Wim Crouwel + Jan van Toorn | Books

The Debate, Part 2

Jan Van Toorn and Wim Crouwel, 2007 | Photo: Pieter Boersma

This month, The Monacelli Press publishes the first English translation of a famous 1972 debate between Dutch graphic designers Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn, a public clash of subjectivity versus objectivity at Amsterdam’s Museum Fodor that helped set the stage for bold philosophical showdowns to come in design culture.
Held in response to an exhibition of Van Toorn’s work at Stedelijk Museum, including student posters protesting the Vietnam War—in an era of youth culture and increasing resistance to authority, capitalism, and the power of media—the stakes were aesthetic, ethical, and politically charged. 

This week, Design Observer publishes four excerpts from The Debate. The first is here. Today, Grid v Intuition.

The Debate
is now available from Monacelli.


Jan van Toorn
Grids are highly effective for conveying a message, but that is merely a starting point. You should not promote their use as the only way of design, or the only solution for arriving at great communication for the future.

Wim Crouwel
You say that I promote grids as the one true thing. I say that graphic design consists of a process of ordering for the benefit of the clarity and transparency of information. This needs to be founded on particular principles, because clarity and transparency on their own do not lead to quality information. There has to be an underlying principle as well.

My basic principles may have been characterized at times as subjective, but to me they are objective. When I depart from modular structures, then this is an underlying principle to me. These structures can be simple, but they can also be extremely complex. And I believe that design—not just graphic design, but also spatial design, architecture, and industrial design— benefits from a cellular approach, from a highly struc.tural approach. 

Typography, for instance, is a preeminent example of such a process of ordering. Every form or shape in typography that wants to be more is one form too many. As a typographer you merely arrange information clearly so as to convey it in an easily readable way. That a clear arrangement may lead to incredible monotony is not at issue here; what matters is that you order things according to a specific point of view, from a basic principle. This is what determines form, and such form might well lead to a style as well.

In my view, typography does not have to be determined by tradition and history at all. It is time, I believe, that we throw overboard all those dos and don’ts that have kept typography in a straightjacket for so long. When as an alternative I advocate my structural approach, my cellular approach, which culminates in the use of grids for typography or spatial grids for architecture, I really have a different idea in mind.

Jan van Toorn
By traditional form I mean what you refer to as something determined by tradition. It does not so much pertain to style, but to our way of reading, the way of reading we have grown accustomed to. It does not just emerge out of the blue, but has a history. It is a case of historically determined human behavior. And you cannot simply act as if it doesn’t exist.

Working with grids, it seems to me, is a tremendous refinement of our tools, but it is not essential and only of interest to fellow professionals. We saw where systematic ordering ad absurdum leads us in the protests against the closing of the Hochschule in Ulm:* banners with perfectly clean typography. But in this way of protesting you do not see any identification with those you address, and this is a crucial problem for which a designer has to find a solution.

Wim Crouwel
Jan, I don’t believe in that at all. The lively concern of these people and their involvement—their angehauchtheit, as they call it in Germany—is equal to that of people who protest in more amateurish ways. Look at Paris ’68! The posters they made there are all obvious cases of amateurism; not a single one of them has any value. Not one of them is a good piece of design that really tries to convey an idea. It is all clumsy work that comes across as sweet, pleasant, full of feeling, but not as tough. Good designers could have conveyed the content much more strongly and this could have brought the movement more success.

Jan van Toorn 
Why then did those designers fail to contribute? Because they are incapable of giving adequate answers. So all that remains is amateurism. The people in our profession have no answers.

Wim Crouwel 
Jan, before the break let’s briefly return to the typography in the catalogs we make for museums. I have always taken the view that these catalogs should have a kind of magazine format, because they need to tell the museum’s story, rather than that of the artist. For this reason, they should be recognizable in their design as coming from an institution that takes a specific stance vis-à-vis contemporary art.

This has led to catalogs of which people said: “We can’t recognize the artist in it.” But the artist was present in the reproductions, and I have nothing to add to his story. The artist’s own story, when conveyed clearly and in a readable fashion by means of well-placed illustrations according to a certain principle, should be so powerful that he is always stronger than me. What I add to it is at most the specific objective of the museum involved.

In your catalogs for the Van Abbemuseum I recognize first and foremost the voice of Jan van Toorn, while that of the artist becomes perceptible only if I put in some more effort. As “pieces of art” these are great contributions to what is currently possible in free typography, but they are outright unreadable. I simply get stuck.

*By 1967 the Ulm School of Design was financially troubled and beset by faculty conflicts; some faculty members departed and the curriculum was scaled back. In 1968 the regional parliament in Bonn withdrew all funding to the school, forcing the institution’s closure amid student and faculty protests.


Above: Jan Van Toorn | cover and spread from Bouwen '20–'40. De Nederlandse bijdrage aan het nieuwe bouwen | 1971

Above: Wim Crouwel | cover and spread from Het nieuwe bouwen | 1983

Above: Jan Van Toorn | cover and spread, Vormgeving in functie van museale overdracht | 1978

Above: Wim Crouwel | cover and spreads, Om de kunst | 1978

Wim Crouwel + Jan van Toorn
Wim Crouwel is recognized for the creation of radical, modular letterforms. Pushing the boundaries of legibility, Crouwel’s innovative type was often supported by easily read sans serif typefaces within a carefully structured framework. His typefaces were digitised by the Foundry in the late nineties and are available for designers to use digitially from the type library. 

Crouwel famously established a grid-based methodology for the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, a system which he applied rigorously from 1963 to 1985. 

Crouwel was one of the five founders of Total Design, a multidisciplinary design studio set up to work on major design commissions. The studio’s diverse experience enables them to execute both complex and wide-ranging projects for a variety of clients, from industry, trade, government and cultural sectors. 

From 1985 to 1993, Crouwel was a director at the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, where he commissioned the British studio 8vo to fulfil the design requirements of the museum. Crouwel continues to design intermittently on a diverse range of projects for both graphic and exhibition design commissions. 

Jan van Toorn is one of the most influential Dutch graphic designers to have emerged since the early 1960s. His designs persistently call attention to their status as visual contrivances, obliging the viewer to make an effort to process their complexities. Van Toorn wants the public to measure the motives of both the client and the designer who mediates the client's message against their own experiences of the world. His work has stimulated a more active and skeptical view of art, communication, media ownership and society. As director of the Jan van Eyck Academy, Van Toorn drew together all the strands of his critical practice into a multi-level educational initiative that urged designers to think harder about design's role in shaping contemporary reality. 

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