Rick Poynor on Tibor Kalman

AIGA ‘Dangerous Ideas’ conference button (1989)

“In the late 1980s, [Tibor] Kalman became widely fêted, written up in the design magazines and style supplements as a quintessential New York designer crackling with energy and ideas, but success, when it arrived, had come too easily. Kalman’s involvement as a board member of the AIGA in the late 1980s gave him a privileged glimpse, from the inside, of a professional community unknown to him a decade earlier. He was deeply suspicious of the AIGA’s motives and scathing about the self-serving design community it represented. Now that he had access, as a design expert, to the senior executives of banks and department stores, he began to question the way in which professional design functioned as an uncritical support system of these enterprises. By degrees, the anti-establishment attitudes he had held as a student in the 1960s, and put to one side during the Barnes & Noble years and early days of M&Co, began to re-emerge. As the decade came to an end, a broader political reassessment of the Reaganite 1980s was under way, with widespread revulsion at its ‘greed is good’ excesses.

Kalman’s disaffection came to a head at the AIGA’s ‘Dangerous Ideas’ conference in San Antonio, Texas, in October 1989. In his presentation to the conference (co-written with Karrie Jacobs) he urged designers to be disobedient and insubordinate, to pull the clients’ briefs from their hands and rewrite them, to forget what it means to be a ‘professional’ and learn how to be bad. ‘Bad means subverting what we’ve come to accept as the design process…If we approach clients with our own agenda, we may be able to do more than change a typeface or an annual-repprt concept. We might be able to have an impact on how companies do business. We might be able to make them better, or smarter, or more socially responsible.’

One of the problems with this critique is that it shrinks from discussing the political foundations of design as it is practiced under late-twentieth century capitalism. Despite its stirring rhetoric, which was undeniably fresh and invigorating after a decade of cynical ‘designerism,’ it mistakes the symptom for the malady and leaves itself open to the charge that its concerns are stylistic rather than systemic. It wants to reform design practice – ‘to inject art into commerce’ – but not, fundamentally, to change it.”

— Rick Poynor on Tibor Kalman in the 80s (via Perverse Optimist)