is a Kickstarter 2011/2012 project in it?

In other projects i.e. visual poems like the Sator square (see below) I did use a full physical layout. These versions are then sold as physical versions.