By canonizing Tibor Kalman as an "inspirational figure," the design profession is missing his point. By Rick Poynor.
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about Tibor Kalman. No, that's not quite true. The fact is, since Tibor died in May 1999, he has never been far from my mind. One reason for this is that I wear one of the M&Co watches - okay, I'll admit it, I have three of them - so whenever I look at the time his sense of humor is there on my wrist. But it is considerably more than this. I know I am just one of many when I say that Tibor had a deep impact on me, and I see this even more clearly now than when he was alive.
Living in London, I met him only occasionally, but these encounters were always unforgettable - from the first time I went to see him, in 1989, at his 17th Street studio in Manhattan (Shit! Fuck! he shouted in greeting), to the time, in 1993, when we tried to put together a spot for an arts program on British TV. Tibor seemed to pull off most things he tried, but this time it didn't work out. The idea was to deliver a blistering mini-manifesto based on his ideas about designers being bad and incorporating his view of the vernacular. Tibor assumed that he'd be able to find examples of vernacular packaging in a west London supermarket, which he could use on screen to make his case. What he hadn't bargained on was that it was already too late. Everything was highly designed and slick. There was no vernacular packaging to praise as an alternative, so an argument based on the American experience simply didn't translate. Later, as he recorded the piece in the studio, I could see on the monitor that he looked uncertain, and in the end, the BBC didn't transmit the item.
So, yes, like a lot of people, I have warm personal memories of Tibor. He gave off positive energy. He was exciting to be around. You got a sense with him that anything could happen. Many successful designers are not what you would call wordly. They may be hugely talented, but even in midlife they retain a certain insularity. They are happiest in the studio in front of the screen. Tibor wasn't like this. You can see how impressive he must have been to his clients - a mover and shaker in his own right, a genuine equal, unpredictable in mood, and more than a little dangerous. He spoke about learning to swim with the barracuda as a condition of doing the work, but I imagine that he loved being in those waters, too. He needed to operate at that level.
Since he died, I've often returned not just to his work but to his ideas, and the way they translated into action. Not many designers are as outspoken as Tibor was and few have put the case against their own profession so forcefully. Pull out the March/April 1990 issue of Print and re-read his debate with Joe Duffy, recorded in the magazine's office as a continuation of Tibor's attack on Duffy at the AIGA's Dangerous Ideas conference in San Antonio, Texas, where Kalman was co-chair with Milton Glaser. I can recall nothing quite like it before or since. Most designers are simply too polite to engage in such a spat. There is little, if anything, to gain by it and a great deal to lose. You see this as a good opportunity, a nice career, a chance to make a killing, Tibor concludes. And I see this as a business that affects people's lives and affects people's brains. But at best their debate is a draw. Duffy stands his ground; he sounds reasonable where Tibor sounds intemperate. The differences between the services they provided for clients weren't nearly as large as Tibor believed them to be - and it showed.
And, from things he said later, it's clear that Tibor knew this, too. He was grappling with the contradictions of his own position, developing an argument by trying to piece it together in public. He had already withdrawn from most corporate work, and three years later, he shut down M&Co. This was a remarkable life-change to make at the age of 44, at the summit of success, and a real measure of his seriousness.
Yet somehow, in the years since he left us, we haven't fully engaged with, let alone developed, his critique. The outpouring of sentiment was hugely touching, but canonizing him as the profession's lovable contrarian and allotting him the vaguely defined role of inspirational figure misses his point. If Tibor had a message for design, it was political at root and it needs to be understood, applied and critiqued in those terms, though almost no design writing has attempted to do this. One problem here is that his leftist political position was sketchy at best. His politics followed his heart and my guess is that, had he lived, he would have been obliged to refine his thinking in response to criticisms of his arguments coming from outside design. In February 1999, for instance, the cultural critic Thomas Frank published an article in Artforum that was deeply skeptical about his status among fellow designers as a radical.
Although Tibor was sometimes chastized by colleagues for making money from routine design work and only then declaring such design to be wrong, I don't see this as the nub of the problem, or even a fair complaint. It fails to allow for the fact that a person's views can evolve - that one finds out by doing. If you then change your mind, as Tibor did, you do at least know what you are talking about. Moreover, it was his success with M&Co, in the 1980s, that gained him a platform from which he could mount his attack. Without that prominence, no one would have heard of him and he would have had little if any impact had he wished to criticize design.
No, the problem is more focused than this, and it has to do with Tibor's view of corporate power. As he makes clear in his introduction to Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist, his strategy depended on finding lunatic entrepreneurs who could be persuaded to stump up the cash to support good causes. The agent of social change, at least for the immediate future, is the corporation, he told Wired in 1996. In his book, he suggests that you can be political only when you're privileged, whether you're a student or whether you are wealthy and successful,. It's understandable that someone with Tibor's ability to sweet-talk the powerbrokers would feel this way, and his own life followed this pattern. It was hard, too, to argue with him when he said that No one gets to work under ethically pure conditions.
Nevertheless, as a view of the sources of political dissent, this credo is thin, to say the least, and as the basis of a design strategy, it's much too ready to accept unchallenged the status quo of corporate domination. Most corporations are not going to be amenable to Kalmanesque forms of infiltration. Does that mean we simply ignore them and leave them unchecked?
This has become a burning question. From Eric Schlosser's horrifying Fast Food Nation to the murky morality of Enron's spectacular collapse, there is ample evidence that we need to rethink the relationship between the commercial and civic realms, between business and the state. As Tibor correctly identified, designers can endorse the system through their work, or they can try to find a position of critical leverage. Recently, I came across a website inspired by him called Undesign, suggesting that some young communicators - they call themselves undesigners - are taking his ideas about design's responsibilities and his way of working to heart. The site is positive, thoughtful and captures his spirit, and it reminded me once again how good it was to know him. Now, more than ever, design needs more of his kind.
Copyright Rick Poynor 2002. First published in Print LVI:II, 2002