Observer: Counter Points

In the perennially careful world of graphic design, where most people avoid potentially embarrassing slugfests with colleagues at any cost, a good argument is rare to find. Yet a public clash of views and even a bit of righteous anger from time to time can be useful, because it helps to establish the allegiances, priorities, and values of both combatants and bystanders, and reminds everyone why they wanted to pursue a life in design in the first place. Graphic designers always say they want to be inspired, and who ever got inspired by a polite chat?

One of the most outspoken conflicts between two designers holding diametrically opposed views occurred in the Netherlands in the ’70s, and it lasted for at least a decade. That might sound too remote in time to matter any more, but both participants, Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn, remain in the public eye, and the points they made with unswerving fidelity to their carefully defined positions pre-figure some of the most significant themes running through design in the last three decades. Their ideas continue to mark out the possibilities, and limits, of practice.

Crouwel will be most familiar, perhaps, from his appearance in the Helvetica documentary, though his inclusion represents just a small part of the admiration that his body of work attracts among younger designers. “I’m a modernist, you know,” he says in the film. “I was trained in the period. I lived in the period. I love modernism.” Crouwel was the first graphic designer I ever interviewed. It was 1987, and he had recently been appointed director of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. The work that made his name in the ’60s, as cofounder of Total Design in Amsterdam, was long behind him, postmodernism was the rage, and Crouwel was, to put it bluntly, out of fashion. But thanks to some well-placed British admirers, such as 8vo—who collaborated with him at the museum—Crouwel was back in the limelight by the end of the ’90s, the perfection of his modernist typography celebrated around the world, his work highly collectible.

Van Toorn’s influence has been of a different kind. A notable educator, as well as a designer, he was an associate professor at RISD for 20 years and last year, he was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Maryland Institute in Baltimore. Van Toorn has a reputation for being uncompromising in his design work, for being motivated by strong social and political convictions, and for his commitment to cultural theory, which has sometimes baffled more pragmatically minded Dutch colleagues. I have enjoyed a stimulating dialogue with Van Toorn over the years, and I recently published a monograph about him in the Netherlands.

By the late ’60s, the acute differences in Crouwel’s and Van Toorn’s views of the design task were clear. Where Crouwel’s posters and catalogs for the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam are harmoniously resolved typographic constructions, generally using a single typeface—Helvetica—Van Toorn’s posters and catalogs for the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven take a messier, more promiscuous approach to type. They find their form in the artists’ imagery, and each one looks different than the last. If Crouwel aspired to produce work that appeared timeless, as though the ultimate aim was the gallery wall, Van Toorn preferred designs that were informal, personal, provisional, and situated in their cultural and political moment.

In 1972, at a public debate in Amsterdam that has acquired an almost legendary status in the annals of Dutch design, the two locked horns for the first time. In Helvetica, Crouwel recalls how committed he was in those years to the idea of “neutrality” that Helvetica represented. The type shouldn’t have a meaning in itself: the meaning resided in the content of the text. In Crouwel’s view, the subjectivity of Van Toorn’s approach was wrong because it meant that designers could only work on projects that they personally supported. “You must not try . . . to get the message across better than the one who is emitting the message,” said Crouwel. Van Toorn agreed that the designer’s task was to convey the content, but insisted that designers still had a crucial contribution of their own to make. “Crouwel’s fear of subjective interference leads to uniformity, causing a distinct identity to disappear,” he said.

As the decade progressed, Van Toorn’s designs for catalogs, calendars, and journals became increasingly confrontational in both content and form. The scattergun typography of one calendar provoked Crouwel so much that he designed and printed his own version, with an open letter to his misguided colleague, showing him how it should be done—using Helvetica, naturally. In 1978, a pamphlet about design for museums by Van Toorn and his friend Jean Leering produced the same inflammatory effect. Van Toorn’s persistent questioning of the museum’s authority as custodian and arbiter of art, and his desire to involve the museum-going public in a dialogue, were once again at fault. “What we’re talking about here,” writes Crouwel, “is information that should be as objective as possible, for the benefit of all people interested, without any other aim than to inform.” He complains about viewers being forced
to make sense of the “meaningless and fashionable compilations of images” offered by Van Toorn.

Just three years later, Crouwel felt the need yet again to publish a detailed rebuttal of something Van Toorn had written. After their initial debate, the pattern was always the same, with Van Toorn carrying on regardless, and Crouwel, as self-appointed guardian of the true path, taking it on himself to indicate the error of his ways. If Van Toorn had once resented these attacks—and who wouldn’t?—he showed no sign of it in any of our conversations.

Today, the two appear to be on good terms as colleagues, and when Van Toorn published a book of essays in 2006, Crouwel was there for the launch. Crouwel still has a problem with designers using too many typefaces, but he seems to have mellowed. Twenty years ago, when I first met him, he told me that he had always been more present in his designs than he realized at the time, and this is clearly true. Neutrality was always a myth. More recently, in an AGI book, he acknowledges that his work for the Stedelijk Museum, far from being timeless, “can be dated quite accurately.”

Crouwel is absolutely right about that. Here, I have to declare my colors because while I think he is a fine designer, the fetishization of his way of designing by a new generation of followers is as revealing as it is troubling. Crouwel was always much more interested in typography than images. His work appeals because it can be imbibed unproblematically as pure form, and the designers who most admire it often specialize in the same kind of modernist—or, more accurately now, neo-modernist—typographic craft. Today, much of this work is merely trendy; it couldn’t be further from the modernists’ utopian social dream. Its over-processed surfaces and sterile perfectionism reflect the sheen of the marketplace, without commenting on this commercial reality or questioning it in any way.

As a model for the role that the graphic designer might occupy as a critical public communicator, Van Toorn’s work was always much richer than Crouwel’s, and it is an enduring refutation of Crouwel’s unnecessarily circumscribed definition of design. While its confrontational content and abrasive, even ugly, texture might alarm some designers, it has a lot to offer anyone who thinks that the most significant visual communication concerns itself with the task of articulating and complicating meaning through form. Smooth, disengaged, and aesthetically enraptured design is much too easy now. We need a few more awkward, socially motivated designers with the nerve to irritate, provoke, challenge, and involve viewers. We need a new generation of Van Toorns.

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