The Debate. Wim Crouwel vs. Jan van Toorn

Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn. The Debate: The Legendary Contest of Two Giants of Graphic Design
Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn. The Debate: The Legendary Contest of Two Giants of Graphic Design

In 1972 Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn shook up the design world when they went head to head on the purpose of design.

Held in response to an exhibition of Van Toorn’s work at Stedelijk Museum, including student posters protesting the Vietnam War—in an era of youth culture and increasing resistance to authority, capitalism, and the power of media—the stakes were aesthetic, ethical, and politically charged. 

Monacelli Press published the transcript, along with  a foreword by design critic Rick Poynor, and essays by Frederike Huygen and Dingenus van de Vrie.


Wim Crouwel

Wim Crouwel is recognized for the creation of radical, modular letterforms. Pushing the boundaries of legibility, Crouwel’s innovative type was often supported by easily read sans serif typefaces within a carefully structured framework. His typefaces were digitised by the Foundry in the late nineties and are available for designers to use digitially from the type library.

Crouwel famously established a grid-based methodology for the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, a system which he applied rigorously from 1963 to 1985.Crouwel was one of the five founders of Total Design, a multidisciplinary design studio set up to work on major design commissions. The studio’s diverse experience enables them to execute both complex and wide-ranging projects for a variety of clients, from industry, trade, government and cultural sectors.

From 1985 to 1993, Crouwel was a director at the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, where he commissioned the British studio 8vo to fulfil the design requirements of the museum. Crouwel continues to design intermittently on a diverse range of projects for both graphic and exhibition design commissions.


Jan van Toorn

Jan van Toorn is one of the most influential Dutch graphic designers to have emerged since the early 1960s. His designs persistently call attention to their status as visual contrivances, obliging the viewer to make an effort to process their complexities. Van Toorn wants the public to measure the motives of both the client and the designer who mediates the client’s message against their own experiences of the world. His work has stimulated a more active and skeptical view of art, communication, media ownership and society. As director of the Jan van Eyck Academy, Van Toorn drew together all the strands of his critical practice into a multi-level educational initiative that urged designers to think harder about design’s role in shaping contemporary reality.

 The Debate

Crouwel defended his approach of neutrality and austere rationalism, attention to typography and worksmanship, and professionalism in service of the client’s message. Van Toorn argued for his use of chaos, collage, and photographs of everyday life; that a designer’s ideas, personality, and political commitments are integral to the work.

Dialogue on The Debate has reverberated in graphic design circles for the four decades since, and it is often referenced in modern design criticism as a key marker for the philosophical positions that continue to define the profession. The first English transcript of this key event in design history will allow a contemporary audience to discover the ongoing relevance of The Debate in an increasingly complex visual culture.

Dingenus van de Vrie recently unearthed a tape of the 1972 debate made by Titus Yocarini, then director of the professional association Grafisch Vormgevers Nederland. Along with the transcript, this pocket-sized clothbound book contains a foreword by prominent design critic Rick Poynor, and essays from Dutch design historian Frederike Huygen, who discusses the historical context of the debate, and curator Dingenus van de Vrie, who looks more closely at these two giants’ different perspectives on graphic design.

A color gallery juxtaposes a representative selection from the oeuvres of Crouwel and Van Toorn, including exhibition designs, calendars, posters, brochures, artist book designs, postal stamps, and fascinating works such as the script of a 1969 stage production based on a story by Jorge Luis Borges, sealed in a tin can, and a many-gatefolded catalog for Ed Ruscha’s “Dutch Details” at Groninger Museum.

Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn spoke again on 2 November 2008 in commemoration of their historic 1972 debate.
Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn spoke again on 2 November 2008 in commemoration of their historic 1972 debate.


Author: Jan van Toorn, Wim Crouwel, Rick Poynor, Frederike Huygen
Title: The Debate The Legendary Contest of Two Giants of Graphic Design
Publisher: Monacelli Press
Year: 2015
ISBN: 9781580934121