Rick Poynor | Essays

Jan van Toorn: Arguing with Visual Means

Jan van Toorn, subject of a meticulously researched retrospective that opened today (21 March) at the Kunsthal in Rotterdam, is one of the most distinguished and provocative figures in an exceptional generation of Dutch graphic designers. Van Toorn’s social and political concerns, and his way of talking about them, set him apart, even among such colleagues as Wim Crouwel, Anthon Beeke, Gerard Unger, Swip Stolk and Hard Werken founder Rick Vermeulen, who all attended the opening celebration. Van Toorn has described himself as someone interested in the history of ideas, who also happens to be a practical person, a designer, and this is how he comes across. The observations that follow are based on a talk I gave at the opening ceremony.

I first met Van Toorn in the early 1990s. He had recently been appointed director of the Jan van Eyck Akademie and I travelled to Maastricht to interview him for Blueprint magazine about his plans. The whole experience made a powerful impression. Designers and design watchers in other countries have always viewed the achievements of Dutch graphic design with envy, and the 1980s had been a highly creative period. Now here was Van Toorn about to embark on what promised to be an unusual attempt to unite art, design and theory within a small institution blessed with a handsome building, plenty of equipment, a fine library, luxurious amounts of space, and some promising-looking teachers. Frankly, I felt envious of the students – or participants, as they were always called at the Akademie. Who wouldn’t want to spend time in such a haven, pursuing their personal researches? The appointment of a designer to head a centre of postgraduate study that also covered art and theory seemed like something that could only happen in the Netherlands. It recalled Willem Sandberg’s role as director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and Wim Crouwel’s position as director of the Boymans-van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam.

During his time at the Jan van Eyck Akademie, Van Toorn and his staff initiated a series of conferences and related publications. These included “And justice for all . . . (1994) and Towards a Theory of the Image (1996), culminating in Van Toorn’s final project at the end of his time as director, design beyond Design (1998), based on one the most stimulating conferences I have ever attended. Looking at this activity from the outside, and knowing just how much effort is involved to make these things happen, it seemed extraordinary that such a small institution could generate so many worthwhile contributions to debate. In the 1990s, I taught for several years at the Royal College of Art, London, a much bigger establishment than the Akademie. During the same period, the RCA produced nothing comparable in terms of ambitious academic events and publishing. This was another sign of Van Toorn’s commitment to critical analysis, dialogue between the disciplines, and the exploration of ideas.

It was his achievements as a designer, though, as well as his experience as a teacher, that made the Jan van Eyck venture possible. Van Toorn has often remarked that he wanted to approach communication design as a form of visual journalism. In other words, the designer could function as a kind of reporter – investigating, reflecting, editing, shaping and delivering his findings in the form of a visual outcome. He spoke of his wish to use design as a way to “argue with visual means”. If you compare the publications and posters Van Toorn produced in the late 1960s and 1970s with typical approaches today, his deliberately dissonant work can look astonishingly direct and uncompromising. This was, of course, a period of loosening and liberalisation when every kind of social convention was being challenged, and matters of politics and ideology were central concerns for many people within western societies. For a short, heady spell in the 1960s, revolution was in the air and to a designer with Van Toorn’s inclinations it must have seemed entirely natural to bring this spirit of social questioning into the “laboratory situation” – as he called it – of his own work.

Consider, for instance, his series of calendars for the printing house Mart Spruijt. This kind of calendar is produced as a promotional item because the company hopes it will act as a reminder to use its services. Anyone who put Mart Spruijt’s 1972/73 calendar on the wall would have been reminded, every week of the year, of the complex, contradictory, troubled nature of the contemporary world. Van Toorn’s calendar showed black and white portraits of women shoppers in an Amsterdam street market, colour photos of women in bras and corsets from underwear catalogues (an ironic feminist commentary), and references to the war in Vietnam. There was a recurrent emphasis in his work on the ordinary – on everyday situations and the experiences of real people – as well as allusions to the political realm. A poster insert for a PTT Dutch post and telecommunications company report presented an informal, entirely unglamorous montage of postal workers. It couldn’t be further from the kind of glossy PR shots used so often in company literature since then. A cover design for Museumjournaal in 1979 confronted curators and scholars with a photograph of seven chubby naked men chatting in a shower. Another Museumjournaal front cover, which would be unimaginable in institutional publishing in the US or Britain, showed a man’s horribly mutilated naked body laid out on some wooden planks. This was an astringent visual sensibility that refused to flinch from even the least pleasant aspects of human experience and required the viewer, as a moral imperative, to see.

Some of these communications are not without humour, but, like Van Toorn himself, they are utterly serious and purposeful. What they embody, above all, is an idea about citizenship. Their unapologetic realism is underpinned by a deep strain of social idealism. They address viewers not as consumers with tiny attention spans who must be perpetually entertained and flattered if they are not to grow bored, but as critical, thinking individuals who can be expected to take an informed and sceptical interest in the circumstances of their world. Even in the 1970s, this was a very strict demand to make of design practice, but by the 1980s, with Reaganomics, Thatcherism, the rise of neo-liberalism, and the doctrine of the free market, it was becoming much harder to function as a designer in this way. Van Toorn continued to produce some challenging work, such as his series of posters for the De Beyerd art centre, but he found fewer opportunities for the kind of critical practice at which he excelled. Design, as he often noted, was increasingly part of the problem. As he told Eye in the early 1990s: “Everything is possible, you can quote everything, you can use every style, but where are the arguments that are really contributing to a fundamental change in our social conditions?” Becoming director of the Jan van Eyck Akademie was one way of helping to encourage young designers to examine this question for themselves.

In 2004, we confront essentially the same question: where, in visual communication, are the arguments that are contributing to a fundamental change in our social conditions? To make such arguments, you must first believe that social conditions require change, and you must possess a clear sense of the kinds of change that are necessary and possible. But, despite the global crisis caused by terrorism and our responses to it, these are less certain, less politically motivated times in the wealthy nations, and designers, as a social group, share much the same disengaged outlook as other similarly educated people. In recent years, I have heard few designers express the sort of concerns and convictions that motivated Van Toorn’s generation.

Nevertheless, the example of his long career is hugely inspiring and the Kunsthal exhibition (until 20 June), curated by Els Kuijpers, provides a valuable opportunity to reconsider the possibilities of engaged design. (It may be shown later in the US at the Rhode Island School of Design, where Van Toorn has been a visiting teacher for 15 years.) There is every reason to hope that young designers encountering this exceptional body of work for the first time will emerge asking tough questions about the way things are now, and wondering what they, as visual communicators, might be able to do about it.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, History, Politics

Comments [18]

to reconsider the possibilities of engaged design.

Are these any different from the possibilities of unengaged design? Why even couch appeal on this term, "possibilities"? Not that I find socially and politically engaged work unappealing, but I'm concerned about how the appeal is shaped, how it affects people and the work they do.

Rick, you mention the fact that "designers and design watchers from other countries have always viewed the achievements of Dutch graphic design with envy," and this is certainly true whether it's van Toorn, or Wim Crouwel, or Piet Zwart.

Do you think that the disproportionate influence of Dutch design is rooted in something specific about that particular culture? Or is it just a coincidence? Is Jan van Toorn an expression of that culture, or would he have created much the same kind of work had he been born in another country?
Michael Bierut

Michael, I do think that the achievements of Dutch graphic design are rooted in the culture. First, there is a high level of visual awareness. The Dutch are proud of their contribution to art history: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Mondriaan, to name only the most obvious figures. Modernist design innovators such as Zwart and Schuitema also made an outstanding contribution. Work of such a high standard was bound to be influential overseas.

The point is often made that the constant threat that the Dutch lowlands will disappear under water has led to a country in which anticipation and planning become a national mentality - the landscape itself is designed. Travelling through the Netherlands by train, the exceptional orderliness of the place is a delight - even the countryside seems organised on a grid - though this leaves the Dutch longing for something wilder, less composed. The standard of design is uniformly high, whether it's architecture, furniture or electronic equipment. There is a willing embrace of the modern. Unusual-looking buildings aren't an issue for the Dutch in the way that they've always been for the British.

The Netherlands has long been a nation of liberal, tolerant free-thinkers. Amsterdam's sexual and pharmaceutical freedoms are a tourist cliche. The Dutch seem to take a grown-up, live-and-let-live view of matters of behaviour and morality. In the years after the Second World War, they subsidised the arts generously and designers - certainly those of Van Toorn's generation - benefited from this support. Excellent printers meant their work could be beautifully produced. Today, the Netherlands too is changing and young designers now face a tougher, more commercially competitive world.

Clearly, Van Toorn found himself in a cultural situation that permitted and perhaps encouraged his critical way of thinking about design. Like all of us, he must have been shaped to some extent by his cultural background, but he brought a tenacity and a commitment to the pursuit of these ideas which is clearly his own, and different from his colleagues. It would be a mistake to imply that a politically questioning approach is only possible in particular, favourable conditions.
Rick Poynor

"where, in visual communication, are the arguments that are contributing to a fundamental change in our social conditions?"

Well, for starters, beyond the field of visual communication. Needless to say, there are many movements pushing for social change. These groups all use visual communication, and could certainly benefit from the involvement of more designers and artists.

I'm in San Francisco now to attend a conference on graphic design and social justice. The organizers have been overwhelmed by the response. 300 people are registered, with many more likely to crash. Some time slots have as many as nine simultaneous sessions.

There is no shortage of vision here.

(I wrote this comment before Rick posted his great reply but thought I would post it anyway to add to the discussion.)

I'd like to comment on Michael's questions to Rick. I think that the influence of Dutch design is rooted in the history, environment, culture, and economy of the Netherlands. I think all notable Dutch designers, van Toorn included, are also a kind of expression of the culture, history, etc.

In the summer of 2003 I interviewed van Toorn for a video documentary I am in the process of making. (I've known Jan van Toorn for about 14 years.) I also interviewed a number of other Dutch designers including Anthon Beeke, and many younger designers (Dumbar was on vacation though...). BTW: Beeke got his start working for Jan van Torn. Beeke said he owed his design career to his time spent with van Toorn, from whom he learned many technical aspects of design and printing.

I believe that van Toorn is the unique consequence of a convergence of many things that have occurred only in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands is historically a tolerant society. The Netherlands is historically a controlled and a cooperative society. By control I mean the designed environment. It's a small county with a big population. Keep the ocean under control, behind the dike, or you are dead. Cooperate on controlling the ocean or loose the town or city. When you stand on a massive dike stretching for many kilometers against the sea and built all by hand in the year 1700 something, you know what I mean.

Many aspects of Dutch life, for hundreds of years, have also been entrepreneurial. Selling flowers for instance (all that reclaimed land was reclaimed to make money first and foremost). The giant paintings from the 17th C. Dutch masters of the Golden Age in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam are not of kings and royalty, they are of business men (or their hired guns)! Amsterdam was built on the entrepreneurial actions (and invasions) of the Dutch colonial merchants and small business. Each of those little houses on the canals was a warehouse and a business. Efficient use of space. The little houses on the canal were taxed based on the width of the house. The ideal lot was one with a pointy front and a wide back. Lower taxes, more room.

This combination of control (design), entrepreneurship, and political tolerance set the stage for design to thrive in the Netherlands. Other countries got hung up on other issues (war, Napoleon, etc. for France and Germany) or lacked one of these key elements (what other countries have been so accepting for hundreds of years for political dissidents?) Not to mention the history of printing and graphic arts in the Netherlands.

Van Toorn was a young designer after WWII in a Europe ready for union. The extremism of Nazi Germany solidified his desire and other Dutch liberals to see a continuing tolerant society. Van Toorn did what many people of his generation did, he took his political and social desires and transfered them to his creative work.

I don't think he would have emerged anywhere else in Europe or in the USA. The Dutch design and printing tradition was there. (I'm leaving out designers van Toorn studied with which also impacted him.) The political awareness was there. The stability was there (democracy). The social movement in the 1960s was there.
Joseph Coates

Rick, I'm intrigued by your post: it makes me feel like I imagine many of our American-oriented posts must make you feel. I can place Paul Rand against a backdrop of New York social history, or world history, or even against the development of (American) graphic design. I cannot place Jan van Toorn, with an American perspective, as easily.

I do have one personal experience with JVT, and it confuses me because I cannot connect it to the history you present. This is one person's experience over one day, but I feel compelled to raise it within the context of your observations here.

In 2001, I was a year-end critic at the Rhode Island School of Design graduate program in graphic design. As one of only two outside critics, there was a lot of pressure to say something responsive to each student's work. I found this difficult because the work was defined so personally that it often seemed to preclude comment. While the MFA program was run by Thomas Ockerse, it was my observation that the spiritual center of the program seemed to be Jan van Toorn. He was cited by every student as an inspiration, and seemed to be the main advocate for these personal explorations.

You can understand my confusion.

There was none of the social comment and engagement you describe: "Everything is possible, you can quote everything, you can use every style, but where are the arguments that are really contributing to a fundamental change in our social conditions?" What I instead encountered was a deep engagement with a different kind of laboratory: worlds filtered through personal experience so myopic that larger interests in social or political issues were absent.

Thus, my question is a simple one. Did Jan van Toorn's social engagement continue into recent years? My (limited) experience would suggest otherwise.
William Drenttel

Joseph, thanks for these carefully considered comments. I would only differ with your conclusion. To say that someone could only emerge from particular circumstances seems to me to leave out the very real idiosyncrasies, motivations and drives of a particular personality. I believe such a drive would manifest itself in any half-way favourable or even adverse conditions, but it would take on different, locally inflected forms.

Hard for me to answer Bill's question because, while I have seen Van Toorn give lectures about his work on two occasions, I haven't seen him teaching students, or had a chance to assess the outcomes of his educational projects. The inward-looking nature of the student work you describe sounds fairly typical of what has been happening everywhere in recent years. I saw the same thing at the Jan van Eyck Akademie, where I taught after Van Toorn had left, and I saw it at the Royal College of Art in the late 1990s.

I would say that Van Toorn is still committed to the idea of socially engaged design, if his writing, personal projects and lectures are anything to go by. Perhaps if anyone from RISD is reading, either student or teacher, they could explain how this plays out in Van Toorn's teaching. It sounds like students might be taking this myopically personal direction in spite of anything their teachers have to say. It is certainly the case, from what I saw, that quite a few Jan van Eyck participants did not understand Van Toorn's critique, or see its relevance today.

Rick Poynor

i'm here at RISD with a mix of graduate and post graduate students.

here's a few (brief) comments:

This is a collection of thoughts from a group of grads:

1. Tom Ockerse is the spiritual and intellectual center of the grad. program. Ultimately, we are taught a way of thinking and a process/approach that can be applied to anything, be it personal, political, social, etc. -Michelle StJean

2. It is up to the individual to decide their own thesis topic. No school of thought is forced or applied.

3. In many ways, the academic inquiry of the thesis process is a study of the tools and mechanisms of visual communication and narrative process-these tools become the focus of study supporting the broader work of the student, in and beyond school, the work which may become a contribution of social relevance. we are not studying activism per se, but examining the tools which enable such activity, but this activity is the ultimate ends of many, though admittedly not all.

4. I appreciate your interest and opinion in RISD; as a graduate student in graphic design I feel honored to be in an environment that has made me aware of others as well as myself. If in fact a one stop through an art school gives you a concrete opinion on this place , please cite many examples and please cite examples from other universities where this is not the case. Beacause you were involved in ONE year of a thesis presentation, doesn't necessarily express the style and intellect of the graduate program. Please get back to me on this, I am very curious. I hope I don't meet you on a bad hair day, I might have to pigeon hole you too.
susie nielsen [email protected]

5.Well, the personal is the political. I don't say I represent RISD, nor that RISD represents me, but from the beginning I made my political views clear. In my entrance interview I hotly commented on branding as a form of imperialistic cultural colonialism. The first year (last) I did at least four anti-war pieces (which were exhibited), and here and now well....if you saw me now and judged my work today you'd say it's myopic. I am staring at my 7 month pregnant belly, and it's like looking into the universe. judging risd by one thesis presentation is like judging the states by one state, or my personality by one moment. we are more than your one day with us. look at the web we represent.

6. Hello. I believe in nothing so strong as art and truth and beauty. To present the world with eyes to see itself. Sounds like social consciousness to me.

so, a few responses-more will post later, hopefully.

Hello. It is easy and often tempting to romanticize the design culture in the Netherlands. Small countries receive lot of praise often because there is nothing else to admire, and it is easier to direct attention elsewhere than becoming involved in own environment. In the NL there are also awful clients, posters, corporations, though it is true to it easier to build on the foundation laid by the great ones. I guess the difference is like playing football (soccer) in Real Madrid as opposed to some smaller provincial team. It is easier to play in a good team. Similarly, having the support of the design institutions, relatively prosperous economy, being able to receive grants and subsidies for non-market oriented project yields its results. The Dutch feature which is probably connected to this, (other than the often stereotyped tolerance, openness, etc.) is their perverse need to be criticised. Design became of of the tools for this criticism, and the fact that it keep receiving generous funding is both astonishing as well as admirable. But it seems that in long term the support of design pays off.
Peter Bilak

Peter, thanks for that message. I agree it is easy to romanticize something looking in from the outside; at the same time, it's reassuring that there is some truth to the (idealistic) stereotype.

Graham, reading Bill's question about his experience at RISD three years ago, I assumed that it was not intended as a criticism of (or even a direct comment on) the RISD graduate program, but instead as a question about van Toorn's more recent interests as expressed in teaching. In keeping with this subject of this thread, I'd be curious if the students there today felt there was any sense of van Toorn's interests left behind, or if, like many visiting instructors, he passed through like the weather and is now only dimly remembered history.

Finally, as an aside to the student who said, "It is up to the individual to decide their own thesis topic. No school of thought is forced or applied," I can only say (as someone who has been teaching in an MFA program for ten years): That's what you think.

Every academic program has a school of thought, whether it's overt or subtle. There's nothing wrong with it. In fact, that's why people go to graduate school.
Michael Bierut

Peter, am I remembering correctly that your time as a participant at the Jan van Eyck Akademie overlapped with Jan van Toorn's final year there? If it did, what are your thoughts in regard to the question Bill raises? What influence and effect did Van Toorn's social and political view of graphic design have on the way that design was discussed and practiced at the Akademie?

Even if your time didn't overlap with his, maybe you have some views on the way that his thinking had shaped the potential and ethos of an environment in which you spent a couple of productive years.
Rick Poynor

My time at the JvE overlapped with Jan's last year as the director, however I don't have direct experience of Jan van Toorn as a teacher. He was fully focused on the 'Design beyond Design' conference, and if I am not mistaken had some commitments in the US as well, so his presence was minimal.

Obviously Jan van Toorn's personality, and Akademie's reputation abroad had attracted people with similar ideas/values, so they was some kind of continuation of exploring social and political view of design. But in general the Akademie produced a healthy mix of projects, so it wasn't just the school of followers. Interestingly, the reputation of the Akademie was very different abroad than in the Netherlands. The Dutch students haven't appreciated the theoretical position of the Akademie, quite on the contrary, they were turned off by it - has to do with the pragmatism of the Dutch, as opposed to idealism of Jan van Toorn. In my years there was only one Dutch student, and he was stigmatized by the approach of the direction of the . Even today when I mention that I was at the JvE to a Dutch, they always ask: "And are you still OK?". It is a very different place today though.
Peter Bilak

A few comments from a current RISD Grad Student. I was not part of the Tomato workshop that took place here, so I'm not sure how those previous comments, compiled by Graham, came to be. I was a bit surprised to read the reactive/defensive response of some of my classmates. It seems like a valid question to ask about JVT and I did not read Rick's question as a criticism.

First off, I don't know who wrote the comment quoted by Michael: "No school of thought is forced or applied." Tom Ockerse is certainly the spiritual/intellectual/philosophical leader of this program and the work developed here is more a reflection of his teaching than anyone else. Tom definitely has his own school of thought. He encourages a balance of making, inquiry and reflection. Making is emphasized, as a means to informing the mind, but (T)heory also plays its part. Tom is well known for his studies in semiotics, as is Hans Van Dijk. Basically our program is about balance with "search" emphasized over "research." Theory, practice and reflection each play their part and we are taught to focus on when and how, during the design process, each of these comes into action.

I agree with Rick, that the introspective/myopic nature of the thesis work at RISD is a condition that exists at many Grad schools these days. In my experience here, I haven't seen too many thesis projects that address the "arguments that are really contributing to a fundamental change in our social conditions." This is not from a lack of JVT's encouraging. I would argue that he might have the same comment about our program as Bill would. However, there are many thesis proposals currently in the works that address social responsibility/engagement. So maybe a change is in the air.

I don't want to sound too critical of our program, because ultimately I am not. I love it here and would not change much about my experience. Also, I believe there is a argument to be made for the "myopic" approach, as one of my peers pointed out, "the thesis process is a study of the tools and mechanisms of visual communication.... these tools become the focus of study supporting the broader work of the student, in and beyond school, the work which may (or may not) become a contribution of social relevance." Is this approach so wrong if the ultimate goal is to contribute responsibly to society?

As for JVT, he is still fully committed to socially engaged design or, at the least, the teaching of it. He joins our program for four different weeks through out the year. His seminars cover his ideas on the "Dialogic" and the creation of visual arguments, which most often include social agendas. Some students are "put off" and some are inspired. It is a bit of a mixed bag.


JVT, social and political view of design. Have anybody read "Design for Public Good" article in the latest CA Magazine, May 04? I did not know any of the artists names before the read.
I would like to see more stories like those and learn more about great work for non-profits, engaging design in North America. Who and where the best work is produced? Any comments or hints to search for?
Jay Stephan

just out of curiosity. where can i find the images to Jan Van Toorn's 1972 calendar and I'm also particularly interested on where you got the quote "Everything is possible, you can quote everything, you can use every style, but where are the arguments that are really contributing to a fundamental change in our social conditions?" it just seem impossible to find these information on the net.
Solomon Quan

Solomon, the quotation comes from an article about Jan van Toorn by Gerarde Ford titled "The Designer Unmasked" in Eye no. 2 vol. 1, winter 1991. It shows an image from the 1972 calendar. You'll need a very good design library to track it down at this point.
Rick Poynor

A Jan van Toorn Facebook group is now up.
Joseph Coates

I made this short doc on Jan van Toorn. Now in his eighties, he is still full of energy, and still challenging himself. Hope you like it. I had a great time with Jan, as I hope comes across in the film


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