28 November 2012


1960s, Aaron Burns, Design Conference, USA, Wim Crouwel

Wim Crouwel: Aspects of Communication Design in a Shrinking World

Edited version of an original lecture by Wim Crouwel under the theme Aspects of Communication Design in a Shrinking World from Vision 65: World Congress on New Challenges to Human Conditions, October 23, 1965, 9:30am.

I have been asked to give an estimate of the designer's position in Europe, as it relates to certain questions and prospects: What is his attitude towards the problems which a shrinking world imposes on the sphere of communication? What are his reactions to it, and is he happy about present-day developments? Is he equipped to adapt himself to the situation, or is negative criticism his only response?

A new method, called visual communication—a term which is so fashionable at the moment that it is already threatening to grow into a problem—is replacing earlier concepts and trends. It deals with the transmission of a message by visual means, and with concrete presentations of complex ideas. It embraces many aspects of design, such as typography, book design, advertisement, film, exhibitions, etc.

Although his income is modest compared to that of his American counterpart, the graphic designer in Europe is making a comfortable living today according to European standards. And yet I would say that his present position is not enviable. In the first place, he is inhibited by the weight of an enormous historical ballast.

Starting with Cheret and Toulouse-Lautrec, who developed the fine art of painting in the direction of advertising design has followed a course of evolution in the service of publicity and advertising which has left a deep track—an evolution via art-nouveau which only in the early 1920s began to look somewhat like revolution when the new matter-of-factness of the Bauhaus and the Dutch “Stil group” became openly beligerent. However, during all these years it was always the “fine” artist who executed the important commissions in this restricted domain. This led often to a marked dualism in the result—either, on the one hand, reluctance to carry out the commission or on the other hand, the tendency to feel embarrassed about the work which was produced anonymously.

Not before the 1930s, but especially after the last war, more self-assured, independent designers appeared on the scene who identified themselves with their work and who did not wish to be labeled artists—a designation of which they might well be proud but which they regarded as more of a hindrance than an advantage.

The emphasis on a message has been less of a conceptual problem in the areas of typography and book design than in the above field of publicity, but ethical considerations have played a significant role in these areas as well. The publicity agencies which grew up out of the somnolent advertising firms were often, in the past, at loggerheads with the designers because their interests did not coincide. The agencies were too eager to kowtow to their clients while the designers often reacted in just the opposite manner. More often than not the client had the effect on the designer of a red flag on a bull—as a result of his nostalgic wish for free artistic expression and his critical stance.

A rapprochement has become evident now that strained relations have been eased, partly as a result of various factors arising during the past years. The task of the advertising agency has become steadily more specialized and complicated. Marketing and motivation research demand a great deal of attention, and consequently design—or visualizing—is considered only at a much later stage. A specialized type of visualizer is being developed who is taking over the task of the designer at that stage. Thus, a distance is being created between designer and advertising technicians and researchers, which leads conversely to an improvement in their relations!

Today, the freelance graphic designer is chiefly designing posters, catalogues and programs for cultural purposes and—in the commercial field—folders and trademarks. He furthermore accepts commissions from publishers for design and layout of books and dust-jackets. Consequently, and with a certain reluctance, he accepts the situation of a limited professional range because the number of clients employing the services of freelance designers—at any rate in my country, the Netherlands—is small.

The 1950s definitely represent a nadir for the designer who maintains a critical attitude to reality. The period from 1950 to 1960 appears to be particularly the time when the “graphic designer” concept becomes firmly established, partly no doubt because of a distinct Swiss influence.

That brings us to the present—a time in which visual communication undergoes a drastic transition as a result of the tremendous speed-up of social and technical currents. Just think, for instance, of the popularization of scientific knowledge! Yet, these currents have brought a number of problems which must now somehow be sorted out and solved. This is why I would not like to call the present position of the designer a rosy one. As graphic designer he is surrounded by all sorts of debris which at times almost threatens to inundate him:

1. Our heritage of the past—sometimes accompanied by homesickness for this past. Acquired assets lose their worth, the familiar grammar grows obsolete.

2. Professional institutions unable to “keep up” and still struggling with Bauhaus problems.

3. Many advertising agencies who respond to injection of American methods are tottering in their shoes. They begin to realize the need for creativity, but where is it to come from? They had such a cozy romp with marketing and motivation research, as long as it was detached from a creative attitude.

4. There is a growing need for design for information purposes. Where is the designer with the necessary intellectual equipment?

5. In some countries, mine for instance, commercial TV is just being started. Who is there possessing the required experience? Who is familiarizing himself with the findings of experts in other countries? Who is turning information into communication?

6. Illustrated magazines and weeklies are springing up like mushrooms in response and as a supplement to TV. Where can the “old hands” of new design come from to turn chaos into wealth?

7. How should we respond to the film titles of a certain Mr. Saul Bass when we have never had a study of the problem of a title? How good is this development?

8. What are we to think of the influence of the film—and of this kind of moving typography—on the layout of our periodicals?

We are getting a bit dizzy. Especially the younger designers, stepping into this interesting and turbulent period, quite often do not know just where and what they are. A lack of style is evident everywhere. By style, i mean the sense of being equipped with sound judgment by which one faces an assignment. The somewhat older generation, sure of itself since it has formed an opinion—based on experience—may well be holding one which is challengeable to us.

Perhaps it is worthwhile here to project a development forward and see what we may learn from that. The specialization which we observe in the departments of advertising design and information design is bound to develop further—for the time being—and probably along divergent lines which may produce new communication techniques of a perhaps non-visual character as well. The term graphic design could easily become a thing of the past—an outmoded concept reminiscent of the graphic trade of former centuries. Already, specialized visualizer-designers, art directors and program-designers represent an entirely new phenomenon.

Yet to my mind it is inevitable that even these two specialized groups will in due course be directed towards one another and need one another. For instance, editorial and advertising departments work usually along clearly separated and specialized lines in periodicals and newspapers. An ideal situation would arise when advertising acquires a more informative character, which I consider as not a remote possibility. This could result in informative types of advertising for only those products for which there is a real and recognized need that has been researched by editorial means. Of course, sometimes there is also a need for kitsch and superfluous commodities which one can tolerate by humorous oversight at least temporarily. But design recommendations in superlative degrees will no longer be required, and those designers who aim at dynamic effects could exercise their talents to greater advantage in the editorial and educationally informative sector. An integrated relationship between advertising and information values might well have beneficial results not only in newspaper and magazine design but also on the TV and film screen. (The film title which becomes a film by itself seems to me an engaging modern phenomenon—but obviously a bit fishy.)

At this transitional juncture the personal stamp which is the artist's hallmark (the work of art being a highly individual form of expression) still presents a difficult obstacle. In the integration of information and advertising, anonymity of design is almost inevitable—yes, even desirable. Photographers and illustrators cooperate with the designers in their search for new objective visualizations. Letter-designers who are now doing their utmost to produce new and often impossible variants of existing letters, should rather work with the multiplication experts in the interest of super-quick legible reproduction.

When one thinks of computerized type-setting one realizes how progress is slowed down by concepts like, say, Mediaeval and Bodoni letters. Up until now designers have been too exclusively preoccupied with obtaining as wide a variety as possible in the matter of appearance instead of centering their attention on clarity of purpose and a decent general standard.

In the advertising world the motto still prevails that an original design should be different from every other design. Against this I should like to set the need of anonymous ordering—ordering in a sound way information for restful effects. The overwhelming number of impressions bearing down upon human perception day after day demand to be sorted out before they can be relinquished or utilized.

“Co-ordination design” is related to corporate-identity programs of certain industries, that have so much information to be disseminated that a coordinated impact becomes an essential part of a corporate existence. In the future this type of design work will not only be necessary for the benefit of individual industries but also for the benefit of all people who could possibly be contacted by this type of communication—namely the whole community. The reduction of the number of impression steps in a given time and space condition is of utmost importance for the prevention of nervous tension and of disinterest in learning. This does not apply only to printed information, but to all sense-perceptible, auditive and three-dimensional methods of communication.

As one can see, there are tasks enough to be tackled—and the designer will have to play a humble yet important role. Even if he may frequently have to serve in an anonymous capacity, his function will be no less fascinating for that reason. Our training centers should direct their curriculum to these new functions. There is a real need for intelligent designers with artistic sensitivity and imagination.