étappes: 142
March 2007

Jan van Toorn

Je ne cherche pas,
je trouve


One of my absolute favourites in the oeuvre of Jan van Toorn is a spread from his 1999 book ‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin’. On the left page, you see a photo of two men, obviously of Middle-Eastern origin, holding each other’s arms and smiling affectionately. The taller, younger man moves his head towards the other as if to whisper something into his ear, or even to kiss him on the cheek. The facing page shows a screenshot from a web page in Arabic with a photo of three women who look distressed. They’re crying, mourning as if at a funeral. Part of this page is covered by an inset on opaque paper, with a text asking whether the realm of self-realization is really a private realm. The type is in blue, and one sees the red type on the backside with the Dutch translation shimmering through.

On flipping the inset, a photo fragment appears of a grim looking man with an automatic rifle. His gaze is towards us, but he is not looking at us, or the camera. His eyes are seeing something beyond – and it’s obviously not a cheerful sight. It takes some flipping back and forth before you realize that the grim-looking man with the gun is in the same photo as the two affectionately smiling men. The three of them are standing in the same room – but it feels like they are on different planets...

The picture editing on this spread is exemplary – the photo of three men that seem to celebrate victory (the two smiling and holding each other) and look back to what it took, or forward to what is still to come (the man with the gun), is a perfect contrast to the three women mourning their dead sons, husbands or brothers. This contrast is doubled by the inset, which accentuates the dramatical disparity between the men. But look at the hands  – one, on the left, clasps the arm of his friend, the other, on the right, holds his gun like he’s holding a baby. The text on the inset, a quote from the Argentinean philosopher Ernesto Laclau, states that there is no such thing as a ‘neutral medium’ in or through which individuals can realize themselves. Everything is mediated, he seems to say here, even our most intimate thoughts. And what can be more intimate than friendship, killing and loosing a beloved? The photos symbolize this intimacy, and effectively underline the idea represented by the quote that the personal is politic and thereby public. Come to think of it, it works the other way around as well, of course: the public is political and thereby personal. We tend to overlook that.

I am describing this spread in some detail, because it represents to me the zenith of what a graphic designer can do when he acts as an editor. The photo on the left (by Palestinian photographer Ahmad Abdul Rachman) is a masterpiece of observation, but it acquires even more depth by combining it with the webpage on the right. Its lay-out suggests it’s a news page and although the photo is not aesthetically remarkable, it’s dramatic. It’s the setting that makes it effective vis-à-vis the photo of the men: they wage wars, make headlines and widows. But the most important intervention of the designer, here, is the use of the inset. The opaque slip of paper makes the larger picture interactive – it takes an act by the viewer to discover both the unity and the contrast this picture represents. Everything on this spread, up to the hand-written caption on the left, is carefully organized to point the viewer/reader to the fact that what they are reading/seeing is manipulated, brought together by someone – the designer – in order to make them realize what the designer wants them to see. Flipping the inset is the activity that makes you physically aware of that.

All of this is vintage Jan van Toorn. The spread described above is as good an example as anything of Van Toorn’s concise definition of a graphic designer’s task, as he formulated it back in the 1970s: “The provenance and manipulatory character of a message should be made visible in its form.” Take art. Of course, the common view holds that art is a high expression of culture, and priceless when it comes to its social value. But it is, of course, not without economic interest and political discussions about art tend to be about money rather than value. I know of few designs which have summed up this debate in such an acute – and I must say, in a way humorous – manner than Van Toorn’s poster for the Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, in 1971. The museum’s acquisitions of the previous year are written as a shopping list, with the sum total below the red line. The poster effectively says: “we have spent 273,969 guilders of your taxpayers’ money on these works. Come and see whether we did well.” Considering the names and the amount, 36 years later one might say it was a healthy investment, but at the time, the point couldn’t be missed: this is as much a political statement as it is a cultural announcement.

Jan van Toorn is one of the arch-fathers of the debate in the Netherlands and abroad on the social and cultural responsibility of designers. Since the late 1960s, he has consistently advocated a design culture, which takes into account that information cannot be neutral. A design should show where it came from. The designer should reveal who’s talking, and which interests guide the message. For that reason, Van Toorn is generally seen as a political designer – which he is –, although he has rarely committed himself to designing for politics. His own graphic work is more concerned with showing his own mentality, that of a designer who in everything he makes demonstrates that he is the filter through which the published information has gone. Jan van Toorn makes a point of showing that he’s there. Design affects a message, he holds, colours it, and the designer would be cheating his audience if he would hide behind the message.

Van Toorn’s own books, mostly published parallel to conferences he organized during his tenure as director of the post-graduate Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, between 1991 and 1998, are all highly idiosyncratic testimonies to this mentality. But also in work for clients, like the poster for the Van Abbemuseum described above, he doesn’t shy away from lecturing the audience on the fact that design is a message in itself. In his poster series for the Beyerd Museum, from 1981 to 1987, he uses and re-uses an image of filmstar Sophia Loren and her young son to announce a series of exhibitions on ‘Man and Environment’. Each poster refers back to the previous one and the whole series works as a visual essay in referentiality. It is Van Toorn’s statement on visual culture: every image is rooted in another one, and this process of amalgamation produces cultural meaning. On the basis of his referentiality and reflexivity, one could say that Jan van Toorn is among the first really post-modern designers, but this characterization should be amended by observing that au fond he is and remains a modernist. Not only is his style – if indeed he has any – deeply rooted in modernist aesthetics, with his predilection for bold typography, striking images and dynamic a-symmetrical compositions, his mentality as a designer is also closely related  to the critical and socially inspired ideologies that guided the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century.

Among the first designs that testify to this heritage, and to Van Toorn’s own assessment of it, are the series of calenders he made for the Amsterdam based printer Mart.Spruijt. In the early 1970s – he had been making these annual show-pieces since 1960 – Van Toorn used these calenders to experiment with a rather idiosyncratic form of photo-editing, breaking with the tradition of photo-narrative, which was by then well established through magazines such as Time, Life and the Sunday Times Magazine. Van  Toorn’s version of it was not to follow a linear story, but to combine images according to a deeply personal point of view, which, he clearly anticipated, would trigger the viewer into trying to reconstruct the argument or story behind them. The bottom line was, of course, that the viewer would become aware of the manipulative strategies that in Van Toorn’s view govern the news, photojournalism and the media in general.

Jan van Toorn’s latest book, ‘Design’s delight’, is an extension of these ideas, which he has consistently pursued since the late 1960s. Apart from being a collection of previously written reflective and theoretical texts, it is a sampler of visual essays Van Toorn-style. Take the series of spreads in the centre of the book, entitled ‘Panorama of habits – ten everyday landscapes’. This is imagery meant to be read – carefully. In combining seemingly bland photos with each other, with captions that tear them out of the ordinary, and streaming comments that at first reading have nothing to do with what we see, Van Toorn forces the reader to try and make sense of it all. It’s like zapping aimlessly through a wealth of television channels and asking yourself what this fragment of a CNN report has to do with that fleeting snip from a sit-com and the following shred of a commercial. If you don’t invest your own standpoint in it, you will come out empty-handed. If you do, you’ll see that there is someone talking to you, via these image fragments and snippets of text: Jan van Toorn.

Page 102/103: a photo of a sleepy looking man with a slightly irritated kid on a train. Follow the picture, and you see what is probably his young brother, looking down the compartment’s stairs to a girl – his sister? –, who is looking at an accordion player standing in the entrance part of the train section. If you’ve ever travelled around Paris, you’ll recognise that the image is of a ‘banlieu’ train. Nothing very special, apart maybe from the musician – he provides a rare moment of relaxation, of entertainment in an otherwise almost proverbially dull environment. There’s a smaller image printed over the spread-filling photo, at top centre. A black boy hugs a Mickey Mouse figure on a screen shot from a CNN broadcast, with a caption reading: “America Under Attack – Major US Stock Exchanges Closed Through Wednesday”. What brings these two images together? The captions: the large photo informs us that the man and the kids are an Iraqi family on their way to Disneyland Paris; the smaller photo is taken from a broadcast on September 11th, 2001.

Once this information is taken in, the interpretation of the combined images is not enigmatic anymore: Disneyland, Iraq, 9/11, the news industry. But what on earth brought these things together in the first place? The answer is given in two seemingly detached typographical elements on the page, the streamer that titles the spread as ‘ideas become markets’ and a line of text at the bottom, printed upside-down and mentioning the power of “five media giants” which “strengthens the influence of market and politics on journalism...” As in the example I started with, this is vintage Van Toorn. Close reading of this spread can be summarized as ‘the war on terrorism hides genuine problems of clashing cultures behind the repressive narratives of the global (western) entertainment industry’. Put this way, it may sound rather bland or slogan-like. And Jan van Toorn can be quite annoying at times in his pounding on “the reigning powers of mass manipulation”. But forget, for a moment, about his political parti pris, and you’ll see the other side. If Jan van Toorn’s work shows anything, it is indeed that messages are manipulated and that, in the words of the German cultural critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “there is no such thing as unmanipulated writing, filming and broadcasting. The question, then, is not whether the media are manipulated or not, but who manipulates them. A revolutionary design need not cause the manipulators to vanish; indeed, it ought to turn everybody into manipulators.”

It is Jan van Toorn’s memorandum to producers and consumers of information that they should not only realize that, but also that in this process of manipulation, both designers and recipients are co-authors of the message. Paraphrasing Roland Barthes, one might say that Van Toorn teaches the audience of his designs to become ‘writerly readers’. Jan van Toorn may be an extreme example of this insight, a ‘designers’ designer’ as he is called by some, or the ‘Godart of graphic design’ as others characterize him. But analysing the mechanisms he lays bare for the attentive viewer will show that he is not only a designer with a cause – he is an extremely sophisticated educator of visual language.


* Pablo Picasso, quoted in Van Toorn’s 1984 poster for the ‘Man and Environment’ exhibition series in The Beyerd Museum, Breda.

max bruinsma