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Jun 10, 2011



I've seen a lot of articles on the web about Crouwel, and I share a lot of your viewpoints. The one thing that keeps popping up in my head is, why all the fuss??


I think some designers like to design things that only other designers will appreciate, as if they are part of an elite clique.

There are equivalents in most professions, there probably is a collective word to describe them (not an offensive one that some might resort to) but I can't think of it.


Completely agree with you, particularly in regard to the 'design for designers' point. Personally I prefer the challenge of producing great work that your average person can enjoy, rather than - dare I say it - snobbish design.

Mike Reed

Tom‘s right, clearly – in every profession you get people known as ‘the writer’s writer’ or ‘the chef's chef’. They tend to be brilliant, but are often brilliant in such subtle, sophisticated ways that only those who really understand the craft can ‘get it’.

I agree with you Ben – and am a bit relieved. I feel I know enough about design, in an amateur way, to see why Crouwel is celebrated, but at the same time I’ve always been left cold, as you say, by this sort of design. It makes one feel a bit thick, like you're missing something. You’ve reassured me this isn’t necessarily true.

Maybe it’s just that (as well as just not being well-enough versed in graphic design) I love design built around an idea. A witty connection or a beautifully balanced double meaning becomes a sort of beating heart in a piece – it keeps it alive and warm.

That’s why I’d rather put a classic logo or poster by someone like The Partners or The Chase on my wall than a Crouwel calendar. But I’ll still take your advice and go along. There’s no doubt I could do with the education.


I wonder if the problem here isn't Crouwel or Modernism but a question of intensity. I'm neither pro- or anti-modernism, really like Crouwel's work but totally understand what you're saying about your Mum and Dad. I haven't been to this exhibition but could imagine that all that stuff, collected together like that, might be just way too much of the same thing.

Surely when each piece was published, it had a specific purpose and context. All together, it's modernist overkill, whether the individual pieces were originally appropriate or effective.

If you encountered any one piece, out in the real world, it might just stop you in your tracks. You might love it. I might. It might stand out for its simplicity and boldness.

I think so called "modernist graphic design" is a valid and interesting part of the mix but would agree that a fantical devotion to it just gets annoying and boring. Designers that adhere to a modernist approach and ignore any other could be, justifiably, accused of being self-righteous, lazy and dictatorial. Embracing modernism when it suits the job in hand or being influenced by it when appropriate seems OK. Good in fact.

There's an element of specialism here as well, that could be mistaken for elitism. I don't see any reason why a designer can't say, "This is what I do, I'll do it really well, but I'll just do this. If you don't like it, I'm not for you." That's specialism. It's only elitism if it's carried off with snobbery. I don't know if Crouwel is a snob. I suspect he isn't. More likely he's a specialist and, perhaps, he designed stuff tightly focused on its market. I don't know who; a CEO, a scientist, an engineer, a designer…a specialist?

So, "Good" and "Universally Accessible" don't necessarily have to be tied together in a world where specialising is often appropriate.


Maybe his design just doesn't work in the context of a gallery. Diluting it's original function.

We all would love to see more graphic design in gallerys... but perhaps that's self absorbed. Is it that just a lot of design just doesn't work when exhibited like this (Fletcher et al. being exceptions)?

I'll have to see the show myself.


Samething goes for advertising.
We create ads to win awards to show off to our peers.
We make ourselves the stars of the ads, instead of the product.
Then we wonder why client's keep changing agencies.


I know what you mean, Kandisnky wrote somewhere in one of his early books that if we make today (ancient) Greek statues with the same craftsmanship, detailing and mastery as the ancient Greeks, our -contemporary made- ancient Greek statues will look like "children that were born dead".

I guess this is a case in which when you use it creatively to make something kitschy and humorous, it becomes like a Las Vegas building: Kitschy, ridiculous, humorous, funny and also enjoyable, because it was made to be used in that manner, to entertain.

However when creating posters today in Wim Crowel style, it becomes kinda pathetic, and also offensive towards Wim Crowel himself, unless if it is a school assignment, or a poster for a movie set set back in the bloom of modernism. It is pathetic because the motive of this is not to entertain, but a serious announcement of public information, out of context. That's bad because it is asynchronous with our times. There has to be a reason for this kind of mimic-design, duplicating a style that was used in the past for an exhibition that shows that style from the past seems somewhat cheap and makes the content of the exhibition something of less important, that we can just imitate without respect of what it is or was once.

Even in the Case that Wim Crowel himself made these posters to look like this "old" style it feels somewhat obscure. I highly respect Wim Crowel's work, but when I see it in the social and political context it was created. Out of that context it's hard to understand it, and a museum/gallery is not showing the context, it shows only items out their context (as Jack already mentioned). Here I have to admit that I haven't seen any work by Wim Crowel produced in the last few years.

As I am not living in London but in south Europe, I didn't manage to go to see the exhibition, but seeing from the pictures in this post and knowing what Wim Crowel did, I am assuming that the exhibition is about Wim Crowel modernism.


I agree with the design for designers thing – there's a very self-serving cliquey thing going on in some circles, but I'm not sure Crouwel's work falls in with that.

For me it comes down to a distinction between wilful snobbishness and dry sobriety, which is dependent on the context and execution of the design. Generally I find Crouwel's work to be more austere than cold and authoritative rather than inaccessible.

When placed in a larger context alongside design with a character more akin to something like The Guardian, it does become quite startling how little flex this kind of modernist design gives you to engage with it. A lot of contemporary design actively tries to engage the viewer (either out of genuine warmth or commercial imperative) which is possibly why it's so striking and charmless when you're faced with something which makes no apparent attempt to get you to like it.

However, if you go too far the other way you're in danger of being cloyingly over-friendly and cuddly which is equally as off-putting.

Perhaps the visual language of modernism is more easily hijacked when people deliberately want to make things look lofty and self-important? Over-use to this end might have left it carrying unfortunate connotations whether it's intended or not – like blackletter and Naziism.


I agree with everything you've said. I can see the skill in designers like Crouwel, but I find it hard to find the point in such elitist (take this term negatively or positively) design work. It's certainly nice to design for designers once in awhile, but ultimately, the aim of design is to communicate effectively to the populace at large, and the fact of the matter is, most people aren't designers. I think part of the definition of design is that it needs to be accessible.

Matt Cooper

I don't know if it's ironic or not, the fact that such a conversation is prompted by and exhibition like this. I guess it comes down to the intentions of the curators, I some how doubt that their goal was to start a discussion around the purpose of graphic design exhibitions in general.

Arguably plucking graphic design out of its original context and hanging on a gallery is pointless, as it becomes impossible to assess the work's true appropriateness and effectiveness.

Retrospective exhibitions of this kind should focus designer's process rather than the disembodied outcomes. Alan Fletcher and Peter Saville make for more interesting exhibitions as the diversity of their work suggests a mind set and way of solving problems.

Then again, maybe i've optimised 'Design for Designers'. Bugger.

James Curran

I think this is one of the most honest posts I've ever read on a design blog. Even though I love his work, the acute typographic compositions somehow lack a bit of soul.

Designers love having posters of this kind of esoteric design to intimidate clients and propagate the mysterious art of the designer. They can then explicate abstruse ideals and modernist rationale, a lot of which is just fawn follows form.

Crikey, I'm coming over even more negative than you, and I do love the work, but it's hard to feel any genuine emotion about it, it just looks great.

J.M. Waters

As a designer trying to "find his way," I am often tempted to approach a new work with the hopes that it will somehow be "found" in the vast sea of design and accepted, appreciated and hailed by other designers. There is almost an internal battle that rages, which I fear has held me back: Design what I envision and work out through process or design according to the accepted norms of the collective design world? I can't say I am even close to resolving that battle, however I do know which "side" I hope prevails.


great post and discussion, ben.

thank you for continuing to talk about shows at the design museum - it's a museum that i absolutely loved in london and enjoy being able to kind of visit it via the blog. the set-up does look a.mazing. much better than the richard barnbook graphic design show i saw there aaages ago.

as an artist, i support specialism (and i liked what richard had to say), but i also have a similar GP (general public) yardstick that i try to keep in check: my mum and my friend, sam, the chef. sadly, most art is frightfully over their heads. but it doesn't mean it's bad. it will just take time to trickle down.

what struck me, though, was an assumption i had made about design - that it should be invisible and that people shouldn't really 'get it'; that design just smooths the world in secret.

ergo when you do put it all out on show like this, naturally it will seem cold. because good design is not for 'exhibition' per se, but a well-crafted thoroughfare. [that is not to say that it's not amazing, worthy of study, worthy of being catalogued, etc, etc, just not 'showy' or 'entertaining'].

oh, and i love the term gridnik - i'd not heard that before.


Are there any stuffed animals? That's usually my favourite part when I go to a museum.

Katie Treggiden (confessions of a design geek)

Thanks for this post - a really interesting observation and it's certainly sparked an interesting debate!

I don't know if anyone saw Wim Crouwel in conversation with Rick Poyner at the Design Musuem, but for me this brought his work to life more than the exhibition itself.

When discussing his posters for the Van Abbemuseum, Crouwel talked about how he never wanted his design to get between the viewer and the message.

I don't they were posters you were supposed to stand and admire - I think they were posters that were supposed to make you want to visit the exhibition they were advertising - the 'design' was almost intended to go unnoticed.

I don't think that's elitist, or snobby - I think it's quite humble. It might be just that it takes a designer to see the 'design,' if that makes sense?

I wrote a post about the talk - have a look; hopefully you'll see some of the warmth in his work that I did:


Thanks again for a great post and interesting debate!

Katie x


Dan, don't be silly. They do have lots of wooden toys in the shop http://designmuseumshop.com/catalogue/toys-games/pkolino-nesting-birds

Rob Mortimer

I guess it depends on the intended audience. If you are designing for designers it's fine, but if you are designing for a mass audience then alienating them is surely bad design.

I know it's a cliche to call graphic design problem solving, but if your style doesn't fit the target clearly you aren't solving the problem.

Jon Blyth

My favourite bit of the Crouwel exhibition was the redesign he did of another designer's calendar. It seemed like a real, human and bitchy thing behind the clinical design.

The letter he wrote to accompany the redesign was on display. But it wasn't in English, and wasn't translated. This felt like a real waste. I'd love to know what that letter said.


My favourite design work there was actually the PTT telephone directory from 1977, an elegantly rethought piece of typographic information design, that overcame technical limitations, looked tidy and got four columns of entries on to a page instead of the three of the old design.

It's also the least obviously photogenic item and so, inevitably, it's hard to find an example anywhere, let alone as a museum gift shop postcard.

But because it was the content and not the audience that was the focus of the designer's attention it challenged and alienated people because in this case it was a radical break with what people expected in such a text.

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