Lately I often see this image before me of Marina Abramović sitting at a table in a giant red dress in front of another person, staring at each other. It’s an image of her performance The artist is present at the MoMa in 2010. You might have guessed. And I see myself in that picture. Not as the other person sitting in front of her, but rather as the artist. The designer is present. Not that it mattered much on what side of the table you were at the MoMa. The two sitters were equals, both giving and receiving, experiencing the timelessness of the encounter.

Marina Abramovic, 'The artist is present', 2010
Marina Abramovic, ‘The artist is present’, 2010

What happens when a designer meets a client?

Well, you get the brief and off you go. What happens next? You solve the problem.

But honestly, that’s not for me. Perhaps it’s a matter of words, but I don’t like to be a problem solver. That’s what a dentist is good at, or a mathematician. This all relates to a discussion as old as our profession: how should a designer relate to her/his client? The answer in my opinion comes down to the type of person you are. The choices you make as a professional, the route you take as a designer. You can’t see them apart from the person you are or want to become. That seems obvious, but especially when you start out as a designer and try to find your voice, it seems tempting to take sides in this debate, pressured by your mentors or social environment contrary to what sits best with you.

Imagine being the client for a moment.

Enters the physician. He is a man of experience, self confident, trust him, he’ll solve your problem. For that’s what he is sure of and will convince you of: you indeed have a problem. What is there more to know? Sitting opposite each other at that table: what will you learn about each other? Nothing. Will he solve the problem? You bet he will. And create another.

Enters my friend. Or so she will become. She will sit down at the table and wait. We will stare. I feel uncomfortable. She will ask about me and invites me to ask about her. She leaves. She solves no problem, but I feel confident and see the way ahead of me. I’ll ask her back.

Next comes the generator. Nice person, we sit down at the table. Smile at each other and talk about the project. Smiles some more and asks if we could please turn the table upside down and could he please wear my dress. We take the table outside and discover the sun.

A designer is no doctor, guru, or cross-dresser. But at least the friend and table-turner show their personality. The doctor hides behind his professionalism, doesn’t want to let it get in the way of his judgement. Both are commendable professional attitudes. The former appeals most to me. What about you?

Wim Crouwel vs. Jan van Toorn

For me this sums up what the famous debate between Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn was about in 1972. It revealed the friction between Crouwel’s belief that a designer should submerge his or her personality to serve a project versus van Toorn’s insistence that the designer is responsible for expression on personal levels.

Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn debating
Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn debating

Fortunately we can follow that debate in detail, because the transcript was discovered and published by Monacelli Press in 2015. The appeal of the debate is described by editor Alan Rapp: the debate lives on, 40-some years later, between professionalism and social conscience: “Their positions derive from basic questions that designers ask themselves when they start out: should my ideas, my personality, my philosophy be evident in my work? Or should I just remove as much of my persona as possible and ‘follow the brief’? Or is there a way to do both?”.

“Crouwel vs. Van Toorn” can be placed as the middel panel of a triptych, with “Kalman vs. Duffy” on the right, and Tschigold vs. Bill” on the left.

Tibor Kalman vs. Joe Duffy

In the 1990s, the “bad-boy” designer Tibor Kalman attacked the leading package designer Joe Duffy for an ad Duffy ran in The Wall Street Journal that sought work from corporate America. A number of designers took umbrage that Duffy was enabling the so-called engulf and devour ethos of the Eighties and in the ad using the language of shark-business. The Kalman/Duffy “debate” ambles around the question of whether a graphic designer’s job is to give the client what he says he wants or what the designer knows he needs. Of course, it’s not usually seen as that stark a choice; designers will always rationalize that they stamp their mark of quality even on commissions that restrict their creative opportunities.

Tibor Kalman vs Joe Duffy
Tibor Kalman vs Joe Duffy

Jan Tschichold vs. Max Bill

In 1946 Jan Tschichold and Max Bill clashed over the asymmetric (Bill) versus the symmetric (Tschichold). The fight took place in the “Schweizer Graphishe Miteilungen” periodical on type. Bill supported his beliefs with catalogues and architectural layouts, while Tschichold, who had taken over at Penguin, supported his ideas with literary layouts. Modernists could get very passionate about things we now take for granted. Robin Kinross details the heated debate in “Designing Books”.

Spread from 'Designing Books': designs by Jan Tschichold (left) and Max Bill (right).
Spread from ‘Designing Books’: designs by Jan Tschichold (left) and Max Bill (right).

A space to demonstrate

As Alan Rapp puts it, “debate is more than the statement of the opposed positions, it’s the space to demonstrate, assert, defend.” Our time is one of uncertainty as well, about social inequality once again, about sustainability, with doubts concerning the unleashed potential of science.

Could this triptych be extended, what would the fourth panel be? Where take the most relevant debates place today? Who are the participants?