fr/en Ben Bos
How did you became a graphic designer?
It is really difficult to remember when it really started. My father and my grandfather were bookbinders. As a child, I had always plenty of nice papers to play around with. So maybe it started there. Or maybe was it when I was eleven, when I made my first, albeit very modest, magazine. Just one copy that went from door to door, in the neighborhood. It was about things that interested me, such as aviation and athletics. I did the same at my high school. So throughout my youth and even during my years in military service, I made prints. I was always publishing things. I was lucky when I joined the air force because, quite early on, they asked me to write the text of the comments for the weekly Airport News. And so on and so on. I was always doing art for publicity. I wrote for my athletics club and they always said it was the best club magazine there was because I was the only one who interviewed famous athletes all over the word by correspondence. So it was unique. One day, I got approached by a a fellow member of the athletics club at university. He had read my text in the club’s magazine and he needed a copywriter for his firm’s catalogue — the leading Dutch office supplies and equipment firm, Arhend. I accepted. I was still not a designer but it was the beginning. The texts I was writing went to the graphic designer who was next to me. That is how I discovered this job. I felt with longing that it could be my vocation. I was rather gifted drawer as well. It allowed me to follow evening classes in layout at the Amsterdam Graphic College. After that I studied for 5 years at IVKNO (later named Gerrit Rietveld Academy, Amsterdam). I still had my job at that firm where, after a while, I was promoted to be the art director. We won all kinds of national awards in advertising thanks to our original ideas. In the second year, at the academy, I was approached by Wim Crouwel, who asked me to work for him as well. So to recap, I had a family, I had a full-time job, 6 days a week, evening classes, I was working for Wim Crouwel, and finding my own freelance clients… I was a busy young man!
How did you became a member of Total Design?
After nine years, I had a conflict with my Arhend boss. Since we had been
so successful with our publicity, he had approached the CEO saying that ‘our department is now costing money but we can make money because we have talent, so we can sell our creativity as well’. And instead of offering me a position in the new firm, he approached somebody else. So I refused to work for them. In the meantime, Wim Crouwel and some other top designers founded the first graphic design group in the Netherlands: Total Design. And they wanted me to join. I thought I had gone to graphic design heaven. They made me responsible for the studio assistance but that didn’t work for long. Very soon I got my own team and then I was made creative director. At the end, I left because there was a conflict with the new generation of managers, they were egoists who just wanted to make money. They also forgot our roots in functionalism; they were making kind of ‘arty’ designs. It was not an honest game anymore. For two years I worked with another studio and after that I set up my own company. From then on, I am a free man.
What were your influences?
My main influence was Wim Crouwel. He his only 649 days older than me, but at that time, within only a few years he had become one of the best designers in the country. As a student I wanted to reach his level. My main wish was that one day I would be able to make posters to the same standard as Crouwel. But over the years I got my other design heroes. My colleague Benno Wissing (at Total Design), but also important design teachers like Josef Müller-Brockmann, Armin Hoffman, Emil Ruder and numerous great designers I met over the years since I became a member of AGI, in 1978.
You’ve been working during a real prolific period for Dutch design, and you have been actively involved — as a member of Total Design. That must have been really stimulating.
Yes of course, this adventure has completely changed the profession — and myself — at the same time. Two years ago I wrote this book, TD 63-73: Total Design and its Pioneering Role in Graphic Design. Pioneering, because, when we founded Total Design, at that time, all the other designers were still working alone. They were not in a position to work on projects which spilled over from just graphics. Nothing like it existed in continental Europe. The only examples we had, nearby, were in London.
What stimulated you outside graphic design?
I am a full-time designer. Design is my life. And yet it is not the only thing
in life. In that sense, I am different from Wim Crouwel. I always said that he is a 400-days-a-year 26-hours-a-day designer. His primary interest is art and design. I think that it is too limited, that you must have other ideals and other pleasures to break out of the daily routine. Running has always been my pleasure. I also have done a lot of mountaineering. And on holiday I still draw and paint. Photography is another great ‘sport’ for me.
At Total Design, your team was specialized in corporate identity. What interested you in these commercial jobs?
I wanted to bring quality to our daily environment. I worked for more than
30 years for Randstad. When they first came to me, I didn’t want to work for them, because I didn’t understand and trust the kind of business they were in. I thought no more about it and six months later, my colleagues from TD urged me to talk to those Randstad guys to see what we could do for them. They saw potential in this client. And then I said, ‘I am only interested in working for you when we try to convince the public that you are the best choice. And the best choice means that from now on, everything you do must have been thought over very well and the message must be just as clear, and then we can do our best’. What I always try to do is to express quality and if it is not yet there, I try to teach it to my clients.
Did your team have a completely different way of working?
I got my own team in ‘66 and ever since it was the only team that always made a profit. I had my background from my Arhend period but I worked for business, and that asks for a different way of thinking. We had an efficient approach to design problems. We listened, analyzed, sketched and made our choices, which were often simple and straightforward. Compared with working for museums, the designers who work for commercial projects have to start from scratch. The museum world offers visual ‘ingredients’ for posters and catalogues; that’s a completely different formula. Much of corporate work means that a designer has to come up with the image of the company. You have to invent your own ingredients.
The cultural field often seems more attractive because commissioners give an image of giving more freedom or being more understanding. What is your point of view about that?
I think that the word of culture, not just museums, but also the big theaters or dance companies have their own sense of beauty and quality. And it is also quite distant from the rest of the world. It is a very close, inner circle. It is a system in itself. When a designer is taken into this inner circle, then he, or she, is very happy, because it is gratifying… but not too difficult.
Finally, were there really two aesthetics, a commercial one and a cultural one, at that time?
Well, I don’t know… From the beginning, when I started out in design, I was convinced that functionalism and modernism were good for me, as a guideline, the track on which I wanted to run. And I still think so. But there is one difference, I think, between my approach to functionalism and the approach of many designers in the cultural field. Because, I cannot work without emotion as a component. I need to have emotion and feeling. Without that, I can’t do my best. I must feel at home with a client and make him understand me. Very soon we become friends and we try to work in the same direction. But I think that functionalism isn’t complete… emotion is what moves people and it is also a tool for functionalism. This is not mentioned in any theory about functionalism, but I am convinced that with emotion, you reach further.
Nowadays, it seems like the aim of selling comes first, to the detriment of the quality of the project itself, in all fields. What is your view on the current situation?
I am so glad that I have lived through the years of plenty, that I could be part of the invention of design in its much wider sense. In those years we always had an open door to the top management of our clients. We didn’t have to put up with marketing managers or other rather stupid young people. We had access to the leaders. That meant that we didn’t only design for them, but also had influence on what was going on. We were part of the family and that is nowadays impossible. I got out at the right time. I don’t like business nowadays. It is very difficult to find nice clients with good intentions, who are not only money driven. I have always experienced the ideal situation for collaboration, at just the right time.
What kind of projects are the most interesting?
A challenge, you mean. The most interesting are the projects where I can be sure that design gives added value. Design just for the sake of design has no meaning. But, if you really can improve things, then you add value to society, or to the company, or whatever. For most of the things I have done, I have the feeling that I have helped the organization to improve, or I have helped the public to understand, or I have made something that is pleasant to look at.
Do you have any advice for a young graphic designer?
Yes. Try to add value! Be aware that there is more to life than graphic design. That you can make things look better, work better, easier to understand, that asks for much more than just making things look glossy. Glamorous is nice, of course, but it is too limited. And SEE. That is more than just looking. Be curious, be aware of your environment all the time. Details are no details. Because your task as a designer is to contribute to make things better. That requires critical observations and awareness.