Wim Crouwel + Jan van Toorn | Books

The Debate

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. 

Starting today, Design Observer publishes four excerpts from The Debate, now available from Monacelli.


Over forty years ago, on a night in 1972 that was to take on mythic proportions, Dutch graphic designers Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn engaged in a public debate about their views and tenets. Titus Yocarini, then director of the professional organization of Dutch graphic designers (Grafisch Vormgevers Nederland, GVN), made an audio recording of that debate and the discussion that followed. Several years ago, this re cording was recovered by curator and graphic designer Dingenus van de Vrie, and this constituted the occasion for a publication in Dutch in 2008, now translated into English.

It is exciting to be able to witness the verbal battle between two grand masters of design when they were young, but the other reason for publishing it is that the arguments of both gentlemen have perfectly withstood the test of time. Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn can be seen as representatives of two opposed schools of graphic design: the rational approach versus the personal approach. They represent the classical antagonism between the engineer and the artist, the graphic designer as a service provider versus the designer who is more intent on personal expression. During those years, from the mid-1960s through the 1970s, social and political commitment were hot topics as well.

Crouwel and Van Toorn have, however, continued to regularly voice and otherwise express their respective positions with great consistency ever since. The debate on November 9, 1972, was perhaps the most exhilarating manifestation of their ongoing discussion.

The occasion for organizing a public discussion between Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn was an exhibition of the latter’s work, as part of a series about Amsterdam–based artists. It was held in Museum Fodor, which at the time served as an “annex” of the Stedelijk Museum located on the Keizersgracht in Amsterdam. Previously, the Fodor had shown posters from the Paris student revolt of May 1968, in an exhibition designed by Van Toorn, which a critic writing for progressive weekly De Groene Amster dammer had characterized as “messy.”

In the fall of 1972, Museum Fodor put on display posters, calendars, and catalogs by Van Toorn in a rather informal exhibition designed by George Sluizer. The show also exhibited anti-Vietnam war posters made by Van Toorn’s students. As a Stedelijk Museum publication, the catalog for this exhibition was designed by Wim Crouwel and his assistant Daphne Duyvelshoff. For the Fodor they developed a standard typography: a red cover with a pink dotted grid, showing the title “fodor” together with the issue number, 8, in a computer-like typeface. The remaining text on the cover—data on Van Toorn’s career and on the exhibition’s dates and location—was printed in a black typewriter font. Instead of pages, however, the catalog contained a loose, poster-sized foldout comprising photo compositions and a handwritten credo by Van Toorn (set in all lowercase letters): an object of graphic design should not be looked at on the wall of a museum because the object’s design thus takes on too much importance of its own. seen in relation to content, after all, design is already dominant as a formal exercise. bear in mind that printed matter is made to function in a specific situation, and there primarily its meaning is determined.

While preparing the “catalog” for the exhibition, it was decided that both designers would continue their conversations in a public debate.

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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