Thursday, June 30, 2011

Notes on the Wim Crouwel Retrospective

I recently attended the major Wim Crouwel retrospective exhibition at the Design Museum in London. It was in inspiring look at a fascinating body of work. Here are some thoughts and observations from considering the work on display.

The work collected in this exhibition tells me a story of a designer leading his clients. His aesthetic choices always standing somewhat apart from, and superior to, his client’s briefs. The formal experimentation comes before the message. There is a tangible sense of Crouwel pursuing his personal design theories and interests and working out a unique visual language. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It makes me think about the role of the designer as a leader, as a pathfinder, and as an investigator. (Even if Crouwel himself does seem to perceive himself as the deliverer of objective responses to those briefs. Although I do not see that.) To co-opt a somewhat overused design metaphor, he is not designing the perfect translucent glass to contain the water of the message. Crouwel’s work has different ambitions than that.

Corporate identity systems 
Crouwel’s corporate work exemplifies exemplifies a strict modernist graphic-led school of corporate identity. His methodology starts from a strong European sensibility in contrast to the more American approach of branding-led corporate identities. It is a visual layer of systematisation and pattern and colour. His aesthetic presents as predominantly logic-based rather than emotional. His is a rational and orderly universe. As the Designer (with a capital D) he considers the matter in hand, works everything out systematically and then all of the required elements slot precisely into their preordained places. His approach to corporate identity is very much a pattern language. It is concerned with corporate identification through badging and definition, occasionally to the expense of the specific messages to be communicated.

Brand marks 
His predominant approach to designing corporate marks is founded on mathematical, geometric, and angular symbols. He has explored this approach comprehensively throughout his career. So much so that the inherent limitations are readily apparent in this exhibition. His mark for SHV is a 45 degree triangle. His Teleac mark is a circle within a bisected square. Working at this level of graphic abstraction, there is always the danger of painting yourself into a corner over time with nowhere left to go. Ultimately you end up arriving at symbols such as the Deutsche Bank mark: a diagonal line within a square. How much useful differentiation can be achieved in the marketplace once every business entity has adopted a symbol based on some combination of Platonic shapes and Euclidean geometry? The pitfall of relentlessly and endlessly drilling-down within the single solution set of reductionist geometric brand marks is that you end up with a suite of visual identities which are so minimal that they cannot help but tend towards the generic. That leaves the downstream design teams in a situation where it is only in the manner of how they choose to use those generic symbols in application that provides the unique signifying aspects of each corporate identity system. At that point the relevant questions then become: how complex is that visual system which you need to construct around the central corporate symbol, and how useful and feasible is that system to operate? Unfortunately, the full details of the broader implementation of Crouwel’s identity systems is mostly not shown at this exhibition beyond a set of brand manuals.

AbbĂ© Museum Posters 
In the exhibition space of the Design Museum Crouwel’s striking poster designs came off better than his corporate identity work. There is never any comparison to seeing actual printed examples of large size posters to gain the true sense of their visual impact. This suite of posters deploys a visual language of words and typography, not of imagery. It is a formalist language and expects its audience to be visually literate to a certain degree of sophistication. Any humour or emotion in the work is restrained within visual playfulness and formal experimentation. His work in corporate identity design has to have far broader appeal and be less niche, it cannot be as coded. The inventive use of flat solid colours was refreshing to my eyes. Where so much of today’s printed design work tends towards a reliance on four-colour process printing and everything seems overly-graduated and shaded. It was inspiring to be reminded how much can be achieved with just two flat colours and overlaying inks, always working within strict technical limitations.

These two amusing anecdotes were described within the exhibition. In 1973 Crouwel redesigned the Dutch phone book and typeset it in all-lowercase letters. Talk about a quintessential designer-led move. Unfortunately it was not well-received. They had to reprint it typeset back into the traditional style. In 1974 Jan Van Toorn designed a prominent Dutch calendar. Van Toorn’s aesthetic choices so offended Crouwel that he redesigned the entire calendar in a Modernist mode and then sent it to Van Toorn — along with his critique of the original design and justifying his improvements. So he is obviously an opinionated man.

One final impression that I gleaned from this exhibition is just how influential Crouwel’s work and the broader Dutch school was on a lot of the design work being produced in Dublin in the late eighties and early nineties, back when I was in NCAD and starting my career.