AGI / Gerrit Rietveld Academie
Gerrit Rietveld Academy
December 1983

Rietveld Project #23


Points of View on Design Education

Speakers at the conference. Mouse over for names.

... 'That brings us back to a very old discussion' sighed Wim Crouwel about halfway through the forum that rounded off the seminar 'Points of View on Design Education'. In his opening speech, president F.H.K. Henrion had still optimistically supposed that the assembled teachers would probably be in agreement on one point: that design education is no longer a one-way process 'we teach - they learn', but an interaction between students and teachers. It was interesting to see that exactly this point devided the designers who explained their points of view during the lectures: a number of speakers disagreed fundamentally in their approach to the student-teacher relationship. The central issue was: what can a teacher teach his students? Should he confine himself to transmitting knowledge and technical skills or should the emphasis lie on shaping the future designer's mentality, on the content of his social functioning? As both starting-points for design education were defended by different teachers one would be inclined to regard them as two different teaching ideologies, and their adherents – in this congress Wim Crouwel and Jan van Toorn – as representatives of two incompatible extremes.

It appears that opinions about what can be taught are closely connected with ideas about the function and content of graphic design. Crouwel sees graphic design as a process by which to create visual order, at which an analytical method is of decisive importance. In his own work this leads to a clear, distinct form language. He tries to convey the given information as directly and neutrally as possible. In Crouwel's opinion, a designer is a specialist of communications. His main task is 'to contribute to a simplification of communication'. (1) Clarity is most important: 'Relevant and necessary information is purely original in itself, the designer has nothing to add to it.' (2) Crouwel's teaching philosophy is an extension of his opinions about design in general: A teacher too is an instrument by which to obtain knowledge, since he should be more or less devoid of value judgements. According to Crouwel, teaching can only be concerned with exactly formulated subjects, such as technical skills, theory and general knowledge. How this knowledge is handled by the student in practice is his own responsibility; he must adopt the axioms of the trade and learn how to work with them.
Van Toorn thinks that one of the most important tasks of design education starts where Crouwel leaves off. The student must become aware of the social context in which he will operate as a professional. The teacher introduces him to a great variety of communication codes and the complex structures underlying communcation. In Van Toorn's opinion it is important for the designer to take a stand with regard to the information he visualizes; involvement prevents the message being passed on uncritically. Van Toorn's work indeed is not so much aimed at unambiguity as is Crouwel's. Van Toorn wants to make use of the fact that information has different levels. When a piece of information has different levels of meaning one should not try to reduce these to one essential point, but make these different levels visible in the design.

I have gone into the viewpoints of Crouwel and Van Toorn here, because they represent the two extremes between which the discussion about form, content and function of graphic design has been going on in the Netherlands for many years now. Yet, differences are not as great as it would seem at first sight. Everyone agrees that the design student should master a number of fundamental technical skills. Neither will anyone deny that a designer has no right to fill up the message for which he has to find form with his own interpretations and opinions. Then why this argument about the ethics of graphic design, about what can or cannot be taught to students? It is as if two brothers were reproaching each other for years for not listening to their father properly. And perhaps that is not such a bad comparison: what connects the two opinions is the awareness of a designer's social responsibility. A responsibility that weighs on architects and industrial designers as much as on graphic designers. Indeed, everything we use, the houses we live in, the abundant information available in print and otherwise, all this has gone through the hands of designers. If we look at it that way, the designer is a key figure in society. This view, that a designer is someone who can make an important contribution to the proper functioning of society, has existed only since the beginning of this century.

The avant-gardes of the early twentieth century finished with the type of architect and designer that, as an indivual artist, had only his own artistic conscience to answer to. Le Corbusier, the Bauhaus, the Russian Contructivists, de Stijl: there was a general search for a new form language, a new design method for a new society. During the 'twenties, this search led to that intriguing mixture of a strong, prophetically tinted sense of responsibility for the well-being of society and an often extremely rational, in any case very deliberately chosen working-method. This combination of idealism and pragmatism, of intense emotionality and rational analysis has had a tremendous impact on the design trades. Designers and architects have shifted the morality of their work from expression and decoration to analysis and problem solving. They have become technical specialists instead of artists. The background of that change of mentality was a profound criticism, not only of the functioning of artists, but of society as a whole.
Though that context largely disappeared after 1945, both Crouwel and Van Toorn derive an important part of their views on the responsibility of designers from that revolutionary period of the 'twenties. Only each of them emphasizes a different aspect of that tradition.
One interpretation starts from a methodical approach to design. This approach accepts the social context in which the designer's products have to function, as a given fact. It is the designer's task to arrange within the given margins for the flows of information to run smoothly, to see that necessary information gets where it is wanted, without any disturbance. What, in that approach, is necessary information? Crouwel remains on the safe side. In his text about 'Design and printing' (4) he states that the designer should define his own priorities. A little further on he indicates where his own priorities lie: 'everyday, indispensable printed matter, such as government forms, telephone directories, text books, time tables (...) etc.' Information from the authorities is necessary, because they can impose their messages. They set the standards of what must be known by every citizen. For a smooth functioning of the social order this information must be conveyed as clearly as possible and without interferences. According to this interpretation of his responsibility, the designer gives shape to all that is right according to general agreement.

Designers like Van Toorn, Beeke and Rambow go one step further, and define their own standards of necessary and desirable information, and sometimes consciously take one-sided stands. They also give shape to the rights of individuals and groups of citizens in a public discussion. Here, the designer's responsibility does not lie in the best possible conveyance of a pre-formulated message; he also gives a moment's impression of that public discussion. Such an image is not unequivocal by definition, because it emphatically refers to processes, to movement, and not to conclusions. In my opinion, Rambow's reference to the 'Prinzip Hoffnung' of the philosopher Ernst Bloch fits in this context too: a Utopia, however realizable, cannot be planned and rests partly on pure hope. It may also be the designer's task to find a form for that hope. This approach is of a more philosophical and psychological nature, and engages the designer's own functioning in the design.

In the light of history, it is not surprising that the two starting-points that formed the basis for the avant-gardes: a critical analysis of society and a rational design method, have lost their original connection. After the Second World War 'functionalism' developed into an aesthetic of the consumer society. The once revolutionary form language became a generally accepted international style that served more to shape a social consensus about what was possible than to point to what might be possible. Within the margins of the industrial production method, the designer has become a form specialist who is responsible for the clarity and surveyability of the product. The anonymous user of a coffee-grinder, a house, a telephone directory or a manual must be able to see at a glance what it is about, how it works. Everything that is not related to the immediate use of the products is superfluous. This 'Aesthetic of Utility' has estranged itself from the 'Aesthetic of Hope'. They have become opposites. What has remained, is the idea that through their work designers can make an important contribution to the proper functioning of society. I think Crouwel and Van Toorn agree with that, though they interpret the content of that contribution differently.

(translation: Yvonne Limburg)

1 Catalogue 'Ontwerp: Total Design', Reflex, Utrecht, 1983, p. 10
2 W. Crouwel: 'Ontwerpen en drukken', G.J. Thiemefonds, 1974, p. 13
3 on Van Toorn, see a.o.: 'Rietveld Idiotenband', G.J. Thiemefonds, 1983
4 W. Crouwel: 'Ontwerpen en drukken', p. 12

max bruinsma